The unknown poet of Beowulf wrote about the Geats and the Danes, Germanic tribes who lived in pre-Christian times on the continent.Â The plot of the story, therefore, has many references to pagan beliefs and superstitious customs. On the other hand, a man who lived in Anglo-Saxon England composed the poem; therefore, there are examples in the poem of Judeo-Christian beliefs. The poem, therefore, speaks of both Wyrd and God of both the Germanic Fate that directs men’s lives to inevitable destruction and the Christian God who cares for the lives of His children. The poem fused Christian and Pagan ideals to reflect on the time and place in which it was written. Brodeur, the author of an article states “a period in which the virtues of the heathen ‘Heroic Age’ were tempered by the gentleness of the new belief; an age warlike, yet Christian. As a good Christian, the poet found himself faced with the task of treating this originally pagan material in a manner acceptable to a Christian audience” (183). Brodeur helps us understand the context of the poem and begins to help answer they question, why it was written like this and how this plot was formed. Another important statement in the article was when Brodeur says “a Christian perception of the insane futility of the primitive Germanic thirst for vengeance; and the facts that Beowulf’s chief adversaries are not men but monsters and that the king of the Geats did not seek wars with their neighboring tribes may reflect a Christian appreciation for peace among humans” (22). It was also a period in which people such as “Hrothgar and his Danes…were punished for their idolatry” (207). Throughout this poem, we see the cross between striving for a Christian God and fighting for pagan vengeance. Christianity and Paganism combined together created a holy ground on which Beowulf was built.
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Paganism is a belief defined as a person holding religious beliefs other than those of monotheistic. Some basic customs go along with this belief. One is the custom of worshipping a profusion of Gods. More than ninety percent of the time, it was in the form of a sacrifice. Another custom believes in fate and that is it supposed to control your destiny or duties in life. This is known as Wyrd. Another custom is beliefs in imaginary things like dragons and magic. In addition, they lived in a desolate tone. They believed in earth-bound view on life. Paganism came to be compared by Christians with a feeling of indulgence, speaking to the individuals who are arousing, materialistic, liberal, unconcerned with the future, and uninterested in religions that are more standard. Pagans were set out with admirable sense, to enjoy earth or himself. Again, believing in fate, if they were going for the worst they would look at it without bitterness. Lastly, they believed that fame was the only way for one to reach immortality. As you can see, majority of these customs are a little far-fetched. Some of these irrational ideas explains a lot of part we see in Beowulf.Â Some pagan elements we see in Beowulf are Hrothgar’s people’s actions and basic pagan beliefs along with cultural importance and old tales.
Christianity is a religious belief defined as one who received Christian baptism or is a believer in Jesus Christ and his teachings. This belief like Paganism, come with some basic customs. First, they believe in one God. They believe that afterlife exists and it is like a utopia. They also believe in prayer as a way to give thanks to God for helping us avoid evil. Lastly, they have an optimistic outlook that is centered on a man who devoted himself to overpowering evil to create a better world for his followers. Again, these rules play a major role and effect the use of Christian elements in Beowulf. Some examples in this poem are the narration, Hrothgar’s speech, the Queen’s speech, and Beowulf’s speech. Again, these points in the poem are very important to the plot and it is impacted by religious beliefs.
Narration was impacted heavily by Christianity and is found throughout the text of the poem. An example straight from the poem is when the narrator said “A comfort sent by God to that nation” (13-17). Here the narrator is talking about Beo. He is the son of Shield Sheafson’s. He is also Hrothgar’s great-great grandfather. Another example is when the narrator says, “The clear song of a skilled poet tellingâ€¦how the Almighty had made the earth” (81-98). Here, the narrator is describing scenes at Herot and it refers to God as the Almighty. They believe that he created the earth and that is derived from the Bible. These few examples of narration help prove other documents statements thinking how this poem has Christian elements. In “Christina and Pagan Elements” Edward B. Iriving Jr. states “There are references to God’s creation of the universe, the story of Cain, Noah’s flood, devils and hell, and the Last Judgment” (177) Here, Edward B. Irving Jr. is telling us that they made references to monumental moments in the catholic church’s history. The one that sticks out the most is Noah’s Flood. It is a part in the church bible that represents the freedom our religion has fought for and gained. In the same article, the author also said, “The date of Beowulf is much controverted, but are no conclusive arguments against dating the poem to the age of Bede, a date which was favored by a majority of Beowulf scholars of the last generation” (179). Again, the author is providing critical facts helping us date the time of Beowulf and comparing it to the timing of the peak of Christian practice. Therefore, this could help us differentiate the reasons for creating the poem. Personally, one like myself could think that is poem is more centered around the Christian faith because there are just more facts proving it. Going against that, I believe there are only a few theories that prove hints of pagan faith because again, there are fewer facts in Beowulf and the pagan faith was a shaky practice during the time and there are some confined and complete documents of practice, but it was not as strong as the Christian faith. In 1960, Margaret E. Goldsmith published “The Christian Theme of Beowulf” and continued along the same lines in several articles culminating in her 1970 book, The Mode and Meaning of Beowulf. She finds teachings of Augustine and Gregory in Hrothgar’s “sermon” and views the poem as a kind of Christian historical novel.Â Here is just another documented book providing correct and accurate information based on research within Beowulf and based on the portion written by Edward B. Irving Jr.
On the other hand, there are some possible and documented facts that compare to the Pagan faith that need to be mentioned. “The Christian Language and Theme of Beowulf” provides a good amount of information on this. Thomas D, Hill mentions a crucial element when he says “Pagan is a word used in at least three different senses in discussing this problem: the literal, the vestigial, and the ethical” (199) The first sense is more realistic than the others and refers to documented practices of pre-Christian religion in which Germanic people participated. Beowulf contains documented pagan rituals and the ritual that stands out the most are three accounts of pagan funeral rites. The second pagan area involves how pagan rituals and practices are preserved through poetry. This section is not as clear as the previous area, but it still does bring a good point to the table. For example, the soldiers in Beowulf wore helmets with painted boars on them and the boar was a sacred animal that belong to the Germanic God Freyr. The third area revolves around the ethics and morality of this practice. Therefore, this is actually the real cause of most arguments involving Christian elements and Pagan elements in Beowulf. Thomas D. Hill gives us the background of it when he says “The fundamental ethical code of the poem is unmistakably secular: it is the warrior code of the aristocracy, celebrating bravery, loyalty, and generosity with the hero finding his own immortality in the long-lasting fame of great exploits carried out in this world” (180). The archetype of the code is not word for word, but similar to the code of Iliad which is part of the Pagan religion.
As you can see, there are both Christian and Pagan elements being fused into this poem and they are clearly separated. However, both Christian and Pagan elements are being fused together to form some representation of both religions into one object, person, or place. First, Beowulf can be viewed in multiple ways. He can be viewed in both religions, but he comes together to for one. A Christian figure and a Germanic Warrior are two ways that Beowulf could be looked at in this poem. He can be viewed as a Germanic Warrior for his constant fights. He is having his big brawls with a big monster Grendel, Grendel’s troll mother, and a big fire-breathing dragon. It is somewhat strange that he is doing all of this fighting because he grew up as a very mature boy. He was known for having great kingly qualities. He develops into a wise and effective ruler as he ages. A great way to put it is he starts out as a heroic monster fighter and transitions to a dependable king. That looks and sounds like a very impressive accomplishment. Likewise, it can be looked at as a transition from a Germanic Warrior to a Christian figure. The poem states “Beowulf was quickly brought to the chamber: the winner of fights, the arch warrior, cam first-looking in with his fellow troops to where the king in his wisdom waited, still wondering whether Almighty God would ever turn the tide of his misfortunes.” This great quote is from lines 1310 to 1315.Â This is great to prove the point that he is a Christian figure because he is asking for the forgiveness of God. He wants to be forgiven and know that all of his wrongdoings are forgiven. These wrongs were mostly of him fighting. This passage suggests that the culture of the Anglo-Saxons had a touch of both Christians and fierce warriors. Therefore, this fits in perfectly to that question of which one was he. Overall, Beowulf can be seen within this culture because it has so many direct connections with it.
In “The Christian Language and Theme of Beowulf” Thomas D. Hill talks well about the combination of the religions when he says “Many scholars, and perhaps most ordinary readers, have simply accepted this odd blend of pagan story and Christian teller as perhaps illogical and somewhat puzzling on purpose and implications, but nonetheless the way the poem is” (200). Here the author of this portion of this research book is explaining how to combination of these two religions to form Beowulf is a way to cause problems for the reader. Scholars feel the author intentionally tried to confuse the reader so they can pick a side between Christian and Pagan meanwhile; the author could have tricked them and combined the two. That is why it is necessary to read in between the lines.
In conclusion, Christian and Pagan elements play an immense role in Beowulf. This poem offers many options for the reader to choose. It allows them or gives them the power to create their own version of the poem. It gives clear hint and examples of both religions and that is what makes it difficult to separate or decide where this poem originates. Maybe that is something that we should not find out. The author could be trying to leave the readers a message based on these facts. These examples of religious practices could be the key to finding what we know beyond our history. It keeps your mind open and gives the reader the right away to let their mind race and think about the composition of Beowulf. It is obvious that the Christian, Pagan question is tightly connected and that it will most likely not be fully proven or solved any time soon. However, based on what scholars know, the best guess to this author would have to be a Christian poet with a Pagan past. The thing that would help the most would know the date. This would lead to almost every unsolved question about Beowulf. Scholars have favored in educationally guessing the time during the later period. This later period is around the late tenth century going into the early eleventh century. On these grounds alone, however, scholars can make no firm decision about the birth date of Beowulf.
Bjork, Robert E., and John D. Niles. “Christian and Pagan Elements.” A Beowulf Handbook. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1997. 176-92. Print.
Donoghue, Daniel, and Seamus Heaney. “The Christian Language and Theme of Beowulf.”
Beowulf: A Verse Translation: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism. New York: Norton, 2002. 198-201. Print.
Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur “Vengeance the Pagan and Christian Inspiration.” Christian and Pagan Elements of Beowulf. Pace University, Web. 19 Jan. 2017.
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