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Thread: Study on Beowulf: Heathen or Christian?

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    Study on Beowulf: Heathen or Christian?

    It is an extraordinary poem which never once makes explicit reference to Christian dogma or ritual, or to Christ himself [1] , and yet provokes such assertions that in Beowulf there are Christian elements 'so deeply ingrained in [its] very fabric' [2] and that the poem's audience is 'steeped in Christian doctrine' [3] .

    Yet within this Germanic epic we do indeed hear of Cain and Abel (ll.106-14, 1261b-66), of a great flood caused by God (1689b-93) among other ostensibly Christian allusions. We could follow Ettmüller, Müllenhoff and many of the other great 19th-c. German critics of Beowulf in condemning such passages as being among the 'monkish' interpolations. However, surely such a revisionist would have made a better job of Christianising the poem than the handful of ambiguous allusions that appear in our text.

    Certainly, even if our theoretical monk had aesthetic sensibilities enough to hesistate to alter the primary action and dialogue he would have added more direct references to Christian doctrine in the voice of the narrator [4] . The lack of anything of this sort suggests that Klaeber, Tolkien [5] and other critics are correct in asserting the essential unity of Beowulf . However, this same argument tells against the position that the poet elects not to refer to Christ or Christian doctrine because he is dealing with pagans and a pagan setting, and that such references would be unnatural and anachronistic [6].

    That is, if the references such as drihten god are truly meant to indicate the Christian deity, then what prevents the poet from explicitly naming Christ [7] ? Especially in such an evangelical-seeming passage as ne wiston hie drihten god (l. 181b)? [8] Yet even in the text of the narrator the poem avoids those epithets for God which might suggest Christ, such as Nergend, weoroda drihten, engla þeoden, weroda Wuldorcyning--moreover the poem avoids even divine names lacking any obvious Christian theology, such as Þeoden or Aldor [9] .

    Again, even if we adopt the suggestion of Bloomfield [10] that Beowulf is set in an Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the age of the Old Testament and deliberately refers only to pre-Mosaic biblical events, one must still wonder why such a prohibition extends to the narrator. Considering the fact that the narrator firmly places himself in the present: opening the story in geardagum [11] (l.1), and making such statements as men ne cunnon / hwyder helrunan hwyrftum scriþað [12] (ll.162b-63) and the more explicitly religious, metod eallum weold / gumena cynnes, swa he nu gít deð [13] (ll.1056b-57).

    Thanking God, praising God, the idea of sin, judgement after death -- none of these are uniquely Christian concepts and it does not follow that from these general morals that the entire poem should be seen in a 'Christian light' [14] .

    In view of these considerations, one must consider the possibility that Beowulf may be exactly what, at least to some readers, it seems to be: a pre-Christian epic, albeit one complete with puzzling biblical references. This is not to say that I wish to claim that the 'Christian elements' are unoriginal intrusions into a Germanic epic, rather that I should like to propose a somewhat different sort of relationship between the Germanic and Christian elements than is currently the received interpretation.

    In order to discuss the interaction of these elements, I borrow two Sanskrit terms used to describe two different types of Hindu scripture: shruti , lit. 'what is heard', and smrti, lit. 'what is remembered'. Shruti is the higher form of scripture and is deferred to in the case of conflict between shruti and smrti. Shruti are the texts which were divinely revealed by the gods, constituting the Vedas and the Upanishads, which are considered to be eternal or atemporal. Smrti includes a variety of secondary scriptures including most relevantly what one might call historical texts, in contrast to the atemporal character of shruti. However, these historical texts are not secular or non-religious--both the Bhagavadgita and the Ramayana are smrti-texts. Smrti texts are not necessarily fixed, and new texts may be added, in contrast to shruti which is carefully preserved unaltered.

    I do not intend to suggest that pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon theology possessed such formally-defined notions as shruti and smrti. But these terms are a useful way of thinking of a world-view which can adopt new theological truths which do not run contrary to its spirit. That is, shruti and smrti seem to be valid concepts in so far as the Saxons did not feel a great conflict between between their existing faith and the new teachings of Christianity--a scenario which is suggested by some of the accounts of conversion in early Anglo-Saxon England [15] .

    In particular, the representation of Cain as the progenitor of eotenas, ylfe, orcneas,and gigantas is a plausible example of an instance of Christian scripture interpreted by pre-Christian Saxons as a sort of smrti--as new knowledge, but not knowledge requiring a major change in world-view. The adoption of a story of a primal act of kin-slaying is not surprising considering the recurrence of this theme throughout old Germanic literature. The apparent biblical explanation of Cain's monstrous offspring is in the interpretation of Genesis vi, where it is said that 'there were giants in the earth in those days' (Gen. vi.4), immediately followed by 'the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them'.

    The exact development of this notion of the Flood as directed against 'giants' is unclear -- the proximity in Genesis of the reference to giants and God's view of the 'wickedness of man' (Gen. vi.5) and his subsequent decision to 'destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them' (Gen. vi.7), as well as apocryphal material, like that preserved in the Ethiopian Book of Enoch which elaborates on giants and the fallen angels [16] , may have suggested this scenario. Yet the text of Genesis cites 'the wickedness of man' as the source of God's anger and cause of the Flood, not 'the wickedness of giants'.

    However, we find a recurrent myth of battle between divinities and giants, linked with a great flood, within the native Indogermanic tradition. Within Germanic legend, the Old Norse Edda refers to the drowning of giants in a divine flood: 'Bor's sons [Óðinn, Vili and Vé] killed the giant Ymir. And he fell, so much blood flowed from his wounds that with it they drowned all the race of frost-giants, except that one escaped with his household. Giants call him Bergelmir' (Snorri, Gylfaginning, p.5-7) [17].

    One may reasonably object to the Eddic analogue on the grounds that the extent of commonality between Anglo-Saxon & Scandinavian religion is unknown, and further that the Icelandic texts are relatively late and may exhibit the influence of Christianity. However, in the Hindu RgVeda we find a strikingly similar story involving the slaying of giants and a great flood. Briefly the story is thus:

    There is a titan or demon named Vrtra, who is obstructing the world's water [18] . Indra, god of rain, storms fights and defeats Vrtra [19] , who is sometimes described as a cloud, sometimes as a serpent or dragon, and in slaying him, releases a deluge onto the earth [20] , the resulting flood waters 'carry off the nameless body of Vrtra, tossed in the midst of the never-stopping, never-resting currents' [21] . The disposal of the dragon's corpse in Beowulf also reflects similar imagery:

    ... dracan ec scufun
    wyrm ofer weallclif; leton weg niman,
    flod fæðmian frætwa hyrde [22]


    In the RgVeda: 'The dragon lies beneath the feet of torrents which (formerly) by his might he had hoarded' [23] .

    Interestingly, both the Indic and Norse flood legends are also Creation-myths [24] -- the Norse myth is recounted in the Elder Edda:

    Of Ymir's flesh
    the earth was shaped,
    the hills from his bones;
    the heaven from the skull
    of that ice-cold giant,
    and from his blood the sea. [25]


    One telling of this myth in the RgVeda story runs thus:

    When you, Indra, had slain the first-born of dragons,
    and overcome the enchantments of the enchanters,
    Then, giving life to Sun and Dawn and Heaven,
    You had not one enemy left (to oppose you). [26]


    We may find additional Flood-imagery in Beowulf, at ll.1607b-11 [27] , which seems to be connected to a divine flood directed against giants, which may echo this connexion between a giant-killing flood and Creation itself. Viswanathan [28] points out that this passage in Beowulf, which compares the melting of the blade of the giant-sword to God untying the bonds of frost and letting flow the frozen sea, also suggests God's release of a flood to destroy His enemies (thus linking the destruction of the Grendelcyn by the sword with the destruction of the giants by God's flood). Of course the epithet of fæder may well have been chosen primarily for metrical reasons. Nonetheless, this epithet is uncommon for referring to God in Beowulf and does seem to point to the progenitor aspect of God, sæla ond mæla also suggesting Creation.

    It seems likely that along with the story of Cain, the Beowulf poet learned some biblical story of the Flood, however, the poem's references to a flood appear to have a greater debt to Northern legends for it makes no reference to Noah, or an ark, or the effect of the flood on anyone except giants. Thus the 'Cain episode' of Beowulf seems to owe as much to native lore as to Judeo-Christian teachings; and the references to the 'Flood' appear to be strongly grounded in Indo-European myth. Or, rather, this is to say that we are observing a basic Indogermanic 'sruti-myth' elaborated by 'Christian smrti ' [29] .

    That we would find Christian elements, such as the story of Cain and Abel, within a poem which is otherwise, in both tone and content, Indogermanic, is not surprising considering what we know of the nature of the early mission in England. Gregory's letter to Mellitus directs him to instruct Augustine not to tear down heathen shrines, but rather to build temples on top of them [30] . A programme of accommodation by the Church could easily lead to an Anglo-Saxon understanding of Christian instruction as a sort of smrti, a sort of supplemental knowledge of the world, rather than new conception of existence [31] .

    Concerning expressions which are unlikely to have a non-biblical source [32] , such as ylda bearn 'sons of men' (ll. 70, 150, 605), one can imagine that they were introduced into the poetic repertoire in the same way as Christian legends such as Cain and Abel. To be more precise, it would be odd if none of the missionary work in England was carried out by scopas who sang versified biblical stories in the traditional heroic manner. Indeed, it is easy to imagine poems such as Judith or Exodus being sung in just this way as a part of the programme of conversion. Bede's story of Cædmon [33] and the anecdote of Bishop Aldhelm on the bridge acting the role of a minstrel, weaving Christian doctrine into popular ballads [34] also suggest that 'missionary-gleemen' likely formed part of the project of conversion. Ylda bearn ('sons of men'), despite its biblical origin [35] , has no overt Christian sound, but surely would be recognised by a scop as a good verse half-line!

    Material culture of the period also bears out the suggestion that Christianity may have been received as smrti in some parts of England for some time: archaeological finds such as the Benty Grange helmet, adorned with boar-crest and silver cross, or the magnificent ship-burial at Sutton Hoo which reveals objects bearing Christian symbols [36] within an otherwise 'pagan' burial, or the Franks Casket which juxtaposes scenes of the gifts of the Magi to Christ next to bloody revenge of the Germanic wundorsmith Weland [37] . Textual evidence points to the same conclusion, as in Bede's complaint against King Rædwald of East Anglia, who was set up altars both to the Northern Gods and to Christ [38] .

    So, with these points in mind, I suggest that we should not understand Beowulf as a Christian poem constructed from Germanic 'heathen' materials [39] . Nor should we see the biblical references as impositions on the theme or feeling of Beowulf as a heroic epic. Rather, I believe, it is more informative to read the poem as composed within a Germanic heroic society, preserving the values and philosophy of that society, and freely borrowing such outside elements and stories from the Christian tradition which do not contradict native wisdom, and serve further to illuminate existing lore.

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    Beowulf: A Pagan and Christian Fusion?

    The heroic elegiac poem, Beowulf, is a reflection of many Anglo-Saxon ideals and concepts. This work was written after the Anglo-Saxons were already Christianized, yet the pagan traditions that had dominated their lives were still present in their minds. Overall, Beowulf contains many pagan themes and concepts, but yet it also contains many clear references to Christianity. It is an Anglo Saxon work with a peculiar spiritual atmosphere.

    In order to evaluate the fusion of Christian ideas and pagan-heroic characteristics, the development of religion in Britain must first be considered. Originally dominated by the Celtic faith, Britain’s belief structure underwent a significant change with the conquest of the Anglo-Saxons and their Germanic paganism.

    In these and the following centuries, Britain was gradually converted to Christianity. The Anglo-Saxons’ Christianisation began in 597. This conversion and the expression of Christian ideas were founded on the existing pagan terminology and symbols, with pagan temples merely stripped of their idols and used as places for Christian worship. Christianisation involved the conversion of a king rather than the people themselves. It is in Beowulf, composed not more than approximately 50 years after this conversion, that we are able to find a vivid image of a society still struggling to establish their identity within a new belief structure.

    The two major societies directly depicted by the narrator of Beowulf are the Danes and the Geats, of Southern Scandinavia, home to the epic’s hero, Beowulf. At first glance, the two societies seem completely converted to the Christian faith. Both Hrothgar and Beowulf, as representatives of their people, acknowledge the power and sovereignty of God in various instances. Regarding his people’s plight, Hrothgar tells Beowulf; “My household guard are on the wane, fate sweeps them away into Grendel’s clutches – but God can easily halt these raids and harrowing attacks!”

    Christian terminology is found in the speeches of various characters throughout the poem even regarding the final burial of Beowulf himself; “then let us bring the body of our lord, the man we loved, to where he will lodge for a long time in the care of the Almighty.”

    Moreover, the poet himself praises the divine supremacy on several occasions; “Almighty God rules over mankind and always has” while denouncing pagan traditions; “Oh, cursed is he Who in times of trouble has to thrust his soul in the fire’s embrace, forfeiting help; he has nowhere to turn.”

    As Boris Kuhne argues in his essay, The Amalgamation of Christian Ideas and Pagan Heroic Characteristics in Beowulf, it is notable that the epic bears occasional reference to the Old Testament but none to the New Testament. This goes counter to our knowledge of Old English poetry such as The Dream of the Rood, which proves that the medieval Anglo-Saxon society was well acquainted with the New Testament. Nonetheless, both societies were intrinsically pagan; Denmark was Christianised during the beginning, Sweden close to the end of the 11th century. The poet acknowledges this fact most notably for the Danes: as they suffer under Grendel’s reign of terror, they turn to their heathen gods for help; “at pagan shrines they vowed offerings to idols, swore oaths that the killer of souls might come to their aid.” However, A.G Brodeur makes an interesting point in his book, The Art of Beowulf, that the poet was faced with a dilemma : on the one hand, he had to recognise his subjects’ idolatry and their resulting punishment, while he still wished to present them as good and noble men for whom a god-fearing attitude was crucial. Failing to give his characters a Christian background in their speeches would have made them appear sinful and proud to the poet as well as to his audience. Hence, the Danes’ dialogues exhibit a strongly Christian colouring, and the characters are related not as being heathens by choice but almost by innocent ignorance; “The Almighty Judge of good deeds and bad, the Lord God, Head of the Heavens and High King of the World was unknown to them.”

    Pagan customs are vividly portrayed throughout the poem. The Danes and the Geats nations practice crematory rituals as can be seen in the funeral pyres of the former Danish King Hnaef and of Beowulf himself; “The Geat people built a pyre for Beowulf, stacked and decked it until it stood footsquare, hung with helmets, heavy war-shields and shining armour.”

    As R.G. Owen argues in his book Rites and Religions of the Anglo-Saxons; the Anglo-Saxons held the belief that posthumous elevation and wealth was reflected in the funeral pyre.

    The heroic individual in Beowulf is subject to two main factors, one stemmed from the Christian and one from the pagan-heroic world. First of all, the hero depends on the attributes God has embodied in him, his physical abilities and prowess; “Beowulf was mindful of his mighty strength, the wondrous gifts God had showered on him.”

    In the relation of his fights, Beowulf always acknowledges the powerful influence of God, both favourable and adverse. Beowulf admits himself that he could never have defeated Grendel’s mother without the aid of God. “if God had not helped me, the outcome would have been quick and fatal.”

    Various characters in the poem perceive God’s will as being a direct result of their own actions, and it is therefore that both Hrothgar as well as Beowulf ponder over a reason for incurring the Lord’s wrath when they are afflicted by a supernatural menace; “the wise man thought he must have thwarted ancient ordinance of the eternal Lord, broken his commandment.”

    On the other hand, it is courage and the resulting glory that governs the life of the hero and is celebrated in various speeches; after Aeschere has been killed and carried away by Grendel’s mother, Beowulf consoles the grieving king saying: “For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death.”

    It has been argued that Beowulf conveys the attributes of a Christian saviour, a claim that is easily refuted if we inspect the hero’s deeds. Indeed there are several notable annotations to this throughout the poem. As Beowulf prepares to face the wrath of the dragon he is joined by twelve men (alike the twelve apostles) though in his struggle for life he is abandoned by all but one, Wiglaf.

    However, although the means through which men gained fame may seem to conflict with certain elements of Christianity, the author reconciles this fame with many references to God. Although strength and heroism may not necessarily be Christian concepts or virtues, the author attributes both of these to God through the speech of his characters. Hrothgar states that Beowulf’s killing of Grendel was achieved with the help of God; “First and foremost, let the Almighty Father be thanked for this sight. The Heavenly Shepherd can work His wonders always and everywhere.” This ties Beowulf’s prowess and fame back to God, and reconciles a pagan concept to Christianity.

    However, Beowulf is essentially a Germanic warrior whose actions, despite their Christian glossing, are not of a truly self-sacrificing character. He is concerned with the courage and honour that the heroic code demands of him; the reason for his voyage to Denmark is not primarily to avenge and protect Hrothgar and his people, but to extend his and his lord’s glory. Moreover, Beowulf’s death does not deliver his people or ensure their safety but rather the opposite, as the messenger of the hero’s death prophesies; “Now war is looming over our nation, soon it will be known to Franks and Frisians, far and wide, that the king is gone.”

    The poem features various monstrous forces for Beowulf to overcome, Grendel, Grendel’s mother and lastly the bloodthirsty dragon. Monsters would generally be regarded as part of a pagan cult but the Old Testament bears note to similar demons. As Kuhne points out in his essay; Grendel clearly constitutes the direct opposite of the Christian spirit: he abhors the joy and warmth of the human community, especially enhanced through the scop’s song about the Creation. He glories in slaying and destruction for its own sake; and as a descendant of Cain he bears the curse of God. There are also pagan elements to be found here : Out of the curse of Cain’s exile “there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms and the giants too.”

    Another such fusion is to be found on the sword hilt depicting he annihilation of the giants through the Flood as seen near the beginning of the story of Noah, Genesis 6.4. “They suffered a terrible severance from the Lord; the Almighty made the waters rise, drowned them in the deluge for retribution.”

    Beowulf exhibits different pagan concepts such as wyrd and vengeance, each of which plays a central role in the narrative. These concepts, however, seem to be tied in with the elements of Christianity exhibited in the work. The author reconciles many pagan concepts with regard to elements of Christianity despite their sometimes obvious and direct contrast. Perhaps this was done to show the way in which both pagan concepts and Christianity were interrelated. As Thomas D. Hill states in his essay “The Christian Language and Theme of Beowulf”, the Beowulf poet is presenting a radical synthesis of pagan and Christian history- which is seemingly without parallel in Anglo Saxon or Anglo-Latin literature.

    Works Cited

    Brodeur, A. G. The Art of Beowulf. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959.
    Kuhne, Boris; The Amalgamation of Christian ideas and pagan heroic characteristics in Beowulf. boriskuehne.net/boriskuehne/up/material/Beowulf.PDF
    Owen, G. R. Rites and Religions of the Anglo Saxons. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1981.
    The source: http://www.renegadetribune.com/beowu...istian-fusion/

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    Beowulf was most likely written from oral stories that pre-dated Christianity. The Christian context being added later.
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    I believe Beowulf was a true story that was embellished with a Christian gloss in the same way that Snorri reimagined the Eddas. The formerly popular forename Roger is the version of Hrothgar we all know.

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