Christianity and Paganism in Beowulf Essay

  • Length: 13 pages
  • Sources: 10
  • Subject: Literature
  • Type: Essay
  • Paper: #73150546

Excerpt from Essay :

Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxons

Part 1: Introduction

Although the epic Old English poem Beowulf has all the characteristics of myth and legend that pertain to fiction, as a historical document it is useful in teaching about the past—the values and culture of the medieval Anglo-Saxon society and how Christian culture intersected with the pagan world at a time when Christian conversion was spreading. Not only does Beowulf refer to real kings of the time, thus grounding the story in a specific historical reality, but it also describes a culture of co-existence—an old world people and place situated neatly between paganism and Christianity. As an epic poem Beowulf describes the heroic journey of the titular character as he accepts the challenge of Hrothgar to defend his Hall against the monster Grendel. Beowulf defeats the monster and then must face the wrath of Grendel’s mother. Many decades after his victory over Grendel’s mother, Beowulf faces a mighty dragon and, while victorious (with some assistance) in battle against the dragon he is mortally wounded. This paper will show that, as an historical document, Beowulf can teach about the history of the Scandinavian people who serve as the focus of the narrative, their culture and values, and how Anglo-Saxons lived during a period when they were being converted from paganism to Christianity.

Part 2: Historical Context of Beowulf and Scandinavian Kings

The Anglo-Saxon people actually consisted of three main groups as their name (partially) implies—the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes.[footnoteRef:2] England today is named after the Angles, but during the Middle Ages, the Anglo-Saxon people migrated from Scandinavia, the northern part of Germanic Europe—Jutland, Anglia, the Saxon Coast, and Frisia (modern day Denmark, Germany and Netherlands). The migration period (410-560) saw the flow of northern Germanic people moving to Roman-Britain as a result of a crumbling Empire that left a vacuum for people to fill. When Rome was attacked in 410 by the Visigoths, Roman soldiers were sent from Britain to other more vulnerable parts of the Empire leaving the Celtic-Britons behind and the region open for colonization, setting off a wave of migration by warriors willing to fight to gain the farmland of Britain. [2: Peter Hunter Blair, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 7.]

The epic poem Beowulf teaches about the way of life for these Scandinavian people. Two tribes in particular are referenced: the Geats and the Danes. The mythical aspect of the poem is that the hero Beowulf is the leader of the Geats who travels to the Danes to fulfill a debt and defeat the monster Grendel. The historical aspect of the poem is the reference to one King Hygelac, an uncle of Beowulf, who died in a raid to Frisia[footnoteRef:3] by a group known as the Hetwaras along the Rhine. King Hygelac is supposed to represent King Chlochilaicus the Dane, a real Scandinavian king mentioned in Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks, and the Hetwaras represent the Chatturarii Frankish tribe.[footnoteRef:4] Chlochilacius was killed by the Chatturarii around 521 AD—and the poem reflects this historical fact in its details. Beowulf may be fictional, but it is rooted contextually in the real experiences, lives and events of the medieval world. Not much is known today about the author or the exact date when it was written, but best guesses indicate that it was written some centuries after these events in England and, based upon the Christian references it is likely the author was influenced by Christian culture. This topic will be explored in more detail in Part 4, however. [3: Peter Hunter Blair, An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England (Cambridge University Press, 2003), 341.] [4: Gregory of Tours, History of the Franks, translated with an introduction by Lewis Thorpe (Penguin Books, 1974), 163.]

Part 3: The Culture and Values of the Anglo-Saxons

The unknown Anglo-Saxon poet weaves into Beowulf elements of Anglo-Saxon culture which via the concepts of “wergild” and “wyrd.” The story of Beowulf contains Anglo-Saxon traits and cultural values, vividly depicted in the writing and thus capable of teaching the reader about the history of the medieval world). Wergild for instance was a concept best described as “man-payment”—a practice among the ancient Germanic tribes prior to the establishment of Christianity. Man-payment was a law that applied to murder: When someone was killed, the murderer was forced to pay the dead individual’s family to compensate (through shillings) for the life the murderer had taken. Wergild was a form of monetary restitution.[footnoteRef:5] [5: Lisi Oliver, Beginnings of English Law (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), 49; T.B. Lambert, Theft, Homicide, and Crime in Late Anglo-Saxon Law, in Past and Present, no. 214 (February 2012), 20.]

In Beowulf, the idea of wergild applies to Beowulf’s journey to the Danes. The reason for the journey is rooted in wergild: because King Hrothgar provided a favour for Beowulf’s father Ecgtheow, who had killed a major figure of a group called the Wulfings. Ecgtheow tried to pay wergild, but the Wulfings did not accept it. King Hrothgar’s wife was a member of the Wulfing tribe and it was Hrothgar who influenced the Wulfings to accept Ecgtheow’s wergild. Grateful for the king’s intervention, Beowulf felt indebted to Hrothgar and wanted to show his appreciation: that is why he traveled to put himself at the service of the Dane. Lines 456-472 of the poem illustrate this perfectly well: “There was a feud one time, begun by your father…I healed the feud by paying: I shipped a treasure trove to the Wulfings and Ecgtheow acknowledged me with oaths of allegiance.”[footnoteRef:6] As his father’s son, Beowulf is there to make good the oaths. Thus it can easily be seen that wergild is one of the reasons underlying Beowulf’s decision to fight Grendel. As an honorable and valorous man, Beowulf acknowledged the debt he owed to Hrothgar and wanted to pay it by killing Grendel. [6: Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney (New York: W.W.…

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…matters in the mountain, receiving the Ten Commandments from God. In times of turmoil, the weak turn to false gods while the strong stay steadfast and faithful. This is evident in Beowulf. The author would have understood this as his sympathy is fully Christian—clear since he refers to the pagans as pagans, which he would not do if he were not Christian himself. The timeline also lines up because the conversion of the Anglo Saxons started at around 597 and ended in the late 7th century. The poem itself was written anywhere from 700-1000, so it is likely that the poet wanted to convey Christian elements in the Beowulf poem itself. To remain realistic, it shows pagan elements as well and how some people still had pagan beliefs. Thus, the poem of Beowulf represents the process of conversion from paganism to Christianity, based on the elements of both paganism and Christianity in the region at the time. As Kevin Crossley-Holland and Heather O’Donoghue note, the author’s “re-creation of the Scandinavian past is thus richly ambivalent,”[footnoteRef:24] full of a pagan past but also just as full of a Christian present. [22: Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001), 175-178.] [23: Beowulf: A New Verse Translation by Seamus Heaney (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2001), 927-930.] [24: Kevin Crossley-Holland and Heather O’Donoghue, Beowulf: The Fight at Finnsburh (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), viii.]

Part 5: Conclusion

The poem of Beowulf can be used to teach about Anglo-Saxon culture and values. It represents a time when the Anglo-Saxons were converting to Christianity, when some were pagan and some were Christian. It shows a Christian spirit in Hrothgar, who could symbolize a kind of Ethelbert, who converted prior to the conversion of the whole realm. Thus, the king has a Christian conception of God, like the author, while the people in the fear turn to pagan idolatry to protect them from Grendel. The hero himself Beowulf represents both the pagan and the Christian, who is approaching Wyrd and offering himself as wergild to Hrothgar for his father’s debts—so he is engaging in both a pagan custom but also symbolizing a Christian concept, that one can pay for the debts of others, which is the essence of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. As the pagan world of the Anglo-Saxons was coming to Christianity at the end of the 6th and into the 7th centuries, it had to be educated on the Christian worldview and who the Shaper was. This concept is found in Beowulf, which reflects the realistic times of the Anglo-Saxon history—the mixture of the pagan and the Christian as two cultures came into contact with one another, first through the marriage of the pagan kind Ethelbert to the Christian princess Bertha, and then later when Augustine arrived in Anglia to convert the Angles and Saxons to the Christian religion en masse. Beowulf shows a time in history when there was a co-existence of…

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