Beowulf: Religions of the Time
Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon poem dating back to about 1000 A.D. At this time, Christianity was growing across many different countries, Europe in particular. Pagan beliefs were still around during this time period as well, so the expansion of Christian and Pagan beliefs began to influence works. Pagans had a strong belief in fate, superhuman powers, monsters, and nature. In Beowulf, fate began to known as “Wyrd”. Wyrd is the power that things are predestinated, which leads to Christianity and the beliefs that all things are done through God. The merging of Christian and Pagan beliefs was easier to do because of the common concepts of good versus evil. Since this story is written during the time period where Paganism has been around for a while, Paganism will be the first belief examined.
The Pagan had a strong belief in humans with superhuman abilities or powers allowing them to fight monsters and becomes the heroes they were destined to be. In Beowulf, they bring many of these Pagan characteristics into the story. The story begins with the knowledge of Grendel, a young dragon, destroying Herot. The mystical creature, dragon, has always been seen as a type of unprecedented evil. Beowulf comes to defeat Grendel because he feels as if it is his fate to defeat him and everything is going to lead him to his destiny. Beowulf possesses strength and powers that no other human could have. Grendel is killed by Beowulf after becoming trapped in his arm lock for so long, proving Beowulf has incredible strength since he was able to kill a dragon without his weapon (Puchner 787-789). These aren’t the only concepts or examples influencing Beowulf, so the Pagan beliefs shall continue on.
The Pagans also had a close bond with nature, believing that the Earth is sacred and should remain sacred. They began to characterize Grendel’s home and where the dragons live, they’re home was destroyed. The Earth was dying on their side and the river overflowed with blood showing the disrespect the dragons showed. The story goes on to Beowulf killing Grendel’s mother and ending with the death of Beowulf after fighting the last dragon. He lived for many years even after all of the wounds he encountered after his battles and went on to become a hero. Heroes are another element in Pagan culture because all warriors wanted to bring respect to their names and die heroes. Beowulf lived his whole life and continued to fight dragons even after he became king so he could die the hero he felt like he was supposed to be. Christians have the concept of turning the other cheek, but Pagans believe in revenge. When Grendel destroyed Herot, the people wanted revenge on him so they brought Beowulf to kill him (Sobchack 2-4). While Paganism is such a huge factor in Beowulf, Christianity is a big factor as well.
Beowulf had many Pagan elements, but there is an abundance of Christian elements as well. In Beowulf, Grendel is compared to Cain from the biblical story of Cain and Abel. They are saying Cain was cursed for killing Abel and now Grendel is a spawn of Cain. Grendel is considered a demon and his home is compared to Hell (Puncher 102-108). When Beowulf goes on to kill Grendel’s mother, he stops and thanks God for giving him the sword to kill her (Puchner 1553-1556). God is a constant element in the story letting the reader know
Beowulf believes in one God helping him along his way (Helder 1-3). Pagan and Christian beliefs are different, but they aren’t as different as people may think.
According to the story, the dragons are here because of the sins of Cain for killing Abel. The whole story revolves around a Christian element because of the involvement of God but the story is advanced by Pagan elements. The Pagan elements adds details allowing the reader to become more in touch with the time period, while realizing what is changing at the time. The Christian and Pagan elements both show the belief of good versus evil. They believe that evil will always come back and try to fight good, but in the end good will always conquer evil. In the bible and Beowulf, the stories have their own internal fights that create the idea of one being true or a hero. As the story ends, the reader is able to understand the combination of the Christian and Pagan elements is what makes the story as interesting as it is today.