Religion in Beowulf: Exploring Christianity and Paganism in the Anglo-Saxon Society
Thesis Statement: Analysis of how Christianity and Paganism coexisted in old Anglo-Saxon Society exemplified by the poem Beowulf
Table Of Contents
- Introduction: The reasons behind cheating and sharing the story of Beowulf
- How the Anglo Saxon religion transformed in that time
- Anglo-Saxon Paganism vs Christianity dichotomy
- Transition from Paganism into Christianity
- Direct Christian allusions in the poem
- Comparison of Beowulf to Christ during three battles
- Why Beowulf repents his sins in the end
- Conclusion: What makes Beowulf an outstanding hero in the history of literature
- Work Cited
The foundation of religion is the utter conviction that one’s religion is the absolute truth. Having such utter confidence that one’s religion is such, one becomes morally bound with a duty to share this truth with as many people as they can. A bard in the eleventh century, in the ingenious combination of entertainment and preaching, delivers the story of Beowulf, where an honorable hero battles manifestations of evil itself.
At the crossroads of paganism and Christianity, the characters in Beowulf and the Anglo-Saxon people alike faced the essential blending of two religious lifestyles in several life-affecting scenarios into one semi-coherent religious viewpoint. In the epic poem, Beowulf, the ideals of Christianity dominate over those of paganism through the shift of pagan values to praises of God, the biblical allusions, and the role Beowulf plays as a Christ-like figure, proving the author’s bias and demonstrating the nature of the Anglo-Saxon time period.
How the Anglo Saxon religion transformed in that time
To embellish this theme, it is necessary to acknowledge the unique dichotomy that exists in the epic tale between vastly different religious viewpoints. The author exemplifies this relationship constantly throughout the poem mainly in the mention of pagan values. Among these is the heroic value of fame. Beowulf himself boldly proclaims, “he who can earn it should fight / For the glory of his name; fame after death / Is the noblest of goals” (1387-89). Essentially, Beowulf emboldens the other characters with a reminder of a traditional value: that legacy is the only reward that a good soldier may hope to achieve.
This value is one example among many of the contrast that exists between pagan and Christian principles in the poem and in the Anglo-Saxon society. Namely, Christianity holds that eternal life waits for the deceased soul, not merely a legacy, a burden that bards in the coming ages must sing into remembrance. In spite of that, this contrast epitomizes the balance that the Anglo-Saxons may have attained. Essentially, that narration proves that the two religions may peacefully coexist. While the values differ widely, the Anglo-Saxon society seemed to approach the issue of religion with ambiguity and ambivalence.
To elaborate this enigmatic coupling, one might safely infer that a new religion, mixed of the two of these was born. The narrator notes, “But God’s dread loom / Was woven with defeat for the monster, good fortune / For the Geats” (696-98). This statement serves several purposes to the advancement of the plot and the role of religion in the Anglo-Saxon era. Principally, it underscores the connection of pagan imagery, such as the woven loom for fate, to a Christian context. Fate becomes the jurisdiction of God. Also, it creates a moral battle between good and evil, central to any religious belief system.
Anglo-Saxon Paganism vs Christianity dichotomy
Put together, this connection accentuates the transitional sentiment of such a religion. More clearly, the author couples these religiously different entities together in order to facilitate the arrival and cultivation of Christianity into the Anglo-Saxon culture. Perhaps this transition is necessary for the acceptance of Christianity into a largely polytheistic and pagan-based society. Moreover, from this quotation the reader may notice a direct use of foreshadowing for the events to follow. In this case, the reference to God’s weaving of fate suggests a favorable outcome against Grendel, a monstrous antagonist, for Beowulf and his clan.
The author of this piece allows his views on the subject of religion to permeate through this epic poem to a large degree. While he acknowledges that these pagan ideals carry significance, it seems he holds contempt for the peoples of an age not much younger than this one who are not yet exposed to the views of Christianity. He states, “And sometimes they sacrificed to the old stone gods, / Made heathen vows, hoping for Hell’s / Support” (175-77). While one may learn from the accounts of each religion in this poem, the author is noticeably Christian in his interpretation of the heroic story of Beowulf.
From this perspective of Beowulf’s adventures and the references to both forms of religion, one can gather that the Anglo-Saxon time period reflects similar values. Hence, in the poem, there is a definite transferal of pagan values to Christian dominion. In the face of this juxtaposition of religious values, the poem takes on a greater Christian theme than pagan through the scriptural and doctrinal allusions explicitly stated. To explain, the author utilizes two main types of explicit allusion. The first, the more vague approach, occurs when the author acknowledges God’s domain of humanity.
Transition from Paganism into Christianity
Dutifully, the author mentions, “Then and now / man must lie in their Maker’s holy / Hands, moved only as He wills: / Our hearts must seek out that will” (1057-60). This quotation outlines a recurring theme of the influence of Christian doctrine in the poem. It becomes difficult to apply this theme of Christian dominance to the Anglo-Saxon society as a whole, however, because the author of the tale, clearly Christian, caters to an audience with likely greater acceptance of Christianity than the characters in the time period the work represents.
While this allusion calls upon the power of God, the second example of specifically mentioned allusion is a direct reference to the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Beowulf, taking the role as a soldier of God, marks the death of Grendel with an assertion that God had “branded him with a murderer’s mark” (1264). Declaring the antagonists in this poem as descendants of the race of Cain, the author demonstrates his point rather clearly that they are enemies of not only Beowulf, but the establishment of Christianity itself.
Direct Christian allusions in the poem
Interestingly, Beowulf is quick to lay judgment on Unferth, too, for the crime of killing siblings. The Christian influence provides the background upon which the author reveals greater points. Here, Christian allusion is the vehicle by which the author may emphasize his avid support for Christianity as a whole. In this manner, Christian allusion dominates the majority of the poem. In addition the explicit elucidation of Christianity in allusion, the author also treats the subject of religion implicitly using symbolism. Foremost of the symbolism in the poem, Beowulf emerges as a Christ-like figure.
Beowulf’s battles bear a strong resemblance to the crucifixion of Christ. Essentially, the narrator outlines the symbolism of the battle with Grendel when he states, “And through the might of a single man / They would win” (698-99). Like Christ, Beowulf must face a task that will benefit all who follow him even though he must accomplish this alone. When Grendel attacks Beowulf, the narrator says, “that prince / Remembered God’s grace and strength He’d given him / And relied on the Lord for all the help, / The comfort and support he would need” (1268-72).
Comparison of Beowulf to Christ during three battles
The battle with Grendel, then, is innately similar to the suffering of Jesus, also a prince; though when Beowulf conquers Grendel, he receives great praise. In contrast to that praise, when Christ conquered death, he did not welcome glory, but instead sacrificed his own life. To truly symbolize the crucifixion, a study of the fight with the dragon is necessary. The dragon, a seemingly unstoppable force of evil for Herot and an enemy to God, confronts Beowulf as boldly as Beowulf confronts it.
Beowulf battles with all his might, but the narrator ultimately comments, “That noble prince / Would end his days on earth soon … but would take the dragon with him” (2341-44). This final battle portrays the concession of Beowulf’s own life for the people he means to save. This quality is very similar to Christ. Beowulf seems to accept the duty of his woven fate in the same manner as Christ’s acceptance. If Beowulf were to have a flaw though, since he is but human, it may very well be his pride and need for fame. Quickly approaching death, Beowulf casts himself into deep sorrow.
Why Beowulf repents his sins in the end
The narrator says, “he has accused himself of breaking God’s law, of bringing / The Almighty’s anger down on his people” (2328-30). His worry may be unwarranted, but the guilt is incredibly important to the idea that Beowulf, even as a Christ-like protagonist is flawed. His redeeming factor lies in his acceptance of blame. No man is without fault, but Beowulf is certainly not without a degree of wisdom when he accepts the blame. Therefore, the implicit allusion of Beowulf as Christ shows the Christianity of the Anglo-Saxon time period and the inflection of the Christian author towards his Christian audience.
Relevant Topics Readers Also Choose
- Biblical References In Beowulf
Thus, through the mix of pagan and Christian values, the allusions, and the Christ-like symbolism, Beowulf portrays a Christian-dominated Anglo-Saxon society and a biased narrator. While heroes in history have come and gone, Beowulf may rightly take his place among the greatest. He succeeds to immortalize a legacy, a feat that countless people have dedicated their whole lives to accomplish without nearly as much success. Whether it is by the work of God or of gods, history smiles on the legacy of heroes like Beowulf. Perhaps a literary hero is truly timeless even in the face of drastic worldly change.