I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.

Anglo-saxon Ideologies And Pagan Customary Practices In Beowulf

Beowulf was created during a period of great transition. It was between the 8th-10th centuries. England was still dominated heavily by Anglo-Saxons. Christianity only had arrived in this region 100 years ago. Despite rapid adoption of the new religion, AngloSaxon (or Norse?) paganism continued to be a major influence on the lives of English people. Beowulf is fondly familiar with the stories of Cain, Abel, and God. But there are significant pagan motifs in the poem that keep it grounded in AngloSaxon ideas. The poem combines Christian beliefs with pagan beliefs. Closer inspection reveals many more pagan elements. Paganism is more than Christianity. It forms the basis of the society Beowulf addresses.

The poem contains some elements that are consistent with Christianity. According to the Book of Genesis, Grendel is believed to be a descendant of Cain, Adam’s fratricidal child. (Heaney 9), and the poem frequently praises God for granting victory to Beowulf. Benjamin Slade, Beowulf scholar and author, made the point that the poet didn’t name Christ explicitly. Beowulf thanks God for his victory over Grendel (Heaney at 63). Slade argues that the Christian faith does not have to be exclusive in giving thanks to God or referring to divine blessings. Beowulf doesn’t mention Christ’s teachings on salvation or forgiveness. The poem also contains a lot of references to divine blessings and judgment after death. Although Genesis does mention a great flood, Slade rightly points out that it is not referred to Noah or an ark or the effects of the flood on any other than the giants. However, Ymir’s pagan story also includes a flood that kills many giants. The author seems to have merged two traditions into a single poetic element in a highly ambiguous fashion.

Fate is an important pagan element in the story. The Anglo-Saxon and Norse theologies included Fate. Beowulf, as well as the Norse societies from which it is spoken, still believed in it. Fate is what makes King Hygelac fall in battle (Heaney), 85). It is also what causes Grendel to die – and not just God’s will. Talk of God’s graces, will, and destiny is just as common as talk about divine inevitability. Beowulf even speaks in his final moments of life of his death, and of his past glory as part of his destiny. Before fighting Grendel, the poet’s hero said: “Fate goes wherever Fate will” (Heaney 31, 31).

The poem also features the feudal or duel concept, which is a pagan social ideal. The holmgang – a traditional duel that settled honorable disputes – was a key element of AngloSaxon and Norse society. Hrothgar the King of Danes believes that Grendel has a desire to destroy his kingdom and his thanes (retainers). This code is even followed by Grendel’s demonic mom when she seeks revenge upon her son’s death at Beowulf’s hands (Heaney.89). Beowulf’s heroes don’t seem to believe in the Christian idea of loving one another and “turning other cheek”, but instead are bound to maintaining honor by feuding among various parts of society. The Nordic notion of the importance follies is well represented by the hero in the poem who said “It is always more to avenge loved ones than to be in mourning” [Heaney, 1997].

Beowulf has one of the most crucial remnants of Anglo-Saxon pagan social arrangements. It is the honor concept. Beowulf gained much honor by slaying Grendel. It was equally important for him and the Geatish to have earned this honor. King Hrothgar spoke clearly about family honor. This is an important aspect of society and was a key factor in Grendel’s death. Beowulf does not care about salvation and accession to Heaven. He is more concerned about living an honorable, posthumous life. (Heaney 193, 213) His death is pagan and he has a traditional funeral on a pyre decorated with gold and other treasures.

Beowulf was written by an almost certain Christian poet. However, the society he lived and worked in is not entirely Christianized. While much is made of God, Cain, Abel, divine rewards, this is not a mention that these things are exclusive to Christianity. Beowulf sees honor and fame as more important than God’s will. Beowulf can’t be said to be a Christian story, but rather a tale of a society changing from pagan-Christian.

Cited sources

Van Meter (1996). The Ritualized presentation of weapons and the Ideology of Nobility, “Beowulf”. The Journal of English and Germanic Philology published an article of 95(2) that provided a detailed analysis of 175-189. (https://www.jstor.org/stable/27711299)

Smol, A. (1994). The Children’s Beowulf and Heroic Ideology. Children’s Literature, 22(1), 90-100. (https://muse.jhu.edu/article/246296)

Semple, S. (1998). A fear of what is to come: The historical significance of the prehistoric burial site in AngloSaxon England’s ideology. World Archaeology’s 30(1) issue featured an article on the subject of 109-126, which discussed archaeological discoveries and their implications. (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00438243.1998.9980400)

Viljoen, L. (2003). The Beowulf text reexamined. Reading Beowulf at the end of Anglo-Saxon England. Literator: Journal of Literary Criticism, Comparative Linguistics and Literary Studies, 24(2), 39-57 (https://journals.co.za/doi/abs/10.10520/EJC61740)

Richardson, P. (1997). Beowulf, Point of View and Identification. Neophilologus, 81(2), 289-298. (https://link.springer.com/article/10.1023/A:1004268632102)

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