The European epic, Beowulf, was written sometime in the eighth century in England. This time period provides us with an idea for the mixture of Christian and pagan elements because of an English society that was in the process of converting from Paganism to Christianity. Examples of Pagan and Christian traditions are presented all throughout literature. Many of the influences deal with what it going on in the world, when the piece is written.
When Beowulf was written, St. Augustine had just come over to try and convert the Anglo-Saxon people to Christianity; although the conversion succeeded it was a shallow conversion, and there were still people following the Pagan ways. The fact that Christianity and Paganism are so closely combined in the epic explains the reasons for Beowulfs Christian and pagan influences. Blending in among Beowulf’s triumphs against the three key creatures, we also see Christian virtues being instilled upon the listeners.Order now
The good qualities of loyalty, humility, sacrifice for the good of others, and sympathy for those less fortunate are seen woven into the text as well as the negative consequences from greed and pride. In a thorough analysis of Beowulf, the Christian and pagan elements, represented in the characters and their journeys through various countries, creates an epic adventure filled with superhuman qualities and Christian ideals that often parallel themselves to biblical characters and events. The pagan elements of the epic are evident in a couple of the characters superhuman qualities during the first two parts of the poem.
Beowulf is seen as a superhero and takes it upon himself to use his strength to defeat Grendel and save the Danes from the turmoil that has haunted them for the past twelve years. Beowulf vows to fight Grendel with no weapons and will rely only on his super strength to defeat the monster. During the battle, Beowulf wrestles with the evil monster until he is able to grab hold of Grendels arm and rip it out of the socket (47-8). These pagan, superhuman feats also appear in part two where Beowulf swims downward for an entire day, without oxygen, before reaching the lair of Grendels mother.
In their battle, Beowulfs sword is useless against the tough skin of Grendels mother. He seizes a sword hanging on the wall that was forged by giants too heavy for any normal human to hold and slashes through the monsters tough body (61-2). Beowulfs superhuman strength is even more undeniable when he tells of his swimming match at sea with Breca. They each swam in icy waters for five days and five nights carrying swords to fight off the sea monsters. When Beowulf found himself pulled underwater by a monster, he killed it and eight other sea beasts that came to attack him (42-4).
These pagan influences of amazing superhuman strength are not only apparent in Beowulf, but in many of the monsters he confronts on his journey. Another pagan influence is instilled. The hilt of the sword found in the deeps is described as “twisted and ornamented with snakes” and made by giants and supernatural beings. In many pagan religions and believes, animals were worshiped as gods. Beowulf seems afraid of defeat and failure. His boastful remarks are reminders to himself of his invincibility. In this poem, the poet is both critical and praising of the Anglo-Saxons beliefs and customs.
Grendel, as well as his mother, has no knowledge of weapons so he depends on his extraordinary strength to destroy his enemies. He devours men whole leaving almost no trace of blood or destruction except for the door he ripped off the hinges. In Beowulf, among other pagan stories, the dragon is seen as a super powerful enemy to the hero. When a thief infiltrates the dragons lair and steals a gem-covered goblet, the dragon awakes with rage and terrorizes the Earth. The dragons rampage eventually targets the throne of Beowulf and his Kingdom.
Beowulf confronts the dragon who spits fire with such an intense heat that it melts Beowulfs shield to his armor (79-84). These battles fought with fabled monsters, such as Grendel and the dragon, are common examples of pagan influences in epic adventures as well as symbolic references to the challenges we must confront in life. Fate is still a common concept; one can still hear people talking about fate, how our life revolves around it, and if things happen it is because they are meant to. Fate often delivers an undoomed earl if his spirit be gallant! 441-442) Throughout the story, there are many examples of fate, this quote could be interpreted as meaning, fate can change at anytime and change life completely.
There were many times where fate changed Beowulfs life. Beowulf consistently conquers these challenges but continually participates in many other non-Christian deeds throughout the poem. He celebrates at feasts by drinking in excessive amounts and has an ongoing tendency to kill people and creatures throughout the country. Beowulfs greatest pagan influence is his desire for being remembered and gathering wealth more than doing something out of charity for other people.
The fact that Beowulf is cremated at the end of the epic also emphasizes the pagan influences of his time. He is burned with treasures, armor, shields, and his long lasting fame around the world (91). There is no mention of him traveling to heaven after his death but a desire to be buried with his wealth and have his fame live on forever. While many pagan influences appear throughout the epic poem, many characters show Christian influences and characteristics. Beowulf exhibits Christian behavior in his sympathy for the Danes who were being oppressed by the evil monster Grendel.
King Hrothgar and the Dane make offerings at shrines in hopes for someone to come rescue them from Grendel. When Beowulf comes to fight the monster he shows signs of loyalty and leadership – qualities that God hopes for Christians to live by. In some aspect, Beowulf can be related to Christ, and Grendel resembles Satan. They become the representation and symbolic meaning of Good versus Evil. There are similarities to stories in the Bible . In Christian and Danish Paganism it says, “This story of the underdog is similar to the story in the Old testament about David triumphing over the giant Goliath”.
One of the first signs of Christian influence in Beowulf, described by Debbie Daniels in Christian and Danish Paganism, “The menacing character of Grendel is introduced as horrible, but his humanistic side is shown as well. As a result, Grendel’s character helps further the Christian influence on the book as well as paint pain Beowulf as a magnificent hero”. She also says, “However, there is a strong Christian influence as well because Grendel is a descendant of Cain and is therefore rejected by god and must live in suffering”.
Many references to Grendels character are labeled as the descendant of Cain who was tricked by Satan into committing sin. Grendel becomes jealous of the happiness shared at Heorot and desires to make the people suffer in Hrothgars kingdom by murdering the soldiers who stay there. Grendels actions can be seen almost directly as Satans disgust and jealousy at Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Grendel comes from the underworld and is a great threat to Beowulf for he is the guardian of sins. Human characteristics given to non-humans are shown through Grendel.
Debbie Daniels states, “These are very human emotions and it seems like one of the first Christian values is being instilled here, sympathy for those less fortunate”. Grendel’s mother also shows signs of Christian influence, when described by Debbie Daniels. “She is described as having the ‘war terror of a wife’ which associates her with human beings instead of monsters. This causes the reader to feel a certain amount of sympathy toward her, a Christian value, even though she decapitates one of the favored thanes”. The dragon represents greed and destruction – qualities symbolic to Satan .
Beowulf fights the dragon as an old man, King of the Geats. His strength is not as strong as it was during his fight with Grendel but he willingly endangers his life for his people. was also a Pagan concept known as fame, which was how the soldiers wanted to be remembered, they wanted a story about them, thus achieving immortality. He bore it ill that any man other in all earth should ever achieve more fame under heaven then he himself (386-388) Beowulf succeeded in achieving fame, his story is living all throughout the world, and it has lasted many years.