Beowulf: Pagan Or Christian Epic Essay, Research Paper
Beowulf: Pagan or Christian Epic?
Although the story of Beowulf is filled with references to religion and faith, many
discrepancies occur throughout the story that suggest that Beowulf is not a Christian epic. The
character of Beowulf frequently speaks to God and obviously believes in His existence.
However, pagan practices are mentioned in several places. Beowulf often refers to another
being rather than the Christian God. Pagan practices of cremation and blood-drinking are
included in the epic. There are also frequent allusions to the power of fate, the motive of
blood revenge, and praise of worldly glory. All of these aspects make Beowulf a pagan tale
with a few Christian elements.
A key pagan reference in Beowulf is the entity Wyrd. ?Now if Wyrd, Ruler of All, will
permit, my stout sword will sing its greedy war-song….Wyrd always weaves as it must? (p.
410). The Christian tradition clearly states the existence of only one supreme entity. It also
states that anyone worshipping ?false idols? is subject to punishment. If Beowulf was truly a
Christian, he would not call to Wyrd for any type of assistance. One might argue that
referring to Wyrd as ?Ruler of All? suggests that this entity is the Christian God. But ?God?
is referred to throughout the epic. ?For Grendel bore God?s anger…Mighty God rules mortals
forever!? (p. 393). These are two separate entities that serve different functions throughout
the epic. A true Christian tale would not include any other ?God? or all-powerful being rather
than the one true God of the Christian teachings. The story also mentions that Hrothgar and
his people make sacrifices to idols in an attempt to overcome the monster Grendel. ?And so it
came to pass that the Dane-folk gathered in the heathen temples. And there, they offered
sacrifices to their idols? (p.388). Instead of praying to the Christian God for support, they
make sacrifices to pagan idols.
A second pagan reference concerns the monster Grendel. Grendel is a fierce and
loathsome creature who roams the moors and despises all people and their pleasures. He is
the enemy of everything pure and true. The monster is known for his taste for human flesh
and for drinking the blood of his victims. ?That frightful fiend drank down his [Beowulf?s]
war-comrade?s blood and then devoured him piece by blood-smeared piece? (p. 394). In the
Christian belief system, the drinking of any type of blood of any kind is specifically forbidden.
?Any Israelite or any alien living among them who eats any blood–I will set my face against
that person who eats blood and will cut him off from his people? (Leviticus 16:10-11a).
Beowulf is more troubled by Grendel?s larger actions of destruction rather than the breaking
of this Christian belief. Although it is the evil force rather than the good and pure hero that
participates in the drinking of blood, the inclusion of the practice adds to the pagan
undertones of the story.
Thirdly, Christian tradition holds that human bodies are to be buried rather than
cremated. Although there is no direct ban against cremation, the Bible speaks clearly about
?ashes to ashes, dust to dust.? Christian tradition states that God created man from dirt and so
the body will return to the earth. The Bible states: ?In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat
bread, till thou return unto the ground, for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto
dust shalt thou return? (Genesis 3:19). Beowulf asks to be burned at a funeral pyre. ?Let my
battle-famed war-comrades burn my body upon lofty Whale?s-Cliff? (p.413). If Beowulf
were truly a Christian, he would not wish to participate in this pagan burial practice. After his
cremation, Beowulf wants his ashes placed in a memorial tower as a reminder of his bravery.
This desire of personal glory and the need for recognition leads into the next pagan reference
that is discussed.
A fourth pagan tone in the epic is the strong sense of heroic pride and desire for
personal gain that Beowulf displays. These feelings are in direct conflict with the Christian
values of humility and generosity. Fame, glamour, and material rewards entice men time after
time in the story. The War-Geats? actions are based on their motives for personal gain.
Christianity places an emphasis on benevolence and generosity rather than pride and glory.
Although it outwardly appears that Beowulf fights to protect the lives of others, there is a
more selfish reason that lies underneath. It is Beowulf?s eagerness for material rewards and
desire for earthly fame that leads him to protect others. This can be seen when Hrothgar tells
Beowulf that he will be rewarded lavishly if he defeats Grendel?s mother. ?Do this deed for
me, and I will reward you with a trove of gracious gifts–age-old treasures and twisted gold?
(p. 398). Hrothgar gives incentive by enticing Beowulf?s selfishness. Beowulf accepts the
offer, knowing that he will claim a great fortune if he wins. Greed is also highlighted in the
tale of the slave who steals the treasure-cup from the dragon. ?And so it came to pass that the
slave offered his master the treasure-cup. The slave hoped the goblet would purchase
forgiveness and peace? (p.408). The stealing of the treasure-cup to purchase forgiveness
highlights the greed of a society that places such a high premium on material wealth. This
emphasis on material objects is associated with the pagan world where objects are like idols
that symbolize fame and wealth.
In conclusion, the epic tale of Beowulf is a pagan tale with a pagan hero. Although
there are Christian images throughout the tale, the story is clearly pagan in nature. The
Beowulf poet portrays the culture and people by separating the main ideas like a prism does
with light. Although there are the Christian references surface throughout the tale, a look at
the epic as a whole clearly shows its true pagan nature. No matter which end of the spectrum
you are looking from, all the ideas prove that pagan concepts and principles prevail over the
values of Christianity. It is shown on countless occasions through the material rewards,
earthly fame, false idols, and burial practices. In the end, the separated lights in the prism
come together and become one. This array of light in Beowulf is ultimately the strong
presence of a pagan hero and a pagan culture.