The Pagan Beowulf Essay, Research Paper
The Pagan Beowulf
Scholars have argued about the religious stance of the epic poem Beowulf for centuries. Although the man who put the poem down on paper, known as the Beowulf poet, was a devout Christian, the actual poem itself is pagan. There are many clues in the epic that lead us to this conclusion such as the numerous references to pagan symbols, namely the symbol of fate. Also, the central idea of revenge in the poem opposes the ideas of Christianity. The poem also contains many breaches of the Ten Commandments, which prove that the story is not Christian. However, the biggest clue to the paganism of Beowulf is the scene that contains the burial of Beowulf and the building and idolization of the tower, all of which go directly against the Christian religion.
Pagan symbols such as ravens, dragons and monsters, and poison can be found throughout the epic of Beowulf. The raven was a symbol from Norse mythology; it was the messenger for a war god named Odin. We find the reference to this pagan symbol after Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother. He and “the Geats slept till a black-feathered raven sang his cheerful song” (Norton 1587). This reference to such a pagan symbol is just the first piece of evidence for the paganism of the epic. We also know that Beowulf is a story based on the defeat by a warrior hero of two monsters and a dragon. However, dragons and monsters are not part of the Christian religion, so if the story were Christian, there would be no Grendel, his mother, or the dragon at all. Yet the entire
story is based around these three characters. We cannot dismiss the fact that these beings are present in the story, nor can we ignore the fact that these beings are in no way Christian. Finally, the allusion to poison helps prove that this epic is pagan as well. Beowulf is killed by poison that came from the dragon’s fangs when the dragon bit the warrior on the neck. There is no evidence anywhere that leads us to believe that poison is part of the Christian religion, again emphasizing the paganism of the poem. Although all of these are important pagan symbols that lead us to believe that this poem is not Christian, probably the most significant pagan symbol is that of fate.
The idea of fate ruled the lives of the pagans. Their belief was that you were born with a fate, and there was nothing that could change this destiny. This idea becomes apparent in Beowulf several times. As Beowulf is dying he refers to his leaving this earth as just part of his destiny when he says that “[m]y days have gone by as fate willed” (Norton 1604). The idea of fate is called on again when Beowulf asks Wiglaf to succeed him as king of the Geats. He tells Wiglaf that he would have given the honor to his son, if he had one, but fate did not allow it. We see a reference to fate a final time when Wiglaf speaks of Beowulf after his death. He offers that as much as Beowulf’s people tried to convince him to leave well enough alone, to allow the monster to live on forever, there was no changing Beowulf’s destiny. Beowulf’s “[f]ate, and his will, [w]ere too strong” (Norton 1611). Fate is clearly a non-Christian idea, and its presence in the poem helps the case for Beowulf being a pagan story.
A huge theme in Beowulf is the revenge ethic that all of the characters possess. During the time in which the story takes place, revenge is very common. If one king and his army kill a warrior from another kingdom, it is inevitable that the offended king will
retaliate and the fighting will just go back and forth. The only way for this to end is if a
man price is paid, and a truce called. This kind of conduct is definitely not Christian, so when we see examples of this behavior in Beowulf, we can infer that the story is non-Christian. Grendel’s mother is a main character that seeks to revenge. The Beowulf poet tells us that “there’s another one, a second hungry [f]iend, determined to avenge the first” (Norton 1577). This refers to the anger that Grendel’s mother had over the loss of her son to Beowulf’s strength and the revenge that she sought on the warrior. She is so angry that Beowulf killed her son that she can think of nothing else but paying Beowulf back for what he has done. Beowulf also shows his tendency to want to seek revenge on his enemies. He informs his soldiers that “[i]t is better to avenge our friends, not mourn them forever” (Norton 1578). And later we learn that Beowulf’s peers, namely Wiglaf, praise him for taking the initiative and winning his own revenge. We even see Grendel taking revenge on the Danes in Herot hall simply because they irritate him with their merrymaking. Beowulf contains much emphasis on the revenge ethic, and this clearly contrasts with the Christian belief that turning the other cheek is the best way to resolve a conflict with an enemy. Based on this fact, we can assume that this is another way that the epic is, in fact, a pagan story.
The Ten Commandments also have an effect on the story. The characters continually break some of these rules of Christianity in the epic, which makes clearer the argument for the paganism of Beowulf. For instance, the First Commandment states that “You must have no other gods except me” however, we see the Danes praying to gods beside God in the face of danger (Exod. 20.3). When Grendel attacks Herot hall at
the beginning of the story, the Danes grew terrified, “and sometimes they sacrificed to the old stone gods, [m]ade heathen vows, hoping for Hell’s support” (Norton 1554). In
this passage the Danes are blatantly breaking this Commandment. And not only are they breaking the Commandment, but they are calling on the help of Lucifer, clearly not something a Christian would have done. Another Christian rule that is not abided by in the poem is the Sixth Commandment, which states that “You must not murder anyone” (Exod. 20.13). Throughout the poem, we see many instances where murder is a central theme. Grendel murders the Danes and a Geat, and Beowulf kills Grendel, Grendel’ s mother, a dragon, and many other monsters. Even Beowulf, in the end, is murdered. If the poem were Christian, we would expect that so many rules of the religion would not be broken. Since they are broken, and so frequently so, paganism must be assumed to be the guiding force in this saga. There are two more Commandments that are broken in the poem, and they are the most important. They are both broken towards the end of the epic and deal with the death of Beowulf.
The death of Beowulf and the events that follow thereafter are almost strictly pagan ideas. First of all, Beowulf is not buried in a Christian way. He is put on a pyre, and then he is set on fire until he is nothing but ashes. This type of funeral is purely pagan, and negates any implication that this part of the story is Christian. Next, another Commandment is broken, and this time it is the Second one. The Commandment states that “you must not make for yourselves any idols” , and goes on to say that “you must not worship or serve any idol” (Exod. 20.3-4). Beowulf conflicts with this when the Geats built a huge tower in memory of Beowulf and entombed his ashes inside the wall. Then twelve of the most courageous Geats circled the tower of Beowulf on their horses
singing his praise and worshiping his name and memory. The Beowulf poet tells us that the men began “telling stories [o]f their dead king and his greatness, his glory, [p]raising him for his heroic deeds” (Norton 1613). This kind of behavior clearly conflicts with the Commandment God gave us to live by. Christianity does not allow for such worship of someone besides the Lord, and would not approve of this type of scene in a poem. Since the scene is included in the epic, it is just more evidence proving once again that Beowulf is a pagan epic poem.
Although there are many Christian references in Beowulf, the pagan ones outweigh them greatly. The Beowulf poet makes sure to include small but meaningful references to the paganistic background of the epic poem. There are too many pagan symbols scattered throughout the work to be ignored, and too many rules of the Christian religion are broken by the characters of the poem for an argument to be made against the paganism of Beowulf. Also, we must not forget that ideas such as fate and revenge, which are shunned in Christianity, are two of the main themes in this story. Consequently, even though the Beowulf poet may have been Christian, as for the poem itself, all signs point towards paganism.
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