A discussion of Pagan and Christian elements in the Anglo-Saxon poem "Beowulf". How do Paganism and Christianity overlap eachother in the story? What is it that the author(s).

The Anglo-Saxon poem “Beowulf” harbors several Pagan and Christian factors which come into emphasis in different moments of the story. It was written somewhere during the 8th century AD, a period in which the Anglo-Saxons were being converted from their worship of Germanic Pagan deities to the Christian monotheistic faith. In the poem, several elements of both religious beliefs are intertwined and expressed from different points such as when the priests of the Speardanes turn to the Old Stone Gods for aid against Grendel’s havocs at the mead hall or when Beowulf at the brink of Death’s embrace in Grendel’s cave calls upon the power of God to lend him strength to carry on. This might imply that while the Danes still believed in the Germanic pantheon, the Swedish Goths, or Geats, had already turned to Christendom. However, this does conflict with the many statements King Hrothgar makes about God, for example: “It is a wonder to say how in His great spirit God gives wisdom to mankind, land and earlship. He possesses power over all things. At times He lets the thought of a man of high lineage move in delight.” Here he means that a king’s earthly power is an illusion and that the true power lies with God. Any delight a man has on Earth comes through the grace of God. How can he believe in the Christian God whereas his subservient priests worship Wotan, Thor and Tiw?

A possible explanation to Hrothgar’s apparent Christian belief might be that he wants to ingratiate himself with Beowulf whom no doubt is Christian, a way of earning this strong, valorous man’s respect. Hrothgar likes Beowulf and is grateful for his help to slay Grendel. Thus the question remains whether Hrothgar believes in the Pagan gods, the Christian God, or is a nonbeliever.

The Christian elements of the story have clearly been influenced by earlier Pagan factors, which might imply that it was based on Germanic Paganism when the authors started writing it, but later, as their society gradually became Christianized, the poem must have acquired some Christian factors as well. However, the main theme of the poem in its complete form is Christian in the sense of good versus evil. Beowulf is the Jesus-like savior who gives his life for his people, good-hearted and charitable. Grendel is described as a descendant of Cain, fallen from grace through sin. He mirrors Satan because he lives in a sort of underworld such as Hell, and is jealous of the joy and happiness in Heorot whereas Satan is jealous of the happiness and joy Adam and Eve have in the Garden of Eden. A dragon is a very common theme in Germanic Pagan stories. The Norse dragon Nidhogg might be a reason for this, since all Pagan dragons are said to be his descendants. Also, superhuman strength is frequently used, as with Beowulf’s and Grendel’s.

It is indeed the archaic style of writing and the sense of detail and description that puts the Pagan Anglo-Saxon “color” to the story, as well as the old, traditional Pagan legends. The poet behind “Beowulf” has enhanced his characters with both Christian and Pagan ideas to emphasize the changing morals in his society at the time.

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  • anonymous on Nov 11, 2012

    this was extremely helpful!!!

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