Christian and Pagan Fusion within Beowulf
Map of south Scandinavia and Denmark
Map of south Scandinavia and Denmark

Pagan and Christian fusing is a strong element of the early Anglo-Saxon poem //Beowulf//. Set in Scandinavia and what is the present-day Denmark and Netherlands, the poem relates the story of Beowulf and his heroic deeds against Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the Dragon while combining elements of Christian ideal and Pagan ideal. The only surviving manuscript dates to sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries, but the original poem may have been composed some time earlier (Foley). While often viewed as explicitly Christian or Pagan literature, the text of Beowulf contains elements representing a fusion of both traditions during the conversion of Barbarian Europe; specifically, the presence of monstrous figures and most importantly ideal lordship and heroism. There are other factors and elements, discussed in the end of this article, that may have contributed.

Grendel depiction
Grendel depiction
Monsters are an integral part of both Christian and Pagan traditions, and share common traits in both; they are symbolic of chaos but contain elements of humanity, often in contradiction with the ‘good’ Gods/Goddesses of the tradition. In Christian terms, Satan and the Fallen are the monsters, as are the Leviathan and Antichrist; in Pagan traditions, monsters are much more diverse (Fenrir in Norse mythology, Minotaur in Greek mythology, etc.). However, in all cases they are mythological tools to solve similar problems time and again; they become mediums for exploring age-old dilemmas (Wyatt 131) and exist in “cosmogonic and eschatological traditions in the ancient Near East and the bible” (129). Since monsters are such a vital art of religious and cultural tradition, the monsters in Beowulf are a natural way to combine differing traditions on common ground. Grendel is said to be of the race of Cain, who murdered his brother. The Dragon shares roots with the Dragon from Revelation, as Wyatt argues: “Beowulf and St. George are seen as derivatives of Michael, slayer of the dragon in Revelation 12” (131). These references to Biblical concepts and characters evidence a fusion of Pagan monster concepts and Biblical ideas about the monsters’ history and role.

Ideal Lordship and Heroism

Christian Elements

The focus of treasure in parts of Beowulf often lead to interpretations as a pagan ideal, yet new research is now suggesting that the treasure is not the important element, but rather its purpose and use in society. Specifically, the dispersion of treasure to the people, both before Grendel’s attack and after the raiding of the Dragon’s hoard, are an identifiable Christian element. Joseph Marshall goes as far as to say: “Given the prominence of Ambrose, Chrysostom, and Augustine, it is possible that the Beowulf-poet expresses their concept of appropriate use instead of an outright condemnation of ‘all’ earthly riches” (9). This refers directly to passages from the Bible concerning the appropriation of riches; if one dispenses earthly wealth in order to benefit those around him, one uses wealth properly (Ecclesiastes 29:13). Another argument Marshal makes refers to the Parable of the Talents, in which the servant that hoards his talent is scolded. Marshall claims that this appropriation and generous use of wealth was a hallmark of character and faithful service to God. Accordingly, the poet of Beowulf may have been distantly or intimately familiar with the parable of the talents from early missionaries such as Gregory the Great, a “key transmitter of Christianity to an Anglo-Saxon world” (11).

Pagan Elements

On another level, Beowulf contains multitudes of Pagan heroic ideals, specifically in a warrior society and the role of Kings and Heroes. Many argue, as Marshal mentions, that Beowulf’s fondness for treasure and role as a Hero within the story are hallmarks of Pagan tradition: “[Beowulf is an] ideal pagan because of his manly courage…lacking in Christian virtue” (4). These critics argue that Beowulf promotes ideals of manly, reckless courage in direct contradiction to Christian doctrine of meekness and humility. This also has weight on the section involving Beowulf’s boasts about his past deeds (Section II), reminiscent of other pagan, notably Roman and Greek, mythologies: “Beowulf’s behavior in Part 2 seems to [be] irreconcilable with Christian doctrine and belief” (7). Indeed, the heroic acts of boasting and careless courage, combined with the pre-Christian pagan Anglo-Saxon setting, contribute to a pagan interpretation of Beowulf.

Other Christian and Pagan Arguments

Old Age

Old age, in particular, defines important and reverential characters within texts from the Middle Ages, as noted by Gilleard. He argues that “living beyond the age of 60 years was an uncommon experience throughout the early Middle Ages. Not only was achieving old age a minority experience, it seems to have been particularly concentrated among the senior clergy” which led to a “more favorable status” for old age (1065). In this argument he also specifically mentions Beowulf, since the explicit declarations of both Hrothgar’s and Beowulf’s accumulated years are noteworthy (1073).

Other Examples of Christian and Pagan Fusion

Putting Beowulf in context with the dynamic shifts in Christianity during roughly the same time period, one can draw a conclusion that Beowulf is indicative of the syncretic nature of Christianity in the pagan European environment. In an article on Germanic Paganism, Martin Kessler prefaces an argument posed by Kornelis Miskotte by stating that Miskotte chose to use the Torah, rather than the theology of Christianity and Judaism, to compare to Germanic Pagan theology, since “he considered it [Christianity] too ambivalent. It had surrendered too much to various kinds of syncretism; neither did he use Judaism, probably for roughly the same reason” (21). There are several examples of this, from the Easter celebration to Christmas. Thus the syncretic dynamic between Christianity and Paganism during the time of Beowulf could easily have spawned such a hybrid work.

Notes / Sources

Foley, John Miles. (1985). The Beowulf-Poet, Research Guide to Biography and Criticism, (1), 73-76.

Gilleard, Chris. (2009). Old Age in the Dark Ages: the status of old age during the early Middle Ages. Aging and Society, 29, 1065-1084.

Kessler, Martin. (2002). Paganism: A historical perspective, Seminary Ridge Review, 5(1), 19-20.

Marshall, Joseph. (2010). Goldgyfan or Goldwlance: A Christian Apology for Beowulf and Treasure. Studies in Philology, 107(1), 1-24.

Wyatt, N. (2003). Book Review of Religion and its Monsters, Studies in World Christianity, 9(1), 128-134.

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by Calvin deClaisse-Walford

Great Job as always Calvin!! I hated reading Beowulf in high school, but some of this information may have made the story a little more interesting. I had never heard the idea that Grendel was from the race of Cain, or that the monster was from the lineage from the monster in Revelations. But I can definitely see the relationship between the two. Very insightful and well written! ~clare