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Essay: Paganism in Beowulf

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  • Published: 15 October 2019*
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Beowulf was written around 8th century England, a classic poem that is considered the oldest epic in British Literature. One of the longest surviving Anglo-Saxon poems. It tells of the exploits of a noble and brave Scandinavian hero who battles and defeats a monster by the name of Grendel who preyed on the Danish knights. This poem spoke of a time when society’s progression was converting from the Paganism religion to the Christian religion. The Christian influences in the poem were combined with the early folk tales and heroic legends of the Germanic tribes. Reading this epic, you can contemplate that Beowulf believes in GOD, however, the mention of pagan practices are throughout the poem. Paganism may be capable of overshadowing the elements of Christianity in the poem. As a matter of fact, Christianity and Paganism are closely linked with each other in the poem. The reason being, Beowulf has both the influences of Christianity and Paganism, which could make it confusing to the readers.
The Paganistic elements that were used in the poem Beowulf are shown by the character’s having superhuman personifications. Beowulf is shown as a superhero, who takes it upon himself to save the Great Danes from the monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother and his final fight with the dragon. In his battle with Grendel, Beowulf chooses not to use the weapons he acquired against the monster, he wants to fight him in a fair fight. So Beowulf relies on his super strength to win the fight. During the fight, his strength takes over and he wrestles with Grendel until he is able to rip Grendel’s arm out of socket. Now let’s start with how Christianity was introduced into the poem. The way Christianity was introduced by the character Beowulf is always trusting and recognizing God as his protector. Also, how God used him as an epic hero type to slay the monsters, Grendel and others that are hurting King Hrothgar and his people. King Hrothgar also talked about how GOD raised him in power and placed him over all men.  How GOD has power of all things and life is a gift from GOD. Beowulf’s courage and faith are shown throughout the story, “None of the wise one regretting his ongoing as much he was loved by the Geats and they urged on to adventure” (114-119). Beowulf fought Grendel and his mother and risked his life for his fellow warriors.
The character Beowulf is shown as a similar hero of the Biblical times, David who took down the giant named Goliath with a sling and a rock that was hurled at Goliath’s head. Beowulf can be seen in this story as a Christian hero. The author shows that there is evil within the story such as the monsters, Grendel, his mother and the Dragon who took Beowulf’s life. The author introduces Grendel at the beginning of the story, it is said that the monster Grendel is to bare the mark of Cain. That he’s a monster who lives in a swap, a quote that shows the essence of Grendel, “Grendel, is a monster who haunts and kills people, lives in the wild marshes, and made his home in a hell, but not on earth, He was created in a like slime way, conceived by a pair of those monsters who were born of Cain descendants, murderous creatures banished by God, punished forever for the crime of Abel’s Death” (17-24). In the Old Biblical Testament of Genesis chapter 1 it talks about how Cain and Abel are the sons of Adam and Eve. How Cain went to kill his brother Abel because, he was jealous, and angry of his brother’s abilities.
Just like how the snake who Eve was conversing with in the Bible told her to take a bite of the apple in the Garden of Eden. Also, the character of the monster Grendel, is a man like creature who, seeks a full meal by devouring human beings. During Grendel’s attack the following night we are informed that Grendel is becoming much more evil and murderous in the night. Grendel seems to be a representation and a symbol of evil for all Christians who worship the Lord, but also at the same time Grendel symbolizes the unfairness and the closed minded way people think. Now the way the character Beowulf is played on showing Christianity in the poem is by, Beowulf thanking God and acknowledging how GOD guarded him during his battle with Grendel and his mother. A quote that shows what Grendel looks like “bore hardly that he heard each day loud mirth in the hall” (88-89). Basically it’s a sound that Grendel’s mother is about to enter the room.
Another time before Beowulf goes to fight Grendel, Hrothgar goes to Beowulf and says, “Surely the Lord Almighty could stop his madness, smother control the outcome”. When Beowulf is getting ready to fight Grendel, he says, “I fancy my fighting strength, my performance in combat, at least as great as Grendel does his therefore I shall not cut short his life with a slashing of a sword-too simple a business (675-680). This is showing that Beowulf is going to fight the monster Grendel on equal terms and not dishonor himself by taking the easy way out, just like Jesus knew that he was going to be betrayed by Jude and was going to be killed.
After Grendel was killed, Hrothgar stands on the steps of the halls with Grendel’s hand and says, “Let swift thanks be given to the Governor of All, seeing sights! I suffered a thousand spites from Grendel: but God worked ever miracle upon miracle, the master of heaven” (925-930). Basically what is being said here is that Hrothgar is glad that God has helped in the fight against Grendel and that now they can be at peace without worrying what will happen to them next. It just like that one time in the Bible when the people of Israel left Egypt to find a better way of life. When Grendel’s mother comes to avenge the death of her son, she only has a limited amount of time to seize one noble to kill and the bloody hand of her son Grendel. When Beowulf comes to Hrothgar he tells him, “It is better for a man to avenge his friend than to mourn too much”. Then he also says that even when death comes, to everyone that everyone will die sooner or later and then he suggests that they follow Grendel’s mother back to her lair immediately before more deaths come up. Then again Beowulf’s superhuman tribulations appear again with the fight with Grendel’s mother.
When he’s pulled into the water by Grendel’s mother, he keeps going down and down like going through different layers of hell. Until he reaches the bottom, while he is swimming he uses no oxygen while going down to the bottom to reach his newest challenge that awaits him. During the battle with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf realizes that the sword that he has which is called, Unferth is useless against the monsters thick skin, it won’t cut into it at all. So he then grabs another sword that he found in the lair, which was almost too heavy to hold and slashes through the body. Now comes the part of the poem where the dragon is introduced, the dragon is shown as a super powerful enemy to get through. By the time Beowulf is an old man, there is an issue at hand, someone enters the tomb of the dragon and awakens it and now it starts attacking the people of Beowulf’s kingdom and villages.
So now Beowulf decides that enough is enough and goes to avenge his people by fighting the dragon. Beowulf gets injured while fighting the dragon. The dragon spits out fire towards Beowulf that it melts the sword that he has with him. Then the dragon bites down into his neck and wounds him deeply, but, Beowulf does deliver the last blow to the dragon and kills it. In most pagan stories, the dragon is seen as an enemy to the hero of the story. The author shows that fights with imaginary monsters is a conflict between the power of good vs. evil or right vs. wrong. These battles are example, if epic folklore hero tales during the pagan times. Now the articles that I’m going to be introducing will tell you more about what I’m talking about.
The first article is called, “The Religious Principle in Beowulf” which talks about the many religious views and how the elements of those views are played out in the poem of Beowulf. It talks about the bible and how the monster Grendel is a descendant of Cain, a quote that supports this is, “Thence sprang all evil progeny, giants, etc., including that strove against God” (39). Having alluded again to Cain’s action, the poem reads “Thence sprang many accursed souls, including Grendel, hateful, savage reprobate” (105-107).
The second article I read is called, “Grendel’s Motive in Attacking Heorot” which talks about that supports the information why Grendel attacked the king Hrothgar. Grendel attacked the city of Heorot because, he is shown as a man eating monster who seeks a full meal by devouring human beings. During Grendel’s attack the following night we are informed that Grendel is becoming more murderous in the night and becoming more evil. A quote that shows, what Grendel is about to do, like “bore hardly that he heard each day loud mirth in the hall” (88-89). This is basically talking about when Grendel’s mother is about to attack Heorot meeting hall and kills one of Hrothgar’s closest friends. In addition, there is a third article that I have read that is called, “The Essential Paganism of Beowulf, which talks about the Christian elements in the poem of Beowulf and the most un-Christian pessimistic views on the way of life and history. The background of Beowulf is Scandinavian history. So the Paganism views are shown in a different way. Here are a few of the ways that paganism was introduced, the ship burials, cremation and Beowulf’s sword. The ship burials were a Pagan practice, being buried with you earthly materials to take into the next life. Cremation was also considered a Pagan practice, being put on a wooden platform when you die and burned.
Then there was the special sword Hrunting which was considered pagan because of the engraved symbols in a pattern called ill-boding.  Also a quote that represents Paganism is when Hrothgar gives a speech on humility, “But the Lord was weaving a victory on His war loom for the Weather Geats” (696-697). In this image, the author unites the Christian God with pagan imagery, the loom of fate, on which men’s lives are woven. Weaving, spinning and threads were common metaphors for life and fate in Scandinavian culture. By adopting these traditional pagan images, but using them in a Christian context the author tries to negotiate between the two religions.
Another example of paganism is when the leaders were desperate with fear of Grendel, so they turned away from God towards the old pagan ways, offering up sacrifices. A quote that shows this is, “Betimes at heathen shrines they made sacrifice, asking, with rites that the slayer of souls would afford them relief against their people’s great pain” (99-100). Beowulf is a blend of pagan beliefs, mixed in with that of the Christian faith.
In the end of this tale of good vs. evil or right vs. wrong, Beowulf died as a hero in the eyes of the Pagans.

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