Christian and Pagan symbols in Beowulf
The epic poem of Beowulf inspired dozens of generations of writers to rethink it and show the story of the praised hero from the new side. The plot of it is, though, similar to lots of the other sagas of different nations: it is a story about the hero, his childhood, coming of age, his incredible feats and the pinnacle of his life – fighting and defeating the monstrous Grendel.
But what makes this poem truly interesting are the examples of Christian allegory that are interwoven closely with Pagan symbols in “Beowulf”. Let’s say a few words about the history of the poem before we come to the biblical allusions in “Beowulf” to fully understand why they are here and what exactly they represent.
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It is supposed that at first “Beowulf” was transferred from one to another person orally and the poem was originally composed in pre-Christian times, considering the Pagan symbols in “Beowulf”. But when it started to be written, around 1000 AD, it clearly incorporated more of (possibly added later) examples of Christian allegory. There are especially lots of examples of Christianity in the part of “Beowulf” that describes Grendel’s cave.
We see the overall tone of the poem is predominately Pagan: starting from the omens that are predicting the birth of Beowulf and the attack of Grendel (people are discouraged to believe in omens in Bible), making sacrifices to the Pagan idols before major deeds and even burning Beowulf’s body on a funeral pyre after his death, that was clearly forbidden by the Christian church.
Moreover, now we know that Beowulf was originally a historical character, who lived and whose biography became the basis of the myth. He wasn’t the King though and didn’t, of course, possess any supernatural abilities, nor did he battle trolls and dragons. His story just gradually grew into the full-fledged myth, with all the Pagan mythology aspects stuck to it. Still, there are lots of major plot turns that accurately reflect the Christian beliefs about fighting the evil.
It is a popular thought among the scientists that the Christian monks were rewriting the story, preserving the original plot turns, but toning down the Pagan symbols in “Beowulf”, emphasizing instead such Christian virtues as selflessness, moderation and caring for others. Leaving the plot intact, the writers shifted the accents to make the aesop more Christian-friendly, so that the people who still believe Beowulf is the hero of their nation, would learn more Christianity accepted qualities from the story about him. There is not a single mentioning of Christian God in the story, that could make it more acceptable for the Pagan audience, but still the Christian message in it is clear and strong.
The most prominent change is the image of Grendel. In the original version he was only an average, though extremely big and strong, Scandinavian troll, a mythical being that was considered just a natural creature living in the real world. The rewriters of the story filled his character with the deep Christian symbolism, turning him into a devilspawn or the Devil himself.
They blatantly state that he is born from Cain’s legacy, bounding Grendel to the Biblical story, and promptly adding that Cain’s descendants are all the ugly and distorted beings that are not humans, though, connecting the two stories even more. The Grendel’s cave, Beowulf has to climb down to face the monster is another example of Christian allegory: before it was just a metaphor of the Scandinavian underworld and generally a scary place.
Now Grendel’s cave is turned into allegorical Hell with all its horrifying attributes. Moreover, the epithets that are used for Grendel are clearly used for Devil: such as “The enemy of mankind”, “God’s adversary” and “Hell’s slave”. The dark waters and worms that are present in the cave Grendel dwells with his mother are other examples of Biblical allusions in Beowulf, referring to Psalm 42 and Sermon 17, where St. Paul was descending into Hell and describing what he saw there.
The final foe for Beowulf is a wyrm (a dragon). Despite wyrms being also common, but extremely tough enemies in Norse mythology, this one is specially remade to fit the Christian beliefs. What does the dragon symbolize in Christianity? The Devil himself. The dragon Beowulf fights is even made more snake-like to resemble the Biblical story about the snake seducing Eve into tasting the forbidden fruit.
No wonder that the battle of Beowulf and the dragon becomes one of the most prominent examples of Christian allegory: Beowulf is battling the Devil and even though he can’t defeat him (because only God can), he stands against the greatest evil bravely. So, even he dies soon thereafter, he dies as a virtuous man loved by God and can be remembered and praised.
His hopeless battle was his salvation and another of Biblical allusions in “Beowulf” – the main character in a way repeats the path of Christ, ascending through seemingly hopeless suffering. Even the names of the dragon are similar to Devil’s as in the case with Grendel. He wins the battle, because like all mortal men Beowulf is destined to die, but the death doesn’t matter, the faith and virtuous life does. So even dead, Beowulf is still the winner and this is the main aesop of the epic story.
The parallel between image of Beowulf and Christ are very prominent throughout the rest of the story. Hroogar, while praising Beowulf, praises also his mother, saying that the supreme god (we can’t understand if he means Pagan Odin or Christian God) was merciful on her during the conception and childbirth.
Also when Beowulf is praised, the womb that carried him and the breasts that fed him are blessed – almost a literal reciting of Bible verses considering Christ. Later, when preparing with final fight with the dragon, Beowulf gathers a squad of his twelve most trusted and brave warriors. One of them is a traitor. During the battle, when the dragon has the upper hand, eleven of the others run away, leaving their leader alone, but later the one of them returns and is praised almost as high as Beowulf himself.
This situation mirrors the episode from the New Testament and one of the most straightforward examples of Christian allegory: the Beowulf’s squad represents the twelve Apostles, the cowardice of the one of them is betrayal of Judas and the returning one is John, who returned and claimed his faith to God.
Returning to episode with Grendel and his mother, the situation when Beowulf dove to the bottom of the mere, where he swam until the ninth hour – the hour when Christ was crucified in Bible. It represents Christ’s challenge when he had to stay in Hell, but he managed to not be intimidated and stay against Devil’s threats. We also see that Beowulf and Christ share one more trait: the obedience to God and faith in His wisdom.
When battling Grendel’s mother, Beowulf suddenly notices an ancient weapon hanging on the wall – the one suitable for this battle. But he doesn’t praise himself for his ability to spot hidden things – he prays God, giving Him all the credits for granting Beowulf a chance to win. “The Wielder of Men granted me that I should see hanging on the wall a fair, ancient great-sword”.
Later, after the battle, when Beowulf is praised as a hero and as a King, Hrothgar, as his mentor, tells him that the status of the King isn’t granted because of the personal achievements (which clearly contradicts the Pagan religion beliefs), but is a sign of God’s mercy and approval. The virtuous Beowulf is shown as a contrast to Heremod, who neglected the needs of his people and his duties as a King, immersing himself into joys and amusement.
Without the support of God’s will, Heremod quickly falls from the throne for his vanity and selfishness. The lecture ends with the praise to God: “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”.
Hrothgar, as an example of a proper ruler and the good King, teaches Beowulf to become one also, and the most important lesson is that a good King should always fear, obey and trust God, because no mortal feats can replace His approval and no mortal joys and possessions can be compared with His love. Without openly contradicting the Pagan culture, Hrothgar is in a way similar to King Solomon from the Bible and his suggestions also look like Solomon’s ones given to his sons.