Beowulf: Christianity vs. Paganism

Beowulf is a significant piece of literature that outlines some of the religious implications of the Middle Ages.

The remaining manuscript of Beowulf documents the literary culture of society in the Middle Ages. However, because the manuscript postdates the oral story’s origin, the validity of its religious implications is called into question. In order to show the change in Beowulf from a pagan to Christian story, the “Modern Philology” article elucidates how Christian elements were added to adapt to the needs of the changing society of Scandinavia.

Beowulf is filled with conflicting ideas of Christianity and the pagan religions of the Scandinavian peoples. Beowulf does not lend himself to a specific religion, but King Hrothgar announces that Beowulf is the savior of the Danes. When Hrothgar announces this, he uses the words “Holy God”, which is a Christian Term. Also, when Beowulf is reminiscing his fight with Grendel, Hrothgar once again deems Beowulf as the savior of the Danes. Hrothgar says “…a warrior has, through the Lord’s power…” (Line 948) saved the Danes. Modern Philology states that the term “Holy God” is a monotheistic saying, not pagan. God is in its singular form, and the pagan religions of Scandinavia believe in a plethora of gods and goddesses. Also, “Holy” is a word used in the same context in the Old and New Testaments. With the rise of Christianity, it is plausible that this word came to be in the story because of it use as a Christian epithet. The bards and scops that told the story were not effective in changing it from pagan to Christian.

Only once does Beowulf acknowledge himself as Christian, which is when he tells his story of defeating Grendel to Hrothgar. Albeit Hrothgar is a Christian character, Hygelac makes reference to religion as well, “both belonged historically to pre-Christian times, while both give thanks to god for Beowulf’s success…” (Page 4). This is a significant inconsistency in the text because this is the only place where Beowulf seemingly becomes Christian. Beowulf talks about how he has captured Grendel “… where bide he must, evil outlaw, such awful doom as the Mighty Maker shall mete him out,” (Line 941). Also, Beowulf suddenly becomes righteous and does not want to claim any reward. Perhaps this is was added to the story to provide an example for how people should act, teaching the average person to not be greedy or selfish. Although good in moral, this raises a problem with the uniformity of Beowulf’s intent. In the beginning of the story, he arrives in Heorot as a warrior or a mercenary, who seeks to kill Grendel for a tangible reward, not to help others. Following his fight with Grendel, Beowulf fights for the people and is more Saint like than the brutal warrior he was in the beginning of the story.

Despite the fact that Beowulf has lucid pagan origins, there are prominent ideas of Christianity as well. Over the hundreds of years that the story was told, it is conceivable that Christian elements where introduced gradually to fit the needs of the growing population of Christians in the land that Beowulf takes place. The story has a solid plot and is very appealing, but there are many parts where the religions contradict each other, vying for the original and most prevalent part of the story.

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10 Comments
  1. Gertrude Halfelbeck
    Posted October 1, 2008 at 10:57 am

    I think this article was extremely helpful
    Thank You

  2. Muloney Jerdep
    Posted October 1, 2008 at 10:58 am

    I know Gertrude…she’s hotttt

  3. Melissa Butalla
    Posted October 1, 2008 at 10:59 am

    hi

  4. Alessandro Mioli
    Posted November 19, 2008 at 7:30 pm

    hi, your article is decent

  5. Thomas Edward
    Posted April 24, 2009 at 7:21 am

    WOW!!!!!! this article rocks dude

  6. Josh
    Posted May 7, 2009 at 3:27 pm

    I think there are big problems with this essay.
    First of all, the story wasn’t written in the “land where the Beowulf takes place.” Beowulf takes place in Denmark and Sweden, during the 600’s. The story was written in England during the early 1000’s, and it’s audience would have been Anglo Saxon. The poem was written and told by a Christian, and while it is derived from an older poem, the Christian elements are brought about by Christian Anglo Saxon thinking, not Scandinavian. During the 10000’s Sweden was still pagan. England however, was fully Christian. The Christian Elements would be from Anglo Saxon thinking, not the thinking of the characters themselves, or the thinking of a Scandinavian audience.

  7. Mindy
    Posted January 29, 2010 at 2:51 am

    This article was very insightful. I could not find ANYTHING on this topic and i just kind of stumbled upon this. I need 50 note cards over the influence of Christianity and Paganism on Beowulf. You have helped me A LOT!!! :] I got 12 cards out of this. :D THANK YOU!

  8. HIDE IN THE SKY
    Posted March 8, 2010 at 12:20 pm

    THANKS 4 THE INFO

  9. Posted June 19, 2010 at 8:10 am

    Moses and Joshua – prophets or terrorists?

    http://relijournal.com/religion/moses-and-joshua-biblical-prophets-or-terrorists/

    Never doubt the Bible!

  10. Posted October 5, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    i thank you very much for this article, the only thing it lacks is an account for the political and religious histories of the lands the story was conceived in and eventually transcribed in.

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