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Where in Beowulf do you see instances of syncretism? Include that shown between...

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hnewberry | Student, Undergraduate | (Level 1) Salutatorian

Posted May 1, 2012 at 2:38 AM via web

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Where in Beowulf do you see instances of syncretism? Include that shown between Anglo-Saxon paganism and Christianity—and reflect: how well do these combinations work?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted May 1, 2012 at 5:58 AM (Answer #1)

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With regard to your question about Beowulf, let us first define "syncretism" as...

...the attempted reconciliation or union of different or opposing principles, practices, or parties, as in philosophy or religion.

In finding a reconciliation between the diverse groups involved in the changing face of the British Isles over the centuries, things that allowed the resolutions to take place would first have rested with what all of these cultures had in common: such as personal loyalty.

The mutual loyalty within the kindred and within the war band was at the heart of Anglo-Saxon social organization. 

Beowulf shows loyalty to his uncle Hygelac:

I also hear that this fell beast in his swaggering despises weapons, and, therefore, I shall forgo the same—and in this as well, may Hygelac also be beneficent to me—and will bear neither sword nor buckler nor gold-colored shield...

After Beowulf kills Grendel, his dam (mother) kills one of Hrothgar's dearest friends. Beowulf joins with Hrothgar to retrieve the body—Geats and Danes united—in "mutual loyalty." Beowulf says to Hrothgar:

Rise up, oh warden of the realm! We ride forth promptly to catch the trail of Grendel's mother...."

The gray-bearded king then rose quickly. He thanked God, the mighty Lord, for the man's brave words... 

In studying the history of Beowulf, note that the earliest existing version of the epic poem has references to Christianity in it. The story tells of Hygelac, who died circa 521—this predates the surviving manuscript of approximately 1000 A.D. In that time, Christianity was joined with pagan beliefs.

This is another example of syncretism—the blending of old pagan beliefs with the influences of Christianity as the many tribes and/or invaders of Britain eventually melded into one. Originally...

Grendel [was] a creature of northern fantasy...

There is evidence of the infusion of Christianity with this mythical creature. In Beowulf, Chapter One, Grendel is a creature with a special hatred for God:

Then an evil creature who dwelt in darkness, full of envy and anger, was tormented by the hall's jubilant revel day by day…The singer sang...how the Almighty fashioned the earth...

Grendel hates references to the "Almighty" (God), and His power. Cain murdered his brother Abel—a story in the book of Genesis in the Bible. Because of this murder, Cain was cursed, separated from God. 

On the kin of Cain did the sovereign God avenge the slaughter of Abel; Cain...was driven far from the sight of men for that slaughter. From him awoke all those dire breeds: ogres, elves, and phantoms that warred with God a lengthy while...

Grendel is such a monster, and he hates God for his punishment. In Chapter Two, his separation from God is evident again:

...never could he approach the throne sacred to God—he was the outcast of the Lord.

In Chapter 21, Hrothgar joins Beowulf to find Æscherer; Hrothgar calls on God. Beowulf speaks of God (his Lord) as his protector throughout the story. There are many references to Christianity—showing the blending of two "religions."

Syncretism is seen in the common value among the tribes for loyalty, and the joining of religious beliefs. The story is told masterfully (its tone). The tone—reflecting venerable achievements—is so deeply woven in the telling, that the diversities are joined seamlessly—carried along by the spirit of the hero's humility and his great deeds—in the narrator's ability to capture the glory of his actions.

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