The Pagan Germans, Greeks, and other ancient peoples believed that fame and glory were the only things that survived after death. Find evidence in Beowulf and other sources that support the fact...
The Pagan Germans, Greeks, and other ancient peoples believed that fame and glory were the only things that survived after death. Find evidence in Beowulf and other sources that support the fact that great importance was placed on a person’s public reputation during life.
The old Anglo-Saxon Pagan religions did not envision an afterlife that included heaven the way modern monotheistic religions generally do. Because of this, people often tried to achieve a measure of eternal life by building fame and a memorable reputation during their lifetimes. In Anglo-Saxon life, this was often accomplished in war.
We see this in Beowulf as Beowulf battles with Grendel's mother in her underwater cave. As he struggles against her, the poet says:
Longed only for fame, leaped back
In the Greek epic The Odyssey, we hear the hero Odysseus describe himself to the Phaeacians this way:
I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, who am known among men for all manner of wiles, and my fame reaches unto heaven.
It seems like Odysseus is bragging, and sometimes he is (his weakness is an occasional lack of humility), but to Odysseus this is just the fulfillment of his goal—to be a man that is admired and respected because of his intelligence and ability.
It is interesting to note that, although Beowulf and the Odyssey were composed hundreds of years apart and in completely different cultures, they share this common theme—men long to live on after death in some form; if not in heaven, then in the minds of other men.
In Beowulf, fame is a way of preserving one’s identity after death. It’s easy to think of Beowulf the character as a kind of egotist, someone who is obsessed with always proving that he is better than anyone else, but I think that sort of interpretation is based on a misunderstanding of the idea of “fame” in the poem. That is, Beowulf’s heroism is not so much about personal aggrandizement as it is about duty and honor.
Such personality traits become clear in the section of the poem in which Unferth challenges Beowulf’s story about his swimming contest with Breca. Unferth’s suggestion that Beowulf might be making it all up is met, on Beowulf’s part, with an even more outrageous story of his battle with multiple sea monsters. There’s no way to say whether any of this might be true, but the truthfulness of the story is beside the point. Unferth’s calling Beowulf a liar is dishonorable because it presumes that Beowulf’s fame is purely personal in nature; Beowulf’s boasts in response are appropriate and honorable because 1) they preserve his reputation as a great hero and 2) his presence as a great hero among Hrogthgar’s clan is to avenge the Danes against Grendel. In other words, Beowulf’s glory lies in his upholding of the moral values of his society, in this case, defending his people against a monster.
Ancient cultures did not place much emphasis on the afterlife, but they believed in the existence of souls or spirits. Different views with regards to the afterlife have been fronted in Greek and Anglo-Saxon cultures, among other cultures, that the dead set off on a journey or are committed to another world. Evidence of such beliefs has been demonstrated in how the dead are buried. In Beowulf, the dead are placed on a boat with some of their earthly possessions signifying the beginning of a new journey.
Due to the superstitious nature of ancient people emphasis was mostly on how the individual lived their life. Thus, glory and fame were an important aspect of the person. By overlooking the afterlife, the people focused on the person’s life and achievements because their main concern was the legacy left behind.
In Beowulf, both Beowulf and Hrothgar are generous and brave kings. They might have been generous and brave because it was their nature but they also believed that their actions would be the only thing that the people remember after they are gone.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu is disappointed that he did not meet his death in a glorious battle. His friend, Gilgamesh does his best to ensure Enkidu is remembered as a hero.