What Anglo-Saxon beliefs are present in Beowulf?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Beowulf demonstrates a number of Anglo-Saxon beliefs which fall within the so-called "heroic code" of warriors. One of these is the idea that one must stay with his lord to the end—as demonstrated in the "hero on the beach" scene where Beowulf dies and gives his last speech to Wiglaf. Another is the concept of the heroic boast: it was considered customary for warriors to detail their feats to each other, illustrated in the scene in the hall when Beowulf describes his previous encounter with a sea-monster. This was not seen as being arrogant, as it might be today, but instead was an indication of a warrior's bravery.

We can also see the strong belief that life was only worth living as part of a tribe or clan, which must therefore be defended to the death. Grendel, the monster, has been exiled from any clan: therefore, he envies those who are part of the group and attacks them one by one while they sleep. This idea is reflected in Anglo-Saxon elegies such as "The Wanderer" and "The Seafarer" where the pain suffered by the speaker comes from having been cut away from a group. It is interesting to compare these speakers to Grendel.

The Anglo-Saxons also believed in the transitory nature of existence and of physical things; they were very focused on the idea of things being "laene," or transitory. At the end of the poem, when Beowulf is killed, he is buried with his treasure, which is now "as useless to men as it ever was." This underscores the idea that material things are ultimately not of great import, even though kinship bonds were often symbolized through the exchange of rings and other jewelry.

The role of women in Anglo-Saxon society is also symbolized through the behavior of good queens like Wealtheow, a peaceweaver, and equally by bad queens like Modthryth, who does not perform this duty of creating unity between tribes.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Beowulf illuminates many different Anglo-Saxon beliefs. First and foremost, to consider one a hero, he or she must posses the characteristics any given society holds up as most important and honorable. Therefore, one can begin my looking at Beowulf himself as the most prominent example of Anglo-Saxon belief. Beowulf possessed bravery, loyalty, honor, and spoke in an elevated language. 

The Anglo-Saxons looked upon loyalty as a very important characteristic. Given that many warriors traveled from far from their homelands, their kings expected them to be loyal regardless of where they were. Therefore, loyalty was believed to be a very important belief in the Anglo-Saxon culture. Beowulf illustrates his loyalty to his own king, Hygelac. Even though he has been promised a life of wealth in the Danelands, Beowulf returns home after fulfilling his promise of helping Hrothgar.

The Anglo-Saxons highly appreciated craftsmanship. As seen in the text, Beowulf and his men possessed the finest weapons and battle attire. These armors ad weapons were so well built, no man questioned the nobility of Beowulf and his men. For example, as Beowulf landed upon the Danelands, the first thing the scout notices is the weapons and armor of Beowulf and his men.

Women in Anglo-Saxon society were expected to act in a very particular way. Wealtheow's offering of the cup and welcoming of Beowulf and his men shows her possession of the typical characteristics and behavior of the Anglo-Saxon woman.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial