Christian Elements In Beowulf
What are the Christian elements in "Beowulf"?
There is a recurring tension between Christianity and native heathenry throughout the world of classic Germanic literature and legend. Though all Germanic nations ultimately adopted Christian belief, pre-Christian ideas, characters, and themes persisted in art and storytelling. For example, the Icelandic figure Snorri Sturluson stands as the source of much of what we know about the Norse religion and pantheon; his well-known Edda presents characters like Odin and Thor as historical figures who existed in a Christian world and were mistakenly identified as gods, thus preserving these ancient deities while maintaining a Christian framework.
Beowulf, a story dating to these pre-Christian times, was recorded by an unidentified author who likewise placed the characters and events into a Christian context. While we will never know the fully heathen version of the tale, the Christian elements are easily identified.
A very clear reference comes from Beowulf’s first opponent, the monster Grendel. Grendel is described as a descendant of Cain, the son of Adam and Eve who, in the Book of Genesis, became the first murderer when he killed his brother Abel. Cain was cursed for his sins, and Grendel’s monstrous nature can be explained as a result of this curse on his forebearer.
Later, in the Book of Genesis, God destroys the world through a flood; the world had become wicked and sinful. Much of this wickedness is attributed to the Nephilim, a race of half-angels who are understood in Jewish and Christian thought to have been giants. When Beowulf faces Grendel’s mother, he wields a sword that bears engravings referring to this event, when God flooded the world to destroy the race of giants.
On a more thematic level, references to God and Christian qualities are woven throughout the text. Beowulf fights for the classic heathen purposes of fame and remembrance, but he also relies upon God’s protection for all that he does, understanding that the favor of the Christian god is upon him so long as he is humble and honest. There is an understanding, reinforced by Hrothgar, that earthly glories are granted by God. Recipients of that glory must not indulge in pride, and he must use the blessings to act according to Christian principles of charity and selflessness.
These motivations and rewards are in contrast to the pre-Christian ideas of fame and fortune, making Beowulf an interesting story in which the legend of a heathen warrior fighting for heathen purposes is placed in a decidedly Christian context with Christian motivations.
King", which mirrors the Christian view of Jesus.
In addition to many examples of Beowulf giving thanks to God for his victories, there are also some specific biblical references. Grendel is said to be a descendent of Cain, Adam and Eve's son who murdered his brother, Abel. Some say the story written on the hilt of the giant's sword is a reference to Noah and the flood. Hrothgar's fatherly words of advice to Beowulf after his defeat of Grendel's mother is often compared to Christ's Sermon on the Mount. Also, the 13th warrior and the betrayal of Beowulf's thanes during his fight with the dragon is often seen to be similar to the last supper and betrayal by Judas before Christ's death. Beowulf's dive into the haunted mere is often compared to Christ's harrowing of hell.
In Beowulf, although the people still follow some of the old traditions, they find that praying to pagan gods no longer works and are left bereft, and within days Beowulf is arriving on their shore and promising to kill the beast. Grendel is described as a "fiend out of hell… a banished monster from Cain's Clan, whom the Creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts… Malignant by nature." He defies God through his very existence and Beowulf's defeat of this monster starts him on a path as a Warrior of God, driven by wisdom and light rather than arrogance and bloodlust.
Next is Grendel's mother, who is also descended from Cain and described as a hell-bride and a sea-witch. In regards to religion, female witches were often believed to be working for the devil, and as Grendel's mother is considered to be more 'evil', she acts as a foil for Beowulf, showing that he is more knowledgeable about what needs to be done and why. He has grown more 'holy' while the monsters are getting progressively more wicked. Beowulf is also forced to use a 'blessed' sword in order to win the fight, indicating the continued path of divine favor. He also shows that he has grown out of bloodlust by ripping off Grendel's mother's head in reparations for her crimes, rather than a simple trophy.
Finally, Beowulf faces The Dragon. The overarching religious allegory plays into this as well - dragons are unquestionably considered to be evil, especially in the New Testament. Satan, who is considered to be the final demon and the very embodiment of sin, was often described to be a dragon, as exemplified in Revelations 12:9: "And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world…" (The English Standard Version Bible). Beowulf has a premonition of his death before his final fight, but he is content to use his life to save his people, a further echo of Christ and his sacrifices for his followers.