‘Beowulf’ is an epic poem written in the Medieval period. It depicts an ancient culture through a hero narrative and includes numerous mentions of pagan practices performed by the characters in the poem. Learn about some of them in this lesson.
Beowulf was written in England sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries CE. The author of the poem is unknown and is often referred as the Beowulf Poet by modern scholars. It is considered an epic poem, which is a long, narrative poem featuring special elements, such as a hero on a quest, and detailing specific events.
The events in the poem can be placed in the 5th century CE due to the presence of King Hygelac (an actual historical figure of that century) as one of the main characters. These events and the overall story of Beowulf include a mixture of Norse pagan and medieval Christian influences, with the Beowulf Poet often going to great lengths to attribute Beowulf’s motives to Christian theology rather than pagan beliefs.
Paganism in Beowulf
Most of the paganism in Beowulf is depicted through the lens of a medieval Christian idea of what Norse paganism was.
For example, Grendel is called a demon and a monster, and his origins are attributed to Cain, a figure in the Old Testament of the Bible who murdered his brother and fostered a line of wicked descendants. As such, Grendel is presented as an evil and wicked character, whom Beowulf defeats before defeating Grendel’s even eviler mother. Beowulf’s victory is couched in medieval Christian imagery, and his motivations and successes are aligned with the medieval Christian idea of God and righteousness, while Grendel is depicted as being demonic, a pagan figure who opposes Christian ideals.
Despite this biased depiction of paganism, there are many pagan beliefs and practices present in the poem. Some of the more interesting ones include the belief in wyrd, the use of special swords, the practices of ship burial and cremation, and ritualized offerings. Let’s take a closer look at each of these elements.Wyrd is mentioned frequently in Beowulf. In Norse pagan and other ancient belief systems, wyrd is akin to fate and symbolized by the Norns, or three women who control the paths of both gods and humans.
Wyrd was considered an inescapable and destined path through life. Beowulf, when discussing his battle with Grendel, remarks that it was wyrd. It is later mentioned when Beowulf fights the dragon, which leads to his own demise because he went against wyrd, or his destined path.Another pagan element in Beowulf is the use of special swords. Beowulf’s sword, named Hrunting, is described as inscribed with symbols, which in and of itself is not unusual. However, the patterns are described as ill-boding, something many scholars interpret as meaning the carvings were considered pagan by the Beowulf Poet. Many special swords were carved with runes for protection, blessings, and victory, as well as with prayers or invocations to the Norse gods.
In addition, a warrior’s sword was sacred and treated almost as a living thing, given great respect not only by the warrior but by those in the warrior’s community as well. The importance placed on Hrunting, and later on the giant’s sword used by Beowulf to kill Grendel’s mother, indicates a pagan mindset regarding the swords.The ship burial in Beowulf is a pagan practice found in Anglo-Saxon and Nordic areas during the time period of the story. Much like Egyptian burials of people with means and status, ship burials had the corpse surrounded by earthly goods and wealth that he or she may need in the next life. King Scyld is buried this way early on in the poem. The practice of cremation is also found in Beowulf, where those killed in battle are described as being put on a wooden platform and burned.
This was considered a pagan practice by medieval Christians and consequently forbidden.Beowulf also includes mention of ritualized sacrifice, or special offerings that can take on many forms. For example, the thanes making offerings to Wayland the Smith, participating in drinking rituals, and the gift-giving of their kings are all examples of different types of ritualized offerings in paganism. The Beowulf Poet, despite including numerous references to Christian ideology, left in copious references to the pagan nature of Beowulf’s culture and the practices of his people.
Many scholars believe the Beowulf Poet may have been a Christian monk living sometime around the 4th century CE, or possibly later. It is also thought that Beowulf may have begun as an oral tradition in the vein of other Viking oral epics and was written down much later, being changed to downplay the pagan elements and to include Christian ideas and beliefs by the Beowulf Poet.
Beowulf is often considered the last hurrah of paganism as conversion to Christianity swept across Europe. As such, it has continually influenced perceptions of paganism and Viking culture right up to today! The paganism depicted in Beowulf surrounds warrior culture and martial practices and is tempered by the Beowulf Poet’s own Christian ideas and beliefs. Nevertheless, the pagan practices described in the poem give invaluable insight into the life ways of previous eras and cultures, as well as how these practices were perceived by later documentarians.
Paganism in the epic poem Beowulf is presented through the lens of medieval Christian ideology by the Beowulf Poet. As such, while examples of historical pagan practices are present, they are tempered from the point of view of the Beowulf Poet and his own culture and religion, which may or may not have been centuries after the story of Beowulf actually originated.
Despite this biased depiction of paganism, there are many pagan beliefs and practices present in the poem. Some of the more interesting ones include the belief in wyrd, or fate; the use of special swords, such as Beowulf’s Hrunting; the practices of ship burial and cremation, like that of King Scyld; and ritualized sacrifice, or special offerings that can take on many forms, as seen with the gift-giving of the kings of the Danes and thanes.