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Pagan Burial Rites in the Epic of Beowulf

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Pagan Burial Rites in the Epic of Beowulf

Scores of essays are written about the Christian influence on the Beowulf poet. Most notable Beowulf scholars such as Kl‘ber, Robinson and Whitelock do not fail to address the matter. Given the complexity of the issue and the proliferation of evidence within the poem, we can understand the universal appeal of this topic. The poet transposes his Christian convictions onto a story which formed in a culture devoid of Christianity. In many instances, however, the poem's pagan basis shines through. Among these idiosyncracies it is important to note funeral rites and the pagan practices that surround them.

When missionaries first introduced the Christian ideology to the Anglo-Saxons, they left the people with a clear choice; Pagan deities could not coexist with the Christian God. Therefore, they must abandon these ancient icons in order to hold a more monotheistic view. Unfortunately, most of their culture is built around upholding a heroic code instead of a single deity. Rather than completely forsake the standards that they had lived by for so many generations, they incorporated their old ideals into the new Christian dogma (Ogilvy, Baker 27). In a similar fashion, the poet's task was to apply this same transformation to a story deeply rooted pagan society. The Beowulf poet "was concerned to extol the virtues of ancient Germanic heroes while acknowledging regretfully that the were deprived of the Christian revelation enjoyed in [the poet's] own era" (Robinson 1). Many flaws originate from this change, however. According to Kl‘ber, "heathen practices are mentioned in several places, such as the vowing of sacrifices at idol fanes, the observing of omens and the burning of the dead, whic...

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...s in Beowulf do not hold the same sentiments about Christianity that the poet holds. If Beowulf truly possessed the Christian ideals that the poet often insinuates, he would not find it necessary to be cremated, nor have his tomb adorned with riches. These elements reveal to us the difficulty of infusing a Christian dogma into a heathen society. The Beowulf poet is successful with this task in some respects, but in the case of cremation he is somewhat remiss.

Works Cited

Barber, Paul T. Cremation. Journal of Indo-European Studies v.21 (1993) : 379-387

Klæber, Friedrich, ed. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburgh. Third edition. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1950.

Ogilvy, J.D.A. and Donald C. Baker. Reading Beowulf. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983

Whitelock, Dorothy. The Audience of Beowulf. New York: Oxford University Press, 1951
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