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paganbeo Pagan and Heathen Elements in Beowulf

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Pagan/Heathen Elements in Beowulf

In Beowulf the pagan element, which coexists alongside the Christian, sometimes in a seemingly contradictory fashion, is many faceted.

Certainly the pagan element seems to be too deeply interwoven in the text of Beowulf for us to suppose that it is due to additions made by scribes. While the poet’s reflections and characters’ statements are mostly Christian, the customs and ceremonies, on the other hand, are almost entirely heathen/pagan. This fact seems to point to a heathen work which has undergone revision by Christian minstrels. “The poet’s heroic age is full of men both ‘emphatically pagan and exceptionally good,’ men who believe in a God whom they thank at every imaginable opportunity. Yet they perform all the pagan rites known to Tacitua, and are not Christian” (Frank 52).

One of the foremost pagan practices in Beowulf is the burial rite of cremation. In the narrative after the conquest of Grendel, a gleeman sings the Finnsburh Episode, the story of a Danish peaceweaver who lost husband, brother and son in the feud. Once the tribes agreed to peace:

Then Hildeburh ordered her own dead son

placed on the pyre beside his uncle Hnaef,

their bone-cases burned, given full fire-burial.

Beside them both the noblewoman wept,

mourned with songs. The warrior rose up;

the mighty death-fire spiraled to heaven,

thundered before the mound. Their heads melted,

their gashes spread open, the blood shot out

of the body’s f...

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...ons, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Ward & Trent, et al. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907–21; New York: Bartleby.com, 2000

The poet “mentions pagan error, briefly and in passing (175-88), before depicting noble pagan monotheists for some 3000 lines” (Frank 58).

SECONDARY BIBLIOGRAPHY

Frank, Roberta. “The Beowulf Poet’s Sense of History.” In Beowulf – Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.

Robinson, Fred C.. “Apposed Word Meanings and Religious Perspectives.” In Modern Critical Interpretations: Beowulf, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
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