Copyright

Biblical Allusions in Beowulf

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Role of Women in Beowulf

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
 Replay
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:00 Allusions
  • 0:49 Cain and Abel
  • 1:56 Pagan Worship
  • 3:27 The Great Flood
  • 4:13 The Execution of Christ
  • 4:51 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Timeline
Autoplay
Autoplay
Speed Speed
Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jennifer Mallett Smith

Jennifer has taught high school English for eight years and has a master's degree in curriculum and assessment.

The epic poem 'Beowulf' contains allusions to several Biblical stories, including Cain and Abel, the death of Christ, the ten commandments, and the story of the great flood. We'll identify these allusions and explain how they function in the poem.

Allusions

Remember the famous fairy tale 'Snow White'? In the story, Snow White is tricked by the evil queen into eating a poisoned apple, but you may not know that the apple can be a symbol for something else. This brings us to the literary device called allusion. An allusion is just a reference to well-known people, events, literature, and things. It's a common literary device that authors use to call attention to a particular theme or to emphasize the importance of a scene. For instance, in 'Snow White,' the poisoned apple reminds us how Eve was tricked by the serpent in the Bible to eat the forbidden fruit.

Biblical allusions are by far one of the easiest to identify and probably most used types of allusions in literature. Today we're going to discuss biblical allusions that appear in the old English epic poem Beowulf.

Cain and Abel

In the Bible, Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain murdered his brother in an act of passion and was punished by God; he was marked and suffered to toil the ground, though it would no longer produce crops for him. Cain was essentially shunned from society for committing this horrible crime.

In Beowulf, we are introduced to Grendel, a monster who is murdering Hrothgar's men for sport. When the author describes Grendel, he describes him as a monster and relates him to Cain:

'Till the monster stirred, that demon, that fiend Grendel who haunted the moors, the wild marshes, and made his home in a hell. Not hell but hell on earth. He was spawned in that slime of Cain, murderous creatures banished by God, punished forever for the crime of Abel's death.'

Like Cain, Grendel has committed horrendous crimes and is shunned from society as punishment. The difference between the two is that Grendel is committing these crimes because he likes to, whereas Cain committed his crime in a fit of passion. This first allusion shows us that the Christian author was not a fan of Cain and his crimes.

Pagan Worship

In the book of Exodus, God commanded the descendants of Abraham through Moses to not have other gods before him. Many Christians believe that this means that Paganism is not allowed if one is following the word of God. This is interesting because Beowulf was written sometime between the 8th and 11th centuries by an anonymous man; but while the specific time in which the piece was written is debatable, it is obvious that the author had knowledge of Christianity and Paganism, and the reference to Paganism is notable because Paganism was still the primary religion of the Anglo-Saxons in the time period that the author is writing about (not the one in which he lived).

So where do we see this in the text? The following line is an allusion to the commandment warning men to not have other gods besides the God of the Bible. The author describes Hrothgar's men in this fashion:

'. . .and sometimes they sacrificed to the old stone gods, made heathen vows, hoping for Hell's support, the Devil's guidance in driving their affliction off. That was their way, and the heathen's only hope Hell always in their hearts, knowing neither God nor His passing as He walks through our world, the Lord of Heaven and Earth; their ears could not hear His praise or know His glory.'

To unlock this lesson you must be a Study.com Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use Study.com

Become a Study.com member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about Study.com
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? Study.com has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account
Support