Biblical Allusions in Beowulf

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  • 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
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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.


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.'

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