Christianity in Beowulf: Themes & Examples

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  • 0:03 Christianity for the English
  • 0:44 Beowulf and Christian Beliefs
  • 2:54 Reconciling Pagan Beliefs
  • 4:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Laura Foist

Laura has a Masters of Science in Food Science and Human Nutrition and has taught college Science.

In this lesson, we'll examine Christianity in 'Beowulf.' We'll explain how the culture of this time period affects Christianity in the poem, and we'll look at specific examples of Christian concepts that are present.

Christianity for the English

Beowulf was written in England in the late 1st millennium. During this period, Anglo-Saxons were Christians, but they hadn't been for very long. Prior to converting to Christianity, they had been pagans. This conversion from paganism to Christianity mixed a lot of the elements. Many Anglo-Saxons still held on to their pagan beliefs, but simply tried to reconcile these beliefs with Christianity.

This same attitude is apparent in Beowulf. We frequently see themes such as fate and fame, which are strong pagan beliefs. Yet amid these themes are references to God and the power of the Lord to try and explain why these concepts are compatible with a Christian life.

Beowulf and Christian Beliefs

Beowulf contains several biblical references. References to Cain and the flood are the most direct, but Beowulf also frequently references praying to God and a savior.

The creature Grendel had ''dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters, Cain's clan.'' To explain where Grendel comes from, it is explained that ''Cain got no good from committing that murder because the Almighty made him anathema and out of the curse of his exile there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms and the giants too.''

Cain is the biblical son of Adam of Eve, the first people on the earth. Cain was jealous of his brother Abel, so Cain killed him. When God discovered this, Cain was then cursed. The belief is that the descendants of Cain are monsters and ''ill-favored creatures.''

When Hrothgar is presented a sword, he realizes that this sword came from the race of the giants. Hrothgar points out that this race was killed by God in the great flood. Hrothgar ''examined the hilt, the relic of old times. It was engraved all over and showed how war first came into the world and the flood destroyed the tribe of giants. They suffered a terrible severance from the Lord; the Almighty made the waters rise, drowned them in the deluge for retribution.''

The waters rising refers to the biblical story of the flood. This occurs when the people on the earth were mostly wicked. God decided to punish them by sending a flood to cover the entire Earth, but saves Noah and his family.

The giants are a race that was despised by God - when referring to the descendants of Cain, giants are among the list - yet their handiwork is admired, and for this, the giants are honored. So although this contains a biblical reference, the giants are still revered as they would have been in pagan culture. It was this sword that was able to kill Grendel's mother while other swords failed.

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