Anglo-Saxon Pagan Ideologies and Social Mores in Beowulf

The poem Beowulf was written between the 8th and 10th centuries, a time of great transition. Anglo-Saxons still dominated England, and Christianity had only come to the region one hundred or so years before. Although the new religion spread quickly, Anglo-Saxon (or Norse) paganism and its influence in the English people's lives did not subside quickly. Although Beowulf often speaks of God, the story of Cain and Abel, and the Great Flood, there are major pagan motifs and social interactions that underly the poem and keep it rooted in old Anglo-Saxon ideas. The poem synthesizes Christian and pagan beliefs, and a close reading shows that there are many more pagan elements than immediately obvious. More than Christianity, paganism is the social basis for the society Beowulf addresses.

Some elements of Christianity are obvious in this poem. Grendel is said to have descended from Cain, Adam and Eve’s fratricidal son in the Book of Genesis (Heaney, 9), and the poem makes frequent references to thanking God for bestowing victory upon Beowulf. However, as Beowulf scholar Benjamin Slade points out in his talk comparing the Christian and pagan elements of the story, the poet never names Christ explicitly. After his defeat of Grendel,...

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