Thoughts on Beowulf as a Heathen Text
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(I had to read Beowulf for a class recently and I had this moment where I realized that as a Heathen, I had a surprising understanding of many of the practices represented in the text. The piece below encapsulates some of my initial thoughts upon reading through Seamus Heaney’s masterful translation (I had read his translation before, but not for many years, so I was able to approach it fresh). To be honest, I never cared for Beowulf before, but reading it this time has completely changed my mind. It finally hit me how important a text it is for us, and how Heathen and the whole thing just opened up. So, I share a few of my thoughts with you now. By the way, read Headley’s new translation. It’s absolutely brilliant and if I ever teach this text to undergrads, that’s the text I’d use).
In Chapter five of The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought, John Friedman offers (in part) a brief analysis of Grendel and Grendel’s Mother in Beowulf, suggesting that their “heritage from Cain and Ham” is of particular significance in explaining both their monstrosity and their hatred for the “men in the mead-hall”(1). For Friedman, this biblical and cursed ancestry, adds a “moral dimension” to the story, one lacking even –as Friedman opines – in Beowulf and his allies (2). While not disputing the dramatic effect of such a lineage, this paper examines the way that lineage was likewise utilized by the author of Beowulf as a gloss for Heathen elements, religiously, morally, and culturally still extant, at the time of Beowulf’s composition, in English society (3).
What precisely makes Grendel and his mother monstrous? It cannot be their violence, because throughout Beowulf the reader is given multiple examples of equal violence and indeed treachery perpetrated by or against the Danes. After Beowulf’s victory, for instance, at the celebratory feast, the minstrel performs the story of Hildeburgh, Finn, and his sons. Truce is offered between Finn and the Danes but clearly only due to circumstances, not actual desire for lasting peace, and the feud is renewed at earliest opportunity with much attendant bloodshed (4). Another feud is detailed in the story of Freawaru’s wedding (5) and feud with violation of hospitality in the death of Heardred (6). Clearly, violence and bloodshed are not a determining factor in what constitutes a being’s monstrosity. Nor would inhuman appearance alone be enough to summon a group of heroic warriors. I argue that the monsters in Beowulf serve as the embodiment of the cultural anxieties inherent in society-wide conversion (7). In his book Monster Theory, Cohen positions “monsters” in part, as “harbingers of category crisis” and cultural difference (8). It is my assertion that the transition from indigenous Polytheisms to Christianity created just such a crisis of identity and category, manifested in a community that was neither fully Christian nor fully Heathen any longer. This religious (and cultural) ambiguity is reflected in the text of Beowulf itself (9).
The words used for Grendel are not necessarily reflective of this culture crises – with the exception of eotenas, a word whose etymology is connected to beings venerated in the Pagan world (10). Words like ellen-gaest(powerful spirit) andgrimma gaest (grim spirit) are colorful, but not specifically Pagan (though Heaney translates them most frequently as ‘demon,’ which has a much more specifically Christian and negative context than the original Old English terms). More significant is the note that such creatures, including eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas, swylce gigantas (ogres and elves and orcs and giants) strove with God (Þa wið Gode wunnon), indicating that they are part of an order set against the will of the Christian God, though whether this is by their nature, their ancestry, or their own will is left unspecified (11). Only in line 137 are the readers told that Grendel is “malignant by nature.” This in turn leads to a violation on the part of the men of Heorot: they sacrifice at Heathen temples, making offerings and oaths to Heathen Gods while praying for someone to save them from Grendel (12). To Whom are they praying? It is only after these prayers that Beowulf, their hero and savior arrives. Heathen cultusis momentarily foregrounded. Furthering this metaphor, in line 431, killing Grendel is described as “purifying Heorot” (Heorot faelsian) (13).
Equally important is the geography surrounding Grendel and his mother. They are outliers, in fen, moor, bog and other liminal places outside the community and specifically outside Heorot (14). Giving them a heritage descended from men who violated divine order, first Cain in the killing of his brother (already a child of Adam and Eve who violated the direct prohibition of their God), and then Ham who showed disrespect and impiety in his treatment of his father Noah, highlights that they have no place in a society defined by its Christianity. If Grendel and his Mother are in truth representative of indigenous polytheistic religions, then what is “malignant by nature” to the men of Heorot is not the beings themselves, but the larger Polytheism/Heathenry that they represent, a body of traditions that by the eighth-century had been relegated to the periphery of accepted society. In line 851, Grendel is even referred to as having a “heathen soul” (haeþene sawle).
This contrast between pre-Christian religion and Christianity is only one of many pairs juxtaposed within the text. After Beowulf kills Grendel, Hrothgar offers praises for Beowulf’s mother (15). This is then followed by the introduction of Grendel’s monstrous mother. In line 942, Hrothgar calls Beowulf the “flower of manhood,” in contrast to Grendel who was “demonic” (line 730) (16). The Danish queen Hildeburgh (17) who’s story presages bloodshed and feud, is contrasted with the appearance of Wealhtheow, who brings peace and hospitality to Hrothgar’s hall (18). Later in the text, Wealhtheow is contracted with Grendel’s mother specifically in the horror she shows when Beowulf returns to Heorot with Grendel’s head (19). Finally, Hygelac’s queen Hygd is contrasted with the terrible queen Modthryth (20).
Finally, in the end, despite Beowulf’s valor and Grendel’s mother’s savagery, it was “holy God” (witig Drihten) who unambiguously decided the outcome of the battle (21). When Beowulf dies, however in line 2574, it is fate (wyrd), not God who denies him victory. In his book, Friedman notes a powerful contrast between the classical view of monsters, one of curiosity and tolerance for “ethnic diversity” versus a later Christian view of “monsters” that is “hostile and harmful,” and that positions monsters as not only outside the accepted order of the world, but as cursed, corrupted, morally degenerate, and even evil (22). This reflects the shift from indigenous religions, largely polytheistic to monotheistic Christianity, which is in many respects a shift from a diversity of divine beings, to a worldview in which there is only one God, and one acceptable religious perspective. It should come as no surprise then that differing worldviews, those who embrace them, and those whose appearances violate the norm should be viewed as monstrous. Such a shift in perspective might well be considered inevitable.
1Friedman, 106. It should be noted that this descent from Ham would also make these “monsters” black. See Friedman, 101.
2Not having read Friedman’s entire book, I am not certain if he is implying that there was a lack of that aforesaid moral dimension in the cultures, communities, and community norms represented by Heorot and its men, one that could only be supplied by Christianity or not, but I do wish that he had defined what, precisely, he meant by ‘moral’ somewhere in this chapter and how or if he was tying it to religion.
3I know the date of Beowulf is contested, but if, like the Greek epic the Iliad, the text has oral antecedents, and if one takes into account that scholars like J. R.R. Tolkien argued for dating the written poem to the 8th, century, then that would place it within a generation (or two) of Christianization. Conversion is never a clean process and it is almost inevitable that holdovers and syncretization would have occurred. See R.A. Markus, Gregory the Great and His World. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1970, 182-3 and J. R. R. Tolkien, Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. Boston, MA: Mariner Books, 2015, p. 328.
4See from line 1080.
5 See from line 2030.
6See from 2380.
7See Cohen, p. 4 for a discussion of the monster as a cultural body.
9While it is well beyond the scope of this brief response paper, religion and culture are deeply intertwined. This can be clearly demonstrated, for example, in a later Icelandic Saga, the 13thcentury Njal’s Saga, which contrasts the Pagan social code and legal mores with the newfound Christian ones. The action in this saga takes place during the conversion of Iceland (which actually occurs during the action depicted in the multi-decade story). The same type of agonistic tension echoes (or maybe lurks since we are dealing with a monster text) behind the monsters in Beowulf. I know I need to examine this more closely, especially since I’m much more familiar with later Icelandic literature (Iceland converted in 1000 C.E.) but I found the many of the echoes of indigenous Pagan religions in the language of Beowulf, which shared largely the same cosmology as Pagan Iceland, striking, particularly the dogged presence of Wyrd throughout the text.
10Eotenas is cognate to the Old Norse Jotun. The Jotnar were a tribe of divine beings in Germanic Paganisms, often associated with chaos, elemental power, and natural phenomenon. Their veneration in contemporary Norse polytheism today (Asatru, Heathenry) is a point of denominational conflict. See my own work on the subject A Modern Guide to Heathenry, Newburyport, MA: Red Wheel/Weiser, 2019. There is, despite modern theological controversies in the religion, ample evidence for their veneration in pre-Christian Scandinavia (particularly the deities Skadhi, Gerda, the moon God Mani, Sun Goddess Sunna, and Loki) and to some degree England. See Stephen Pollington, The Elder Gods: The Otherworld of Early England, Norfolk, UK: Anglo-Saxon Books, 2017.
11Heaney, lines 112-113.
12See lines 170-178.
13The word faelsian is particularly connected to liturgical purification of sacred space. Nathan Ristuccia, in his article (available here: https://www.academia.edu/4129419/Fælsian_and_the_Purification_of_Sacred_Space_in_the_Advent_Lyrics)notes that it is a relatively rare term, with over half its known uses occurring in either Beowulf or the Advent Lyrics. See Ristuccia, 6. The text likely existed for generations as an oral epic before being committed to text. It can therefore be viewed as an initially Pagan text later Christianized as the society changed. The Christian elements are marginal and it would be interesting to
14I think an argument could be made that Heorot itself represents the sacred enclosure of a fully Christian community, with outliers to that community also outliers to that creed.
15See from line 940.
16Heaney translates this line as “and his glee was demonic” but þa his mod ahlog actually means “then his heart laughed.” Regardless, Grendel is laughing over the slaughter of Heorot’s men.
17See from 1070.
18See from 1161. There seems to be a subtle connection between women and vengeance, both with stories like that of Hildeburgh but also Grendel’s mother and her quest for vengeance. I’m strongly reminded of a brutal line from Njal’s Saga, occurring when one of the main female characters demands vengeance for a kinsman: og eru köld kvenna ráð (cold is the counsel of women). Is the anonymous author implying that women are potentially monstrous because of this inherent desire for vengeance?
19See line 1649.
20See from line 1932. Many of the obvious contrasts are between the female characters. I cannot help but wonder if women were a point of particular anxiety when it came to Christianization. They would, as mothers, grandmothers, nursemaids, be in a very influential position when it came to inculcating religious values in children. Inter-generational transmission of religious traditions is crucial to creating a sustainable religious community. Might this point to anxiety over potential Pagan influences in women? Or is it simply that women were traditionally frith or peace weavers in the mead-hall, and brutality and violence are a violation of that traditional role?
21See line 1593.
22Friedman, 90 and 107. Moreover, monsters are now evil, not through any moral choice of their own, but through something completely outside of their control: their lineage, connected now, as in Beowulf,to Cain and Ham.
Cohen, Jeffrey, ed. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. Minneapolis, MH: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Friedman, John. The Monstrous Races in Medieval Art and Thought. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000.
Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Posted on September 18, 2020, in academic work, Heathenry, Uncategorized and tagged Academic work, Beowulf, Heathenry, lore, monsters, Njal's Saga, Northern tradition, Old English language. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.