Christian Elements in Beowulf


The poem Beowulf, is believed to consist of many Christian themes and values. However there are beliefs that the poem is essentially Pagan or only half-heartedly Christian. I think that the author is a Christian poet who decided to write about a pre-Christian hero as a way to teach moral lessons. Beowulf only survives his adventures through God’s protection over him. However, Beowulf’s character conflicts with the Christian values that we are familiar with today. We recognize themes of pride vs. humanity and sacrifice vs. selfishness, Beowulf’s character has a strong sense of heroic pride within himself.

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During the story Beowulf recognizes God as his protector, for example in the battle against Grendel’s mother he says “The fight would have ended immediately if it had not been for God guarding and protecting me.” Throughout the story we also realize that God’s protection must be earned, there are characteristics that one must possess before they have God’s protection over them. Another instance where Beowulf gives the credit to God is when he finds the sword on the wall in his battle with Grendel’s mother. He does not take credit for finding the weapon himself, he almost acts as if God placed it there for him knowing that he would need it.

Further into the story we witness where Hrothgar tells Beowulf that a king’s power is only an illusion because God rules over all things. It is obvious that the author is portraying Beowulf as a Christian however he is a sinner just like the rest of humanity. His character consists of humility and wisdom, however, he is also a prideful and boastful man. Ultimately it is these sins that make him a great warrior capable of achieving greatness. In epic literature heroisms and arrogance are admired as long as the hero does not strive too close to God. Beowulf is an example of both the Pagan warrior and the thankful selfless Christian.

Beowulf does not only possess some Christian traits in his personality, but throughout the story there are many biblical references, like Grendel who is believed to be a relative of Cain. Grendel’s cave also seemed a lot like Hell and relates to Christianity in that way, the worms and dark water that Beowulf described seems a lot like what St. Paul was describing when he was descending into Hell. In the Bible the dragon represents Hell and this hopeless battle represents his salvation and even in death Beowulf is successful.

When Beowulf gathers his twelve strongest soldiers to follow him this is significant to the twelve apostles who followed Jesus, he too had one follower who was a traitor. When Jesus’ twelve apostles left him and Beowulf’s twelve warriors betrayed him only one man was loyal. John was the apostle who returned to show God the faith that he had in him, and Wiglaf is the soldier who returned to Beowulf to serve him and fight the dragon.

The point in the story where Beowulf dives down to the bottom of the lake and into the ninth hour to fight Grendel and his mother also relates to the Bible. In the same hour when the crucifixion occurred it represents when Jesus had to stay in Hell and was not intimidated and stayed free of the devil’s threats. The important lesson is that a good man and king should obey and trust God because he is the ruler of everything and he is the highest king.

Another significant story that we read in class was Virgils, Dante’s Inferno. This story also relates to the Bible due to its Christian setting. Dante’s Inferno took place in Hell, which in the story is a place where sinners go to be punished just like we believe it to be today. It is no secret that Hell exists to punish the sinful and the very specific punishments that we see throughout the story testifies to God’s perfection that all sins violate.

A major theme evident throughout the story is justice, our beliefs dictate how and to what degree sinners are punished. Dante gets to see the true perfections of God’s justice when he is traveling through Hell, in the way that each sin is punished in the same nature of the sin that was committed. For example, the first circle of Hell consists of people who were not Christian that existed before Christ.

These souls live in a meadow that is peaceful and not full of torture like the rest of Hell. The second ring is home to the souls who were lustful in their life, they are blown around by the wind having no control over their body. This represents how they had no control over their actions in their former life.

In circle three Dante finds sleet, rain, snow, and hail which creates mud. This circle contains the gluttons who overindulged in their earthly life meaning that they over-consume and have a greed for overeating. They are forced to be covered in filth for the rest of their days.

A three-headed dog who is the guardian over this circle fits perfectly because he is difficult to satisfy, he attacks and ravages any souls that try to escape their fate. The fourth circle is divided in half, it consists of those who hoarded everything and those who lavishly spent everything that they had. They are forced to push stones against one another disagreeing about the way they should have lived their life hoarding or spending.

The fifth circle in Hell consisted of the sullen and wrathful where the wrathful are seen fighting each other on the waters surface and the sullen are seen gurgling underneath the water’s surface. Again the punishment fits the deed perfectly, the souls have to face the sins they committed for the rest of their time. The sixth circle is home to the heretics, those who stray from religious beliefs. The heretics are forced to spend the rest of their time in flaming hot tombs or nailed to inverted burning crosses because they worshipped false idols and devils.

The seventh circle of Hell consisted of three rings that were home to three different types of sinners. The first ring held souls who committed violence against their neighbors and their punishment was to swim in a boiling stream of blood. Since they caused bloodshed and destruction as their sin they are forced to swim in blood forever reminded of the sin that they committed. The second ring consist of souls who committed suicide.

They are turned into trees that can only cry out when their branches are ripped apart by Harpies. This punishment represents the souls never getting to reunite with their bodies because they did not respect it when they had control over it. The third ring is where blasphemers, sodomites, and usurers belong, they are forced to walk on a desert of hot sand which constantly has fire raining on it.

The eighth circle like the seventh circle consist of many different types of sinners. This circle is considered the circle of fraud against humanity and includes many evil pits that the souls are punished in. The first pit consists of seducers who are marching and being whipped by demons while they are marching.

The second pit contains souls who are guilty of flattery so they are immersed in excrement. The third pit contains simoniacs who are placed in holes head first with their feet exposed so their feet can be burned. The fourth pit consists of sorcery and diviners and they are contorted until they are blind and their heads are facing backward, all that they can do is cry out in pain. The fifth pit is for corrupt politicians who are submerged into a pool of boiling pitch.

The sixth pit is for the hypocrites whose punishment is to wear clothes of lead as they walk which represents their falsehood. The seventh pit is home to thieves whose identity is stolen from them as they are chased and bitten by reptiles. The eighth pit consists of false counselors and their punishment is to be wrapped in their own columns of flames. The ninth contains schismatics who are split from their chin all the way to their groin as a terrible punishment. Lastly the tenth contains falsifiers who were a disease to society so now they are forced to scratch their constantly itching skin.

The last circle of Hell is the ninth and this circle is divided into four rings that contain souls that are frozen in a cold lake. The souls are placed deeper into the ice depending on the severity of the sins that they committed. It is obvious that justice is a major theme throughout the entire story.

The punishments for the souls were very thought out, the punishments were closely related or the exact opposite of the sins committed. This ensures that justice is served, the souls know exactly why they are in Hell facing such punishments. They are forced to live out the rest of their time being horrendously punished for the crimes that they spent their lives believing and committing.

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