January 28, 2011

Deep in their hearts they remembered hell

An illustration from the 1830s of early efforts to convert Swedes to Christianity a thousand years before.

I've been blogging about Beowulf lately, although you will also find links and comments about current events below. Another thing I find interesting about the poem is the issue of religion. It seems to me that there is a thin veneer of Christianity spread sparsely over a big pagan poem.

The narrator and some of the characters talk about God and an afterlife. There are references to the Bible, but mostly to the book of Genesis, with the monster Grendel and his ilk seen as children of Cain and with references to the Flood and to the "giants in the earth" who flourished before the deluge. But there is no explicit mention of Jesus or any New Testament theme that I could find.

The poem begins and ends with two stories of kingly burial which show more kinship to pagan funeral customs than Christian burial. Beowulf himself was right there with the boys from the Iliad in longing for fame in battle as a kind of immortality. There is little that is Christian in the overall ambiance of the epic.

It may reflect a time when the conversion process, whether of the Anglo-Saxons or the North Sea warrior societies like the Danes and Geats was early and tentative. In the poem, the Danes plagued by Grendel's predations seek help from pagan gods after all else fails:

Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed
offering to idols, swore oaths
the the killer of souls might come to their aid
and save the people. That was their way,
their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts
they remembered hell.

In nature, estuaries are those interesting places where salt and fresh water meet and all kinds of interesting biological things can be found. Beowulf is a sort of spiritual estuary where the pagan mingles with the Christian in an interesting way.


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