Pagan/Heathen Elements in Beowulf
In Beowulf the pagan element, which coexists alongside the Christian, sometimes in a seemingly contradictory fashion, is many faceted.
Certainly the pagan element seems to be too deeply interwoven in the text of Beowulf for us to suppose that it is due to additions made by scribes. While the poet’s reflections and characters’ statements are mostly Christian, the customs and ceremonies, on the other hand, are almost entirely heathen/pagan. This fact seems to point to a heathen work which has undergone revision by Christian minstrels. “The poet’s heroic age is full of men both ‘emphatically pagan and exceptionally good,’ men who believe in a God whom they thank at every imaginable opportunity. Yet they perform all the pagan rites known to Tacitua, and are not Christian” (Frank 52).
One of the foremost pagan practices in Beowulf is the burial rite of cremation. In the narrative after the conquest of Grendel, a gleeman sings the Finnsburh Episode, the story of a Danish peaceweaver who lost husband, brother and son in the feud. Once the tribes agreed to peace:
Then Hildeburh ordered her own dead son
placed on the pyre beside his uncle Hnaef,
their bone-cases burned, given full fire-burial.
Beside them both the noblewoman wept,
mourned with songs. The warrior rose up;
the mighty death-fire spiraled to heaven,
thundered before the mound. Their heads melted,
their gashes spread open, the blood shot out
of the body’s feud-bites. Fire swallowed up,
greediest spirit, ate all of both tribes
whom war had taken. Their glory was gone (1114ff)
The description is so gorey and macabre that it must have been composed by a non-pagan; the reader has a tendency to regurgitate before the last verse is reached. Fortunately, Beowulf’s cremation is a bit less graphic:
The Geatish people then built a pyre
on that high ground, no mean thing,
hung with helmets, strong battle-boards,
bright coats of mail, as he had requested,
and then they laid high in the center
their famous king, their beloved lord,
the warriors weeping. Then on that headland
the great fire was wakened. The wood-smoke climbed up,
black above flames; the roaring one danced,
encircled by wailing; the wind died away
until the fire...