Beowulf: Biblical Allusions And Anglo-Saxon Society

Reading Time: 15 minutes

By Jude Burkett, Christendom College

            In the poem Beowulf, it has been suggested by many that the poet uses Old and New Testament allusions to address the issues of pagan society. David Williams in his book Cain and Beowulf argues that “Beowulf is very much a product of its time” which is one of “lingering ideological conflict and of the insecure triumph of the new social vision of Christianity.”[1] Williams also mentions scholars like Goldsmith and Donahue who agree the “definitive influence on Beowulf” is “found in the Christian intellectual tradition” and with this point of departure the biblical allusions in Beowulf will be examined to determine what the author is saying regarding society.[2] An attempt at discovering what the author is trying to say will be done by considering some of the major allusions to the Old and New Testament that appear in Beowulf. The conclusion drawn after careful analysis of these major Old and New Testament allusions is that the author wants to show that Anglo-Saxon society is flawed by being predicated on violence and vengeance, and that Christianity is what man ought to stive for to live well and gain eternal life, which is contrary to the pagan’s view of glory being the ultimate end of man.

            The first of the major allusions that will be considered is the allusion to Cain via the monster Grendel and it is here that violence and vengeance are presented as a flaw of Anglo-Saxon society. However, to fully understand what the poet of Beowulf is doing with the allusions to Cain through the monster Grendel, one must first grasp the societal structure that governed the Anglo-Saxon world at the time that Beowulf was written. Anglo-Saxon society was a violent world and as a result institutions were established that valued the creation of order out of chaos. Two institutions that will be looked at in detail are the kin group and the Wergild system. As Williams says, “the structural importance of the kin” was “a salient feature of early Anglo-Saxon society.”[3] The function of this kin group, anyone who could be credibly related by blood, was chiefly “the protection of its members.”[4] Because of the way that the kin group functioned its “primary moral values” were “fidelity to one’s fellow member and the avenging of wrongs done to him.”[5] The problem with a protection system like this is “vengeance, then takes on the aspect of sacred obligation” because to protect those in one’s kin group one had to avenge wrongs done to the kin group by others.[6] Here is a justice system that results in an endless cycle of vengeance because “little attention [is] paid to right and wrong…but rather primacy given to the questions of loss and restitution.”[7] When a member of one’s kin group is avenged because of the idea of loss and restitution one will feel the “right and obligation” to kill a member of the other kin group.[8] The endless cycle of violence that ensues is termed the feud. To curb the violence of such feuds, the Wergild system was devised to offer an alternate option to restitution by blood.

            The Wergild system as designed was an attempt to terminate the endless cycle of killing that came from the kin group institution. Wergild system worked by assigning a “scale of monetary values…on various members of society so that their death” could be fittingly “compensated” for by the guilty party.[9] By paying for the damage done to the rival kin group, the idea was that this would be sufficient recompense done on the part of the offender and would end the conflict between kin groups there. However, as one might expect there were problems with the Wergild system and its way of officiating justice beyond the obvious fact that it runs directly against a Christian ideological framework, which values personal culpability for one’s sins among other things. Very importantly, the Wergild system cannot account for “the crime of parricide, by which is meant the killing of a member of one’s family.”[10] Because the kin group values community over individuality, there is no way for the kin group to make restitution to itself for the death of one of its members. Therefore, the Wergild system offered a very imperfect practical solution to the idea of restitution through blood, not to mention the fact that the group making recompense for the sins of the individual is contrary to the Christian idea of repentance of one’s sins. Now that the societal context for the Anglo-Saxon world in which the poem is set has been established, one can better understand what the author of Beowulf is doing with the Old Testament allusions to Cain through Grendel.

            Although the author of Beowulf, according to Williams,did not necessarily have “direct knowledge of Hebrew legends” that gave “parentage” of Cain by “cohabitation between Eve and the Devil” through “the monstrous description of Grendel” that the poet gives such as “God-cursed brute,” one can “suppose that he was influenced by later commentary and tradition that had previously been influenced by rabbinical lore.”[11] To this end, textual evidence can be found in the author’s first description of Grendel where he is explained to have “dwelt for some time / in misery among the banished monsters, Cain’s clan.”[12] The passage directly states that the banished monsters are part of Cain’s clan i.e. his descendants, meaning that Grendel a descendent of Cain. Now that the allusion to Cain through Grendel has been established, one can understand how the author is using the allusion to show how the Anglo-Saxon, pagan society is flawed and that the Christian model for society is the way forward.

            One way the author of Beowulf argues that the Anglo-Saxon society is flawed through the Old Testament allusion to Cain via Grendel is that Cain is commonly understood to be the ‘father’ of murder and an agent of chaos. With the first act of violence and murder in creation done by Cain, death is “introduced into the world” at least by human hand.[13] Through the act of killing Abel, Cain is viewed as “the father of murder in tradition and by careful exegetical extension the inventor of war.”[14] Grendel then too can be viewed as an agent of violence and chaos. When Grendel comes to Heorot he “create[s] havoc,” “grab[s] thirty men,” and “blunder[s] back [to his lair] with the butchered corpses.”[15] The description given by the author implies the idea given above that the monster is perpetuating the violence that is characteristic of Cain. According to Williams the “significance of Cain’s fratricide is seen…as an act determining the course of human history and repeated…by human imitation of Cain in envy, anger, greed, and bloodshed.”[16] In Grendel, one can see how Cain’s “tropological ‘descendants’ perpetuate” the evil that “originates” from Cain.[17] Where the author ties in the problem with the Anglo-Saxon society is that, as was explained previously, the stability of the society was predicated on violence and vengeance, as a way to mete out justice.

            In some sense, Anglo-Saxon society is taking the evil that originated from Cain and placing it in their society as a moral good that the members ought to strive to achieve. One can see that idea most clearly in how the kin group institution functions, by epitomizing vengeance and bloodshed as ways to contribute positively to the society. The author uses the hero Beowulf to make his case against the way the Anglo-Saxon society operates. For Huppé, the poet presents Beowulf “in contrast to the aged and ineffectual Hrothgar and to the vigorously evil Heremod,” to make “Beowulf appear as a savior, [and] a cleanser of evil.”[18] The poet uses the contrast to show that Anglo-Saxon society is in need of repair. To build off of that presentation of Beowulf, one can also see how the poet presents Beowulf as “an agent of God.”[19] One can “see [this] most clearly in his battles with Grendel and particularly against the mother whom he slays with a giant sword to which he is divinely guided.”[20] In the set up for the fight with Grendel, Beowulf declines to use any sort of weapon to fight Grendel to make it a fair fight in order that “the Divine Lord / in His wisdom” may “grant the glory of victory / to whichever He sees fit.”[21] The result of the fight between Grendel and Beowulf then can be viewed as the verdict of the Lord coming down against Grendel, what he represents, and by association Anglo-Saxon society. Huppé claims that the author, by “cast[ing] Beowulf in the role of God’s avenger who eradicates a residue of Cain’s generation of monsters,” places a great emphasis on the fact that God is completely condemning the evils that originated from Cain, are perpetuated by Grendel, and now are infused into the Anglo-Saxon society.[22] Thus, through the poet’s use of Beowulf as the one that effectuates the will of God one can see that the author is making an argument against Anglo-Saxon society.

            From the allusion to Cain through Grendel, we next consider the twofold Old Testament allusion in the mere of Grendel. On the one hand, it is an allusion to the narrative of Noah and the Flood and on the other hand it is an allusion to Moses. To understand how the flood narrative ties into the poet’s argument against Anglo-Saxon societal structure one must first come to terms with the reason for the flood as it was understood from the exegetical standpoint. Exegetical tradition holds that “the destruction of the world by water was caused by the evil of the giants.”[23] In Genesis, the cause for the flood was that “the Lord saw the wickedness of man was great,” the Lord was moved to “blot out man…from the face of the earth.”[24] According to Williams, because “the sinfulness of Cain’s race [is] closely associated with the world-wide evil that preceded the Flood,” the progeny of Cain can be viewed as the root cause of the Flood.[25]    

            Now that the cause for the flood has been established, one can understand what the author is doing with the allusion to it in the poem. Firstly, the author alludes to the Flood in two ways. The first is by giving Grendel and the mother of Grendel an underwater home. The author of Beowulf makes it clear that “[Grendel’s mother] had been forced down into fearful waters, the cold depths, after Cain had killed his father’s son.”[26] The account given for the abode of Grendel and his mother is in accord with the idea that “the abode of these cannibalistic monsters was regularly specified [by the Cain tradition] as either underground or underwater,”[27] The second way the Flood is alluded to is in the hilt of the sword Beowulf uses to defeat Grendel’s mother. The poem says that the hilt “was engraved all over and showed how war first came into the world and the flood destroyed the tribe of giants.”[28] The evidence here points clearly to the Flood narrative of Genesis given what has been said about the origins of war and the cause of the flood. Now to attend to the reason for the allusion to the flood by the author, one has to understand the author is using this allusion to show that, as Lee puts it, “a miracle of deliverance has to take place, both in the human dwelling and in the depths of the mere.”[29] Beowulf can be viewed as the one who delivers Heorot from the “‘the dark death shadow’ who emerges from beneath the flood-waters.”[30] According to Lee, Heorot, “Hrothgar’s timbered hall, ark-like, is associated with the first creation of the earth itself.”[31] The implication here is that Heorot used to be a model society until it was taken over by the sins of Cain. So, viewing Heorot as a microcosm of the greater Anglo-Saxon society, one can come to the conclusion that with the infestation of Heorot by Grendel, who causes “the greatest house / in the world [to stand] empty,” the author shows that deliverance by Beowulf is a way out from the current societal structure, which is modeled after the sins of Cain, where violence and chaos are key features of society.[32] The poet seems to be putting forth for the first time the “Christian ideology [which] posits a redeemed world, a new covenant the laws of which are contained in Christian doctrine.”[33] The reason the poet seems to be offering Christianity as an option is that the “ideology look[s] forward to a harmonious society governed by Christian social teaching,” which begins “with the covenant after the Flood and rebegin[s] with the coming of the Messiah.”[34] The author uses the allusion of the flood through the mere of Grendel, Beowulf’s descent into it, and Beowulf’s actions to express how the Anglo-Saxon society needs to change fundamentally away from its current practices of justice.

            As an extension of the point made by the flood allusion, the allusion to patriarchs and kings of Israel serves to present the idea that someone must lead the people out of sin. The poet does this by alluding to parallels between Beowulf and Moses. Wieland, in his work, Manna Mildost: Moses and Beowulf, shows there is a connection drawn between their role as leaders, “Moses of the Israelites” and “Beowulf of the Geats.”[35] Both Moses and Beowulf are rescuers, the former “frees the Israelites from Egyptian slavery” while the latter “frees the Danes from the attacks of Grendel and his mother.”[36] The parallel becomes even more clear with the fight between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother, because Beowulf fights Grendel’s mother underwater and wins only with the help of God, which is paralleled to Moses defeating the Egyptians underwater by the will of God.[37] With the parallel established between Beowulf and Moses, it is clear the author is saying that in order for a people to change their ways they need a figure head, who can lead them to ‘the promised land’.

            There is clearly an allusion to the Old Testament Patriarchs in Beowulf, that the author uses, but that to understand one must come to terms with the purpose of the dragon in the New Testament allusions. A problem arises when we consider what Tolkien says about these allusions to Old Testament patriarchs who purportedly lead the people in the ways of God. What Tolkien points out is that “in the folces hyrde of the Danes we have much of the shepherd patriarchs and kings of Israel” and along with this “we have…a Christian English conception of the noble chief before Christianity, who could lapse (as could Israel) in times of temptation into idolatry.”[38] There is an episode in Beowulf where the people, when under attack from Grendel, went to “pagan shrines [and] vowed / offerings to idols, swore oaths” so that the devil aid them in their plight with Grendel.[39] Although this happens before Beowulf arrives, the author uses this imagery, that is reminiscent of Israel falling away from God, to set up the connection of Beowulf and the patriarchs, that will be further developed after Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother. The problem is that if Beowulf is supposed to be leading the people out of their Germanic lifestyle to the Christian way, why does the author make it explicit that they still fall back into sin? The author alludes to the Danes’ failed peace weaving marriage and thus the fall of their kingdom through the remarks of Beowulf who says, “the oath-bound lords / will break the peace” and Ingeld’s “love for his bride / will falter in him as the feud rankles.”[40] It would seem then that the Christian way for society has failed because ultimately the people still lapsed into their old societal structure, even after Beowulf delivered them from Grendel and his mother, who represent their sin. The answer to that question in part lies in what the author is doing with the dragon in its allusion to New Testament events.

            In the final stage of the poem, the battle between Beowulf and the dragon, the author gives a few New Testament allusions that help one understand what he has been doing with the Old Testament allusions throughout the poem. The two allusions to the New Testament that will be considered here are the imperfect allusion to Christ and the allusion to the dragon found in Revelation. There are a few key elements to the part of the poem dealing with the dragon that point to an allusion to Christ. One of these elements is the apparent allusion to “the events in the Garden of Gethsemane,” which Rauer discusses in her work, Beowulf and the Dragon.[41] There is a distinct parallel drawn here between Christ who leaves most of his followers behind and “enters the garden in order to pray” and to Beowulf who leaves his companions to fight the dragon.[42] Both have a mission to fulfill and do so alone. Rauer shows that “the disloyalty of the ten cowardly followers of Beowulf, who flee for their lives” and “the defection of the disciples of Christ” is another parallel between Christ and Beowulf.[43] Additionally, in how “Beowulf justifies why he intends to fight alone,” there is an allusion to Christ.[44] For Beowulf “fighting the dragon is inappropriate for anyone but himself;” he says, “this fight is not yours,” making it clear that it is his role alone to fight the dragon much like it was Christ’s role to die on the Cross for the salvation of man.[45] Although these are apparent allusions to Christ they are imperfect ones, because Christ ultimately accomplishes the goal he set out to achieve, while Beowulf does not.

One reason that these allusions to Christ are imperfect is that Beowulf represents the old pagan heroic model that sought glory and saw it as the ultimate end of man.[46] The last line of the poem which says, “of all the kings upon earth / he was…[the] keenest to win fame,” lends credence to this argument because the poet emphasizes Beowulf’s desire for fame by making it the last line of the poem.[47] In addition to this, we know Beowulf’s kingdom is going to fall from Wiglaf’s speech which says, the kingdom of the Geats “will be dispossessed, once princes from beyond / get tidings of how you turned and fled.”[48] Here the imperfection of Beowulf as a type of Christ is shown because in some sense Beowulf has failed, because his kingdom is going to fall despite his efforts to save it, whereas Christ attained victory. Given that Beowulf is an imperfect Christ figure the question then becomes what is the author doing with this allusion?

            It appears that the author shows through the imperfect Christ allusion how the heroic pagan model ultimately fails and that the model that Christ gives us is what one should follow to attain salvation. The way Wiglaf considers Beowulf’s death to be “brought about through heroic pride…reveals…the failure of its ideal hero and of the heroic.”[49] At the end of the poem the author shows how the pagan hero model has failed, but “promote[s] by antithesis the concept of the Christian hero, true to himself in being true to Christ in seeking not glory but salvation.”[50] The imperfect allusion to Christ serves primarily to promote a way out of the heroic pagan model that ultimately fails by contrasting Christ, the hero for Christians, and Beowulf, a hero for the pagans, one sees that seeking glory is futile but that seeking Christ offers one eternal salvation.

            The second New Testament allusion to be examined is the allusion to the dragon Revelation via the dragon in Beowulf. To understand this allusion, we need to understand that the dragon’s “more general significance is as an enemy of civilization itself, a role consonant with the universal symbolism of the dragon,” which is the central meaning of the allusion as will be explained later.[51] In the book of Revelation, there is a “passage which narrates the famous eschatological fight between the archangel and the dragon;” it says “now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon.”[52] The connection between the dragon in Beowulf and the dragon in Revelation is strengthened by a “less prominent non-biblical source, [which] associates this saint [Saint Michael] with an earlier and less prominent dragon-fight” that “represents…another early textual example of this typical hagiographical motif circulating in Anglo-Saxon England which could conceivably be linked with the corresponding imagery in the dragon-episode in Beowulf.”[53] The non-biblical passage, which “is contained in the Homiliary of Saint-Père” expresses the nature of the devastation, namely damage by “fire-spitting breath,” which “echo[es] the dragon episode in Beowulf.”[54] Now that the allusion to the dragon of Revelationthrough the dragon of Beowulf has been demonstrated, one must consider the significance of this allusion.

            As has already been noted, the dragon was commonly held to be the symbol for the destruction of civilization. The dragon in Revelation isthe enemy of the kingdom of God and the dragon in Beowulf is the enemy of the kingdom of the Geats. While the dragon does not directly destroy the kingdom of the Geats, the result of the death of Beowulf is the Geats are left with poor leadership which as has already mentioned implies that the kingdom of the Geats will fall. Going back to our problem of Beowulf being the model for leading the people away from the Anglo-Saxon societal structure to the Christian one, the author resolves this problem with the dragon allusion because although even the Christian society will also come to an end, for Christians, salvation is what matters most. The dragon in Revelation goes “off to make war on the rest of her [Mary’s] offspring, on those who keep commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus.”[55] The final point then that the author makes with the New Testament allusions is that the material world will come to an end and so what matters is eternal salvation.

            Throughout Beowulf there are Old and New Testament allusions that the author uses to argue against Anglo-Saxon society and for a society organized around Christian values. In the early parts of Beowulf, the author uses Old Testaments allusions to Cain through Grendel to show how Anglo-Saxon society is fundamentally flawed as it uses the traditional sins associated with Cain, namely vengeance, as ways to effectuate justice. The Old Testament allusion to the Flood shows that the Anglo-Saxon’s need to change the way their society operates, namely from vengeance as a form of justice towards a more Christian one, by the connection to the reason God sent the flood i.e., the wickedness of man. Beowulf is linked to Moses as the figurehead that leads the people out of a figurative Egypt of sin. The importance of this connection in the narrative is it shows how a leader is needed to turn the Anglo-Saxon society around. In the final stage of the poem, there are New Testament allusions to Beowulf as an imperfect Christ figure and the dragon as representative of the dragon of revelation that comes to destroy civilization, which both in a different way offer the Christian view of salvation over the pagan view of glory as the ultimate end. Beowulf as an imperfect Christ figure serves to demonstrate the failings of the heroic pagan model and the dragon allusion shows that civilization itself will at some point come to an end. With these Old and New Testament allusionsthe poet calls the reader to reflect on how society cannot function well when ordered around violence and vengeance and that society when organized around the framework of Christianity can attain salvation, which is ultimately what man desires.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf. In The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York:        W.W. Norton and Company, 2019.

Huppé, Bernard F. The hero in the earthly city: A Reading of Beowulf. State University of New    York at Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1984.

Lee, Alvin A. Gold-Hall and Earth-Dragon: Beowulf as Metaphor. Buffalo:         

University of Toronto Press, 1998.

Rauer, Christine. Beowulf and the Dragon: Parallels and Analogues. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer,

            2000.

Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. Great Britain: George Allen & Unwin,     1983.

Wieland, Gernot. “Manna Mildost: Moses and Beowulf.” Pacific Coast Philology vol. 23, no. ½ (November 1988): 86-93. JSTOR (March 28, 2022).

Williams, David. Cain and Beowulf: A Study in Secular Allegory. Buffalo: University of Toronto               Press, 1982.


[1]David Williams, Cain and Beowulf: A Study in Secular Allegory (Toronto Buffalo London: University of Toronto Press), 3.

[2]Williams, 3.

[3]Williams, 6.

[4]Williams, 6.

[5]Williams, 6.

[6]Williams, 6

[7]Williams, 6.

[8]Williams, 6.

[9]Williams, 7.

[10]Williams, 9.

[11]Williams, 20, and Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf. In The Norton Anthology of English Literature (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2019), 121.

[12] Beowulf, 104-106.

[13]Williams, 23.

[14]Williams, 23-24.

[15]Beowulf, 121-125.

[16]Williams, 24.

[17]Williams, 24.

[18]Bernard F. Huppé, The hero in the earthly city: A reading of Beowulf (State University of New York at Binghamton: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1984), 37.

[19]Huppé, 38.

[20]Huppé, 38.

[21]Beowulf, 685-687.

[22]Huppé, 38.

[23]Williams, 34.

[24]Genesis 6.5-7 (RSV).

[25]Williams, 33.

[26] Beowulf, 1260-1262.

[27]Williams, 34.

[28] Beowulf, 1688-1690.

[29] Alvin A. Lee, Gold-Hall and earth-dragon: Beowulf as metaphor (Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1998), 188.

[30] Lee, 187.

[31]Lee, 188.

[32] Beowulf, 145-146.

[33]Williams, 37.

[34] Williams, 38.

[35] Gernot Wieland, “Manna Mildost: Moses and Beowulf,” Pacific Coast Philology Vol. 23, no. ½ (November 1988): 90.

[36] Wieland, 90.

[37] Wieland, 90.

[38] J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics (Great Britain: George Allen & Unwin, 1983), 27.

[39] Beowulf, 175-177.

[40]Beowulf, 2063-266.

[41]Christine Rauer, Beowulf and the Dragon: Parallels and Analogues (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer,

2000), 37.

[42]Rauer, 37.

[43]Rauer, 37.

[44]Rauer, 80.

[45]Rauer, 80, and Beowulf, 2532.

[46]Huppé, 37.

[47]Beowulf, 3180-3182.

[48]Beowulf, 2887-2889.

[49]Huppé, 37.

[50]Huppé, 40.

[51]Williams, 65.

[52]Rauer, 116, and Revelation 12.7 (RSV).

[53]Rauer, 116, 119.

[54]Rauer, 116, 117, 119.

[55]Revelation 12.17 (RSV).