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Pagan Culture in the Burial of Beowulf

Updated on January 6, 2014


The importance of the burial scenes in Beowulf was not lost on J.R.R. Tolkien, renowned Beowulf historian and author of the Lord of the Rings, who said the following:

"Beowulf is not an 'epic', not even a magnified 'lay'. No terms borrowed from Greek or other literatures exactly fit: there is no reason why they should. Though if we must have a term, we should choose rather 'elegy'"- Tolkien

To Tolkien, the burial scenes are important to understanding the significance of Beowulf as a literary masterpiece. Yet to understand the burial scenes one must understand the 8th century Germanic warrior culture in which the story took place.

Knowledge of paganism is essential to understanding the epic of Beowulf

Beowulf was written sometime between the 8th and 10th centuries in modern day England. At this time, the dominant religion was Paganism, but their belief system was undergoing great transformations due to the influence of Christianity. Christianity was gradually supplanting the existing pagan religions in the region with the help of Anglo-Saxons invaders from the west and Norman invaders from the south. The author of Beowulf (an unknown writer) reflected these realities in his writing and, therefore, knowledege of Paganism is an essential topic of discussion for any critique of the epic.



The following is a brief overview of the areas discussed in this article:

What is Paganism

How Paganism is defined and how it relates to the time period in which Beowulf was written

Pagan culture in Beowulf

How the pagan culture is presented in Beowulf

Pagan funerals

A look at the funerals of Shield Sheafson Hildegruh's relatives

Beowulf's funeral

The pagan influence in the burial of the titular protagonist

What is Paganism

Paganism is an extremely difficult word to define. The term is typically used today to refer to any religion that is not one of the 'big three' in western culture, namely Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It may be used in a broader sense to classify anyone who practiced one of the many fringe religions in western cultures history that did not include in the big three. Sometimes it it broadened further to signify any polytheistic religion. And it may even be used simply to refer to a heathen.

But the way the term is used ultimately comes down to the person using it and the context in which it is used. Therefore, a laymen may use its broadest definition when gossiping with their buddies at the bar while christian theologians might use it to refer to any mythology that doesn't adhere to the religious canon of the Holy Bible.

Think of it like the word sport. In China, table tennis and badminton are highly competitive sports with huge leagues and lucrative sponsors. Yet in America these activities have little economic power and are not viewed with such enamor. They would be more likely called a game than a sport. The word Paganism has a similarly subjective definition.

For the purposes of studying Beowulf, The most useful definition would probably be the most narrow of the three listed above. That is, Paganism is an western religion that is not Christianity, Judaism or Islam.

Pagan culture in Beowulf

The epic of Beowulf is closely tied to Paganism. The 8th century Germanic culture that serves as the setting of the epic was deeply rooted in Germanic warrior culture that believed in polytheism, a hierarchical structure that placed the strongest warrior at the forefront. The story was written somewhere around the 8th to 10th century in what is now modern day England. The story weaves in and out of elements of both Christianity and Paganism because it was written during a time when England was being converted from their old Pagan beliefs to Christianity. One of the most important pagan elements of the Epic is Beowulf's funeral. His burial shows deep Pagan roots.

Pagan Funerals

As mentioned before, Paganism is a blanket term for a variety of practices. The funeral and burial of Beowulf is only one such example of Pagan funeral rites. There are also two others that highlight Pagan influence.

Shield Sheafson

Shield Sheafson was the founder of the Danish royal line. Upon his death he was laid upon a boat that was cast off into the sea. This sea burial contrasts sharply with the Christian burials that supplanted it. It was characterized by a richly adorned ceremony that included earthly riches like gold, weapons, and jewelry. The boat was usually adorned itself to further commemorate the dead. These ceremonies were elaborate and time consuming, and therefore, were reserved only for the most worthy of men. Shield Sheafson, a great warrior and ruler, undoubtedly merited such a burial.

The Story of Hildeburh's Relatives

Hilderbruh was the Danish King Hoc’s daughter and the wife of Finn, King of the Frisians. A poem recited in the Hall of Heorot following Grendel’s death retold the story of the burial of her brother Hnaef and husband Finn. They were set upon a funeral pyre and cremated in a ceremony to commemorate their honor. Cremation contrasted sharply with Christian beliefs that a body be buried whole. This method of burial does not carry the same reverence for those buried as that of Shield Sheafson but still contained some earthly riches and gold pieces.

Beowulf's Funeral

The titular protagonist of the story, Beowulf, died after being struck by the talons of a dragon that attacked his kingdom. Beowulf was given a ship burial. Ship burials were a common practice of burial in ancient Germanic culture reserved mostly for people of higher status who merited the pain and effort of transporting an entire ship from the sea to the land and burying it underground with the deceased. Moreover, ship burials often contain a wealth of valuables, including swords, helmets, shields and other adornments. Many of these items related to war and reflect the Germanic warrior culture. Many aspects of Beowulf s burial contrasted starkly with burials typical of Christian norms that would dictate a body be buried with little adornment much in the way that Jesus was buried upon his death. But the death of Beowulf warranted a Pagan burial fit for a Pagan king.

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Examples of Burial Mounds


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