Bryan McLucas
Eng 422
J. D. M. Evans
17 March, 1997

Beowulf: Pagan burial rites in a "Christian" poem

Scores of essays are written about the Christian influence on the Beowulf poet. Most notable Beowulf scholars such as Kl‘ber, Robinson and Whitelock do not fail to address the matter. Given the complexity of the issue and the proliferation of evidence within the poem, we can understand the universal appeal of this topic. The poet transposes his Christian convictions onto a story which formed in a culture devoid of Christianity. In many instances, however, the poem's pagan basis shines through. Among these idiosyncracies it is important to note funeral rites and the pagan practices that surround them.

When missionaries first introduced the Christian ideology to the Anglo-Saxons, they left the people with a clear choice; Pagan deities could not coexist with the Christian God. Therefore, they must abandon these ancient icons in order to hold a more monotheistic view. Unfortunately, most of their culture is built around upholding a heroic code instead of a single deity. Rather than completely forsake the standards that they had lived by for so many generations, they incorporated their old ideals into the new Christian dogma (Ogilvy, Baker 27). In a similar fashion, the poet's task was to apply this same transformation to a story deeply rooted pagan society. The Beowulf poet "was concerned to extol the virtues of ancient Germanic heroes while acknowledging regretfully that the were deprived of the Christian revelation enjoyed in [the poet's] own era" (Robinson 1). Many flaws originate from this change, however. According to Kl‘ber, "heathen practices are mentioned in several places, such as the vowing of sacrifices at idol fanes, the observing of omens and the burning of the dead, which was frowned on by the church" (xlviii). The burning of the dead is one of the most overt among these flaws and is evidence for the Anglo-Saxon ideas surrounding death. Cremation as a pagan rite seems necessary to the characters in Beowulf. Similarly, the glorification of a corpse through the adornment of treasures is also emphasized. These key elements give us a glimpse into the rituals of a pagan culture and a somewhat incomplete attempt of a Christian poet to express these ceremonies in a more monotheistic light.

In the traditional Christian belief, what happens to the body after death is a matter of science -- ashes to ashes, dust to dust. God created man from dirt and so the body will return to the earth as the Bible states, "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return" (Gen. 3:19). What is important is what happens to the soul after death and not the fate of the body. In this respect, the body can be viewed as a vessel that carries the soul throughout its earthly existence. The non-Christian culture, unfortunately, does not have a divine explanation of death and the events that follow it.

In pre-modern society, the fate of the body after death was the subject of speculation. For people without the benefit of medical or scientific knowledge, observation of post-mortem changes in the body spawned a myriad of superstition beliefs about the afterlife. One well documented case is that of Peter Plogojowitz, a suspected 18th-century vampire. A rash of unexplained death was taking place in Peter's Austrian village shortly after his own death. The towns-people who fell ill, one by one, each claimed that Peter had visited them in the night and drank their blood. Peter's body was exhumed, and the changes in his body seemed to support the villager's idea that he was a vampire. These changes -- bloating, slow decomposition, bleeding from the lips -- are merely examples of commonly observed changes that take place in an un-embalmed, buried corpse.

The villagers did not actually believe that the corpse would leave the grave at night and return after feasting. Their speculation was based on the ancient belief in the existence of a person's double, or spirit. Peter's double was believed to be the culprit while the physical evidence manifested itself in Peter's body. In most pagan cultures, not only must the body be disposed of, but the double as well in order to prevent the spirit from engaging in "a variety of nasty habits" (Barber 382-3). Following this precedent, the people involved in the exhumation promptly drove stakes through Peter's heart and decapitated him.

Unlike the Christian people of 18th-century Austria, people in pagan society did not wait around for the isolated occurrence of "double-trouble." At the time of death, measures were taken to assure that both the body and the spirit were dealt with. One of the most common steps used to assure the spirit's safe passage to the after world is cremation. In the Anglo-Saxon period, almost all burials involved some form of cremation, whenever it was a feasible option. In the cases of plague, war or anytime that mass death occurs, cremation is not considered an option given the incredible amount of fuel it takes to consume a body. According to Barber:

For cremation to be complete, then, the family of the deceased has to have at its disposal considerable time and fuel, and the corpse has to be kept away from the ground, on some kind of platform that allows oxygen to circulate (381).
With this in mind, many cremations take place even when there is not enough fuel to burn a body completely. What purpose does scorching a body have if you still have to dispose of the remains? Barber answers this question by stating that "cremation would seem to be an addition to the body-disposal process, rather than merely a variation of it" (381-2). Nowhere is the necessity of cremation more evident than in the epic poem Beowulf. In these lines the poet describes the lament over the loss of ’schere's body to Grendel's mother:
Noþer hy hine ne moston, syþþan mergen cwom
deaðwerigne Denia leode
bronde forbærnan, ne on bæl hladan
leofne mannan; hio þæt lic ætbær...
"Nor could they, when morning came, the death-weary Dane's people, cremate him in fire nor place on a pyre that beloved man; She carried off the body... " (2124-7). It would seem that the characters are at least somewhat concerned about the fate of ’sher's body after his death, but in all fairness this passage could only reflect their desire to give a beloved friend's remains a proper ceremony. Another argument for the pagan necessity of cremation is found in lines 1114-1117 when Hn‘f and his two nephews, who died in the fight at Finnsburgh were cremated:
Het þa Hildeburh æt Hnæfes ade
hire selfre sunu sweoloða befæstan,
banfatu bærnan, ond on bæl don
eame on eaxle.
"Hildeburh then ordered at Hnæf's pyre that her own sons be entrusted to the flames and their bonehouses burned, placed in the fire by their uncle's shoulder." This passage illustrates that not only do they want to dispose of the remains, but that they also want to befastan -- make safe, put into safe keeping or entrust his body to the flames. They do not entrust the spirit to God for safe passage in to the afterlife, rather they entrust the flames to ensure that the spirit does not hang around afterward. Here, burial by fire is a means of preventing the body's spirit (or double) from engaging in any post-mortem, extra-curricular activities. Once again, pagan ideals encroach on the poet's Christianized work. The only place that fire is not used to dispose of a body is in Scyld's funeral. This burial-rite seems to have special circumstances surrounding it, however. The poet entertains the idea that Scyld himself arrived on their continent in a ship under other-worldly authority to rule them, and they therefore wish to return him, unharmed, in a similar fashion.

According to Ogilvy and Baker, one of the "principal pagan' elements" in the Beowulf poem is Beowulf's funeral (33). The authors go on to add that, "there can be no doubt that Beowulf's cremation is a pagan rite ... unless Beowulf is a good deal older than most scholars believe, the funeral is a traditional archaism." Robinson agrees that the tomb burial of Beowulf's ashes with the treasure hoarde is "a pagan ritual following upon the pagan rite of cremation" (2). The rite of cremation falls in line with the idea that the body must be destroyed in order secure the spirit. Beowulf's funeral also incorporates other pagan beliefs which do not seem to conform to Christian beliefs that the poet tries to incorporate into his work. Closer inspection of the passage about Beowulf's funeral will reveal several discrepancies. (Please see attached translation of Beowulf's funeral.) In the traditional Christian belief, it is understood that earthly treasures serve no purpose in the afterlife. Why, then, are Beowulf's dying instructions that he be buried with the treasure hoarde? If Beowulf had truly Christian motives -- as the poet often tries to suggest -- then he would instruct Wiglaf to use the treasure to procure the safety of his people, rather than condemn the treasure to the ground where, as the poet puts it, it is as "useless to men as it was before" (3168). This commentary by the poet, according to Whitelock, is the "Christian outlook upsetting the older sense of values" (82).

The pagan culture from which the Beowulf story originates persists in the poem's funerals. Cremation reaffirms the idea that characters in Beowulf do not hold the same sentiments about Christianity that the poet holds. If Beowulf truly possessed the Christian ideals that the poet often insinuates, he would not find it necessary to be cremated, nor have his tomb adorned with riches. These elements reveal to us the difficulty of infusing a Christian dogma into a heathen society. The Beowulf poet is successful with this task in some respects, but in the case of cremation he is somewhat remiss.

Barber, Paul T. Cremation. Journal of Indo-European Studies v.21 (1993) : 379-387

Klæber, Friedrich, ed. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburgh. Third edition. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1950.

Ogilvy, J.D.A. and Donald C. Baker. Reading Beowulf. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983

Whitelock, Dorothy. The Audience of Beowulf. New York: Oxford University Press, 1951