Anglo-Saxon Beliefs in Beowulf
The great epic Beowulf gives modern culture an insight into the lives of early Anglo-Saxon people. Although this poem was composed by an unknown poet in the eighth century, Beowulf has been put into a modern translation by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. The translation lets readers understand how the earliest English people lived their lives. The epic has also brought us much knowledge on the customs and beliefs of the Anglo-Saxon people by fully encompassing their traits through the events demonstrated in Beowulf.
In Seamus Heaney’s translation, Beowulf, the great Geat warrior and protagonist of the epic, rescues whole countries single-handedly from demons and dragons. In the three intense battles in the poem, Beowulf is the embodiment of an Anglo-Saxon warrior. Throughout all the dramatic battles and acts of courage, Beowulf encompasses the true essence of Anglo-Saxon beliefs through some of their best known customs. Before a battle, Anglo-Saxon warriors give a huge speech to let everyone know how the warrior in question will go about a battle.
Before the first battle between Beowulf and Grendel, the evil demon killing the Danes, Beowulf states the exact way he will fight: “Now I mean to be a match for Grendel , settle the outcome in single combat” (trans. Heaney 425-426). By showing his want to fight Grendel singlehandedly, Beowulf confirms his battle plan with the other Anglo-Saxon warriors. Also, Beowulf tells them that he will fight his enemy without any weapons. By doing so, he makes the fght fair with Grendel, since the monster will not be using anything besides its own strength.
Next, before the second battle between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother, Beowulf makes a speech to Hrothgar, the king, pertaining to avengement rather than grieving: “Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better / to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning” (1384-1385). After Grendel’s mother killed Hrothgar’s friend, Aeschere, Beowulf makes it clear to all of the Danes that he will avenge Aeschere’s death by challenging the she-devil. Lastly, Beowulf asks Hrothgar to fulfill his wishes in his will if he does not come back from the fight.
Beowulf knows the mere where Grendel’s mother lives is her own territory, and he will have a greater risk of death. His will given in his speech will set him up for glory among all Anglo-Saxon warriors. These battle speeches were very commonly used in Anglo-Saxon times, and Beowulf illustrates their use very well throughout the epic. Whenever a great king has died, the Anglo-Saxons built enormous burial ships or barrows and buried them with their gold to symbolize their greatness and glory throughout their lives. The epic poem of Beowulf begins and ends with traditional Anglo-Saxon burials.
In the beginning of the epic, the Anglo-Saxon people send out Shield Sheafson’s body, their deceased king, to sea in an extravagant burial ship: “His warrior band did what he bade them / when he laid down the law among the Danes: / they shouldered him out to the sea’s flood, / the chief they revered who had long ruled them” (28-31). When the ship was pushed out to sea, it symbolized the first great Anglo-Saxon warrior king setting out and the start of a new era of great kings. But before they set the ship free, Shield Sheafson’s people piled his treasures on him na mace sure tne snlp was well-Turnlsnea ana Intrlcate.
I ne Anglo-Saxon people decorated the burial ship extravagantly because when the ship reached a far off place, the people there will know that Shield Sheafson was an important man. At the very end of the epic poem, the Anglo-Saxon people prepared a funeral pyre in honor of their last great warrior king, Beowulf: “The Geat people built a pyre for Beowulf, / stacked and decked it until it stood four-square, / hung with helmets, heavy war- shields / and shining armour, Just as he had ordered” (3137-3140).
Symbolizing the opposite of Shield Sheafson’s burial, the funeral pyre of Beowulf showed the end of the great era of Anglo-Saxon kings. Before the Geat people allowed themselves to grieve and build the pyre for Beowulf, they built the barrow on a headland very high up and placed the rest of the dragon’s treasure inside to memorialize Beowulf for all eternity. The Anglo-Saxon people valued their kings so much so they strived to entirely memorialize the glory of Shield Sheafson, Beowulf, and so many others in their era.
Anglo-Saxons believe that the only way to resolve a conflict is through wergild, a system of revenge or payment for a favor. The theme of wergild is steadily used throughout Beowulf. When Beowulf’s father, Ecgtheow, received help from Hrothgar, he became indebted to him to pay wergild in the future. Beowulf, being loyal to his father, sought to pay the wergild to Hrothgar by defeating Grendel for the Danes: “This man [Beowulf] is their [Ecgtheow and wife’s] son / here to follow up an old friendship” (375-376).
Because Hrothgar remembers Beowulf’s father and his riendship to him, he allows Beowulf to pay the wergild for Ecgtheow. When he learns that his visitor (Beowulf) is the son of his old friend, Hrothgar recollects how Ecgtheow came to be indebted for wergild to him. He tells Beowulf and his warriors the story of how the debt came to be. Next, wergild can have a much more violent side pertaining to revenge. Grendel’s mother is outraged at the death of her son and comes back seeking revenge: “… an avenger lurked and was still alive, / grimly biding time… desperate for revenge” (1257-1278). Grendel’s mother wants equal wergild to pay for her son’s death, so she lurked and planned until it was nighttime and the people were unsuspecting of her. To pay the wergild, Grendel’s mother takes the life of Aeschere, Hrothgar’s friend, and takes back Grendel’s arm as a price for killing her son. She took no more than what was even for killing her son. Wergild is a dangerous concept and continually kept the fghting going during the Anglo-Saxon time. Throughout the epic, Beowulf embodies some of the most important and known Anglo-Saxon beliefs.
Their battle speeches had always been a crucial part of being a true warrior by showing their tough and courageous emotions, while their burial ships and barrows symbolized their deeper feelings of mourning and grief that surround Anglo-Saxon life. The concept of wergild was never-ending and constantly sparked the battles fought, whether it be single-handedly or with a group of warriors. The Anglo-Saxons valued their way of life and lived to show their beliefs and customs to the world.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation.
New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000. print.