Anglo-Saxon paganism involved a polytheistic belief system with cultic practices and belief in supernatural entities like dragons, unicorns, and elves and ideas about witchcraft and magic. During this period, stories and legends were passed on and communicated orally since most of the people were not educated and could not write. During the late Seventh Century period, Christianity was introduced by the Aristocracy and the people were converted. It is within this background that early English literature was written. The authors were mainly converted Christians who still practiced their pre- Christian customs and beliefs (White).
Old English literature consisted of wisdom sayings, poetry, proverbs, maxims, riddles, prose and charms written by authors inspired by nature and the universe, moral values and Christian thought, thoughts on life as well as pagan traditions. Pagan sources and themes of war, bravery and conquests formed a major part of the content in early English poetry which included considerably long chronicles of epic and heroic poems. Examples of early English poems include "The Battle of Brunanburh" and "The Battle of Maldon" which depicted themes of conquests and Anglo- Saxon resistance against the Vikings (White).
After conversion, the authors sought to Christianize their earlier pagan beliefs and practices as well as the non- Christian themes they used when transmitting their legends and stories. Stories like Beowulf, Waldere, Nine Herbs Charm and The Dream of the Rood were written and incorporated elements of Christianity as well as pagan beliefs and practices. The basic Christian beliefs of good and evil were used to Christianize the pagan elements and come up with epic folklore and mythological stories.
Most of the early English poets and authors had converted to Christianity but did not view paganism and its beliefs and practices as evil. The authors incorporated symbols like charms, amulets into their writings. These symbols had significance in paganism but were not acceptable in Christianity due to their perceived pagan influences. They were used in literature to symbolize good or evil, mostly evil and as a contrast or contradiction to Christian beliefs. Portions of food, especially in the mixing of concoctions by witches and wizards, were also incorporated into folklore and fairy tales which suggested evil and intention to cause harm to others.
Beowulf is one of the early Anglo- Saxon poems with a fusion of pagan and Christian elements and ideals. The poem narrates the story of Beowulf and his heroism against the Dragon and Grendel and his mother. The poem was written during the period of the conversion of Barbarian Europe. The main influences at the time were ideas about heroism, ideal lordship, and monstrous figures. The author used the imagery of the monster to depict Christian and pagan syncretism in the poem.
Monsters are part of both pagan and Christian traditions and are used in literature as symbols of chaos and evil and often in contradiction to the good forces or a divine deity. Monsters existed in the pagan Greek and Norse mythology as Minotaur and Fenrir, respectively. In Christian traditions, Lucifer and the fallen angels are depicted as the monsters. These traditions are amalgamated and used to show a common ground between the pagan and Christian traditions.
In the poem, Grendel's character is synonymous with Cain in the bible who killed his brother while St. George and Beowulf portray Angel Michael in the bible. The Dragon in the poem is also synonymous with the dragon in Revelation 12 in the bible. The author narrates the poem to depict the biblical story of good versus evil and how the angel Michael slew the dragon in Revelations. The monsters role and history are drawn from Christian influences and traditions to show how good always triumphs over evil (Winkler).
Also, in Beowulf, the poet portrays both pagan and Christian practices of praying to and relying on a deity when they go off to war. In Christianity, one relies on God and prays to him for victory before going off to battle. However, in paganism, the belief is that one has to fight for himself. It is believed that fate would only save the person who drove away death by himself. The poet incorporated the pagan belief in the poem when Beowulf went out to war. The poet writes the poem in such a way that God gives Beowulf superhuman powers so that he would be able to fight evil on his own. The author thus absorbed pagan influences and merged them with Christian influences to enable Beowulf to fight evil and win.
Another pagan belief in Beowulf is that of fate. Pagans believe more in fate than in the will of God and his power to control what happens to men. Beowulf speaks of his strength and faith that God had chosen the right fate for him. However, the author also incorporates paganism by narrating how Beowulf believes that it is fate that will guide him through the battle. Both pagan and Christian influences have been used to guide Beowulf through his battle with Grendel.
The author of Beowulf also uses treasure, a pagan ideal, to depict Christian values of appropriate use of riches as opposed to waste and a condemnation of earthly riches. Treasure is dispersed to the people before Grendel's attack and after the raid on the dragon's hoard. The poet uses this pagan ideal to show the biblical principle of using wealth for the benefit of other people. In the bible, if wealth is used for the benefit of others, then it is used wisely and properly. The pagan ideal was also absorbed by the poet and Christianized to show the biblical parable of the talents and the Christian ideal of investing rather than hoarding wealth (Winkler).
In Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, elements of paganism were incorporated into Christian beliefs and values. The pagan belief that death always comes before birth was incorporated in the poem to show that darkness always comes before light. The pre- Christian Celtic mythology counted time beginning with the night followed by the day and the new year at the Samhain. According to the Celts, the new year started with a dark period which in the story was the time Gawain started his journey to complete a beheading contract. Also, the pentangle symbol is considered a pagan symbol. The author used the pentangle on one side of Gawain's shield and the Virgin Mary on the other to symbolize the syncretism of pagan and Christian influences in the poem.
The poem is largely a Christian poem with a Christian message yet the author used pagan imagery and symbols to narrate the story. Elements of pre- Christian Celtic mythology and practices are prevalent in the poem such as the Temptation Game and the Beheading Game and the mandatory waiting period of twelve months and a day which is also Celtic tradition. Gawain's journey is an archetype of a hero's journey and encounter with the Otherworld common in folklore and Celtic mythology. Finally, the poet also incorporated the Green Knight, a pagan character who was synonymous to the Green Man or Wild Man of the woods in Celtic folklore (Hill, 176).
In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer also relied heavily on paganism and classical tradition to write his tales despite the fact that he was living in a predominantly Christian period. In the "Knights Tale", Chaucer incorporates Arthurian ideals with Christianity when he pits two knights against each other for the hand of Emily. One prays to Venus and the other to Mars to win while Emily prays to Diana for a resolution of the conflict. The "Millers Tale" incorporates paganism with reference to the "goddess pryvette" while at the same time also making reference to "Jhesus"
In conclusion, the early period of British literature was written by authors living in a society that had been recently converted into Christianity but still held on to the pagan beliefs that they practiced before. Even in a predominantly Christian era, they still found ways to incorporate their pagan influences into their literature by amalgamating pagan and Christian ideals like using monsters to symbolize evil or using pagan symbols and practices to show a contrast with Christian ideals.
Hill, Ordelle G. Looking Westward: Poetry, Landscape, and Politics in sir Gawain and the Green Knight. (2009). Newark: University of Delaware 176 206.
White, Ethan Doyle. Britains Pagan Heritage: A Review of Ronald Huttons Pagan Britain and Marion Gibsons Imagining the Pagan Past. (2014). Journal of Religion and Society.
Winkler, Dr. Andrea. Pagan and Christian Fusion: Christian Fusion within Beowulf. (2016). Web. April 27, 2016 https://medievalchristianityd.wikispaces.com/Pagan+and+Christian+Fusion
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