…þrym gefrunon, …helle gemundon :

    Indogermanic shruti and Christian smrti in the Epistemology of Beowulf**


Benjamin Slade

(based on a paper given (in absentia) at 38th International Congress on Medieval Studies.

 Kalamazoo (Michigan), 2003)

last updated, 8-December-2003

It is an extraordinary poem which never once makes explicit reference to Christian dogma or ritual, or to Christ himself [1] , and yet provokes such assertions that in Beowulf there are Christian elements 'so deeply ingrained in [its] very fabric' [2] and that the poem's audience is 'steeped in Christian doctrine' [3] . Yet within this Germanic epic we do indeed hear of Cain and Abel (ll.106-14, 1261b-66), of a great flood caused by God (1689b-93) among other ostensibly Christian allusions. We could follow Ettmüller, Müllenhoff and many of the other great 19th-c. German critics of Beowulf in condemning such passages as being among the 'monkish' interpolations. However, surely such a revisionist would have made a better job of Christianising the poem than the handful of ambiguous allusions that appear in our text. Certainly, even if our theoretical monk had aesthetic sensibilities enough to hesistate to alter the primary action and dialogue he would have added more direct references to Christian doctrine in the voice of the narrator [4] . The lack of anything of this sort suggests that Klaeber, Tolkien [5] and other critics are correct in asserting the essential unity of Beowulf . However, this same argument tells against the position that the poet elects not to refer to Christ or Christian doctrine because he is dealing with pagans and a pagan setting, and that such references would be unnatural and anachronistic [6] . That is, if the references such as drihten god are truly meant to indicate the Christian deity, then what prevents the poet from explicitly naming Christ [7] ? Especially in such an evangelical-seeming passage as ne wiston hie drihten god  (l. 181b)? [8] Yet even in the text of the narrator the poem avoids those epithets for God which might suggest Christ, such as Nergend, weoroda drihten, engla þeoden, weroda Wuldorcyning--moreover the poem avoids even divine names lacking any obvious Christian theology, such as Þeoden or Aldor [9] .

            Again, even if we adopt the suggestion of Bloomfield [10] that Beowulf is set in an Anglo-Saxon equivalent of the age of the Old Testament and deliberately refers only to pre-Mosaic biblical events, one must still wonder why such a prohibition extends to the narrator. Considering the fact that the narrator firmly places himself in the present: opening the story in geardagum [11] (l.1), and making such statements as men ne cunnon / hwyder helrunan hwyrftum scriþað [12] (ll.162b-63) and the more explicitly religious, metod eallum weold / gumena cynnes, swa he nu gít deð [13] (ll.1056b-57).

            Thanking God, praising God, the idea of sin, judgement after death -- none of these are uniquely Christian concepts and it does not follow that from these general morals that the entire poem should be seen in a 'Christian light' [14] .

            In view of these considerations, one must consider the possibility that Beowulf may be exactly what, at least to some readers, it seems to be: a pre-Christian epic, albeit one complete with puzzling biblical references. This is not to say that I wish to claim that the 'Christian elements' are unoriginal intrusions into a Germanic epic, rather that I should like to propose a somewhat different sort of  relationship between the Germanic and Christian elements than is currently the received interpretation.


In order to discuss the interaction of these elements, I borrow two Sanskrit terms used to describe two different types of Hindu scripture: shruti , lit. 'what is heard', and smrti, lit. 'what is remembered'. Shruti  is the higher form of scripture and is deferred to in the case of conflict between shruti and smrti. Shruti are the texts which were divinely revealed by the gods, constituting the Vedas and the Upanishads, which are considered to be eternal or atemporal. Smrti includes a variety of secondary scriptures including most relevantly what one might call historical texts, in contrast to the atemporal character of shruti. However, these historical texts are not secular or non-religious--both the Bhagavadgita and the Ramayana are smrti-texts. Smrti texts are not necessarily fixed, and new texts may be added, in contrast to shruti which is carefully preserved unaltered.

            I do not intend to suggest that pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon theology possessed such formally-defined notions as shruti and smrti. But these terms are a useful way of thinking of a world-view which can adopt new theological truths which do not run contrary to its spirit. That is, shruti and smrti seem to be valid concepts in so far as the Saxons did not feel a great conflict between between their existing faith and the new teachings of Christianity--a scenario which is suggested by some of the accounts of conversion in early Anglo-Saxon England [15] .

                In particular, the representation of Cain as the progenitor of eotenas, ylfe, orcneas,and gigantas is a plausible example of an instance of Christian scripture interpreted by pre-Christian Saxons as a sort of smrti--as new knowledge, but not knowledge requiring a major change in world-view. The adoption of a story of a primal act of kin-slaying is not surprising considering the recurrence of this theme throughout old Germanic literature. The apparent biblical explanation of Cain's monstrous offspring is in the interpretation of Genesis vi, where it is said that 'there were giants in the earth in those days' (Gen. vi.4), immediately followed by 'the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them'.

            The exact development of this notion of the Flood as directed against 'giants' is unclear -- the proximity in Genesis of the reference to giants and God's view of the 'wickedness of man' (Gen. vi.5) and his subsequent decision to 'destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them' (Gen. vi.7), as well as apocryphal material, like that preserved in the Ethiopian Book of Enoch which elaborates on giants and the fallen angels [16] , may have suggested this scenario. Yet the text of Genesis cites 'the wickedness of man' as the source of God's anger and cause of the Flood, not 'the wickedness of giants'.

            However, we find a recurrent myth of battle between divinities and giants, linked with a great flood, within the native Indogermanic tradition. Within Germanic legend, the Old Norse Edda refers to the drowning of giants in a divine flood: 'Bor's sons [Óðinn, Vili and Vé] killed the giant Ymir. And he fell, so much blood flowed from his wounds that with it they drowned all the race of frost-giants, except that one escaped with his household. Giants call him Bergelmir' (Snorri, Gylfaginning, p.5-7) [17] . One may reasonably object to the Eddic analogue on the grounds that the extent of commonality between Anglo-Saxon & Scandinavian religion is unknown, and further that the Icelandic texts are relatively late and may exhibit the influence of Christianity. However, in the Hindu RgVeda we find a strikingly similar story involving the slaying of giants and a great flood. Briefly the story is thus:

            There is a titan or demon named Vrtra, who is obstructing the world's water [18] . Indra, god of rain, storms fights and defeats Vrtra [19] , who is sometimes described as a cloud, sometimes as a serpent or dragon, and in slaying him, releases a deluge onto the earth [20] , the resulting flood waters 'carry off the nameless body of Vrtra, tossed in the midst of the never-stopping, never-resting currents' [21] . The disposal of the dragon's corpse in Beowulf also reflects similar imagery:


....       dracan ec scufun

wyrm ofer weallclif;  leton weg niman,

flod fæðmian frætwa hyrde [22]


In the RgVeda: 'The dragon lies beneath the feet of torrents which (formerly) by his might he had hoarded' [23] .


Interestingly, both the Indic and Norse flood legends are also Creation-myths [24] -- the Norse myth is recounted in the Elder Edda:


Of Ymir's flesh

the earth was shaped,

the hills from his bones;

the heaven from the skull

of that ice-cold giant,

and from his blood the sea. [25]


One telling of this myth in the RgVeda story runs thus:


When you, Indra, had slain the first-born of dragons,

and overcome the enchantments of the enchanters,

Then, giving life to Sun and Dawn and Heaven,

You had not one enemy left (to oppose you). [26]


We may find additional Flood-imagery in Beowulf, at ll.1607b-11 [27] , which seems to be connected to a divine flood directed against giants, which may echo this connexion between a giant-killing flood and Creation itself. Viswanathan [28] points out that this passage in Beowulf, which compares the melting of the blade of the giant-sword to God untying the bonds of frost and letting flow the frozen sea, also suggests God's release of a flood to destroy His enemies (thus linking the destruction of the Grendelcyn by the sword with the destruction of the giants by God's flood). Of course the epithet of fæder may well have been chosen primarily for metrical reasons. Nonetheless, this epithet is uncommon for referring to God in Beowulf and does seem to point to the progenitor aspect of God, sæla ond mæla also suggesting Creation.

            It seems likely that along with the story of Cain, the Beowulf poet learned some biblical story of the Flood, however, the poem's references to a flood appear to have a greater debt to Northern legends for it makes no reference to Noah, or an ark, or the effect of the flood on anyone except giants. Thus the 'Cain episode' of Beowulf seems to owe as much to native lore as to Judeo-Christian teachings; and the references to the 'Flood' appear to be strongly grounded in Indo-European myth. Or, rather, this is to say that we are observing a basic Indogermanic 'sruti-myth' elaborated by 'Christian smrti ' [29] .


That we would find Christian elements, such as the story of Cain and Abel, within a poem which is otherwise, in both tone and content, Indogermanic, is not surprising considering what we know of the nature of the early mission in England. Gregory's letter to Mellitus directs him to instruct Augustine not to tear down heathen shrines, but rather to build temples on top of them [30] . A programme of accommodation by the Church could easily lead to an Anglo-Saxon understanding of Christian instruction as a sort of smrti, a sort of supplemental knowledge of the world, rather than new conception of existence [31] .  

            Concerning expressions which are unlikely to have a non-biblical source [32] , such as ylda bearn 'sons of men' (ll. 70, 150, 605), one can imagine that they were introduced into the poetic repertoire in the same way as Christian legends such as Cain and Abel. To be more precise, it would be odd if none of the missionary work in England was carried out by scopas who sang versified biblical stories in the traditional heroic manner. Indeed, it is easy to imagine poems such as Judith or Exodus being sung in just this way as a part of the programme of conversion. Bede's story of Cædmon [33] and the anecdote of Bishop Aldhelm on the bridge acting the role of a minstrel, weaving Christian doctrine into popular ballads [34] also suggest that 'missionary-gleemen' likely formed part of the project of conversion.  Ylda bearn ('sons of men'), despite its biblical origin [35] , has no overt Christian sound, but surely would be recognised by a scop as a good verse half-line!

            Material culture of the period also bears out the suggestion that Christianity may have been received as smrti in some parts of England for some time: archaeological finds such as the Benty Grange helmet, adorned with boar-crest and silver cross, or the magnificent ship-burial at Sutton Hoo which reveals objects bearing Christian symbols [36] within an otherwise 'pagan' burial, or the Franks Casket which juxtaposes scenes of the gifts of the Magi to Christ next to bloody revenge of the Germanic wundorsmith Weland [37] . Textual evidence points to the same conclusion, as in Bede's complaint against King Rædwald of East Anglia, who was set up altars both to the Northern Gods and to Christ [38] . 

            So, with these points in mind, I suggest that we should not understand Beowulf as a Christian poem constructed from Germanic 'heathen' materials [39] .  Nor should we see the biblical references as impositions on the theme or feeling of Beowulf as a heroic epic. Rather, I believe, it is more informative to read the poem as composed within a Germanic heroic society, preserving the values and philosophy of that society, and freely borrowing such outside elements and stories from the Christian tradition which do not contradict native wisdom, and serve further to illuminate existing lore.





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