Pagan Burial Rites in the Epic of Beowulf Essay

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Pagan Burial Rites in the Epic of Beowulf

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
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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

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