English 10H – Per. D
November 7, 2013
Bibwulf: An analysis of Allusions to the Bible in Beowulf
“Hwæt wē Gār-Dena in geardagum, / þēod-cyninga, þrym gefrūnon, / hū ðā æþelingas Ellen fremedon” (1-3). Make any sense? This passage is from the epic poem, Beowulf. It was written to assist people in ancient Germanic tribes to better understand the Bible in hopes to spread the Christian faith. In Beowulf, there are numerous allusions to biblical themes, biblical stories, and biblical figures. Beowulf retells stories from the Bible to the seventh to tenth century Anglo-Saxons in a familiar and entertaining fashion in order to promote and spread the Christian faith. Specifically, the authors of the poem make Shield Sheafson resemble Moses to aid the Celtic people in their understanding of this major biblical figure. In addition, other parallels to the Bible include, the overwhelming significance of primogeniture during that time period related to the eligibility of successors to the kings, and the correlation between Jesus, a prominent character in the New Testament, and Beowulf, the protagonist of the epic poem. In the texts, Shield Sheafson and Moses enter into the world in identical ways. “They decked his body no less bountifully / with offerings than those first ones did / who cast him away when he was a child / and launched him alone out over the waves” (43-46). This quote from Beowulf refers to when Shield Sheafson dies and the narrator describes his funeral, where he is sent off on a boat. His leaving the world in this fashion is compared to his arrival as a child. It is an allusion to the biblical figure, Moses. Shield Sheafson’s deliverance to the people of the Shielding nation is similar to that of Moses in the Torah. The Bible says, “She took for him a basket… put the child in it and placed it among the reeds by the riverbank… Now the daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river… she opened it [the basket], she saw the child, and behold, the baby was crying. She took pity on him and said, ‘This is one of the Hebrews' children’” (Exodus 2:1-10). This pertains to when the Pharaoh made a decree that newborn boys had to be cast down the Nile in order to avoid the rebellion of slaves. Moses’ mother knew Moses was special and tried to keep him safe in a basket placed on reeds in the river after keeping him in hiding for three months. Thanks to God, the pharaoh’s daughter finds him and chooses to save him and make him her son. Moses was a savior to the Jews sent by God, who arrived into this earth on a basket floating in the river. The arrival of two heroes and great leaders, Moses and Shield Sheafson, are alike because they both involve floating in on a creatively made boat on a body of water. Moses arrived to the Pharaoh’s daughter in a floating basket on the Nile; Shield arrived in a bedecked boat. God guided them both and blessed them and brought them into the story by similar means of transportation, and they grew up to have similar positive effects on their people, implying that Shield was modeled after Moses.
Parallels can be made between Moses and his followers and Shield Sheafson and his. A passage from the poem says, “Afterwards a boy-child was born to Shield, / a cub in the yard, a comfort sent / by God to that nation. He [God] knew what they had tholed, / the long times and troubles they’d come through / without a leader; so the Lord of Life, / the glorious Almighty, made this man [Shield Sheafson] renowned” (12-17). This explains that before Shield, the Danes were leaderless and hopeless, then when he came they became rich and blessed by God. Moses also made his people, the Jews, blessed by God. “Therefore they set taskmasters over them to afflict them with heavy burdens. They built for Pharaoh store cities… [The Egyptians] ruthlessly made the people of Israel work as slaves” (Exodus 1:11). This recounts the story from the Bible from when Jews were slaves to Egyptians and didn’t have a leader to bring them out of enslavement, until Moses. In both cases, Moses and Shield face similar troubles and challenges on their journeys. These journeys through the desert in the Bible and the forest in Beowulf parallel each other, just like the Danes and the Jews. In both writings, the people’s salvation by the coming of Moses or Shield Sheafson is the choice or will of God, as well as the challenges that presented themselves along their journeys. Similarly, Jesus Christ and Beowulf are parallel characters, which is displayed by shared qualities in the two leaders. They were valiant, strong, wise, and heroic. These attributes reinforce the sameness of these figures as well as coinciding events in their life, like the last supper for Jesus and Beowulf’s conversation with Hrothgar before going to battle with Grendel’s mother. Here Beowulf decides that if he passes, he wants the sword to be given to Unferth, which is very similar to what Jesus said at the last supper. They are both key characters to which most of the stories in these texts are related. Beowulf dies for his people, just as Jesus did. God protects Beowulf in battles, and his victory is the will of God. He trusts this and eventually God chooses him to become the Geat king, which defies primogeniture. Primogeniture was typically the basis for eligibility of successors to the king, the oldest son would obtain the power because God has chosen that individual to be the sole option to be the next candidate and does what he can to make the most worthy also be the first born male.
There is a correlation between the journey of the Danes and that of the Jews from the Bible regarding them giving up, loosing faith in God, and turning to a different religion or different beliefs out of pure desperation. In Beowulf it is mentioned that, “Sometimes at pagan shrines they [the Danes] vowed / offerings to idols, swore oaths / that the killer of souls might come to their aid / and save the people” (175-178). This is a point in the poem that illustrates the Danes betrayal of God and that they started putting their faith in to the heathen gods and prayed to idols. Likewise, the Bible speaks of Moses’ journey with the Jews, “he [Aaron] received the gold from their hand and fashioned it with a graving tool and made a golden calf.” (Exodus 32:4). In ancient Egypt when the Jewish slaves escaped and departed on their voyage through the desert to the Promised Land, they eventually thought that God was not on their side or they even doubted the existence of God altogether. They were distressed and felt hopeless, so they began to pray to a golden calf. It is common for humans to turn to a physical item, like a golden calf, because they want to believe in something physical, that they can all see with their own eyes, opposed to trying to believe in a purely theoretical figure, God. This lack of faith is exemplified in the Bible when the Jews turn to the golden calf, which is the origin of the passage from Beowulf describing Danes’ pagan shrines in the forest. In addition, both texts show that the leaders continue to have faith in God, which brings peace and salvation to their people. This ultimately highlights that if a person always believes in God and stays loyal to him, they will be rewarded.
It is evident that Beowulf is based upon the Bible because the authors of the poem wanted to advocate and publicize Christianity and the stories from the Bible by retelling the Bible through an amusing poem that is more familiar to the audience.