The Heroic Age

A Journal of Early Medieval Northwestern Europe

Founded 1998   |   ISSN 1526-1867

Issue 13 (August 2010)  |   Issue Editor: Larry Swain

Raising Cain in Genesis and Beowulf: Challenges to Generic Boundaries in Anglo-Saxon Biblical Literature

Heide Estes

Monmouth University

© 2010 by Heide Estes. All rights reserved. This edition copyright © 2010 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.

AbstractBeowulf and other secular heroic poems in Old English are considered by most contemporary scholars to belong to a different genre than the poems based on Old Testament narratives. For the Anglo-Saxons, however, such a division of secular and biblical is artificial. As the eighth century turned to the ninth, Alcuin protested famously against the recitation of heroic literature, asking "Quid Hinieldus cum Christo?" ["What does Ingeld have to do with Christ?"] But it appears that the two scribes of the Nowell Codex, working two centuries later, shared no such compunction about a division between secular and sacred literatures. Poems such as Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon incorporate Biblical allusions, while saints' lives and poetic renditions of Old Testament narratives borrow syntactic and discursive units from poems in the secular and heroic traditions. In the adaptation from Biblical Genesis to Anglo-Saxon poem, Abraham is re-imagined as a formidable warrior in the mold of Beowulf and Byrhtnoth. Rather than reading them as works opposed in purpose and audience, religious and secular, serious and popular, we must see the Old English Genesis and Beowulf as parts of the same inheritance in which Germanic and Biblical legacies are fused into a single cultural matrix.

§1.  Beowulf and other secular heroic poems in Old English are considered by most contemporary scholars to belong to a different genre than the poems based on Old Testament narratives. The standard surveys of Anglo-Saxon literature divide religious and secular literature into separate chapters. In their New Critical History of Old English Literature (1986), Greenfield and Calder locate Beowulf in a chapter on "Secular Heroic Poetry," and discuss Biblical literature in chapters on "Christ as Poetic Hero" and "Old Testament Narrative Poetry." Godden and Lapidge, editors of the Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature (1991), give Beowulf its own chapter, presenting it as distinct from any other literary text of the Old English period, and devote two chapters to Biblical literature derived from the Old and New Testaments, respectively. In their Companion to Anglo-Saxon Literature (2001), Pulsiano and Treharne group Old English literature into the broad categories of Secular Prose, Secular Poetry, Religious Prose, and Religious Poetry. Most recently, Fulk and Cain (2003) devote chapters to Biblical literature and to "Germanic Legend and Heroic Lay," among others, in their History of Old English Literature.

§2.  For the Anglo-Saxons, however, such a division of secular and biblical is artificial. Poems such as Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon incorporate Biblical allusions. By incorporating Old Testament material, the Beowulf-poet aligns his hero with Old Testament patriarchs, who are venerable despite the fact that their world has been superseded. On the other hand, saints' lives and poetic renditions of Old Testament narratives borrow syntactic and discursive units from poems in the secular and heroic traditions. In a survey of scholarship on the "Christian epic," Ivan Herbison quotes Sharon Turner, W. P. Ker, and Andreas Heusler, who argue that the borrowing goes the other direction: Beowulf's composition, they argue, was made possible by the earlier development of a tradition of Old English Christian epic poetry in turn influenced by Latin literature (Herbison 1996, 342–361). The poet of Genesis transforms the figure of Abraham into a warrior chieftain worthy of celebration in heroic verse, in a world with potential topical relevance to Anglo-Saxons often involved in battles against Scandinavian pagans. Abraham and Beowulf both become ancestral warriors fighting for dominance, or at least stability, among a collection of neighboring tribes. Each is characterized in contrast to Cain or to a Cain-figure; each belongs to a world that is worthy, though located most definitively in the past. Secular and biblical poems alike are, on the other hand, also populated with figures of alterity against whom the Anglo-Saxons define themselves, including the monstrous Grendel, as well as Cain, who appears not only in the Old English Genesis but also in Beowulf. Old Testament poems such as Genesis and Exodus are presented as foundational narratives analogous to Beowulf and other Old English heroic poems. Abraham, Beowulf, Caedmon—Hebrew, pagan, unlettered shepherd—are all depicted as in ancestral figures, heroic in one way or another, with whom their "biographers" in prose and verse align themselves as successors and heirs. The melding of Anglo-Saxon heroic conventions with Biblical narratives in poetry adapted from Biblical texts, as well as allusions to Christianity in "secular" poems, facilitates this identification.

§3.  To begin, then, with the monstrous. Beowulf survives, as is well known, in a single manuscript of the late tenth or early eleventh century. N. R. Ker dates the Nowell Codex of Cotton Vitellius A. xv. at the end of the tenth or beginning of the eleventh century (1957, 281). Friedrich Klaeber dates the manuscript "about the end of the tenth century" (1950, xcvi). Kevin Kiernan, arguing for an eleventh-century provenance for the poem itself, suggests that the manuscript "was probably copied after 1016" (1996, 61). The original composition of the poem has been assigned to dates ranging from the eighth century up to the time of writing of the manuscript itself. Klaeber was convinced that the poem "cannot well have been composed after the beginning of the Danish invasions toward the end of the 8th century" (1950, cvii). More recently, while some scholars still accept an early date, others locate the poem's composition in the late ninth or early tenth century, and Kiernan, as noted above, argues for the eleventh century.1 Whatever its date of composition, the poem displays a clear sense, as Roberta Frank has argued (1982, 53–65), that the narrative being related takes place in a past that is different from the present. Since the dating of the poem is so contentious, however, that "present" is also difficult to pin down. Even the audience for the manuscript is difficult to ascertain. It has been argued that Danes and Geatland are presented as foundational ancestors for recent Danish migrants to England; it has also been suggested that Anglo-Saxons long resident in England were recreating an ancestral past from the same materials.2 The matrix of characters with or against whom the narrator and the putative "original audience" might identify is also complicated. On the one hand are the monstrous Grendels and the dragon; on the other, the sage Hrothgar and the heroic Beowulf occupy different shores and, potentially, different tribal alliances. Moreover, both societies are pagan: Hrothgar's people sought help against Grendel through "hærg-trafum" ("temple-sacrifice," Beowulf, l. 175); Beowulf's people honor his death by burning him on a funeral pyre with a vast amount of treasure, clearly a description of pagan, rather than Christian, rites.

§4.  Yet neither Hrothgar nor Beowulf is explicitly identified with pagan practice or belief. Each of these exemplary men is depicted in ways that separate him somewhat from his own social network, in regnal status but also in religious terms. Beowulf prays to an indeterminate, apparently singular "lord" who can be interpreted as having Christian valence. Hrothgar reads a narrative of flood and destruction in the inscription of the ancient sword Beowulf brings from Grendel's underwater cave, and then delivers a commentary that scholars of the poem often refer to as a "sermon." Hrothgar tells the tale of Heremod ("battle-minded"), who "breat bolgenmod beodgeneatas / eaxlgesteallan" ("foul in mood, cut down table-companions and battle-companions," Beowulf, ll. 1713–1714), and he goes on to caution Beowulf about the transitory nature of life on earth, to warn him against pride, and to advise that he choose "ece rædas" ("eternal benefits," l. 1760) over earthly ones. As scholars have often noted, Hrothgar's speech to Beowulf sounds distinctly Christian themes, despite his presumed identification with paganism.3

§5.  Scourge of Hrothgar's Danes, defeated by the Geatish Beowulf, Grendel is alienated from the community on whose margins he lives and relegated to listening from outside the hall to the scop's tales of creation. A murderer and a cannibal, Grendel is described as "forscrifen . . . in Caines cynne—þone cwealm gewræc / ece Drihten, þæs þe he Abel slog" ("condemned . . . among the kin of Cain, whose killing the true God avenged, because he slew Abel," Beowulf, ll. 106, 107–8). As Grendel moves toward Heorot while Beowulf awaits him among his sleeping cohorts, we are reminded that Grendel "Godes irre bær" ("bore God's fury," l. 709). The references to Cain indicate a conceptual and cultural link between Beowulf and the Old English Genesis.

§6.  Genesis dramatizes events drawn from approximately the first half of the Old Testament book using language and concepts familiar from Old English secular heroic poetry.4 The poetic Genesis begins with adaptation of the Biblical accounts of Creation, into which is incorporated an account of the fall of angels; it continues with the narratives of Cain and Abel, Noah, and the tower of Babel episode. The greatest part of the poem is concerned with the life of Abraham, but the poem does not follow the Biblical book of Genesis through to its end, concluding rather with Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac in Chapter 22. (The latter, unversified, half of the book of Genesis describes the remainder of Abraham's nomadic life, his death and burial, and the deaths of his wives.) The Old English Genesis expands, deletes, and reshapes material in accordance with the interests of the poet and/or scribes. Genealogies and geographical details are, with interesting exceptions, streamlined or left out altogether. Some narrative sections are left out; others are dramatized using Old English poetic conventions or allegorized according to Christian interpretation of the Old Testament.

§7.  The passage in which Cain kills Abel exemplifies poetic expansion of the biblical text using conventions of Old English heroic verse. In his Latin version, Jerome narrates this part of the episode in a single sentence: "dixitque Cain ad Abel fratrem suum egrediamur foras cumque essent in agro consurrexit Cain adversus Abel fratrem suum et interfecit eum" ("Cain said to his brother Abel, 'let us go out,' and when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him," Gen. 4:8). The Old English poem leaves out the details that Cain speaks to his brother, asking him to leave other human company, and that he kills Abel in the fields, away from their community. However, the remainder of the episode is much expanded and makes repeated references to Cain's state of mind: "Þæt wæs torn were / hefig æt heortan. Hygewælm asteah / beorne on breostum, blatende nið, / yrre for æfstum" ("That was bitter to the man, heavy upon his heart. The man's breast surged with anger, lowered with hostility, fury over rivalry," Genesis, ll. 979–982). Similarly, when Grendel kills one of Beowulf's war-companions, the description focuses upon Grendel's state of mind. Much as Cain's heart swells with fury at his brother, as Grendel approaches Heorot, "his mod ahlog" ("his heart exulted," Beowulf, l. 730), and as he seizes his victim, "ne þæt se aglæca yldan þohte" ("the monster did not intend to delay," l. 739).

§8.  The Old English Genesis adds to the narrative of Cain's murder of Abel the further interesting detail that "cwealmdreore swealh / þæs middangeard, monnes swate" ("middle-earth swallowed the death-gore, the man's blood," Genesis, ll. 985–986). As a cannibal, Grendel himself swallows his victims' blood; after seizing his victims, he "bat banlocan, blod edrum dranc, / synsnædum swealh" ("bit the bone-joints, drank blood from the veins, swallowed huge chunks," Beowulf, ll. 740–743). Both Beowulf and Genesis refer to blood, to hands, to the welling emotions of the killer. According to the Biblical text, the earth "aperuit os suum" ("opened its mouth," Gen. 4:11). This suggests the opening of a chasm in the earth into which Abel's blood drains. The poetic Genesis, however, takes the suggestion a step further in stating that the earth "swallowed" the blood of Abel; the parallel between that text and the language in Beowulf is suggestive.

§9.  As we have seen, Grendel lives at the margins of society, yet slaughters his victims in Hrothgar's hall, in the center of the Danish community. In an interesting analogue, the Old English Genesis re-orients the relationship between social center and social margins in the depiction of Cain's killing of Abel. According to the Biblical text, Cain murders Abel in the fields; however, the elimination of this detail in the Old English Genesis allows the suggestion that Cain, like Beowulf, kills within the community. The implicationis strengthened in the following lines, in which God condemns Cain to permanentwandering exile: "Þu scealt geomor hweorfan, / arleas of earde þinum, swaþu Abele wurde / to feorhbanan; forþon þu flema scealt / widlas wrecan, winemumlað" ("Miserably you shall depart, dishonorably, from your land,because you have become Abel's slayer; therefore, you shall be banishedin flight to long wandering, hated by your dear kinsmen," ll. 1018–1021). The text of Beowulf comments on Cain's exile, noting that after he has committed murder, God "hine feor forwræc . . . mancynne fram" ("drove him away, far . . . from mankind," Beowulf, ll. 109, 110). Moreover, among the "eotenas ond ylfe ond orc-neas" ("giants and elves and orcs,' l. 112) descended from Cain is Grendel, a "mearc-stapa, se þe moras heold, / fen ond fæsten" ("border-walker, he who held the moors, the fens and marshes," Beowulf, ll. 103–104). Grendel's identification with Cain in the text is more complex than the simple attribution of kinship; like Cain, Grendel is always a part of and simultaneously apart from Heorot's human community, seen to haunt the margins, condemned to listen to human song and laughter from outside the hall.

§10.  In Beowulf, the opposition between Grendel-kin and the hero is clear and explicit. Commentators have tried to find Christian attributes to Beowulf's character, but while it seems clear that the poem in its present form is the product of a Christian environment, there is fairly clear consensus that the character of Beowulf must be read as worthy in a pre-Christian sense. In Genesis, on the other hand, the opposition between Cain and Abraham is largely implied. The structure of the poem highlights the correlation between the two. The early chapters of the Biblical Genesis include a profusion of genealogical and geographical materials that are excised from the more streamlined treatment in the poem, allowing faster movement from Cain through Noah to Abraham.

§11.  An episode from the poetic Genesis provides a further challenge to the usual generic classifications of Old English poetry. In the adaptation from Biblical book to Anglo-Saxon poem, Abraham is re-imagined as a formidable warrior in the mold of Beowulf and Byrhtnoth. Abraham's nephew Lot and his family are, in the narrative, among those taken captive by the attack of five kings demanding tribute from Sodom (Genesis 14). A single man escapes in the night and flees to inform Abraham, who musters an army and mounts a counter-attack under cover of darkness. The Biblical text is thick with geographic references and the names of fighters on either side, largely eliminated from the poem. However, the poem expands instead upon the battle scenes, using language of rattling javelins and carnage-greedy fowl well-known from secular heroic poetry. "Hlyn wearð on wicum / scylda and sceafta, sceotendra fyll, guðflana gegrind" ("Din of shields and spear-shafts came to the field, fall of arrow-shooters, crash of battle-arrows," Genesis, ll. 2062–2064). Instead of a tribute in twisted gold, Abraham gives the enemy spear-points and sword-thrusts. Beowulf defeats Grendel in glorious single combat; Abraham's genius as a warrior is in his ability to muster and command an effective fighting force.

§12.  Further emphasizing the role of Abraham as a figure of Christian exegesis, the Old English Genesis does not follow the Biblical Genesis to its end. Instead, the poem concludes with Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac, a crucial event in Christian interpretation of the Old Testament, rather than following Abraham's life through to its close after the narration of the remaining years of his long nomadic life. Abel and Isaac are both read as prefigurations of Christ, and so the concluding episode of the Old English poetic Genesis will, for a Christian audience, bring immediate recall of Cain's slaying of Abel. Once again, the Old English text embellishes the Latin: In Jerome's version, Abraham sees a ram caught by the horns in a thicket and "obtulit holocaustum pro filio" ("offered him up as a burnt offering instead of his son," Genesis 22:13). The Old English poem is not much less laconic than the Latin text; however, it adds reference to "rommes blode" ("the ram's blood," l. 2933) which "brynegield onhread" ("reddened the burnt offering," l. 2932). This reference to the power of blood acquires additional prominence in this context because it occurs four lines before the end of the poem. For an audience trained in Christian interpretation of the Old Testament, the reference to the blood of the ram that replaces Isaac, the Jesus-figure, will be a significant and clearly audible echo of the blood of the proto-Christian Abel.

§13.  While Abraham is presented in heroic terms in the battle against the Five Kings of Genesis, in the final scene of sacrifice he is given no heroic stature, but is presented in humble as well as in spiritual terms. There are minor changes: the "sword" ("gladius," Gen 22:6) Abraham takes up in the Biblical Genesis becomes in the poem a "grægan sweorde" ('grey sword,' l. 2686) with which he girds himself, allowing for alliteration with "gast" ("spirit"). This narrative is also taken up in the Old English Exodus, but in that poem, Abraham is transformed within the context of this narrative into a spear-brandishing hero in the Anglo-Saxon tradition.

§14.  In Beowulf's counterattack against Grendel, he "ræhte ongean / feond mid folme" ("reached out toward the enemy with his hand," Beowulf, ll. 747–748). In an interesting echo of these lines, in Exodus, Abraham "þone cniht genam / fæste mid folumum" ("seized the boy firmly with his hands," Exodus, ll. 406–407). As the scene continues, the poetic Exodus continues to draw on vocabulary familiar from secular heroic poetry, as the "famous one" then draws his "ealde lafe (ecg grymetode)" ("old remnant; the sword roared," l. 408). The word "ecg" appears more than two dozen times in Beowulf. The Old English Exodus repeats Abraham's willingness to undertake God's command that he kill his son: "Abraham æðeling up aræmde, / wolde se eorl slean eaferan sinne, / unweaxenne, ecgum reodan, / magan mid mece" ("Noble Abraham rose up; the warrior would slay his young son, his kinsman, with a sword, redden its edge," Exodus, ll. 411–414. Reference to "reddening" a hall with blood also occurs in Beowulf (l. 1151); like "ecg," "mece" is a frequently occurring word for "sword" in that poem.

§15.  Moreover, Abraham is linked quite specifically with Cain in the poetic Exodus: when Abraham is building the fire on which he will sacrifice Isaac, the narrative is interrupted with reference to Cain: "fyrst ferhðbana no þy fægra wæs" ("the first sword-slayer was no more doomed to death," Exodus, l. 399). The juxtaposition of Cain and Abraham in Exodus suggests the possibility that the two Biblical figures are conceptually linked in the minds of Anglo-Saxon readers of the Bible. While the opposition between Cain and Abraham is more suggestive than explicit in the poetic Genesis, the unambiguous combination of the two figures in Exodus lends weight to an interpretation that the thematic and linguistic links between the two are, in Genesis, not accidental.

§16.  In addition to the Abraham material, the poetic Exodus includes a narration of Noah—"snottor sæleoda" ("wise sailor," l. 374)—and his survival of the Flood; in addition, of course, there is material from Chapter 14 of the Biblical Exodus, in which Israelites cross the Red Sea. Scholars of the poem have often focused upon the crossing of the Red Sea as the central element of the poem, an interpretation given weight by the inclusion in the poem of the Noah episode, another miraculous survival of watery peril and another Old Testament narrative read by Christians as prefigurative of the baptism of the Gospels. The episode in which the Israelites cross the Red Sea is a crucial one in Christological interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures or "Old Testament."5 Like Noah, who alone of his people is virtuous enough to survive the Flood, Moses is understood as a direct ancestor of post-Biblical Christians, while, as Ælfric notes, Paul comments in his first epistle to the Corinthians, "seo reade sæ hæfde getacnunge ures fulluhtes" ("the Red Sea prefigures our baptism," I Cor. 10: 1–2).6

§17.  In Exodus, Moses is described in martial terms similar to those employed of Abraham in Genesis. He is introduced as "herges wisa, / freom folctoga" ("army's leader, valiant commander," ll. 13–14). To him, God "gesealda wæpna geweald wið wraðra gryre, / ofercom mid þy campe cneomaga fela" ("gave the power of weapons against the hostile terror; with them, he overcame in battle a great many kinsmen," ll. 20–21). At the shore of the Red Sea, as battle with the Egyptians appears imminent, Moses commands his warriors to prepare for battle:

                     . . . Moyses bebead
eorlas on uhttid ærnum bemum
folc somnigean , frecan arisan,
habban heora hlencan, hycgan on ellen,
beran beorht searo. . . . (ll. 215–219)

[Moses commanded warriors at dawn, with brass trumpets, the people to gather, the warriors to arise and take hold of their linked armor, to think on valour, to wear their bright armor.]

In his final speech, Moses refers to God's help in the Israelites' defeat of the Egyptians: "Micel is þeos menigeo, mægenwisa trum, / fullesta mæst, se ðas fare lædað" ("great is this multitude, God [is] strong, greatest of helps, who leads this journey," ll. 554–555). The depiction of Moses as spiritual ancestor is overlaid with his characterization as a venerable battle-chieftain; this reading is supported by the analogous presentation of Noah as seafarer and as "þrymfæst þeoden" ("glorious/mighty leader," l. 363) and of Abraham as fierce warrior as he approaches the scene of sacrifice. The depiction of Abraham and Moses as war leaders comparable to any found in secular heroic poetry makes clear that the poem is not simply a religious reading of several Old Testament events. Instead, it must be seen as a fusion of Christian and Anglo-Saxon heroic traditions and values, drawing upon narratives from the Old Testament. Like Genesis, then, Exodus can be read as a challenge to the ways in which scholars think about Old English poetic genre.

§18.  The Old English Genesis and Exodus are followed in manuscript by additional Biblical poems, Daniel and Christ and Satan, a sequence that supports modern generic classifications of "religious" versus "secular" literature. However, the sequence of texts in the Beowulf manuscript has long baffled scholars working in terms of post-Anglo-Saxon generic classifications. The manuscript contains five texts: in prose, an acephalous Life of St. Christopher, The Wonders of the East, and an Old English translation of the Latin Letter of Alexander to Aristotle; and in verse, Beowulf and Judith. Christopher and Judith are "religious," and the other texts "secular." Judith is a war-like woman from an Old Testament narrative, re-envisioned as a Christian warrior, and Christopher has the head of a dog; Alexander lived in pre-Christian times; Wonders describes faraway places and monstrous races clearly visualized as "other" yet including the Red Sea; and Beowulf is written in Old English yet memorializes Scandinavians, against whom the Anglo-Saxons were at war when the manuscript was written down. As a result of the diverging genres and contents, the combination of texts in the Codex has caused consternation among modern scholars.

§19.  As the eighth century turned to the ninth, Alcuin protested famously against the recitation of heroic literature, asking "Quid Hinieldus cum Christo?" ["What does Ingeld have to do with Christ?"] But it appears that the two scribes of the Nowell Codex, working two centuries later, shared no such compunction about a division between secular and sacred literatures: one copied all three prose texts and half of Beowulf, and the second finished Beowulf and wrote out Judith. Since Judith is missing not only its last few lines but also a longer portion from its beginning, it has been theorized that it was at some point moved from the beginning of the manuscript—or that it came from another source altogether.7 A generation ago, Kenneth Sisam (1953) called the manuscript a book of monsters, arguing that it originally comprised Beowulf, Wonders, and the Letter, with Christopher and Judith added later. More recently, Kevin Kiernan (1981) argued that the manuscript was assembled from three separately copied codices, one including Beowulf, another the three prose texts, and a third, Judith and perhaps some other poems, while Andy Orchard (1995) argued that the manuscript reflects a set of related interests including monstrosity and excess. All of the texts in the manuscript are concerned with pagans of the past, to the East of Anglo-Saxon England, as Hildegard Tristram has noted (1989, 129–155). As Kathryn Powell has recently argued, moreover, all are concerned with "rulers and foreigners" (2006, 3). The contents of the manuscript as a whole traverse numerous boundaries, not least that between religious and secular texts. Moreover, much as Beowulf incorporates Christian allusions into a secular narrative, Judith includes language of secular battle poems within an Old Testament narrative re-imagined in Christian terms.

§20.  Like Exodus in its treatment of Moses, the Old English poetic version of Judith presents Judith as a heroine with martial qualities who is also closely identified with God, though in this case God is imagined in specifically Christian, rather than Hebrew, terms. The Assyrian warriors deliver Judith to Holofernes' tent, whereupon he falls into bed too drunk to enact his intentions of raping her; instead, she sees her opportunity to move forward with her own plan. She is called "nergendes / þeowen" ("the Savior's maiden," ll. 73–74) just before she draws his "scearpne mece / scurum heardne" ("sharp sword, hard battle-storm," ll. 78–79); then, she prays for strength:

Ic ðe, frymða god, ond frofre gæst,
bearn alwaldan, biddan wylle,
miltse þinre me þearfendre,
ðrynesse ðrym. (ll. 83–86)

[God of creation, spirit of comfort, son of God, I, needy, wish to ask you for your mercy, glory of trinity.]

The prayer is clearly addressed to the Christian trinity rather than the singular "Domine Deus Israhel" (13:7) of Jerome's Latin version of the Book of Judith, locating Judith as a proto-Christian heroine much as Abraham and Moses are envisioned as ancestral figures for later Christians.

§21.  Following her prayer for help, Judith arranges Holofernes' body for best access to his neck in a scene that becomes horrifyingly funny. "Sloh þa wundenlocc / þone feondscaðan fagum mece" ("Then the curly-haired one slew the enemy with shining sword," ll. 103–104). "Næs ða dead þa gyt" ("[He] was not yet dead then," l. 107), so she strikes again on the other side of the neck, "þæt him þæt heafod wand / forð on ða flore" ("so that his head rolled forth across the floor," ll. 110–111). Once Holofernes has finally been dispatched, the text reminds its audience that Judith has won "foremærne blæd . . . swa hyre god uðe" ("illustrious glory . . . as god granted [it] to her," ll. 122, 123).

§22.  Judith and her servant leave the Assyrian encampment to return to their own city of Bethulia, and are described as "ellenþrist" ("courageous," l. 133), "collenferhð" ("bold," l. 134), and "eadhreðig" ("triumphant," l. 135). They are then described as "beahhroden" (l. 138) a term that, Helen Damico argues, should be translated here as "shield-adorned" rather than with the usual meaning of "ring-adorned," as they share Valkyrie-like qualities of woman warriors (1990, 185). Patricia Belanoff has argued that secular and religious traits are blended in the characterization of Judith to a point that suggests ambivalence in her depiction: "Nominally Judith is a Christian heroine, but in truth she comes to us trailing clouds of glory associated with the traditional heroes of Germanic history" (1993, 247–264). Judith's presentation as a woman warrior who, in the Biblical account, uses her sexual appeal in order to encourage Holofernes' appetite for drink, does lead to fissures in her poetic presentation as a heroine, as I have argued elsewhere (2003, 325–350). However, the interplay of religious and secular imagery and narrative, rather than forming an aspect of that ambiguity, follows the similar fusion of forms in several other Biblical and secular poems alike.

§23.  In Genesis and Exodus, Biblical figures are seen as venerable forebears, and there is a fusion of material from Hebraic, Christian, and Anglo-Saxon (pagan) traditions. And at the same time that this synthesis of material aligns the Old Testament narratives with the world-view of Anglo-Saxons in the audience for these poems, it also allows for an elevation of pagan Germanic heroes as forebears who can be venerated even though their world is gone. Moses and Hrothgar are brought into a literary kinship in which the idea of each enriches the character of the other. Not just a dead Dane, Hrothgar becomes, like Moses, a necessary carrier of important traditions which can be inherited in somewhat altered form by English Christians. This, in turn, allows living Anglo-Saxon kings to claim kinship with other pagan forebears and even with pagan gods, who are brought into a single line with Old Testament patriarchs—not just metaphorically, but quite literally.

§24.  Early entries of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle frequently trace the ancestry of kings to the god Woden.8 We owe many of the surviving manuscripts of the Chronicle to King Alfred, who ordered several copies made and disseminated, and subsequently maintained and continued at regional centers of learning around England; his own genealogy prefaces several of the surviving copies. In Alfred's genealogy, the figure of Woden is historicized, reduced to a single item in a list of patriarchs going through an extra-Biblical son of Noah, born in the ark, and thence back to Adam himself, "et pater noster id est Cristus" ("and our father, that is Christ").9 These scribes, as well as Asser, Alfred's official biographer, thus appropriate Biblical genealogies and Biblical authority as authentication for the legitimacy of English kingship. Asser opens his biography of Alfred by addressing it to his king, whom he calls "Domino meo venerabili piissimoque omnium Brittanniae insulae Christianorum rectori, Ælfred, Anglorum Saxonum regi" ("my esteemed and most holy lord, Alfred, ruler of all the Christians of the island of Britain, king of the Angles and Saxons" (Asser, 1; translation from Stevenson 1959, 67). By using this form of address, Asser underscores his point that the various strands of genealogy he weaves together for Alfred culminate specifically in Christian and Anglo-Saxon rule.

§25.  The inclusion of Old Testament material in a "secular" poem such as Beowulf, and of heroic diction in poems like Genesis, Exodus, and Judith, based upon Biblical narratives, gives a hint about how pagan Anglo-Saxon ancestors can be analogously redeemed. Beowulf and Hrothgar can be seen as corresponding to Abraham or Moses, but in religious terms may be best understood in relation to Daniel, in being singular exemplary figures among a larger group that worships at heathen temples and practices pagan burial practices, or that falls into sin and turns its back on God. Analogously, the incorporation of language from heroic poetry into the Old Testament narratives of Genesis and Judith in which, in which Abraham becomes a proto-Christian while Judith is reimagined as a Christian heroine, suggests another way to recuperate the Anglo-Saxon pagan past.

§26.  Analogously, though his people worship heathen idols in their efforts to conquer Grendel, Beowulf is favored by a singular "Lord," and Hrothgar, in praising or warning him, sermonizes in a vein that can be interpreted as Christian. Much as Abraham and Moses are exemplary among Israelites and are read as Christian forebears, it is possible to read Beowulf and Hrothgar as worthy ancestors of Christian Anglo-Saxons, singular heroes among a people not always exemplary. Rather than reading them as works opposed in purpose and audience, religious and secular, serious and popular, we must see the Old English Genesis and Beowulf as parts of the same inheritance in which Germanic and Biblical legacies are fused into a single cultural matrix.


1.   For further discussion, see Bjork and Obermeier (1997) and Chase (1982).  [Back]

2.   See, for example, Howe (1989) and Niles (1993).  [Back]

3.   For a survey of scholarship on pagan and Christian themes in Beowulf, see Irving (1997, 175–192).  [Back]

4.   In discussing the poetic Genesis, I refer to the entire text as it is now preserved in the Junius manuscript. Distinctions between the portions scholars refer to as "Genesis A" and "Genesis B" are not important for my discussion.  [Back]

5.   The term is Rosemary Radford Ruether's; see her Faith and Fratricide (1974, passim).  [Back]

6.   For Ælfric's translation, see his homily "Dominica in Media Quadragesime," (1979, 115).  [Back]

7.   For a survey of scholarship on codicological and paleographical questions about Judith and the Nowell Codex, see Judith, ed. Griffith (1997, 1–4); and Lucas (1990, 463–478).  [Back]

8.   See the entries for 552, 560, 597, 626, and 755.  [Back]

9.   For insightful discussion of the "euhemerization" of Woden, see Davis (1992, 23–36) and Johnson (1995, 35–69).  [Back]

Works Cited

Ælfric. 1979. Dominica in Media Quadragesime. In Ælfric's Catholic homilies: The second series, text, ed. Malcolm Godden. EETS s. s. 5. New York: Oxford University Press.  [Back]

Asser. 1959. Life of King Alfred. Ed. W. H. Stevenson. Oxford: Clarendon Press.  [Back]

Belanoff, Patricia A. 1993. Judith: sacred and secular heroine. In Heroic poetry in the Anglo-Saxon period: studies in honor of Jess B. Bessinger, Jr., ed. Helen Damico and John Leyerle. Kalamazoo: Medieval Institute Publications, Western Michigan University. 247–264.  [Back]

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Chase, Colin, ed. 1982. The dating of Beowulf. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.  [Back]

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Johnson, David F. 1995. Euhemerisation versus demonization: the pagan gods and Ælfric's De falsis diis. In Pagans and Christians: the interplay between Christian Latin tradition and traditional Germanic cultures in early medieval Europe, ed. T. Hofstra, et al., 35–69. Egbert Forsten: Groningen.  [Back]

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