Religion is considered one of the leading advocates for good morals and behaviors in society today. Religious people are expected to represent good deeds that other people should follow. However, this might not be the case in the ages when medieval literature such as Beowulf was written. During that time, medieval literature was written mainly for the purpose of teaching Christian dogmas to the people. The literature at this time was used as a way of condemning the deeds deemed as evil or unacceptable according to religion. People were encouraged to join certain religions, and those who had already joined were told tales and stories to strengthen their faith. As much as this era brought about good deeds, it also led to the creation of evil characters in literature (Bovey, 21). Thus, this paper will be focusing on how religion contributes to the formation of monsters in medieval literature such as Beowulf. The basis of this paper is to show the role of religion and its role it plays in molding the monsters. The paper further depicts the appearances and traits of these monsters and how they relate to religion.
During medieval times, people were mainly pagans, and Christianity was Justin its early stages of being introduced in most parts of Europe. Most people argue that the pagans wrote most literal materials at that time, then later rewritten to include Christian teachings, to help spread the gospel to the pagans. To understand how religion was used in a somewhat ironic way to express how it may motivate monsters in a literal world, we need to understand the definition of a monster in medieval literature, and why religion would have a role to play in the development of such characters.
Beowulf is one of those texts that has a rich historical context that helps us understand how religion was perceived during those times. During the time when it was written, Christianity and Paganism coexisted in various ways around Europe. It is not necessary for one to have to wait until all traditions and cultures of the native societies have either been forgotten or replaced; for the peoples' minds are swithched and their memories changed to view things in a different perspective (Tolkien, 17). It is therefore difficult to distinguish whether Beowulf was a work of Christians or that of the pagans since the content of the poem has a pagan base but still incorporates Christian teachings. This can, however, be explained by the conversion that was happening in Europe at that time. What is clear though, is that the use of religion is evident in the text and it is essential to explore the role it plays in the poem to understand how the people perceived it. This will help us understand how and probably why religion might have played a part in creating monsters in their literal world. The blending between these two aspects of religion at that time is not a hard one to understand today, but in England during that age, this notion was probably brought to life by Christendom, and with scriptures. The whole process of conversion was lengthy, but some of its effects were immediate: producing ultimately the medieval. (Tolkien, 17)
The most important point, to begin with, is to try and understand what the authors had in mind when they wrote about them, and where they got their ideas from. Most medieval authors of the middle ages drew their knowledge and interpretation of monsters from the stories told in the Bible, mainly drawn from the book of Genesis where the Bible speaks of monstrous tribes and races (Parks, 1-16). Another source that these authors might have borrowed their ideas about monsters from being the early Greek mythologies which also told stories about superhuman creatures and gods, a notion that shows the possibility of Paganism as another motivator of these writings. However, in this paper, I will be looking at the religious point of view, in trying to understand the role religion played in creating these monsters.
The first role that is evident is religion as the source of monster ideas for the medieval authors. First of all, it is vital to understand monsters have been present in almost every culture and time around the globe. They were presented in different forms according to the beliefs and surroundings of a particular community. In this text, I will be looking at the type of monsters that medieval authors might have had in mind when writing texts such as Beowulf, those that are related to religion, to try and prove the involvement of religion in creating these creatures (Bovey, 21).
One of the most notable things is that monsters, in all cultures and texts were used to represent evil. Monsters, giants, ogres, and others were used to show the evil deeds I the society and their endings, which were often fatal were used as a warning to the evil that good always wins. In all medieval texts that used monsters, this has always been the case. Monsters were used to contrast the actions and beliefs of the hero, who was used as a mirror of what was considered good and righteous by the culture or community that the text belonged to. In Beowulf for instance, the monsters, Grendel, Grendel's mother, and the dragons were used to enhance the figure of the hero by showing how greatly their characters differed. When Beowulf overcomes and kills Grendel and his mother then later the dragon, the religious aspect that the author is depicted as below:
From that stem afterwards,
ever longer the stronger, grew hateful and furious fruit.
The shoots of violence spread far and wide
among the tribes of men. The branches of evil,
hard and sharp, pricked the sons of men.
They still do. From that broad blade every injury
began to blossom. Not without cause can we weep
over this story, this slaughter-grim result [wyrd]. (Beowulf line)
In Beowulf, Grendel embodies the violent human nature in its most disgusting and hideous state which is used to mirror the evil habits of humanity. The hero, Beowulf, on the contrary, is portrayed as a King who stands for bravery and justice and everything considered good according to Christianity. In the Bible, the book of Genesis tells a story about two brothers, Cain and Abel. The story describes Cain as a jealous man, who later killed his brother because God seemed to like him more. This is the first case of murder and evil in the Bible; hence Cain is portrayed as evil and Abel as good, (hero) (Parks, 1-16).
To understand how this Biblical text relates to this study, we need to read further into this story. Many years after Cain kills his brother, Abel, God curses him to live a wandering life with no end and is sent to live in a land East of Eden call Nod. It happens that sometime later, this land of Cain's descendants gets visited by angels from heaven, who fell for the women there and copulated with them. The result of this union between the humans and angels led to the birth of giants.
after the Creator had condemned him among the race of Cain-the eternal Lord avenged that killing in which he slew Abel; [Cain] had no joy in that feud, for the Maker banished him far from mankind for his crime. From him sprang all misbegotten creatures, etins and elves and ogres, and also the giants who strove against God for a long time; he paid them their reward for that (Beowulf line, 103-114).
Even according to the Bible, giants were born as a result of sin, and by the descendants of an evil man. This explains therefore why giants were used as monsters in medieval texts to represent evil. This explanation alone can be used to describe one of the roles religion played in those ages in the creation of monsters. Christian authors wanted to use literature to portray the evils of the monsters and to relate them with sinners, and the heroes to represent the beliefs of the religion (Parks, 1-16). During the conversion process, the existing medieval texts were tailored by newly converted Christian authors to match the teachings of the religion. This probably explains why most people believe that Beowulf was not originally the work of a Christian author, but preferably a Pagan writer who might have been converted to Christianity or a work that was later edited to feature Christian teachings in an attempt to change the Pagan traditions to appear to have a more religious base.
When looking at how religion influenced the way these authors created their characters, it is also important not to overlook that monsters were there even before the introduction of Christianity in Europe. According to some researchers, the adaptation of the use of monsters in literature texts most probably developed because foundational cultures of medieval England must have been hinged on such figures. The reason for this is because the state of literacy at that time must have made such figures relevant. Another reason is presumably due to the social and political conditions of those ages justified the characterization both of a mixed character body of the state and of an incarnated personification of what the particular state left out. It argues that medieval depictions of monstrous creatures explored not just how these creatures were different from men, but also how their queerness was completely part of the human, especially in England and Christian experience (Strickland, 75).
It is therefore not correct to state that the idea of monsters in medieval literature is wholly based on religion, Christianity in this case, since most of the texts in literature might have been written way before Christianity gained roots in Europe. Some of these stories and poetry may have borrowed their content from old Greek myths, but when Christianity was introduced, it sure did influence how these monsters were portrayed, and the teachings that came with the texts.
Bovey, Alixe. Monsters and grotesques in medieval manuscripts. University of Toronto Press, 2002
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf. Faber & Faber, 2009.
Parks, Ward. "Prey Tell: How Heroes Perceive Monsters in" Beowulf"." The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 92.1 (1993): 1-16.
Strickland, Debra Higgs. Saracens, demons, & Jews: making monsters in medieval art. Princeton University Press, 2003.
Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. "Beowulf: the Monsters and the Critics." London, 1936.
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