Musing on Beowulf: Giants & Genesis
Beowulf & Bible Study?
A few general Christian themes pop out upon reading Beowulf. One theme is Joy. The author constantly uses Joy to indicate the good guys and the bad guys, the good times and the bad times. You know things are cool with the Spear-Danes when they are joyful. You know Grendel and his momma are bad news because they are always “without joy”.
Another theme is the constant praising of God and giving Him credit for all the good things—both from the mouths of the characters, and also, if the characters get a little pagan-y, the author himself is quick to insert praise and glory to the Creator. But these themes, Joy and Praise, while thoroughly Christian, aren’t quite pointing to specific passages of Scripture, so it is interesting to note when we do come across actual references to specific passages and scenes from the Bible. The first and most obvious reference is to Cain and Abel (line 107). The second clear reference is to the Great Flood (around line 1690).
What I find most interesting about these references is that they are coming from a very specific interpretation of Scripture, one that has fallen out of favor with modern Christianity. In Beowulf, Cain, we’re told, is the progenitor of monsters and the story of the Great Flood is found inscribed on the hilt of an ancient sword. What’s even more interesting is that there is something, uh, big in both references that links the two and reveals the author’s interpretation of Scripture: Giants!
In our translations of Beowulf we often find the word “giants” but we actually miss something that the original retains. The Beowulf poet distinguishes between two types of giants. First, the Old English eotena and second, the Latin derived gigantes. In our translations we typically find both words translated as “giants” so the distinction is easily missed. But it is an important distinction. The fact that the word gigantes is a Latin loan-word ought to ring a bell. What’s this Latin word doing in my Old English poem and why? Well go ahead and grab yer Latin Vulgate and turn with me to Genesis 6:4. We read:
gigantes autem erant super terram in diebus illis postquam enim ingressi sunt filii Dei ad filias hominum illaeque genuerunt isti sunt potentes a saeculo viri famosi
Here it is in the King James:
There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.
Note the first word in the Vulgate. That’s where the Beowulf poet got it from.
Now I’m going to summarize a fella named S. Brandy who wrote in “Cain, Grendel and the Giants of Beowulf” that there are only three references where the poet uses this Latinized word gigantes. The first is in the passage about Cain. The next in reference to the sword he finds in Grendel’s mother’s lair, the sword was made by giants. The last reference is the inscription on the same sword telling about how the flood swept away the “kinship of giants”. In all other places the word eoten is used. So when we read that Grendel is a giant, he’s not the Latin gigantes, but rather an eoten. Why? Quoth S. Brandy:
“The scant evidence in Beowulf may not prove the case, but it suggests that for the poet, far from ignorant of a distinction between the two words, attempted to stay within the scriptural limits by restricting gigant to the race which perished in the Deluge. In reserving the Latin loan-word for the antediluvian giants, he follows to the letter the scriptural statement—so often cited by the Fathers—that the 'gigantes non resurgent' (Isa. 26:14)"
So what we are reading here is the Beowulf author’s interpretation of Genesis 6. And for any Christian reading this, you might think, “Ah, that’s a weird one.” Here is the passage in a modern translation, the English Standard Version:
When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.
Did you notice something in that passage? No giants. And a new, weird word “Nephilim”. You see, the word in the original Hebrew is nephilim. So why did this translation just transliterate the word and where did the giants go? Sundry books and nerdy papers have been written on this, but we don’t have time for that so I’m going to cut to the chase. I contend the reason for the simple transliteration—even though the majority of ancient translations from the Septuagint to the King James Bible translates “nephilim” as giants—is because modern translators have been more influenced by the Enlightenment than they have by Christian history and tradition. And by that I mean that while they may not have lost a supernatural worldview, they have at least lost their nerve about it. Which means I think a few of them were too embarrassed to translate it as “giants”. Because—ah, you see—persons respectable and modern don’t—ahem—believe in giants.
And it gets weirder. Not only does one have to tangle with giants in this passage, but also the pesky “sons of God” (as in “who are they?”) and what they did with the daughters of men. Leaving it simply “Nephilim” gives you, let’s call it, interpretive flexibility. Now because we read that these daughters of men didn’t give birth to giants, but to some innocuous un-figure-outable Nephi-huh? the Sons of God could basically be any old earthbound dudes just cruisn’ for chicks. But if they gave birth to actual giants, who then are these Sons of God? The answer is that they are spiritual beings—we might call them angels—created to serve God by ruling over certain aspects of creation. Only they were to serve righteously, and we’re told later in the Bible (Jude 6:1) that these beings “did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling”. And the result is what we read about in Genesis 6. They left their proper state, copulated with human women, and the result was what the ancients understood as giants, mighty men of great renown.
Now the Beowulf poet takes this theme and reasons—as almost all ancients and early and medieval Christians did—that preternatural monsters, demons, and evil beings more or less find their origin in this great rebellion. And he draws that line a little farther back to Cain, the first murderer, cursed by God to wander the earth. From Cain the world grows increasingly evil, reaching the climax at the rebellion of the Sons of God and their giant offspring. Thus, Cain serves as the human figurehead and progenitor of monsters, elves, eotens and gigantes.
While so much could be said about all of this, I’d like to leave you with something that modern-minded people can easily miss. Far from being fantasy, this was for the poet—and still is for many Christians—an interpretation of Scripture grounded and rooted in truth. Grendel, then, isn’t just some otherworldly being disconnected from our reality. When the Beowulf poet leans upon Genesis 6 to establish both the origin of monsters and wondrous items like swords, he’s doing so to lend credibility to the tale.