Persistent Mythologies: A Cognitive Approach to Beowulf and the Pagan Question
Luttrell, Eric G.
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Luttrell, Eric G.
This dissertation employs recent developments in the cognitive sciences to explicate competing social and religious undercurrents in Beowulf. An enduring scholarly debate has attributed the poem's origins to, variously, Christian or polytheistic worldviews. Rather than approaching the subject with inherited terms which originated in Judeo-Christian assumptions of religious identity, we may distinguish two incongruous ways of conceiving of agency, both human and divine, underlying the conventional designations of pagan and Christian. One of these, the poly-agent schema, requires a complex understanding of the motivations and limitations of all sentient individuals as causal agents with their own internal mental complexities. The other, the omni-agent schema, centralizes original agency in the figure of an omnipotent and omnipresent God and simplifies explanations of social interactions. In this concept, any individual's potential for intentional agency is limited to subordination or resistance to the will of God. The omni-agent schema relies on social categorization to understand behavior of others, whereas the poly-agent schema tracks individual minds, their intentions, and potential actions. Whereas medieval Christian narratives, such as Bede's Life of St. Cuthbert and Augustine's Confessions, depend on the omni-agent schema, Beowulf relies more heavily on the poly-agent schema, which it shares with Classical and Norse myths, epics, and sagas. While this does not prove that the poem originated before the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons, it suggests that the poem was able to preserve an older social schema which would have been discouraged in post-conversion cultures were it not for a number of passages in the poem which affirmed conventional Christian theology. These theological asides describe an omni-agent schema in abstract terms, though they accord poorly with the representations of character thought and action within the poem. This minimal affirmation of a newer model of social interaction may have enabled the poem's preservation on parchment in an age characterized by the condemnation, and often violent suppression, of non-Christian beliefs. These affirmations do not, however, tell the whole story.