The Origin of Violence: “Maxims I” and Beowulf
Cain was, perhaps, the ideal metaphor for defining the edges of Anglo-Saxon society. He was a common reference for Christians; he was regularly discussed by clergy. Ælfric, for example, wrote of Cain as one who committed fratricide “þurh andan,” a crime that has affected all humanity. Cain’s appearances in Old English poetry are similar: Cain as a trope indicates human-induced chaos. While Adam and Eve are responsible for the stain of Original Sin, Cain is responsible for the sting of what Quinones calls “original violence” Cain appears in only two secular Old English poems, “Maxims I” ” and Beowulf. In the first of these, his story is told as a pragmatic explanation of how violence entered the world–a world which, despite God’s wrath towards Adam and Eve, was still idyllic. Cain’s crime results in humanity’s severance from its prior innocence.
In Beowulf, Cain’s story is alluded to rather than explicitly linked with any of the events or characters in the poem. Although Cain is associated with Grendel, there’s no evidence that Grendel, or his mother, is anything more than metaphorically of Cain’s line. Cain is a trope, a figure used to provide an atmosphere that underscores the tensions surrounding Heorot and the history of the Scyldings. Once Cain is introduced, immediately following references to Heorot’s collapse, it is understood that the Anglo-Saxon ethic of loyalty and humanity’s “natural love” of each other is under threat. In this, Cain embodies the result of breaking the Anglo-Saxon ethic. As such, it isn’t necessarily evidence that the Beowulf poet was attempting to propagandize the newer religion: the legend of Cain supported the Anglo-Saxon worldview, which is why the poet used it to underscore contemporary social mores. In both “Maxims I” and Beowulf, the Cain and Abel story “announc[es] the beginning of history–Cain’s story is not self-contained; more than an individual or a particular time, he initiates a race that will be used to account for the continuing presence of evil itself” (Quinones 27). While Adam and Eve belong to the Garden, that mystic place half way between Heaven and Earth, Cain is solely of the earth, its geographies are described by his wanderings, and human behavior is defined by his crime. Cain’s descendents, those who are controlled by urges and instinct rather than wisdom, carry out the continuous cycle of violence which culture tries to restrain.
One work that is cited to support arguments for Beowulf‘s Christian elements is the Old English Genesis A. Klaeber was but one scholar who argued that this poem was a source for Beowulf‘s Cain allusion (Anderson 125). However, despite the heroic tone of the Cædmonian paraphrase, the differences between Genesis A and Beowulf are more distinct. Lines 965-1054 are a poetic rendering of Cain’s story that focuses upon Cain as lordless exile, certainly, but the poet takes care to remind the reader:
ac us hearde sceod
freolecu fæmne þurh forman gilt
þe wið metod æfre men gefremeden,
eorðbuende siððan Adam wearð
of godes muðe gaste eacen. (997b-1001)
This reminder of Original Sin, which comes midway into Cain’s story–just after Abel’s murder and before God curses Cain–undercuts the primacy of the fratricide in human history. Cain’s story in Genesis A , although cast in a heroic frame, remains fundamentally different from the allusion in Beowulf. Brockman argues of Genesis A that “the primary focus of this episode is on the human rather than the theological dimensions of the story [. . . .] (117). However, the section is steeped in theology and has a religious rather than secular focus; this focus is brought into relief by the reminder of Eve’s transgression. Cain’s crime is “man’s self-willed sinning,” and so it is the result of Eve’s sin (Greenfield qtd. in Gardner 18). Ultimately, Abel’s death is his mother’s doing. A clearer understanding of how Cain fit into the Anglo-Saxon worldview, and subsequently Beowulf, is seen in “Maxims I,” for there are similarities in the treatment of socio-cultural concerns in these two poems.
Both “Maxims I” and Beowulf feature a curious blend of pagan and Christian attitudes. “Maxims I” features a “marked degree of assimilation of Christian and pre-Christian thought ” (Krapp and Dobbie xlvi). Similarly, Beowulf’s classification as a Christian or pagan text has been a focus of scholarly work for well over a century. With the overlap between the Anglo-Saxon worldview and that of Christianity, it is no surprise that Cain should be an object of focus. Although both poems are Christian poems, it is original violence–and the threat of intra-communal hostility–that takes center stage. “Maxims I” fails to mention the Fall, as does Beowulf. Adam and Eve’s sin isn’t accounted for: although the poems’ audiences were certainly acquainted with Eden’s loss, the explanation for the existence of sin in the world isn’t foregrounded. Instead, both authors chose to emphasize Cain’s crime as that which brought destruction, not sin, into the world; Like the composer of “Maxims I,” “the Beowulf poet makes the forces of social chaos spring from Cain” (Davis 104). “Maxims I” and Beowulf are concerned with exploring the cyclical nature of violence: once it begins, it must carry on as each act begs retribution. Adam and Eve, then, aren’t indicted as their story “is not marked by violence, their lapse–and it becomes only that–betokens repairability [. . .] it has nothing of the monstrous in it” (Quinones 14). Contrasted with Cain’s crime, for which he is forever exiled, and with Grendel’s rampage at Heorot (and his refusal to conclude the feud according to custom), neither of which can be repaired, Adam and Eve’s sin is naive rather than inhumane and destructive.
The collection of aphoristic, or gnomic, verses known as “Maxims I” is part of the tenth-century Exeter Book. There is a general consensus that it was written by a West Saxon scribe, but the date of composition remains a mystery: it may be eighth, ninth, or tenth century. (Krapp and Dobbie xvii). The poem’s structure, as well, is confounding. Although generally published as a single piece, the manuscript presents three sections: lines 1-70, 71-137, and 138-204. However, “it is impossible to tell with any certainty whether the three sectional divisions indicated in the manuscript were intended by the scribe to be taken as three parts of a single poem, or as three separate poems” (xlvi). There is no clear cohesion or unifying factor that clearly brings the disparate verses together–the precepts range from admonishing readers that wise men must look to their souls and act justly–“Snotre men sawlum beorgað healdað hyra soð mid ryhte” (36)–to the characteristics of different elements–“Forst sceal freosan, fyr wudu meltan” (71). However, there is a triple focus within the collection–those of “God, suffering, and wisdom“ (Shippey 16). Yet there is another theme that encompasses these three: that of kinship–whether by blood or by community. Adages that caution towards cohesion and stability readily demonstrate the value that Anglo-Saxons placed on social order. These range from warnings that women must keep faith with their husbands, young men must be educated in order to be made manageable, and the need for wise men to meet and act for the preservation of order: each of these contribute to the staving off of chaos. In contrast, there are warnings that the man who opts for life outside of the code, he with no friends or with a dark heart, must walk in shadows, for “sceomiande man sceal in scenade hierophant, scir in leohte geriseð” (66). Furthermore, the forsaken man will “genimeð him wulfas to geferan, / felafæne deor” (146b-147a). Failure to abide by the social code results in exclusion, for the man who hides his secrets or who lacks friends is suspicious and potentially treacherous: he is cast out of society and to live a bestial life shrouded in darkness.
Despite the argument that “Maxims I” may be one poem, or even three, there is a distinct change in tone that divides the poem into two halves. Lines 1-58a in “Maxims I” are primarily concerned with the idea of God the protector, human struggle, and the necessity for wise men to attend the community. From line 58b, “Cyning biþanwealdes georn,” there is a shift from a more intimate community focus as “the poet moves suddenly to a much more heroic and aggressive stance. The king is a land-grabber, not a kingdom-guarder. Power and pride lead to firm statements of social propriety. Peace and settlements give way to the gold-sharing commonly associated with war, and only abruptly linked with the favours of God” (Shippey 16-17). The shift away from intellectual and religious commentary to those adages which reinforce social order indicates the poem’s over-overridingly secular, rather than religious, perspective: the poet’s concern is with social, rather than spiritual, instruction. Despite the references to God’s wisdom and assurances of his protection, there is little theological matter included in the poem, and there’s no reference whatsoever to Adam, Eve, Satan, or Original Sin. As the antithesis of civil peace, the poem culminates in a retelling of Cain and Abel’s story–an exemplum of fraternal, and therefore, civil strife. The section not only explains the existence of strife, but also reinforces the idea that human needs to be prepared to fight when necessary, for the death of Abel “næs þæt andæge nið, ” but is still echoing on the earthly plain and justifying the need for “guð sceal in eorle, / wig geweaxan” (83-84a). If not for the first crime committed by a human, without a supernatural mediator, there would be no need for war, as there would be no hate.
The segment clearly is a means of explaining the origins of violence: “Wearð fæhþ fyra cynne, siþþan furþam swealg, / eorðe Abeles blode,” (192-193a). Abel’s blood seeps into the soil and from there throughout the world: as with Genesis A, “the evil consequences of Cain’s deed are represented as both universal and perpetual” (Wright 14). The organic nature of the violence is emphasized in the earth’s drinking Abel’s blood and the resulting fruit: “micel mon ældum, monegum þeodum / bealoblonden niþ” (195-96a). The earth, fertilized by “þam wrohtdropen,” is still the conduit by which discord is spread, thereby confirming the corporeal nature of violence: it isn’t something handed down by God. Cain was the great innovator, and the effects of his crime moved like a poison through the soil to infect all humanity and therefore necessitated “ahogodan ond ahyrdon heoro sliþendne” (200). This is a myth of origins, and although it is an Old Testament story, it fits in with the pre-existing heroic ethic. There is little theology to it, for there is no reckoning of God and Cain’s confrontation, and there’s no account of Cain’s curse. The curse, instead, is upon mankind. Certainly, the Anglo-Saxons would have been aware of the entire biblical story through the Church. It is interesting, however, that the poet chose to foreground the deed itself rather than the religious, or spiritual, text. Instead, the murder answers the question of why people fight, and why men must bear arms against each other. The biblical tale has been subtly manipulated to fulfill the criteria set forth by the “Maxims I” poet: to explain and to advise his brothers and sisters in understanding and living the right Anglo-Saxon life.
“Maxims I” focuses not only on the human nature of Cain’s crime, but on its earthly roots: “the origin of malice and strife [is traced] to the same moment of history, and not simply the murder of Abel, but to the precise moment when the earth received his blood” (Wright 14). Violence, in other words, is strictly of this world and, consequently, of the City of Man. It is through violence that such cities are erected, founded on pride and achieved through the vanquishing of a perceived enemy. Such a city is Heorot.
Hrothgar’s call for men throughout the world to unite and build Heorot in itself signifies the creation of an earthly paradise: one which stands for peace and prosperity, as well as earthly victory. Upon completing the description of this “shining city,” the poet foretells its collapse from the treachery of kin, disloyalty and hatred. The creation of Heorot is mirrored, in the scop’s song, with the first Creation, and its undoing, not by Adam and Eve, but by Cain. While Adam and Eve certainly bear the brunt of responsibility for the Fall, and it is undoubtedly a story the audience was familiar with, that initial episode is not the poet’s concern. Instead he foregrounds Cain’s betrayal via Grendel.
Much critical discussion has focused on the allusion to Cain in Beowulf. Some see it as definitive evidence that the poem is a Christian one, written as an allegory to propagandize the newer religion. Bernard Huppé interprets the poem as an allegory based upon Augustinian ideas about the City of Man (represented by Cain) and the City of God (represented by Abel).[i] Margaret Goldsmith thinks “the Christian poet’s purpose was to examine the values of the heroic world as they appear when set against the whole history of mankind [. . . .]” as a religious allegory (4-6). In this, Cain becomes satanic; he serves as a metaphor for the non-Christian, self-servin,k1g world. Cain’s presence, as Grendel, is a reminder of the horrors outside the Christian world. Alvin Lee sees Grendel as a figurative incarnation of Satan: “the ‘fall’ of the human race [Heorot’s inhabitants] into the clutches of hell takes place because of an assault by hell, not because of any discernible human failure” (169). However, the allusion to Cain does pinpoint a human failure: excessive pride and envy that destroy society. Ricardo Quinones, on the other hand, sees the Cain-Abel story as an ultimately secular story that illustrates the divisions inherent within human society: it is the basic duality from which all conflicts arise, especially conflict “within a context of extraordinary unity” (10). There isn’t a propagandizing element to the story so much as it is a means of explaining and describing otherwise inexplicable circumstances.
In an attempt to locate sources for Cain’s inclusion in the poem, some critics focus on “Caines cyn,”[ii] the anti-diluvian giants who war against God, seeking analogues and origins in apocryphal texts which may, or may not, have been available to the Anglo-Saxon world. R. E. Kaske and Ruth Mellinkoff have written extensively on this issue. Kaske considers the study of the book of Enoch, which features such giants, relevant to Beowulf as it “produce[s] a clearer and more meaningful context for the figures of Grendel and his mother, whose whole portrayal seems indefinably to take for granted a greater degree of recognizability than we have so far been able to find in them” (431). Moreover, Kaske proposes that the book of Enoch acts as a “catalyst” though which the Beowulf poet is able to synthesize the poem’s Germanic, Christian, and Old Testament elements (431). While this is an intriguing area of study, it isn’t necessary to point towards Ethiopic texts to justify Cain’s existence, nor to look towards theological instruction. Beowulf‘s “fundamental ethical code [. . .] is unmistakably secular: it is the warrior code of the aristocracy, celebrating bravery, loyalty, and generosity” (Irving 186). Consequently, Cain’s role can be understood without the attendant theological perspective as a secular example, the first kin-slayer, and the first human to disrupt the natural order of things. In other words, the biblical Cain isn’t Grendel’s kin: instead, it is the legendary, mythic Cain who shares Grendel’s dark meres and hellish hate. In this, Beowulf presents a syncretism of Germanic and Old Testament legendry: Grendel’s relationship with Cain isn‘t a spiritual association, but a creative one. Like Cain, Grendel disrupts society and introduces chaos (Hill 120). The poet, although Christian, settles on myth and legend as a device to underscore Beowulf‘s exploration of the heroic warrior ethic.
Certainly, biblical parallels are present in the building of Heorot and subsequent bloodshed. Yet these may be archetypal parallels: creation’s perfection is quickly marred by the intrusion of one excluded from the celebration. The building of Heorot is achieved after Hrothgar “weorc gebannan / manigre mægþe geond þisne middangeard / folcstede frætwan” (74b-75). A communal effort, the “healærna mæst” is swiftly built. The great hall is the manifestation of human unity. The poet departs from the creation story to warn of impending doom–the destruction of Heorot from familial rivalry, “se ecghete aþumsweorum / æfter wælniðe wæcnan scolde” (84-85). This, the first mention of violence between kin, in itself foreshadows Grendel’s coming and sets the poem‘s melancholic tone. The poet returns to the linear story, the joyous reception of Heorot. In a song that mirrors Heorot’s completion, the scop sings of the first Creation: “Sægde se þe cuþe / frumsceaft fira feorran reccan” (90b-91). This is commonly translated as though the scop’s song is an ancient one, “from long ago.” This does describe a myth of origins, but it is also possible that “feorran reccan” refers to a tale having traveled a long physical, rather than temporal, way: “unless the present case is an exception, Old English feorran involves space, not time” (Ball qtd. in Gardner 61). Here, the Creation story is being recounted as a story from a distant place–perhaps the Middle East–rather than a distant time. The scop’s song is a borrowed myth, one used to entertain rather than to celebrate God’s work, and applicable to the building of a secular city. In comparing the creation of Heorot, “heah ond horngeap,” with the mythic creation, the scop frames Heorot as an earthly paradise of peace and ring-sharing, wisdom and loyalty: the perfect symbol of the Anglo-Saxon heroic ethic.
Grendel, of course, is present and suffering, “geþolode” in darkness. He hears the joyous music and the scop’s song, and he knows he is excluded. Although “ellengæst,” a “feond on helle,” he is undoubtedly of mankind for he is referred to as “wonsæli wer,” an unhappy man. He lived for a while with giants “Siþðan him scyppend forscrifen hæfde / in Caines cynne” (106-07a). The link to Cain is fragile, for it is based on secondhand association. Grendel has, for some reason, been exiled among Cain’s descendents; he has been proscribed by God–struck with the mark of Cain–and sent to live amongst similar creatures in the areas bordering human society. As the reference to the Cain and Abel story confirms, Cain is the original “other”: the “Cain-Abel [story] does not only show difference, it shows division; its dualisms are conflict ridden” (Quinones 13). The divisions, in other words, are irresolvable. Cain’s pride, and his envy of Abel, creates a barrier that can only be breached by violence. Grendel’s hatred, apparently inexplicable, can be understood via the connotations of Cain’s story. Just as the introduction of original violence disrupted the first earthly paradise, so must Grendel disrupt this new earthly paradise. He does so “because of men’s mirth and music in a communal hall [. . ] Grendel’s savagery is not an attempt to disrupt man’s relationship with God but to destroy men’s pleasure with other men” (Kroll 124). Brotherly love–human unity–is a utopian ideal. The threat of outsiders is always present.
Both Grendel and his mother are “primarily political monsters” (Davis 104); both thwart the Scyldings’ social order, as well as the Danes’ victory. At the same time, both creatures are products of the heroic ethic: Grendel, who lives beyond the reaches of society, solidly rejects established convention:
sibbe ne wolde
wið manna hwone mægenes Deniga,
feorhbealo feorran, fea þingian
ne þær nænig witena wenan þorfte
beorhtre bote to banan folmum (154b-158)
Grendel’s status as outsider, although it doesn’t explain his irrational anger, explains his rejection of the social code. This clearly aligns Grendel with Cain, who was likewise unreasonable in his anger and who refused to act according to expectation.
On the other hand, Grendel’s mother–also an outsider–doesn’t act against the cultural ethos. An “aglæcwif (warrior-woman), she is defined as “wrecend.” As an avenger, Grendel’s mother “acts out of a sense of moral responsibility that parallels [that of the warrior ethos]” (Kroll 125). Her relationship to Cain is, like Grendel’s, associative. The poet explains that Grendel, and therefore his mother, is included with Cain’s descendents (1266b). However, although the lines “þanon woc fela / geosceaftgasta” (1265a-66a) can be construed to mean that Cain is the physical progenitor of “fateful spirits,” but it is just as likely that this is a metaphoric relationship: “the misbegotten creatures that descended from Cain, whose fratricidal spirit lives on in all acts of dark violence, not just Grendel’s once Cain’s act was committed, humans began to commit crime, especially that of violence, against others humans. The reminder of Cain’s role underscores the eternal cycle human induced violence. Grendel’s rejection of wergild, and his mother’s insistence on vengeance, exemplifies the “savagery [of the] refusal to accept political solutions, for this refusal can only lead to further retaliation, to still more killing and destruction” (Kroll 125). Although Grendel’s mother is within her rights to seek revenge for her son’s death, she is perpetuating a cycle that can only result on further bloodshed. Grendel and his mother represent both aspects of violent crime: Grendel initiates, but his mother continues.
The secular function of Beowulf’s Cain is clarified in comparison to “Maxims I.” Cain’s figure in that secular instructive piece is an example that biblical allusions don’t necessarily indicate religious intent. “Maxims I” presents Cain and Abel’s story as a myth of origins, an alternate creation myth, which explains the place of violence in human society. In this, “Maxims I” helps identify Cain’s relevance in Beowulf: he is used to personify the greatest strife and the greatest danger to society: he who would strike his brother without cause. Like Cain, Grendel introduces violence into a pleased and peaceful world. The poet’s alignment of Grendel with Cain was a precise way to illustrate Grendel’s wrath and his inclination towards murder and chaos. The affinity with Cain also signifies the continuum of violence that results from the warrior ethos, for Grendel’s mother, who performs her duties as the offended party, is entitled to seek revenge. Ultimately, Grendel and his mother show the futility of the this social system. Violence begets violence, and although there is a threat of social collapse, there no hope of collapsing the cycle. Humanity will always undo itself through pride, envy, and disloyalty, violence will always result, and vengeance will always be sought. Beowulf must end bleakly, for there is no alternative social view. Because of the carnage introduced by Cain, perpetuated by Grendel, and reinforced by Grendel’s mother, Beowulf’s people are condemned to relive the heroic ethic’s cycle for eternity.
[i] Although these studies are relevant, and they certainly add to the weight of Beowulf as a cultural text, they don’t necessarily add to the understanding of Cain’s importance in the poem. Rather than a religious figure, Cain is a secular example. The book of Enoch and The City of God, while respectively underscoring the biblical and theological importance of Cain and his kin, and (specifically in the case of The City of God) translating that importance into Christian lives, it is not my intent here to prove Beowulf, in itself or its digressions, to be an allegory.
[ii]Scholars pursuing this argument often point out the poet’s confusion of Cain with Cham; In line 107, Cain is identified as Cames, and in line 1261 he is Camp. Cham was Noah’s son, who was himself exiled. Phillip Pulsiano argues that this was a deliberate attempt by the poet to conflate two myths as “the evil which Cain introduced into the world is reintroduced by Cham into the postdiluvian world” (34). This would reinforce the human, rather than divine, element in the introduction of violence into a “clean” world. David Williams, however, points out that this may have been a common confusion. Alcuin, for example, makes the same mistake as the Beowulf poet: he refers to the “progeny of Cham” and “the daughters of Cain.” interchangeably (Williams 31).
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