I still haven’t had the chance to see the new Beowulf but advertisements for the film and anticipation of seeing it eventually prompted me to use my daily commute to re-read the epic poem a couple of months ago. It was very rewarding.
Beowulf was originally composed in the seventh or eighth century describing people known to have existed and events known to have occured in the sixth century in Denmark and Southern Sweden. The poet mixes historical figures, places, and deeds with the mythical tale of Beowulf and his enemies, the monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon that terrorizes the people after its horde is plundered. The poem survives in a single manuscript that dates to around 1000 A.D.
Given its early date of composition sometime during the 600s or 700s, I was surprised to see the Cain story used in the context of race in the poem:
The grim spirit was called Grendel, a famous march-stepper, who held the moors, the fen and the fastness. The hapless creature sojourned for a space in the sea-monsters’ home after the Creator had condemned him. The eternal Lord avenged the murder on the race of Cain, because he slew Abel. He did not rejoice in that feud. He, the Lord, drove him far from mankind for that crime. Thence sprang all evil spawn, ogres and elves and sea-monsters, giants too, who struggled long time against God. He paid them requital for that. (Beowulf, R.K. Gordon, trans., J.M. Dent & Sons, London 1926 (reprint Dover 1992), pg. 3.)
In explaining the origin of the monster Grendel, the poet explains that Grendel is of the “race of Cain” and goes on to explain that this race encompassed all evil spawn, ogres, elves, sea-monsters, and giants.
This reference to the “race of Cain” surprised me because I had the sense that associating the “curse” or “mark” of Cain (Genesis 4:15) with race was a very late development in the Christian world, largely arising after the seventeenth century. Stirling Adams provided a very useful summary to this effect of the development of the application of the “curse of Cain” to black Africans among Christians in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries here at BCC back in June, 2007:
In his 2003 book, The Curse of Ham: Race and Slavery in Early Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Jewish Studies scholar David Goldenberg explains that a belief that Cain’s “mark” was black skin is a relatively recent phenomenon. It began first — and slowly — with a mistranslation in apocryphal Armenian literature from around the sixth century A.D.; the initial mistake was mistranslating the Genesis statement that Cain’s “countenance fell” as meaning Cain’s face turned dark. By the 17th and 18th centuries, he shows, a belief that the curse was black skin was becoming common in Europe, due in large part, presumably, to the economic usefulness of the belief in supporting the practice of enslaving black Africans. By Joseph Smith’s time, the belief was widespread among Christians in slaveholding America.
With regard to the “curse of Ham” which also came to be defined in terms of race, Stirling summarizes Goldenberg and others as follows:
How, why, and when did readers direct the curse at black Africans? After his exhaustive research of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic sources, Goldenberg concludes that seventh century Arabia is when and where an explicit link between blacks and slavery is made with the curse. He writes that this occurred precisely “when the Black became strongly identified with the slave class in the Near East, after the Islamic conquest of Africa.” It first appeared in the Christian West in the fifteenth century as Europe discovered Africa and started to trade slaves. Then, “As the Black slave trade moved to England and then America, the Curse of Ham moved with it.”
Religious historian Benjamin Braude explains that over time the story of Ham and the curse was interpreted in many and inconsistent ways . . . . Among Christian readers, up until the 18th and 19th centuries, the “Curse of Ham” was likely to be viewed by Christians as an indictment of Jews, not blacks. In fact, Braude . . . claims no Christian artist depicted Ham as a black person until the American Presbyterian Josiah Priest included a drawing of a black Ham in his 1843 book Slavery, as it Relates to the Negro.
Braude concludes that it was only in 18th and 19th century Europe and America, where scriptural support for slavery of black Africans became economically useful, that the story of Ham became commonly interpreted as a story of curse that involved dark skin.
How does the association of the curse of Cain with race surface in the seventh or eighth centuries in England in Beowulf? Of course, of paramount importance here is the fact that “race” in Beowulf, at least in this instance referring to Grendel and his mother, is used more in the sense of “species” in that the “race of Cain” was the evil spawn that terrorized people’s dreams then as now — ogres, elves, sea monsters and giants. No humans are made to be subhuman here based on the accusation that they carry the curse or mark of Cain by virtue of a certain physical characteristic. Still, Genesis 4 does not invoke race at all in telling the story of Cain and his “mark”. In truth, Beowulf is not exactly an “early” source, despite its age — it was written long after Genesis. And, as Stirling’s summary points out, Armenian sources relatively contemporary with Beowulf began equating the Cain’s fallen countenance (Genesis 4:5-6) with dark skin. Did people connect the curse or mark of Cain with race even earlier than these Armenian sources?
Whatever the answer to that question is, we can only wish that such association between the curse or mark of Cain and some racial or other physical characteristic had remained in the realm of epic poetry and bigfoot legends.