“Then the lady of the Helmings walked about the hall,
offering the precious, ornamented cup
to old and young alike,” (Beowulf, 89)
In Beowulf, gift giving is an important act. The King gives rings to the people as payment (76, 140), weapons and armor are handed down through families (120), and treasures are rewarded for bravery (100, 121) or to solidify a truce (85). However, these earthly gifts are transitory and will eventually rust (143), whereas the gift of eternal salvation through Christ’s covenant with man is offered repeatedly in the mead halls by the peace-weaving women (124).
Christ’s covenant with man is that of an arbitrator, someone who will fight evil for us and intercede on our behalf before God. No longer does man alone have to bear the burden of upholding ancient laws to achieve God’s salvation, Christ offers us Grace instead. And as part of this deal Christ asks us to have faith in Him alone and to remember this agreement as part of a ritual. In the Book of Matthew, 22:20 (ESV), Christ tells his disciples “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” He asks them (and us) to drink in memory of Him as a symbol of their faith in Him to succeed.
The New Covenant, however, is exactly what is missing from the world of Beowulf. Not only is Christ’s Covenant unknown to these people, they are even ignorant of the ancient laws preceding it. No wonder then that the Danes have angered a terrible creature from the time before even the ancient laws were enacted. How can the Danes be merry in Heorot when they live in ignorance of the God who banished these monsters and giants? (77, 113)
When Beowulf attempts to rid the world of these terrors he is taking the burden of the Dane’s sin upon himself as Christ would for us; he is sacrificing himself. And we should pause here for a moment to reflect how complicated this image is because we have to remember that Hrothgar puts his faith in Beowulf as we would Christ. Hrothgar does not know Christ either, yet he behaves correctly in letting a savior take on the burden of sin for him since he is powerless to do so alone. Our author is not saying Beowulf is Christ, Beowulf eventually loses his earthly treasure (his life) when he puts faith only in himself (145). Beowulf is a false savior, but is not a dishonorable one and thus he was well rewarded in this life for his efforts.
Yet ignorance of Grace is still no excuse because the cup of Grace is offered to everyone, “young and old alike” (89) in the hall of life (Heorot). Hrothgar and his wife, Wealhtheow, understand the meaning of faith and grace, and she as a peace-weaver (124) offers this knowledge to everyone who might have it – she is very Christ-like in this regard. Even when the cup is stolen (130) and hidden away in a barrow, it does not rid the world of our salvation through Grace. Jealous evil in the guise of the dragon might guard this treasure from men, and so much time may pass that this Grace passes from all memory, but it is still there and even a lowly thief, or slave (131) can happen upon it and be rewarded with its gift, “begged [his Lord] for the bond of peace”, “and that unhappy man was granted his prayer”.
Thus the cup we see referred to over and over in the poem (89, 99, 103, 123, 124, 129), is truly the cup of the new Covenant filled with the blood of Christ, the true hero of mankind, according to our poet.