“Cain’s Fratricide: Original Violence as ‘Original Sin’ in Beowulf”

“Cain’s Fratricide: Original Violence as ‘Original Sin’ in Beowulf”

Hodges, Horace Jeffery

Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, Volume 15 No. 1 (2007)


The poem Beowulf emphasizes the importance of kinship, deplores kinslaying, traces violence to the original fratricide in which Cain slew Abel, and sees Grendel’s attacks as a continuation of that original kinslaying. The disreputable Unferth is condemned to hell for kinslaying, whereas the upstanding Wiglaf is commended for coming to the aid of his kinsman, Beowulf. Five times, the poem thematizes fratricide, the most extensive discourse on this theme occurring just prior to Beowulf’s confrontation with the dragon. Moreover, shortly before his death from the dragon’s poison, Beowulf states that he has no fear of reproach when meeting God, for he has killed no kinsmen. Interestingly, although the poem summarizes the creation story from Genesis, it says nothing about the original sin by Adam and Eve, nor does it even mention the first couple. Instead, Cain’s murderous action in killing Abel is treated as the origin of evil in the world, thereby making this original violence a kind of ‘original sin.’ Intriguing parallels to this view of Cain’s crime can be found in Genesis A, B and Maxims I.

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