The Tale Of Scyld Scefing





















Probably the best known stories of the bringing of culture in North European mythology are those surrounding Heimdal.  However, we have earlier Anglo-Saxon accounts such as the Beowulf poem and William of Malmesbury's Gesta Regum. Other Germanic sources also provide broad comparisons showing that these stories have common origins and that a common belief lies within them. They go back to a time when the Angles, Jutes and Saxons lived in Denmark and what is now northern Germany.  They brought these stories with them to the new England, carved out of lowland Britain, and we have never forgotten them.






The Beowulf poem tells the story of how a ship laden with treasure came across the sea, from what is now Sweden to Denmark, bringing a child who later became the king of that land. The child was called Scyld Scefing (Shield, the son of Scef). He ruled Denmark for a very long time and his reign marked a period of peace and prosperity. He is the progenitor of our civilization and gave rise to the Scylding dynasty of Danish kings. When he died, his body was laid out in a magnificent funeral boat laden with weapons and treasure and cast off into the sea from where he had come.




Scyld is succeeded by his son Beow (not to be confused with the hero Beowulf of the poem). Beow was himself succeeded by his son Heah Healfdene. Healfdene had four sons, one of whom was Hrođgar who played a leading role in the poem as the king of Denmark. We are not told anything about the 'father', Scef, apart from his existence being implied by the reference to 'Scyld' as the son of Scef. Other accounts and genealogies, however, do so.




The name 'Sceaf' appears in a ninth century genealogy of King Egbert of Wessex. This claims that 'Sceaf' was born in the Ark; no doubt as a means of trying to reconcile the ‘Old Testament’ elements of new Christian religion with earlier traditions. It suggests a belief, though, that 'Sceaf' established a northern dynasty in the manner of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel. Maybe, these are two stories telling the same tale of the same people.




There are other, later accounts, that demonstrate that there is a knowledge of our origins behind these stories that was so important to our ancestors that it survived well into the Christian era. In these stories, it is Scef rather than his son Scyld who arrives and departs in a boat. Indeed, it seems more than possible that the omission of direct reference to Scef in the Beowulf poem is simply down to the genealogical records on which it was based having been incomplete. The tenth century Chronicle Of Ćđelweard, for instance, says that 'Sceaf' came with a boat full of weapons to the island of Scani and was made king by the people there. William of Malmesbury tells a similar story in his twelfth century account of a child called Sceaf who came to Denmark from over the sea in a boat with a sheaf of corn beside him.








The thirteenth century Chronicle Of Abingdon tells the story of how the monks of Abingdon placed a sheaf of corn with a lighted candle beside it onto a shield and floated it down the River Thames to prove their right to meadow land along its banks. The shield floated down the river taking a course which 'proved' the monks were the rightful owners of the land in dispute.  This story suggests that there must have been some custom of placing a sheaf of corn onto a shield as a way of honouring and possibly seeking God's guidance and favour.  The use of a candle is a traditional symbol of a prayer or offering and suggests the votive nature of this practice.  This is an interesting folk practice that should be revived.




Scyld is also known in the related Danish traditions and is usually referred to as Scioldus or Skiold. Saxo Grammaticus places Scioldus as third after Dan (the progenitor of the Danish) and Lotherus. Lotherus is almost certainly the same as Lođur, who is one of the three deities of the Norse tradition who give life to the first humans.




Victor Rydberg in his Teutonic Mythology has put together the following account from the major known sources.




"One day it came to pass that a ship was seen sailing near the coast of Scedeland or Scani, .. and it approached the land without being propelled either by oars or sails. The ship came to the sea-beach, and there was seen lying in it a little boy, who was sleeping with his head on a sheaf of grain, surrounded by treasures and tools, by glaives and coats of mail. The boat itself was stately and beautifully decorated. Who he was and whence he came nobody had any idea, but the little boy was received as if he had been a kinsman, and he received the most constant and tender care. As he came with a sheaf of grain to their country the people called him Scef, Sceaf. Scef grew up among this people, became their benefactor and king, and ruled most honourably for many years. He died far advanced in age. In accordance with his own directions, his body was borne down to the strand where he had landed as a child. There in a little harbour lay the same boat in which he had come. Glittering from hoar-frost and ice, and eager to return to the sea, the boat was waiting to receive the dead king, and around him the grateful and sorrowing people laid no fewer treasures than those with which Scef had come. And when all was finished the boat went out upon the sea and no one knows where it landed. He left a son Scyld (according to the Beowulf poem, Beowulf son of Scyld), who ruled after him. Grandson of the boy who came with the sheaf was Healfdene-Halfdan, king of the Danes (that is, according to the Beowulf poem)."




Rydberg's account is confusing in its attempt to explain away the lack of specific mention of Scef by assuming that Scef was actually called Scyld and that Scyld was called Beow. This is a complex issue and scholars are still debating it. However, other manuscripts seem to make clear that the earliest forbear was Scef and his son was Scyld. Others think they are both the same character, the first entirely English in origin and the other Danish.  Later English chronicles recorded them separately, making one the 'son' of the other. 




Rydberg goes on to argue that the myth gives the oldest Teutonic patriarchs a very long life, as is the case with the patriarchs of ancient Israel. They lived for centuries, which means that the culture introduced by Scef would have spread far and wide during his reign. According to scattered statements traceable to the Scef-saga, Denmark, Angeln, much of modern Scandinavia and at least the northern part of Saxland, have been populated by people who honoured him.




Indeed, Rydberg goes on to argue that Scef was in fact the mythical progenitor of the North European people.




"If we examine the northern sources, we discover that the Scef myth still may be found in passages which have been unnoticed, and that the tribes of the far North saw in the boy who came with the sheaf and the tools the divine progenitor of their celebrated dynasty in Uppsala. This can be found in spite of the younger saga-geological layer which the hypothesis of Odin's and his Trojan Asas' immigration has spread over it since the introduction of Christianity.  Scef's personality comes to the surface, we shall see, as Skefill and Skelfir".




"Thus it follows that the Scef who is identical with Skelfir was in the heathen saga of the North the common progenitor of the Ynglinga and of the Skjoldunga race. From his dignity as original patriarch of the royal families of Sweden, Denmark, Angeln, Saxland, and England, he was displaced by the scholastic fiction of the middle ages concerning the immigration of Trojan Asiatics under the leadership of Odin, who as the leader of the immigration also had to be the progenitor of the most distinguished families of the immigrants. This view seems first to have been established in England after this country had been converted to Christianity and conquered by the Trojan immigration hypothesis. Woden is there placed at the head of the royal genealogies of the chronicles, excepting in Wessex, where Scef is allowed to retain his old position, and where Odin must content himself with a secondary place in the genealogy. But in the Beowulf poem Scef still retains his dignity as ancient patriarch of the kings of Denmark".





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Scyld's son was called Beow, not to be confused with the hero of the Beowulf poem.  This name can have two meanings.  It can mean 'bear', referring to warrior skills or barley.  He is our third folk patriarch and again we see the coming together of shield and sheaf – agriculture and warrior skills. 




Beow had a son, called Healfdene.  He is also associated with the onset of a time of strife and war. The age of warrior has become supreme and the earlier age of innocence and peace has been lost.  It is the age where people act aggressively to each other and think in terms of how they can force their will on others.  It is the era where the strength and skill of the warrior is needed to survive.  It is during these violent times, that are still with us, that our understanding of God was recorded and our mythologies written down.




The period of growing strife and hardship is reflected in Norse mythology by the tales of the winter war between the gods and the forces of chaos (depicted as the giants or eotens). Stories tell of the capture of Freo (Freya in Old Norse, the divine representative of love, beauty and fertility) and her captivity in the land of ice. In Middengeard, this was reflected in our land being completely laid waste by the forces of cold and ice – a folk memory of the Ice age.  Our people were forced to flee southwards and eastwards.  And so began the first great folk migration, movements into the lands of other peoples.




Eventually, the winter war was won and Freo returned to her home, bringing the end of the ice age with it.  Many of our people returned to their northern homelands. But the age of innocence had been lost and the age of the warrior remained.



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