What occurred in the time between Heimdall's birth and the time he walked among men as Rig, establishing the Germanic caste system? Unfortunately, this information has been lost in the Eddaic record.
However, a widespread myth of an ancient king named Scef may shed some light on Heimdall's missing years. His name is mentioned in Icelandic, Danish, and Anglo-Saxon stories, often as a son of Odin. He is alternately known as Scef, Skjöld, and Scyld Scefing ('Shield, son of Scef'). The numerous and varied sources which mention him, have long been recognized, and were most recently catalogued by Bruce M. Alexander in Scyld and Scef: Expanding the Analogues (2002). This boy-king figure is frequently listed as a son or descendant of Odin. In Danish sources, however, Skjöld is the son of Lothurus, most likely a historicized version of Odin's brother Loður, who assisted his siblings in the creation of the world and of man. This is all the more significant, because Saxo wrote his Danish history, based on Old Icelandic material, a generation before Snorri's composed his Edda.
In Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon geneologies, Scef is often said to be the son or descendent of Odin. Danish genealogies, however, including Saxo's, which go back further than Skjöld (Scef) make him the son of King Lotherus. There is no doubt that Lotherus, like his descendants, Skjöld (Scef), Halfdan, and Hadding, was taken from the Germanic myth and legend. Saxo Grammaticus, in particular, is well-known for having based his Gesta Dancorum largely on Icelandic mythology. ...
Scef's story, best known from Anglo-Saxon sources, describes the arrival of an ancient Scandinavian king, who first appears among men as an infant in a ship, laden with the tools and treasures of culture and agriculture. He sleeps with a sheaf of grain beneath his head.
Before his arrival, the people led simple lives. By the time of his departure, culture has taken hold among them.
The sources, as far as they go, agree that Scef arrived on the shores of Scandia, the southern strand of the Scandinavian penninsula.
The Old English poem Widsith, in its list of ancient kings and peoples, identifies Scef as the ruler of the Lombards (Sceafa Longbeardum, l. 32).
Concerning Scef, Æthelweard's Chronicon Æthelwardi, composed in the late 10th or early 11th century, records the following in Book 3, concerning the year 855:
"And this Scef arrived with one light ship in the island of the ocean which is called Skani, with arms all round him. He was a very young boy, and unknown to the people of that land, but he was received by them, and they guarded him with diligent attention as one who belonged to them, and elected him King. From his family King Æþelwulf derived his descent."
The 12th century historian William of Malmesbury in his De Gestis Regum Anglorum describes the same scene this way:
"This Sceaf, they say, landed on an island in Germany called Scandza mentioned by Jordanes the historian of the Goths, as a small child in a ship without a crew, sleeping with a sheaf of wheat laid by his head, and hence was called Sheaf. The men of that country welcomed him as something miraculous and brought him up carefully, and on reaching manhood he ruled a town then called Slaswic but now Hedeby. The name of the region is Old Anglia, and it was from there that the Angles came to Britian; it lies between the Saxons ands the Goths."
The Old English poem Beowulf, which turns the heathen tale into a Christian legend, tells the story this way. The facing text translation is that of Benjamin Slade (2012):
Beowulf ( 11. 1-52 )
Listen ! We of the Spear - Danes in the days of yore , of those clan - king - heard of their glory . how those nobles performed courageous deeds . Often Scyld . Scel's son , from enemy hosts
5 -from many peoples seized mead - benches ; and terrorised the fearsome Heruli after first he was found helpless and destitute , he then knew recompense for that : he waxed under the clouds , throve in honours , until to him each of the bordering tribes
10 - beyond the whale - road had to submit , and yield tributes- that was a good king ! To him a heir was born then young in the yards , God sent him to comfort the people : He had seen the dire distress
15 - that they suffered before , leader - less a long while ; them for that the Life - Lord , Ruler of Glory , granted honour on earth : Beowulf ( Beaw ) was famed --his renown spread wide Seyld's heir , in Northern lands .
20 - So ought a young man by good deeds deserve , ( and ) by fine treasure - gifts , while in his father's keeping , that him in old age shall again stand by , willing companions , when war comes , people serve him : by glorious deeds must ,
25 - amongst his people , everywhere , one prosper . Then Scyld departed at the destined time , still in his full - strength , to fare in the protection of the Lord Frea : he they carried to the sea's surf , his dear comrades , as he himself had bid ,
30 - when he yet wielded words , that friend of the Scyldings , beloved ruler of the land , had ruled for a long time ; there at the harbour stood with a ringed - prow , icy and keen to sail , a hero's vessel ; they then laid down the beloved prince ,
35 - the giver of rings and treasure , in the bosom of the boat , the mighty by the mast ; many riches were there , from far - off lands ornate armour and baubles were brought ; I have not heard of a comelier keel adorned with weapons of battle and war - dress ,
40 - bill-blades and byrnies there lay on his breau many treasures , which with him must , in the power of the waves , drift far off ; in no way had they upon him fewer gifts bestowed with the wealth of a nation , than those did
45 - who him in the beginning had sent forth alone upon the waves being but a child : yet then they set up the standard of gold , high over head ; they let the sea bear , gave to the ocean , in them were troubled hearts ,
50 - mourning minds , men cannot say for certain , ( neither ) court - counsellors ( nor ) heroes under heaven , who received that cargo .
And these are just a few of the many references to the boy-king. The translator remarks: "Scyld is well known in the Scandinavian tradition as Skjoldr, the ancestor of the Skjoldungar. He is, as in Beowulf, shrouded in mystery: he is sent by unknown persons from an unknown place and when his work is complete he returns thence." He appears in Icelandic, Danish, and Anglo-Saxon sources.
In the Beowulf account, Scef is sent by God himself. In other words, Scef's origin is divine in nature. Because the Angles and the Saxons migrated to the British Isles from the European continent, we have reason to believe that they brought this ancient myth with them. The tale is found in the oldest English literature, being referenced in Widsith, and told more fully in Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon sources (only some of which will be mentioned below). Scef also appears in several Anglo-Saxon royal geneologies, prior to the Norman invasion in 1066, making his legend a contemporary of the Eddic poems. As Scef and Skjöld he also appears in Danish and Icelandic geneologies, which also include other mythic characters such as Odin and Balder. Thus, Scef too may hail from ancient Germanic myth.
The probability that he did, greatly increases when we consider the details of the Heimdall myth. What is told of King Scef precisely fills the gap left between Heimdall's birth and his arrival among men as Rig. Heimdall is born at sea, a child of the wave-maidens. When next we find him, he is walking in a seaside country visiting homes as Rig, sanctifying the ancient Germanic social castes.
By William P Reaves