Heimdall, the guardian of the gods
by William P. Reaves
The Eddas tell us relatively little of Heimdall, the guardian of the gods.
As the offspring of the nine giantesses who turn the great world-mill, churning beneath the sea, Heimdall represents the holy fire, created by friction. As such, he acts as the spark of life, commonly generated by the rubbing together of two pieces of wood. The first humans, Askur and Embla, themselves were created from driftwood washed up on shore. The process of rubbing a hard wood into a softer wood generates friction-fire, considered sacred among many ancient peoples. This process is replicated in the act of human reproduction. [See Ursula Dronke, The Poetic Edda, Vol. II. p. 123] The name Rígr itself is a pun, a borrowing of the Old Irish rígr ('king'), and a play on the native rígr ('stiffness') referring to an erection. [ibid. p. 123, cf. p. 215]. Thus Heimdall places himself between the man and wife of each household.
Although Snorri did not know the story of Rig*, which is contained in a poem not found in the Codex Regius manuscript nor quoted in either Gylfaginning or Skáldskaparmál, the myth is confirmed in part by a völva, speaking in Völuspá 1, when she asks for a "hearing" (hljóð) from "all holy races, high and low, the sons of Heimdall." (The same word, hljóð, is also used of Heimdall's remarkable hearing in Völuspá 27). Even though Snorri knew Völuspá well and quoted it extensively in Gylfaginning, he does not cite this verse or the story to which it alludes.
*If he did he doesn't mention or refer to it.
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.
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).
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.12:52The 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.
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