TEUTONIC MYTH AND LEGEND
by DONALD A. MACKENZIE
An Introduction to the Eddas & Sagas, Beowulf, The Nibelungenlied, etc.
London, Gresham Publications 1912
The Coming of Beowulf
The First Parents--Heimdal's Mission--A Wise Ruler--Passing of Scyld--Hrothgar builds Heorot--The Demon Grendel--Warriors devoured by Night--Reign of Terror--Beowulf of the Geats--He sets forth to fight the Demon--The Voyage--Challenged by the Shore Guardian--The King's Welcome--Beowulf asks a Boon--Waiting for Grendel--Beowulf keeps Watch.
To Ask and Embla, the first man and the first woman, did the gods impart divine attributes when they had but tree life, and were of little might and without destiny. Naked they stood before Odin at the seaway end. Perceiving their conscious shame, he gave unto them divine garments, and in these they took pride. In Midgard they dwelt, on the shore edge of Western waters, and their children multiplied, and their children's children. The lives of mortals were long in those days; they were yet innocent, and dwelt together in peace. The Golden Age prevailed in Asgard, nor had the Evil One of Ironwood corrupted the gods.
In after days Heimdal, son of Odin and of the nine Vana-mothers who were daughters of sea-dwelling Ran, was given from out of Gjallarhorn a wisdom draught of Mimer's mead. Then became he a child in human guise. In a fair ring-stemmed ship was he laid, wrapped in soft slumber and his pillow was a golden grain sheaf, the gift of Frey, god of harvest. Around him were heaped great treasures war glaives and full armour, weapons and tools, which the gods had made in Asgard. The sacred fire-borer took Heimdal also with him--he who was called Stigande, the journey-maker.
There came a sunbright morn when men, looking westward from Scedeland's high shore, saw drifting towards them over the blue sea a fair ship, and on the stem shone golden rings. Nigh it came, and it found a safe harbour and lay therein. With wonder the people beheld on the deck a man-child wrapped in soft slumber; his pillow was a golden grain sheaf, and they named him Scyld 1 of the Sheaf. Him they took unto their chief's home, and there he was nourished and fostered tenderly. The treasures that were in the ship gave great riches and power unto the tribe, and they received knowledge to grow grain and to use the sacred fire. When the child reached to wise manhood, he became a ruler among men, and long were his years.
Of Heimdal have skalds sung that thrice were sons born to him of earth mothers. The first was Thrall, from whom thralls are descended; the second was Churl, sire of freemen; and the third Jarl, from whom all nobles have sprung.
So when warriors assembled to feast together and drink mead, and ere the song was raised, have skalds spoken thus:--
"Give ear all ye divine races, great and small, sons of Heimdal".
Scyld of the Sheaf achieved great renown. He who was received as a helpless child became a great and good king. He drove invaders from the shores, he scattered ravaging bands, and among the tribes he was regarded with awe, Indeed he waxed so powerful that tribute was paid to him by the people who dwell beyond the seaway of whales.
A man-child was born unto Scyld. He was named Beowulf 2, and when he came to years of strength and knowledge he won fair repute. Among the followers of his sire he distributed many money gifts, so that he won their favour; ready were they indeed to serve him in wartime.
When Scyld was of great age, he departed at his fateful hour to go into the keeping of the Lord. According to his dying request his faithful subjects carried him down to the seabeach. There in the small harbour lay the ship in which as a child he had come over the waves. Ready to go seaward, the vessel waited him in wondrous wintry beauty, glistening with hoar frost and ice. By the mast, on the broad bosom of the ship, the mourners laid down their well-beloved lord, the generous giver of golden money rings. Great treasures they heaped around him-graven ornaments from distant lands, armour and weapons of war and bright swords--and on his breast they put many gems. As rich and numerous were the gifts they gave as were those they had received with the child in other years.
Over the dead king they hoisted a banner of gold. . . . Then was the boat let loose . . . . The tide bore it away to the heaving ocean . . . . Thus in deep sadness was the king given unto the sea, while his people sorrowed for him, watching from the shore. . . . No man can tell who received that fair ship's burden
Beowulf then reigned over the Scyldings, and was honoured and well loved. His son Healfdene 3, who followed him, was famed afar as a warrior, and when he waxed old he was yet fierce in battle. Four children he had--Herogar, a captain of war men; Hrothgar, who became king; Halga the Good; and Elan, the queen of a Swedish chieftain.
Hrothgar was a strong leader, and won many great battles. He received willing service, and under him the young war-men increased in numbers, until he commanded a mighty army. Then bethought he to have a great Hall built, with a larger feasting room than was ever heard of among men. For that purpose were workers from many tribes put in service, and in due season was erected the high, horn-gabled building which was called Heorot, and it awaited the devouring flames.
There was much feasting and merriment in the great Hall. A fierce man-eating monster, which dwelt in darkness, was made angry by the revelry, the music of harps, and the cheerful songs of skalds. One 4 was in the hall, too, who told how the Almighty did create man and the earth in the midst of the encircling sea, and did set the sun and moon in the heavens to give light and cover the land with branches and leaves.
Thus did war-men live happily indeed in the Hall, until the Hell-fiend began to work evil. Grendel was his name, and he hovered by night on the marches and held moorland and fen. By the Creator were he and his kind banished to their dark lairs, because they were the kindred of Cain, the slayer of Abel, whose evil progeny were monsters and elves and sea-demons, as well as the giants who fought with God, for which he paid them their reward.
Now it happened that in the midst of the night the demon Grendel entered the silenced hall to discover who were lodged there after beer-drinking. He beheld a band of high war-men who had feasted, and were wrapped in deep slumber; they had forgotten sorrow, that woeful heritage of men.
With fury was the demon possessed, and thirty of the war-men he carried off while they slept, hastening with exulting heart to his lair with that fill of slaughter.
At daybreak there was grief and loud wailing in the Hall. The great and honoured prince sat moodily, stricken with great sorrow, and gazed at the blood track of the fierce demon. His distress was long-lasting, and deep.
On the next night the demon Grendel returned, and did more murderous deeds. Nor had he any regret thereat, so much was he steeped in crime. Then was it easy indeed to find men who sought inner chambers by night. He alone who found farthest retreat escaped the fierce fiend. 5
Then became Grendel the master indeed. For the space of twelve long winters Hrothgar endured because of the demon great sorrow and deep loss. Minstrels went abroad making known in song the ceaseless outrages and fierce strife. No offering would Grendel take, nor could the greatest war-man who was seized expect to escape his doom. He entrapped young and old; on the mist-dark moorlands he seized his victims night after night. In vain did Hrothgar lament and make offerings unto idols, and pray that the soul destroyer would give them release from the demon. So did the heathen, as was their custom, remember hell, for they knew not the Creator, the Judge of Deeds, the Lord God, nor could they praise the Lord of Glory.
Then did Beowulf, a thane among the Geats, come to hear in his fatherland of the deeds of Grendel. In his time he was the strongest among living men, and he was noble as he was indeed mighty.
"Get ready my good wave-traverser," he said. "I shall go unto Hrothgar over the swan-way; he hath need of men."
The prudent, who depended on his aid, sought not to hold Beowulf back; they urged on the stout-hearted hero, and looked eagerly for favourable omens.
Beowulf selected fourteen of the finest war men to go with him, and took also a sea-skilled mariner, who knew the landmarks along the path of Ocean. Then to the ship they all went together: it lay beached below a sheltering headland. The warriors, bearing their arms, walked on to the stem. while the sea waves were washed against the sand. The armour and ornaments were placed on board, and then the willing heroes pushed into deep water the strong timber-braced ship. Like to a bird was that swift floater, necked with white foam, driven by favourable winds over the sea waves. All night they sailed on, and next day they beheld high and shining cliffs, steep mountains, and bold sea-nesses. So came they to the seaway end; the voyage was over and past.
The heroes leapt speedily from the ship and made it fast to the shore. Their armour clinked as they turned inland, while they thanked God that the seaway had been made easy to them.
Then there came towards them the Coast Guardian of the Scyldings, riding upon his horse along the shore. He shook his strong spear shaft as he drew nigh, and he spake, saying:
"Who are ye who in a high ship have come over the seaway, well -armed and bearing weapons? Know ye that I keep watch over the shore so that sea plunderers may not do harm to Denmark.
Click to enlarge
VIKING SHIP FROM GOKSTAD
Now in the University, Christiana
Never have I beheld armed men landing more openly; nor know ye the password of friends. Nor ever have I beheld a greater earl than this one among you. Unless his looks belle him, he is no home-stayer. Noble is his air. . . . Ere you advance farther to spy out the land, I must know who ye are. Now, listen to me, sea travellers from afar, my frank advice is that ye reveal at once from whence ye come."
That shore guardian did Beowulf answer thus: "We are Geats, the hearth friends of Hygelac. My sire Ecgtheow, the noble leader, was renowned among the people; he is remembered by every wise man. Now know that we come seeking thy king, the son of Healfdene, protector of the people. Be thou our guide. A great mission is ours, nor need its purpose be concealed. To us; hath it been told, and thou knowest if it is true, that a malignant foeman works evil by night among the Scyldings. I can council Hrothgar how the fiend may be overcome and his misery have end."
On his horse sitting, the fearless shore guardian spake in answer, saying: "A shield war man shall judge well between your words and deeds. Friendly are you, I hear, to the ruler of the Scyldings. Then pass onward in armour carrying your weapons. I shall guide ye. My comrades shall guard thy ship, so that the well-loved man, thy leader, may return over the sea tides to the borders of the Weders. To him it is assured that he shall come unscathed through the battle crush."
Together they went on their way until they came to the high and gold-decked Hall of Hrothgar. The shore-guardian pointed towards it and said: "Now must I take my departure. May the Almighty protect you all in your adventure. To the seashore I must hasten to keep watch against hostile bands."
Beowulf and his heroes reached the Hall. Sea-weary they all were, and they placed their shields and armour against the wall; they put their spears together and rested on benches.
A warrior, who was Hrothgar's messenger, asked them whence they came. "Never," said he, "have I seen bolder strangers. It would seem that ye have come to seek Hrothgar, not because of exile, but because of your bravery and noblemindedness."
Then did Beowulf reveal who he was and seek audience with the king, and his message did Wulfgar bear unto Hrothgar, who sat, grey-headed and old, among his peers.
"As a youth I knew Beowulf," the aged ruler said. "He comes to a sure friend. Of him have I heard that his hand hath the strength of thirty men. The holy God hath sent him hither as a help against the dreaded Grendel."
So he bade the messenger welcome Beowulf and his men and usher them to his presence.
When Beowulf entered he hailed Hrothgar, the kinsman of Hygelac, standing before him in shining armour.
"In my youth," he said, "I have undertaken great exploits. In my fatherland heard I of the evil deeds of Grendel, and my people counselled me, knowing my great strength, that I should come hither. For they know well that I avenged the sorrow of the Weders, bound five of their foes, slew a brood of giants, and killed sea monsters by night. . . . Alone shall I go now against this demon, this giant Grendel!"
Then asked Beowulf as a boon that he alone with his warriors should be left to cleanse the hall of the monster. Having heard that Grendel had no fear of weapons, he also made known his desire to contend with him unarmed.
"With the fiend," he said, "I shall wrestle for life, foe against foe."
Hrothgar accepted Beowulf's offer with gladness, and granted him the boon he sought. Then was a bench cleared for the noble heroes. They sat there in pride and drank of bright liquor. Songs were sung by a clear-voiced minstrel. There was much joy in the hall among the Danes and the Weders, who were no small company.
When they had feasted, and the queen bore the cup round the heroes, young and old, she greeted Beowulf, who, when he had drunk, said he had vowed to slay Grendel or perish in his clutches.
The old queen was much pleased to hear the words which the great hero spake.
Loud revelry was heard in the hall once more until Hrothgar desired to go to his couch. Well he knew that the night-haunting monster would attack the hall when the sun's radiance was dimmed and shadows fell, and dusky shapes were stalking under the clouds.
Then the whole company arose and greeted the heroes. Hrothgar greeted Beowulf and wished him success and power in the hall.
"Be mindful of thy renown," the king said, "make known thy great might, be watchful against the foe. . . . Thou shalt lack naught that thou dost desire if thou shalt survive this conflict."
Whereupon Hrothgar went forth with all his warriors, leaving the hall to Beowulf and his men.
When he was thus left alone with his heroes, the chief of Geats took off his armour, and gave his decorated sword to his thane. Ere he lay down in bed he said
"No less in fighting strength than Grendel do I account myself. I shall not slay him with my sword as I well might. He knows not the noble art to strike back, splitting my shield, although he hath courage and strength in evildoing. No weapons shall we use if he dares combat without them. . . . May the wise God, the holy Lord, give victory to the side which may seem meet to Him.
On his pillow Beowulf then laid his head. Around him on beds lay his warriors, nor did one of them expect ever again to return to his home; for each of them had heard how, in times past, the Danish warriors were taken from the Hall in bloody death.
In the blackness of night Grendel, the shadow-goer, came striding towards the Hall. . . . The warriors, sea-weary and spent, lay wrapt in deep slumber, nor kept watch--all save one. He alone was defiantly awake, awaiting the issue of the conflict with increasing wrath.
1 As in Beowulf. Elsewhere Scyld is called son of Sheaf.
2 The elder Beowulf; not the hero of the poem.
4 Evidently an interpolation by a Christian copyist. Further on offerings are made to idols.
5 Grendel could enter the hall only: other dwellings were "taboo".