Danish Myths and Legends : King Skjold

The story of King Skjold is a typical example of the classical topos: divinely sent hero, given unto a desperate people, restores order and justice.

King Skjold

A long time ago, it happened that the Danes had been, for many years, without a king. For lack of a lord, the land suffered: strife and disorder grew, and order and justice were trodden underfoot. The good people wept and the evil people laughed.1

When things were darkest, a ship was seen, approaching the shore. Though it was grand to look at, both in size and in the richness of its appointments, no crew was to be seen. Only one person was aboard: a small child, sleeping by the mainmast, with a golden sheaf of wheat for a pillow, surrounded by weapons and golden treasure. A golden banner waved above the child, and the Danes understood that he had been sent to them by the gods.

Taking him to the thing-place, they hailed him as their king, calling him Skjold ("Shield"), saying that he was to defend his people like a shield.

King Skjold showed his heroic prowess at an early age. Once, in his boyhood, he was hunting and became separated from the rest of the party. A huge bear attacked him in the woods, but he wrestled with it, binding it with his belt, until the other hunters arrived to slay it.

When he was only fifteen, Skjold fought against the Saxon jarl Skat2. Skat and Skjold were rival suitors to the princess Alfhild. Their rivalry was resolved by a duel in sight of both their armies. Skjold slew the Saxon, thereby not only winning a bride, but also making the Saxons his tributaries.

Skjold was a good king, harsh to his enemies, gentle with the weak and needy, righteous in his justice, generous to the loyal. To his housecarles, he not only distributed their just wages, but also shared out all the booty that he took from his enemies. "Wealth," he said, "is for warriors; honour is the proper reward for a king." Only towards the treacherous was he vengeful. From him, the later line of Danish kings descends who, after him, are named the Skjoldunge dynasty.3

When Skjold felt his life ebbing, and death approaching, he instructed his men that, after his death, his body was to be placed on his ship, so that he might lie as he did, when first he came to the Danish shores as a small babe.

After his death, his men bore him to the beach, where the ship waited, adorned with gold and shining like ice. On the deck, near the mainmast, they laid their dear king down. Gold and precious items they placed beside him, and sword and mail. Never was a ship more grandly bedecked with treasure. On his broad breast, jewelry in great number was laid, and indeed, he was no less richly bejewelled in his death than when he came as a swaddling babe over the waves.

They raised once more his golden banner above his head, and committed the ship to the sea, letting the waves carry it off. No man under heaven can with certainty say whither the ship was taken by the wind, but many have guessed that the gods, who gave him to the Danes, took him once more to them.


1 "De gode græd, og de onde lo." This has since become a proverbial phrase, instantly recognisable to most Danes - though not everyone will be familiar with the tale of King Skjold, nearly everyone will be familiar with this saying.

2 Skat is Danish, with the dual meaning of "treasure" and "tax or tribute". The word jarl ("earl") is, traditionally, the Danish translation of the Latin comes ("count" - in the Frankish empire, a border count).

3 The Skjoldunge dynasty is mostly legendary, predating the historical kings of Denmark, without any solid evidence to prove that most of the dynasty ever existed - though evidence does exist to the historicity of individuals ascribed to the dynasty. The Skjoldunge dynasty include Roar and Helge, Rolf Krake, Frode Fredegod, Harald Hildetand, and Regnar Lodbrog, The first historical king of Denmark, Gorm the Old, was considered a Skjoldung, a lineal descendant of Skjold. Thus, the current monarch, Queen Margrethe II of Denmark, is a descendant of this legendary dynasty.


The Lejre Chronicle (c. 1180).

Saxonis Grammatici Gesta Danorum (c. 1200).

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