The Funerals of Sclyd and Beowulf
The opening of the Beowulf is the funeral of Sclyd, his clan is preparing him for his funeral and sending his body to God, As they prepare him for his voyage, I use this as an important word because as we continue to read of the grief of his clan we find out that they instead of a funeral pyre as was common in some cultures of the time that his clan filled the ship with the bounty from as it said far and wide. Setting him out to sea upon a ship or barge as it is also referred to in this passage.
It is interesting that this is the way the clan set their beloved Lord to his final rest because the Historic funeral show that the Scandinavians practice of setting them out to sea with one twist, they generally set the barge or ship carrying the deceased on fire in the passage where they send Sclyd off to his final rest they do not set him on fire but fill the ship with many riches.
There were a couple of reasons for burning the body at that time, one was to keep the spirit of the deceased from coming back to harm the living, it was also for the purpose of “Freeing the Spirit” so that it could enter the afterlife with the Gods.
One interesting point in the passage of Scyld’s death is the part where they fill the ship with the riches of far and wide. This was not a normal Scandinavian practice in this practice originated with the ancient Egyptian practices of burying the possessions of the Pharaohs with them in their crypts. It is a curious cross of cultures. They loaded the ship with weapons, shields and upon his chest his breast plate and helmet were laid.
In the death of Beowulf we see a far different funeral scene. The difference between the two is telling, while Scyld’s body is cast to the sea on a ship carrying with him his riches. Beowulf, however, was buried in a different manor all together he was placed upon a funeral pyre, following the proper burial of the times. There were no riches to surround him although before his death he did request to see the treasures guarded by the dragon that he fought and lost his life too.
There is an interesting contrast between the two of these men while Sclyd was considered a lord and given a burial that his clan felt was befitting his status, Beowulf was a prince of his people and yet his burial was in the traditions of the Nordic clans of the time, they believed that setting the soul free was the best way to honor their fallen hero. In the funeral there is the sorrow of his queen, as she sings her pain for all to hear. As they mourned him they set him on fire and the blaze burned all that was upon his pyre.
What was most interesting is what they did after they built as he requested a mound that over looked the sea so that sailors would see it as they sailed by, they then built a wall where they put his ashes behind the wall and placed the treasures from his last battle with him. Then the warriors the same who had failed to aide him when he needed them rode in a circle and told of their grief and sorrow. They left the great warrior among the kings that he had gone to join.
The contrast between the two cultures is evident in the passages as you read seeing how the people dealt with the death of each man, while Beowulf’s men grieved him they carried out his final wishes and built the great mound that he asked them to do. While Sclyd was laid to rest an old man with his many riches there was no great out cry of mourning it was simply they mourned their honored lord.
Historic Funeral Practices-Roger D. Sellers- http://www.sellersfuneralhome.com
Beowulf- By Dr. David Breeden-http://www.lnstar.com/literature/beowulf/index.html