Scef and the Usipites/Usipi


The earliest patriarch of the English line was said to be a man called Scef. Also spelled Sceafa, and Sceaf. (Tolkien referred to him as Sheave.) Scef repeatedly appears at or near the top of early royal genealogies. He is mentioned in Beowulf as an ancestor of the hero Scyld. He was said to be a famous ruler among the Lombards according to the Anglo-Saxon poem Widsith. He was also mentioned by Snorri Sturluson in Iceland. So he was fondly remembered among the Germanic peoples, centuries later, both on the continent and among the isles of the North Atlantic.

Two of the English accounts tell the story of Scef making landfall in an ancient land, when he was a child, and being raised to become a leader among his people.

Several of the genealogies show Scef (and/or his famous descendant Sclyld) descending from Noah's son Shem, an intriguing early Germanic claim to be of Sem-itic descent. The implications are that Germanic roots repeatedly claim to be of Semitic origin. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle instead claims that Scef was Noah's son, and was born on the ark. Or perhaps there was simply a Noah-type figure in the distant proto-Germanic past, that later interpreters took to mean Noah.

However one opts to parse such things, if we take such accounts in balance, young Scef appears to have been born while on a boat, the son of a man who was at least reminiscent of Noah. And his birth happened enroute to an ancestral land somewhere quite different from where his descendant Scyld (1st century BC) later made landfall in northern Europe.

As suggested confirmation of Scyld originating from a different land other than where the child Scef had arrived much earlier, we have the subsequent account of Scyld making landfall in northern Europe (1st century BC). And when Scef's descendant Scyld eventually died, his retainers did as they had promised, laid his body in his boat and pushed Scyld back out to sea, to return from wherever he had come. That farewell was a reminder to the peoples of Europe that the land of his forefathers (Scef's land) was somewhere across the waters.

As potential 1st century BC corroboration for Scef's ancient memory among the Germanic people, we turn to Tacitus and Julilus Caesar. Around 100 AD, in the second section of Tacitus' account called Germania, he said that the word Germany was of recent invention, and that it was a name first used to describe the Tungri. They were a people who anciently occuppied a portion of Belgium, including Tongeren. These Tungri, said by Tacitus to be the first Germans, are the Tencteri mentioned 150 years earlier by Julius Caesar, a people who had recently entered Gaul with the Usipiti/Usipi. Caesar's first encounter with them in the mid 50's BC aligns well with Scef's descendant Scyld making landfall in northern Europe by boat, in the mid 1st century BC. The approximate timing for Scyld's arrival is derived from two Icelandic chronicles placing his grandson in northern Europe contemporary with Caesar Augustus (who died in 14 AD, not long after the watershed battle for independence in 9 AD between Germans (led by Arminius) and Romans (led by Varus and Arminius' brother Flavus/Odin) at Teutoburg Forest.

That the very concept of being German traces to these two peoples first encountered in the 50's BC, suggests that we take a closer look at the meaning of their names. "Tencteri" is believed to mean "the faithful." And Usipi is believed in Celtic to mean "good riders" or "good horsemen." If such is true of Celtic, I believe what they deemed their name to mean might differ considerably.

Just as the neighboring/allied Su-gambri (ancestors of the Merovingian Franks/French) may well be associated with the Lombard matriarch Gambara, and just as the neighboring Eubor-ones may be associated with Gambar's son Ybor, there is cause to believe the U-sip-i name may be associated with the famed Lombard patriarch Scef. That the very name Usipi is a reminder of a child anciently born at sea, who was raised to become a beloved leader.

It is likewise of interest that Usipi is pronounced precisely the same as Gui-seppe in the Italian langauge, what others would translate to as Jo-seph ('Scef?) in other languages. In short, it may be very accurate to say that Scyld's forefather Scef (of Lombard/English/Icelandic renown) was a Gui-seppe (pronounced yo-seppe), ancestor to the Usipi alongside, and may well be related to, proto-Lombards. The name Usipi or Usipites may thereby be a claim him as an ancestor. (To clarify, in neighboring ancient languages and dialects, f and p were sometimes interchangeable: Elbe=Elf, Apple=Apfel, Father=Pater.)

Finally, it is noteworthy that the name Jo-seph is originally of Semitic origin, pronounced Yo-ssef and Yo-sep, in apparent corroboration of several dynastic genealogies claiming that Scef was somehow of Semitic origin.

Some will dismiss this as mere wordplay. Others will see it for what it is, a concientious attempt to carefully take the scraps of Germanic heritage bequeathed to us by ancient history, and reconstruct it in as faithful a manner possible.

Copyright 2017, John D. Nelson