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Weddings during the Viking Age

viking wedding -

Weddings during the Viking Age


Generally, marriage in the Viking age was a contractual arrangement between the bride and groom's families, just as it has been throughout history in other countries of medieval Europe.

However, in addressing the theme of marriage, it is essential to briefly examine love, sexual behaviour and mythico-religious aspects in order to understand the socio-cultural context in which marriages were made.

The objective of this research concerns the pagan era of the Vikings, but due to the late period of legal codes and literary sources, some information is probably more representative of medieval Scandinavia (1000 - 1400 AD).

In addition, it should also be mentioned that most of the information we have today about the Viking age comes from Iceland. Also, the information presented in this article may only reflect Icelandic practices, as there were great differences between the laws of different societies and beliefs across the different Scandinavian countries. So there was not a single universal concept of "Viking culture".

The main sources for the Viking age come from archaeology, runic inscriptions and literary testimonies of contemporaries such as Arab travellers and German chroniclers such as Adam of Bremen. Scandinavian chronicles, sagas, and laws are additional sources for the period from the 12th to the 13th century but researchers study them with caution.

  • The function of Viking marriage in Scandinavia

The starting point for any discussion of marriage in a culture should be the reasons and function of marriage in that society. In general, marriage has two main functions: the control of sexual and/or reproductive activity, and a means of forming socio-economic alliances between social groups.

In Scandinavia, the limits of appropriate sexual conduct were very broad, even if (as is usual in many societies) a double standard prevailed. The ideal woman had to be chaste before the wedding and then faithful to her husband.

This standard appears when examining the types of insults that existed against women in texts such as the poetic Edda, which are subject to accusations of promiscuity, incestuous or otherwise illegal relationships (Lee M. Hollander, transl.

The poetic Edda. Austin University of Texas Press, 1962. pp 90-103). There was a good reason to insist on female chastity: every young girl to be married was like a tradable commodity that could bring wealth to her family through dowry and help form alliances with other influential families.

A more important reason for limiting women's sexual activity is the lack of effective birth control, as the risk of having illegitimate children could mean financial hardship for a woman's family.

An illegitimate child recognized by the father received only two-thirds of the support of the father and the father's parents, while unrecognized children were fully cared for by the mother and her family (Grethe Jacobsen, Sexual Irregularities in Medieval Scandinavia, Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church. eds. Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1982. p. 74). The legal codes reflect the importance of this concern among the Vikings.

This does not mean that women have not engaged in extramarital sex. Women who avoided pregnancy were not punished under the law, but it was not acceptable for them to generate offspring if they were in promiscuity (Ibid.). In cases where a woman was seduced or raped, she was not stigmatized, thus protecting her from sexual exploitation (Ibid.).

The only restriction that seems to have existed regarding sexual activity was to penalize the man's fornication, with a small fine for sleeping with a woman other than his wife. The Sturlunga saga states that "almost universally, men engaged in extramarital affairs with many women before, during and after marriage" (Jenny M. Jochens, The Church and Sexuality in Medieval Iceland, Journal of Medieval History. 6[1980]: pp. 383-384).

Female slaves were ideal prey, and a man could buy a female slave with an estimated value of twelve minerals (the value of about 447 metres of bure fabric) to have a bed slave (Grethe Jacobsen, The Position of Women in Scandinavia During the Viking Period, thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1978, p. 76). Having concubines was customary, as Adam of Bremen disdainfully reports:

"In their sexual relations with women, they know no limits.
According to his means, a man has two or three or more women at the same time." (Jacobsen, "Sexual Irregularities," p. 82).

Concubines were always women of lower social class, and entering into cohabitation with a man of higher social status seems to have been quite beneficial to these women.

The concubine was never allowed to become her lover's wife because of this social class difference and thus was tolerated by the man's wife since a concubine posed no threat to her position (Ruth M. Karras, Concubinage and Slavery in the Viking Age, Scandinavian Studies. 62[1990]: pp. 141-162. See also Eric Oxenstierna. The Norsemen. Greenwich CT: New York Graphic Society, 1965, p. 211).

Since sexuality was carefully regulated by law, with many provisions for extramarital activity and illegitimate children, it is logical that the Vikings saw marriage not so much as a way to limit sexual activity, but rather as a way to forge alliances with other families.

A marriage "meant a chance for the bride's family to make an alliance with one of the most important families... and therefore to be assured of powerful support in exchanges at the local Thing or Alþing" (Jacobsen, Position of Women, p. 40).

Another very important function of marriage beyond the promise of economic gain or political advantage is that the Scandinavian wife often served as a "pledge of peace", marriage as a barter to ensure reconciliation between two parties to ancient quarrels (Jenny Jochens, "The Medieval Icelandic Heroine: Fact or Fiction?"? Viator 17[1986]: p. 37).

Anglo-Saxon literature on this subject identifies wives and queens as "weavers of peace" who, through motherhood, wove the blood of warring tribes together, acted as hostages of their families in the enemy camp and sought to appease hatred within their new family (Jane Chance, Woman as Hero in Old English Literature. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986. pp. 1-3).

The sagas recount cases where the conciliator brought the other women together to stop a fight by throwing clothes on and between the fighters, embarrassing their swords and "turning the fight into something so ridiculous that it could no longer be fought after that" (Oxenstierna, p. 208).

  • Love, seduction and poetry

As marriages were arranged by the families of the future spouses, love between two potential partners was an insignificant consideration compared to the value of the bride, dowry, political manoeuvring and others.

The sagas support this thesis: "they are not particularly interested in love marriages: post-marital remarks such as "their love has begun to grow" or "their marriage has become good" indicate that the couple was out of the woods" (Roberta Frank, "Marriage in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Iceland," Viator 4[1973]: p. 478).

Such remarks reveal that newlyweds were expected to forge a viable relationship after their marriage, as is the case in many arranged marriages. The Vikings did not practice the court that allowed a man and a woman to assess their compatibility and during which love can flourish: it was "walk or die" in marriage.

Since there was no hope that love could be a prerequisite for marriage, there was, predictably, less concern about the consent of the prospective couple to the union.

There are few instances in the sagas where the young man is asked his opinion on the couple (Jochens, Icelandic Heroine, p. 37): either this reflects the hypothesis that his consent was required before the opening of negotiations, or the fact that a man was no more concerned than that with the qualities of his possible wife because of his free access to concubines and other women during the marriage; we do not know.

According to the laws, the woman's consent was absolutely unnecessary, being overshadowed by her "fastnandi", i.e. her father or guardian responsible for her interests during marriage negotiations (Frank, p. 477).

The fastnandi of a young girl could be her father, her brother if the father had died, or another male relative in the absence of the father and a brother, while a woman who had previously been married, was represented by her son if he was over sixteen years old, or her son-in-law, father-in-law, brother-in-law or even her mother-in-law in the rare cases where there were no other survivors (Jacobsen, Position of Women, pp. 37-38).

While the law did not require a woman's consent to her marriage, it seems, however, that it was well considered to obtain her approval if one is to believe the sagas: "one in five marriages against the girl's declared will are absolute disasters, ending in the death, mutilation, or divorce of the spouses" (Frank, p. 477).

The sagas also show that it was normal practice for fathers to consult their daughters before the engagement, for all those women who had not been asked to express their rage and frustration on the subject (Jochen, Icelandic Heroin, p. 37).

In general, when asked, any future promises seemed to consent to their father's decision: after all, the laws gave ample opportunity for divorce (see on Idavoll "Divorce among the Vikings") if the marriage became unbearable, and his family continued to benefit from the alliance in a certain way (Ibid.).

In a few specific situations, a woman had the absolute right to choose her husband. Widows were free to choose their own partners. In the case where a woman was represented by her brothers, they could not decide among themselves whether or not to accept a proposal, they had to comply with her wishes.

If a woman's brothers maliciously sought to prevent her from marrying, in order to preserve her labour power on their own farms, the woman could marry the third suitor refused by her brothers (Ibid., pp 38-39; Jacobsen, Position of Women, p. 38).

Despite all the above, people being who they are, some Scandinavian pagans certainly knew love as passionately as any immortalized in song today. The Vikings called it inn mátki munr, "the powerful passion" (Peter Foote and David M. Wilson.

The Viking achievement. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1970. p. 112), in sagas and poetry telling true love stories. Often the love that is described was the one that developed within a marriage, as in Rigsþula (v. 27), where the father and mother sit with their eyes in their eyes, their fingers intertwined... are obviously happy in love (Hollander, Poetic Edda, p. 120).

Sometimes, a declaration of love in the sagas appears, very short and indirect, as when Bergþóra refuses the amnesty with those who attacked her house, preferring to die with her husband: "I was given to Njal in marriage, when I was young, and I promised him that we would share the same fate" (Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson, trans.

Njal's Saga. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1960. p. 267). Perhaps men were freer to express their love than women. As the ideal man was supposed to be able to improvise in poetry, it may have been easier for them to proclaim their emotions. Saxo Grammaticus recorded the last passionate words of a man who was about to be hanged as he spoke of his beloved:

There will be an end for both of us together; a bond beyond our vows; our first love cannot perish without purpose. Happy I am for having won the joy of such a husband; I will not sink vilement into solitude towards the gods of Tartarus.

Then let the bonds encircle my throat in its midst; the final anguish will bring satisfaction with that alone, since some hope remains of a renewed love and death will prove to have its own delights.

Each world holds joy and in the twin regions, the rest of our united souls and our fidelity in mutual love will become famous (Saxo Grammaticus.Gesta Danorum. cited in Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson. The Road to Hel. Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1943. pp. 53-54).

The Scaldes (the name that the ancient Scandinavians gave to their poets) also produced mansongr, "girl songs", love poems, composed despite laws proclaiming banishment or death for the scald that dared to claim them.

One reason why love poems were so poorly regarded by the Vikings may have been the fear in pagan times of a magical enchantment of the woman, immortalized in this way by the power of verse (Foote and Wilson, p. 112).

Prohibitions on love poems help to understand why court was not widely practiced during the Viking age. While the goddess Freyja was the patron saint of the mansongar and enjoyed love poems, mortal women had to be more careful.

Love poems were perceived by law as a formal insult to a woman's reputation, suggesting that the poet had had a more intimate knowledge of the beloved than what was considered appropriate (Foote and Wilson, p. 112).

A woman's reputation reflected on her family's honour: if her honour was tarnished, so was that of her father, brothers, uncles, cousins and sons. Any banter with a woman's reputation would probably see the anger of her entire lineage fall upon the unlucky suitor.

All the sagas reveal that the court "was simply the most deadly hobby for an Icelandic young man" (Frank, p. 476). The most important, the unwritten rule for courting, was that the less hopeful a groom saw his bride before formal marriage negotiations with his family began, the more likely he was to stay alive (Ibid.).

If an assiduous suitor was slow to formulate his proposal, the woman's parents soon demanded the vengeance of blood to wash away his honour of the offence (Foote and Wilson, pp. 111-112): eighteen courses in the sagas end in this way (Frank, p. 476).

However, there seems to have been a pragmatic reason for taking a negative view of prolonged courses, because in the eight cases cited in the sagas where the family delayed action, an illegitimate child resulted (Ibid). Despite the dangers, courses have certainly occurred.

This meant attentions offered to a woman by her suitor, including visits, conversations and the invention of poems praising her, obviously well received by the girl, whatever her family might then think (Foote and Wilson, p. 111).

The most common method of locating a suitable wife was at the Thing, where fathers brought their daughters not only to clean, cook and take care of the comfort of the home, but also to demonstrate their daughters' and potential wives' skills to suitors (Mary Wilhelmine Williams, Social Scandinavia in the Viking Age. 1920; New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1971. p. 282).

Other meetings such as celebrations, ceremonies, markets, fairs were also good places to discover a future wife. The "marriage market" generated by the gathering of the Thing was properly adapted to the main characteristic of Viking marriage, that of a formal contract between families: the codes of laws show that the negotiation of a marriage followed the same kind of rules as the formulation of another contract or legal agreement and thus benefited from the conduct of the Thing at the same time as other contractual commitments.

  • Marriage negotiations

As when legal action was taken or a sale made, those who sought a union often surrounded themselves with prestigious, rich and powerful men, so that they could intervene in their place, such as a broker or lawyer who prepared the marriage proposal (Jesse Byock, Feud in the Icelandic Saga. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. p. 75).

Not only did these sponsors act as witnesses to the formal engagement agreement sealed by a handshake, but the promise of their support and political influence encouraged the bride's family to accept the proposal.

Once it was agreed that the alliance between the two families was satisfactory, the next step was to negotiate the bruðkaup, the price of the future wife (Foote and Wilson, p. 113). The bride's price consisted of three payments: the fiancé brought the mundr and the morgen-gifu, while the bride's family provided the heiman fylgia.

  • The mundr

The mundr is what most modern sources strictly speaking call "dowry". This was a payment to the bride's father to obtain the "mundium", a Latin term referring to the role of protection and legal guardianship that was held by the father or another relative until she was married (ibid.).

The mundr was calculated to be equal to the value of the girl's dowry[heiman fylgia], but a legal minimum was set at eight ounces (about 227g) of silver in Iceland and twelve ounces (about 340g) in Norway.

This was the "poor man's sum", the minimum sum that would make the children of the union legitimate in the eyes of the law (Foote and Wilson, p. 113).

The reason why a minimum payment was required was because of the Vikings' concern about a man's ability to economically assume all the children procreated by the couple: a man who could not pay this amount had no hope of supporting his offspring, and therefore should not marry (Jacobsen, Sexual Irregularities, p. 75).

In addition to ensuring the economic strength of the marriage, the payment of the mundr was used to compensate the bride's family for the loss of labour on the farm.

  • The morgen-gifu

A second sum payable by the husband after the marriage was also the subject of negotiations: it was the morgen-gifu, the "morning gift", also known as the "bench gift", or "extra gift".

The morgen-gifu was given to the woman as compensation for her sexual availability to her husband or for the gift of her virginity as a young girl (Foote and Wilson, p. 113).

The "morning gift" was normally calculated on the basis of the woman's dowry, somewhere between one-third and 50% of the dowry amount (Jacobsen, Position of Women, p.111; Foote and Wilson, p. 113). Morgen-gifu was probably also related to a woman's wergeld, since pregnancy was generally the most serious risk to a woman's health and life.

The morgen-gifu was used to provide the woman with financial support during the marriage and thus she always had the use or usufruct, often immediately, from the moment it was given to her (McNamara and Wemple, p. 106).

The morning gift usually included clothing, jewellery and household items, livestock, slaves, and often land and property.

The most important registered morgen-gifu seems to have been that given by King Gormr to his wife Þyri: according to Saxo Grammaticus, he offered her the whole territory of Denmark (Birgit Strand, "Women in Gesta Danorum", in Saxo Grammaticus: A Medieval Author between Norway and Latin Culture. ed. Karsten Friis-Jensen. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 1981. p. 159).


  • The heiman fylgia

The final amount to negotiate for the marriage was the heiman fylgia, the dowry (Foote and Wilson, p. 113). The dowry was part of the father's inheritance to the daughter: even if she did not inherit the funds as was the case for her brothers, the dowry allowed her to receive her share of the family's wealth (Jacobsen, Position of Women, p. 37).

The dowry was administered by the husband, but he kept it as a trust that could not be spent recklessly or wasted. The dowry could not be confiscated with the husband's other property during an outlawing procedure, nor could it be used to repay debts (Ibid., pp. 42-43).

The dowry was intended in part to support the wife during the marriage, but was essentially reserved as a kind of annuity that would be used to support the wife and her children if she became a widow. Consequently, the dowry went to the woman in the case of a divorce (ibid., p. 55).

Once the financial negotiations were completed, the arrangement was sealed by the handsal. There were probably many witnesses, at least six men, "since the oral agreement was only valid as long as the witnesses were still alive" (Frank, pp. 475-476). There was a formula to be pronounced by the groom in order to seal the contract during the handsal:

"We declare ourselves witnesses that you,...XXX..., unite with me in legal engagement, and by uniting our hands you promise me the dowry, you undertake to respect and observe the entire pact between us, which was notified at the hearing of the witnesses without duplicity or deceit and as a real and authorized pact" (Williams 93).

With this, the legal aspects and formalities of the contract completed were completed.

  • Reconstruction of a Viking wedding ceremony

In trying to reconstruct the details of a Viking wedding ceremony, the researcher is immediately struck by the scarcity of available information.

The sagas are full of married couples, allusions to marriage negotiations; the laws scrupulously describe the details of the marriage contract; but the Sagas rarely disclose a few details of a wedding celebration. Mythology is no more useful on this subject, but it provides some information on conjecture.

After examining what is known about Viking marriage, we end up with the question of why more details have not been kept. There are several answers.

First, at the time the Sagas were written, Christianity had replaced many ancient pagan practices. Parallel to this reality, it must be recalled that of all aspects of pagan religions, what Christianity has tried to eradicate with the greatest fervour is the cult to the deities of fertility, thus erasing places of worship, artifacts, and every reference to gods and goddesses related to love, sex and marriage.

Even if the pagan Vikings had a writing technique similar to that of their Christian successors, some details of the marriage rites could not be transcribed, because they were limited to an oral transmission of goði or gyðja, priest or priestess, which maintained the dimension of the sacred by limiting the diffusion of secret rituals to the initiates of their cult.

Even the public parts of such a rite often did not have to be transcribed, since the well-known components were so well known that the authors of the Edda and Sagas had to take for granted their audience's familiarity with the rite and therefore did not consider it necessary to provide details in their works.

In order to fill gaps in the possible reconstruction of a Viking wedding ceremony, researchers must look to the work of folklore specialists, the related rituals of the Germanic peoples and the structural contours produced by anthropologists and ethnologists who have studied modern peoples.

If marriage is defined as a rite of passage, marking the change in status of two individuals from that of ordinary adults to that of a social unit of reproduction, some data are beginning to emerge. A rite of passage incorporates some standard features:

  • Separation of the individual from the whole social group
  • Destruction or suppression of the former social identity of the individual
  • Creation of a new social identity through instruction and/or ritual
  • Reintegration of the new insider into a larger group in his new social role

All these characteristics can be identified from the fragments of information we have about Viking marriage.

  •  1. Choosing a wedding date

The traditional day for weddings in the Nordic tradition was Friday, the sacred day of the goddess Frigga (Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1964. pp. 110-112).

In addition, the wedding date would have been limited by climatic conditions. The journey for the guests and the wedding itself would have been difficult or even impossible during the winter months.

The celebration of the wedding was frequently a one-week affair, and therefore sufficient food had to be available, imposing a date close to harvest time. The legal conditions for formalizing a marriage implied that the newlyweds drink the wedding beer together, or usually mead, which meant that the honey had to be available to make the drink and in sufficient quantities for the couple to share it together until one month after the wedding, on the "honeymoon" (Edwin W. Teale.

The Golden Throng. New York: Universe. 1981. p. 127; also see John B. Free. Bees and mankind. Boston: Allen & Unwin. 1982. p. 103). Most marriages, taking all these factors into account, probably took place from late summer to the first part of winter.

  • 2. Preparations for the wedding ceremony

In the rite of passage mode, the newlyweds were to undergo ritual preparation to detach them both from their former status as singles and prepare them for their new role as spouses. This transition could be much more extreme for a woman, since she was moving not only from female to married status, but also in many cases from girl to mother status.

  • The bride-to-be

The bride was probably isolated before the wedding with female attendants - presumably her mother, other married women and perhaps a gyðja - in order to supervise the preparations.

To conspicuously symbolize the loss of her former status as a young girl, she could be stripped of her old clothes and any symbol of her status as a bachelor like the kransen, a golden circle worn on her hair by girls from good Scandinavian families in medieval times that was an apparent sign of their virginity.

Charles Archer and J.S. Scott. New York: Bantam. 1920. p. 331). The kransen was solemnly removed by the attendants and set aside for the future wife until the birth of her own daughter.

The next step in the bride's preparations was a visit to the public baths, the Scandinavian equivalent of the Finnish sauna, which had wooden containers filled with water, soap for washing and a steam bath using heated stones sprayed with water to produce the steam in which the bathers would abandon themselves (Williams, pp. 85-87).

The symbolism of the steam bath implied for the future wife both the "stripping" of the status of a young girl, as well as a purification to prepare her for the religious ritual of the following day. In the warmth of the bath, the bride's attendants informed her about a woman's duties, religious observances to follow, advising her on the best ways to live with a man, and other such teachings.

Some of the content of these teachings could refer to collections of gnomic wisdom such as the verses preserved in Sigrdrífumál, which touch on the magical knowledge necessary for the housewife and the ways to advise and guide her husband (Hollander, Poetic Edda, pp. 14-41).

The final step of the steam bath, a dive into fresh or cold water to cool the swimmer and close the pores of the skin, completed the cleaning. Rinsing water was also part of the wedding ritual by adding herbs, flowers or oils, not only to perfume the water, but also to increase the purifying magical power of the rite through the aphrodisiac powers of these additives supposed to encourage fertility.

The bride's final preparations involved dressing for the ceremony. The bride apparently did not wear special clothing as is the case at weddings today.

The hair of the bride-to-be was left free: the wedding ceremony and banquet was the last time she wore her hair untied and uncovered. To replace kransen in her maiden hair, the bride wore the wedding crown, a legacy kept by her family and worn only during these festivities (Undset, p. 331).

A modern fictional representation describes one of his crowns as made of silver, ending with points alternating crosses and clover leaves, with rock crystal and braids of red and green silk thread (Ibid., p. 310). Although no sources reviewed have confirmed the use of the wedding wreath during the pagan Viking period, it was in use in the Middle Ages in Scandinavia, and the time of this custom is also certified in the Germanic continental tradition of St. Lucy's Day, i. e. a young girl nicknamed "Lucy the Bride" and adorned with an ornamented crown of lit candles.

  • The groom-to-be

Like his bride, the groom experienced the functions of the rite of passage, including breaking up and changing his former identity.

The groom's servants were his father, his married brothers, other married men and perhaps a goði. Since men did not wear an ostentatious sign of their celibacy, the symbolic shift of their old identity followed a very different ritual from that followed by the bride-to-be.

The man was obliged to obtain an inheritance sword belonging to a deceased ancestor in order to use it later in the wedding ceremony. There was a recurring tradition in the sagas that consisted of mound violations to appropriate a sword belonging to a deceased ancestor, and give it to a son of the family. Hilda Ellis-Davidson gives evidence of the importance of such a sword to marriage (Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson. "The Sword at the Wedding," in Patterns of Folklore. Ipswich UK: D.S. Brewer, 1978. p. 123).

This was indeed a powerful ritual of separating and destroying the identity of the unmarried man, with the descent into the mound to seize the sword similar to a symbolic death and rebirth.

If an appropriate burial mound was not available, the inheritance sword could be hidden by the groom's parents in a dummy burial mound (Ibid., p. 109). This provided an opportunity for the promised to be confronted with a man disguised as a ghost, or aptrgangr of his ancestor, who could instruct the young man by reminding him of his family history and origins, the importance of tradition and the need to continue the lineage.

Otherwise, the sword that the groom had to get could instead be obtained from a living relative, with a complete transmission of the family history: the sagas are not clear on this point and nowhere is the violation of the graves really described as a component of the wedding ceremony.

Once he had obtained his sword, he would then go to the baths as the bride had done before him.

There, the groom also symbolically stripped himself of his single status by washing and purifying himself for the wedding ceremony.

His instruction on the duties of a husband and father by his servants could include information gathered from sources such as Havamal, which advises young men in their relationships with women, not only by warning them of their inconsistent moods, but also by informing them about how to win a woman's love and live pleasantly with her (Hollander, Poetic Edda, pp. 14-41).

After the bath, the bride could then be dressed for the wedding. Again, no special clothing is clearly defined for the groom, except that he carried his newly acquired sword during the ceremony and could also carry with him a hammer or axe symbols of the god Thor, with the intention of signifying his control in the union and ensuring a fruitful marriage (Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson, "Thor's Hammer," in Patterns of Folklore. Ipswich UK: D.S. Brewer. 1978. p. 123).

  • The wedding ceremony

Once all the preparations were completed, everything was ready for the wedding itself on Frigga Day, Friday. The first thing on the agenda was the exchange of dowry and mundr in front of witnesses. Once the financial considerations were settled, the religious ceremony could then take place.

Although small family temples seem to have existed, the ceremony was probably held outdoors, either in an open space or in a site such as a grove (or V) that was considered sacred.

Holding the ceremony in the open air would not only have provided better visibility for wedding guests and witnesses, but would also have been more appropriate for a rite invoking the deities of fertility and marriage. The bride was escorted to the chosen location, preceded by a young parent carrying a sword as a wedding gift to her new husband (Ellis-Davidson, Sword at the Wedding, p. 97).

The first part of the religious ritual was designed to summon the attention of the gods and goddesses through invocation and possibly make a sacrifice.

If a sacrifice were to be made, an animal suitable for the fertility gods was probably selected: a goat for Thor, a sow for Freyja, a boar or a horse for Freyr.

It is possible that instead of sacrificing such an animal, it was consecrated alive to God as a gift and then preserved as a sacred beast (Ellis-Davidson, Gods and Myths, p. 97. See for example the stallion Freyfaxi.).

During the sacrifice, the goði or gyðja performed the ritual by slitting the animal's throat and then collecting the blood in a dedicated bowl (nowadays, Ásatrú practitioners, called Ásatrúar, generally use mead instead of blood from a sacrifice).

The flesh of the sacrificed animal was then used for part of the wedding banquet (Williams, p. 387). The bowl was then placed on an altar (or horgr) made of piled stones and a pack of pine needles were dipped in the liquid.

These needles, known as hlaut-tins, were then used to spray the bridal couple and assembled guests to attract the blessings of the gods on them (this could be achieved by moving the hlaut-tins so as to form the "sign of the hammer" in a short downward movement followed by a fast movement from left to right.

This was supposed to spray liquid on anyone in front of the gesture. From personal experience, it is surprising to see how much liquid can be retained in a small package of pine needles. If done correctly, a very small amount of liquid hits each of the assembled observers. (Williams, p. 387).

Then, the groom presented his young wife with the sword of his ancestors that he had recently obtained.

The bride had to hold this sword in the hope of one day handing it over to her son, just as it was practiced by Germanic tribes as described by Tacitus: "she receives something that she must give intact and not belittled to her children, something that she in turn will give to her sons' wives and that will be passed on to their grandchildren" (Tacitus, p. 117).

She then gave her husband the sword that had preceded her at the ceremony. "This exchange of gifts characterizes for them the most sacred obligation of union, sanctified by mystical rites under the favor of the divinities presiding over every marriage" (Ibid., p. 116).

The inherited sword symbolized family traditions and continuity of lineage, while the sword given to the groom by his wife symbolized the transfer of the father's power of guardianship and protection over the bride to her new husband.

After the exchange of swords, the newlyweds exchanged rings (Williams, p. 98) as we do today. These rings could recall the sacred arm ring of the temple on which the oaths were sworn (Foote and Wilson, p. 403). These could also be further consecrated by placing them on the horgr to strengthen the link between the concept of the infinite circle of the sacred ring and the unbreakable nature of the vow.

The bride's ring was presented on the handle of the groom's new sword and the same was true for the groom: this juxtaposition of the sword and the rings further on "underlines the sacredness of the contract between man and woman and the nature of the commitment they make together, so that the sword is not a threat to the woman alone, but to anyone who would break the oath" (Ellis-Davidson, Sword at the Wedding, p. 95). With the rings on their fingers and hands joined on the sword pommel, the couple then exchanged their mutual wishes.

  • The wedding banquet

After the conclusion of the wedding ceremony came the bruð-hlaup or "the bride's race", which can also be related to the bruð gumareid or "the newlyweds' walk" (Williams, p. 97).

During the Christian period, this consisted of solemn processions separated between the bride's family and relatives on the one hand and the groom's entourage on the other hand until the wedding banquet hall. Nevertheless, the term "bride's race" may indicate that in pagan times, this procession consisted of a real race as is the case today in some areas of rural Scandinavia.

The group that arrived last in the room had to serve the members of the other group all night during the beer.

When the bride arrived at the door of the room, she was stopped by the groom who blocked the entrance to the house with his sword across the door (Ellis-Davidson, Sword at the Wedding, p. 96).

This allowed the groom to lead his new wife into the room, making sure she would not trip over the threshold. Medieval houses, unlike those of today, often had a raised step at the entrance to stop or slow down cold drafts, which had to be crossed to pass through the door.

Superstition concerning the passage of the threshold by the bride was widespread throughout the pagan world, for a threshold was a portal between two worlds. Crossing the threshold symbolized the literal translation of the bride's passage from her life as a girl to that of a woman.

It was thought that spirits gathered around the doorway and there are allusions, in Scandinavian pagan tradition, to the doorstep of houses as a real burial ground for the founder of the farm guarding the door against evil spirits. So it was very important that the bride did not fall as she walked through the door, because that would have been a sign of extreme misfortune.

Once in the room, the groom would plunge his sword into the pillar tree, a support pillar of the house, in order to "evaluate the couple's luck by the depth of the scar thus made" (Ibid., p. 97).

This tradition is to be linked to the concept of the barnstokkr, the family's inheritance tree, the "child tree" which was "embraced by the women of the family at the time of delivery" (Ibid., p. 98). Thus this custom reflected the manifestation of the groom's virility and the "chance" to enlarge the family with the children born of this union (Ibid., p. 99).

Once these preliminaries were done, the banquet began. The most important part of the banquet was the ceremony of drinking the wedding beer, another of the legal conditions set out by Grágás for the marriage to be considered valid (Frank, pp. 476-477).

Here, the new woman assumed for the first time the main of her official duties as a housewife: the ceremonial service of drinking. She could present the mead to her husband in a container such as the Swedish kåsa, similar to a bowl with handles on each side shaped like animal heads, or bird heads and tails.

A variant of the kåsa is still used today for trophies and is known as the "Friendship Cup". In presenting this "cup" of mead to her husband, the bride recited some solemn verses in order to give health and vigour to the drinker, as these were transcribed by the Sigrdrífumál:

The beer I bring you, you battle oak,
is mixed with the most brilliant strength and honor;
It, made of magical and powerful songs,
Graceful charms, runes that grant wishes.

(Hollander, Poetic Edda, p. 109)

When he grabbed the cup, the groom would dedicate the drink to Thór, perhaps by waving a hammer (Ellis-Davidson, Thor's Hammer, p. 123). Before drinking, the groom would toast Óðinn, then drink in small batches and pass the cup to his new wife, who would toast Freyja before drinking (Herman Palsson and Paul Edwards, trans. Seven Viking Romances. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

By drinking together, the newlyweds did this under the law and the gods, symbolically affirming their new kinship. A drop or two of the blood from the morning sacrifice may also have been mixed with the mead, further reinforcing the notion of a now united couple.

The couple officially continued to drink mead together for four full weeks, as much the honey in the drink and the bees that produced the honey were both associated with fertility and health in the pagan world of Scandinavia.

Once the couple sat together, the couple's fertility was ensured by sanctifying the bride with Mjöllnir, Thor's hammer. This was done by the husband, or by a goði (priest), but in any case the hammer was placed on the bride's lap, thus attracting the god's blessing on her reproductive organs, and invoking Frigga, the goddess of motherhood, as in the ritual ordered in Þrymskvida:

Amenez le Marteau pour bénir la jeune mariée :
Sur les genoux de la jeune fille déposez Mjolnir ;
Au nom de Vor[Frigga] alors sanctifiez notre mariage !

(Hollander, Poetic Edda, p. 109)

After this ceremony, the celebration and the celebrations that began lasted the rest of the week. Dance, wrestling or insult contests provided entertainment for the guests, while some of the participants presented the lygisogur, the so well named "bedtime stories" they had composed for the occasion, featuring stories of famous people, a selection of poems, romance and supernatural, often dealing with the theme of marriage (Julia H. McGrew and R. George Thomas, trans. "The Saga of Thorgils and Haflidi," in Sturlunga Saga: Shorter Sagas of the Icelanders. New York: Twayne. 1974. pp. 41-44).

  • The wedding night

To fulfill the legal conditions of marriage, the groom had to be put to bed with his wife, led by witnesses, "in the light." The law is unclear on the meaning of this point: it is not known whether the bedtime was in broad daylight, or whether the groom was led to his wife's bed by torchlight (Frank, pp. 475-476).

The purpose of the law was to ensure that the six legal witnesses were able to identify the two newlyweds, so that they would have no doubt if they were later called upon to testify as to the validity of the marriage. Understanding "by torchlight" is probably more appropriate: it seems logical to assume that the bedtime took place after a long day of ceremony and celebration.

Before the groom arrived, the young wife was placed in bed by her female employees. Guldgubbes, small gold plaques representing small couple figures (sometimes the union of the God Freyr with the giant Gerd) were used to decorate the bride's bed or nightwear, again as a pledge of fertility (Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press 1988. pp. 31-31 and p. 121).

The bride once again wore the wedding crown, which was taken by her husband in front of the assembled witnesses, as a symbol of sexual union. To a certain extent, in antiquity, this ritual deflation may have been a real one, as witnessed by both male and female workers.

After the departure of the witnesses, probably accompanied by a lot of bawdiness and hilarity as was usual in marriages of rustic morals, the marriage was consummated. The bride's dream during that night was noted, as it was considered prophetic of the number of children she would bear, the fortune of her marriage and the fate of her descendants (Strand, p. 160).

  • The morning gift

The next morning, the husband and wife were separated again for a short time. The female attendants helped the bride get dressed and now her hair was braided or tied into a hairdo for wives only. The universal Scandinavian symbol of the woman is what she now wore as her own: the hustrulinet, a long linen fabric, finely pleated and white as snow.

There were several variants of this headdress. Generally, reconstructions describing an austere band style worn on the head give a false idea of it (Christina Krupp and Carolyn A. Priest-Dorman. Women's Garb in Northern Europe: 450-1000 EC: Frisians, Angles, Franks, Balts, Vikings and Finns. Anachronist Complex 59. Milpitas CA: Society for Creative Anachronism. 1992. pp. 46-48).

The hustrulinet, a band of fabric decorated with brocade metal threads that was bound around the forehead, was pinned to a net.

Archaeological findings provide examples of a hood or a long silk cap that may have been worn instead of a hustrulinet (Ibid., p. 48) and some women's burial sites are known to contain pins 13 to 20 cm long placed beside the head, which could have attached a veil such as the hustrulinet over the braids rolled or retained in a net as previously discussed (David M. Wilson.

The Vikings and their Origins. New York: A & W Visual Library. 1980. p. 33). This headdress was worn as a sign of honour and as a token of her new status as a wife, distinguishing her in her home from servants and concubines.

There is some debate as to whether the tradition of wearing the hustrulinet would not have been imported by Christianity in the 10th century, as the discovery of various headdresses in burials increased sharply during this period; however, it is undeniable that archaeologists discovered headdresses dating from the 9th century and even earlier, placing this distinction of the functions of mistress of the home directly at the heart of the Pagan Viking period (Krupp and Dorman, pp. 46-47).

Once properly dressed, the bride was escorted into the large room to complete the final legal conditions of the marriage. In front of witnesses, the husband paid his wife the "morning gift", meaning that the marriage was now consummated, and entrusted her with the custody of the keys opening the various locks of his house, thus symbolizing his new authority as mistress of the home (Williams, p. 97).


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