and another article
Healing in the Medieval North
Gather ’round, my friends! It has been awhile since we assembled by the fire to speak of the Olden Days, hasn’t it? I have been eager for the opportunity, although my travels have kept me aloft, soaring in far away places rather than sitting here comfortably in the hall with friends and company! But first, allow me to share my tidings with you all:
I was traveling by foot when a strong wind suddenly swept across the land. It seemed to me that a storm was coming, as I looked westward to see clouds building in the sky. I was near the river Hvíta by the time the storm had found me, but night had quickly descended upon the land and I was caught unready when it came. Bundled in my cloak looking for a farm to take shelter in, I found myself knocked into the river by a sudden gust of cold wind.
To my luck, I was saved by a local man named Helgi, but not before my ankle was injured. He was a kind lad with red cheeks and beaming green eyes; he took me to his home which was not far from where I fell.
“Helgi the Healer, they call me,” he said as he set me down by the fire, his voice cheerful. “You’re a lucky man! But don’ take it personal, the wind’s not always kind ’round these parts, especially to unsuspectin’ wanderers.“
He busied himself with a cauldron filled with a foul smelling broth bubbling inside.
It seemed to me that his manner of speaking was brisk, since he never spent time explaining why I was so lucky, or what he meant about the wind not being nice. But I assumed it must have been because I had fallen near the home of a healer. It would have been troublesome, after all, to have an injured ankle and no horse to carry me while out on my travels. Nevertheless, he took good care of me, and I was soon back on my way north. We shared many good tales — and ales!
After that adventure, the rest of my travels were full of questions about how healing worked long ago. How many healers were there? If I was so lucky, what were the chances of those before me to stumble across similar odds? Also, were there any gods who offered healing? Were healers associated with them? What herbs did they use to make that smelly broth? What was their practice like? The list of curiosities goes on and on, but let’s not dwell on questions! Instead, let’s look for some answers.
Today we will be discussing the following topics:
- A Pagan God for Healing?
- Healing with Magic and Runes
- Medical Treatment (Without Magic)
- Herbal Remedies and Medical Books
- Monastic Medicine in the North
- Medical Miracles by Northern Saints
- Famous Medieval Scandinavian Healers
If you have already listened to this discussion, feel free to jump to the end for a recap. And if you are curious about the sources that have been used to create this post, I highly encourage you to visit the endnotes at the bottom of the page.
Now, without further delay, let’s continue!
A Pagan God for Healing?
I’m afraid there’s not much to share from the lore when it comes to gods directly associated with healing, although it still makes for a good place to begin. If we put our faith into the Prose Edda, there is one goddess known to be associated specifically with the art of healing, and her name is Eir. She is described as such:
iij er eir hō er lækn̅ beztr
Þriðja er Eir; hon er læknir beztr.
The third is Eir; she is the best healer.
Beyond that, however, we have little else left to guide us. She is later listed among the names of valkyries, and she is even in an Eddic poem called Fjölsvinnsmál, but in both cases she remains obscure to our senses. Thus, we begin to unravel certain complexities; and in seeking answers, scholars have raised endless questions: Was she truly a goddess in her own right? Was she perhaps only a valkyrie, rather than a goddess? Or was ‘Eir’ just another name for Frigg? These questions swirl about her, but there simply is not enough information to trap them all inside of a book so that we may put them to rest. Instead, we are left to ponder what she could have been.
Healing with Magic and Runes
But when we look to the realm of magic, there is more to uncover. Let us now turn to the Hávamáland consider a few words attributed to Odin in verse:
147. I know a second [spell] which the sons of men need,
those who want to live as physicians (læknar).
While this itself may not yield much fruit, it does show us the magical healing was something known to the medieval North — and that it may have been associated with Odin. But since the Poetic Edda alone cannot quench our thirst, let us turn elsewhere. Taking a slight detour in both time and place, we must look next to the Second Merseburg Incantation, which was preserved in Old High German around the tenth century.Spells such as this had a somewhat standard form, wherein the incantation was divided into two parts: a story and the spell (as a magical analogy).
Phol and Wodan (Odin) rode into the woods,There Balder’s foal sprained its foot.
It was charmed by Sinthgunt, her sister Sunna;
It was charmed by Frija, her sister Volla;
It was charmed by Wodan, as he well knew how:
Bone-sprain, like blood-sprain,
Bone to bone; blood to blood;
Limb to limb — like they were glued.
Considering this, Odin has been associated with healing spells before, so it is not all that unlikely to consider stanza 147 of Hávamál in a similar manner. However, I would not go so far as to say that this was the exact spell being referred to in that poem. Nevertheless, there are more examples we ought to consider still. What kind of magic healing was practiced by mortals rather than gods? Let us now examine a case of runic healing from Egil’s Saga.
Healing with Runes
Egil was a…difficult man. But as a true skáld (poet), he was certainly talented with words. As we saw above, spells could take the form of poetic incantations — the saying that “words have power” has much historical basis, you know. But the passage relevant to our gathering today concerns a young lady who misused runes. Egil, seeing her lying sick on the bench, goes over to cure her from her sickness:
“When Egil had eaten his fill he went to where the woman was lying and spoke to her. He ordered them to lift her out of he bed and place clean sheets underneath her, and this was done. Then he examined the bed she had been lying in, and found a whalebone with runes carved on it. After reading the runes, Egil shaved them off and scraped them into the fire. He burned the whalebone and had her bedclothes aired. Then Egil spoke a verse:
No man should carve runes
unless he can read them well;
many a man goes astray
around those dark letters.
On the whalebone I saw
ten secret letters carved,
from them the linden tree (women)
took her long harm.
Egil cut some (correct) runes and placed them under the pillow of the bed where she was lying. She felt as if she were waking from a deep sleep, and she said she was all well again, but still very weak. But her father and mother were overjoyed.”
But what might such a runic spell have looked like? Luckily, my friends, we have archaeological evidence to confirm the saga’s account and thus give our eyes the sight they so crave. The Sigtuna Amulet, which has been dated to the mid-to-late eleventh century, is a great example for gathering a sense of what runic healing was like towards the end of the Viking Age. Let’s have a look:
This example comes from a lovely book called Runic Amulets and Magic Objects, written by Mindy Macleod (from Deakin University) and Bernard Mens (from the University of Melbourne). Although it is a bit expensive, I do recommend it to anyone interested in runic magic. But now let’s take a moment to understand what we’re looking at, shall we?
As you can see, the runic spell above demands that the “Ogre of wound-fever” (presumably the sickness troubling the patient) flee from the body it currently plagues. But this sickness is also referred to as a “wolf,” which was a term frequently used against criminals who were outlawed from society; and in Scandinavian folklore, wolves are often depicted as agents of evil. Here, however, these cultural ideas surrounding wolves have come together in order to refer to a demon that needs to be ousted from a suffering patient. It was common during the Middle Ages, after all, to align sickness with the presence of evil demons that had entered the body through some kind of opening. In this case, we may assume that the demon entered through a wound, and this amulet would serve to chase away the sickness-wolf that was harming its host — as long as the runes were carved correctly, that is.
A Lasting Legacy?
Dwelling just outside of the boundaries of our period, I think it is worth mentioning the Colic Leaf, or Kveisublaðið. Dating from around 1600, this manuscript is rather unique in that it was likely worn as an amulet that was tied around a patient. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Even around the sixteenth century, it seems that Icelanders were still using practices brought down to them from runic magic. You can even view this manuscript for yourself at handrit.is, and here is the description that they offer:
“Kveisublaðið [the Colic leaf] is probably the only one of its kind to have been preserved in Iceland. The leaf is a vellum strip with a text or a prayer against colic or arthritis. This kind of prayer leaves are considered to have been fairly common, but they were confiscated in the witch hunt in the 17th century. The strip was used as an amulet and was most often tied around the patient. This leaf was preserved in episcopal archives and is believed to have been written around 1600. The text on the leave is both in Latin and Icelandic.”
Medical Treatment (Without Magic)
But not all healing involved incantations to the divine or runes carved on objects. Some healing relied on a different source of magic — knowledge of herbs and of the body. But what would thishave been like in practice? For that we may turn to The Saga of Saint Olaf from Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, where a woman treats a man who has been injured in battle:
“After this Thormod went off to a kind of storehouse and went in. There were already many men inside there badly wounded. There was a certain woman busy there bandaging men’s wounds. There was a fire on the floor, and she was warming water to cleanse the wounds. So Thormod sat down out by the doorway. One man was going out there, and another in, who were busy attending to men’s wounds. Then someone turned to Thormod and looked at him and after that said:
‘Why are you so pale? Are you wounded, or why don’t you ask for treatment for yourself?’
[Thormod says a few verses as people ask why he is so pale, including a healer. He was wounded by an arrow.]
Then said the physician: ‘Let me see your wounds and I shall give you some bandages.’
After that he sat down and threw off his clothes. And when the physician saw his wounds, then she examined the wound that he had in his side, felt that there was a piece of iron stuck in it, but could not tell for certain which way it had gone in. She had been cooking in a stone kettle there, ground garlic and other herbs and boiled it together and was giving it to wounded men and could find out like that whether they had intestinal wounds, for it smelt of garlic from out of the wound if it was intestinal. She brought this to Thormod, bidding him eat it. He replies:‘Take it away. I am not pining for gruel.’Then she took some tongs and tried to pull the iron out, but it was stuck and would not move, there being only a little bit sticking out, for the wound was swollen. Then Thormod said:‘You cut in to where the iron is, so that it can easily be got at with the tongs, then give them to me and let me tug at it.’She did as he said. Then Thormod took a gold ring from his arm and gave it to the physician, telling her to do whatever she wanted with it:‘It was given by one who is good,’ he says. ‘King Olaf gave me this ring this morning.’After that Thormod took the tongs and pulled out the arrow head. But there were barbs on it, and there were bres from his heart stuck on it, some of them red, some white, and when he saw this, he said:
‘Well has the king nourished us. There is still fat around my heart strings.’
After that he sank back and was now dead.”
Unfortunately that source does not tell us exactly what herbs she used, but nonetheless we gather a (fairly detailed) glimpse of what the process may have looked like (in the thirteenth century). But there are several other examples of medical practitioners in the Sagas of Icelanders, and although they may not provide such specific details, they will still help us to gather a sense for what general medical practice may have looked like in the medieval North.
So what would one do after suffering an injury? In our example above, Thormod went to a make-shift hospital of sorts after battling among kings in Norway. But what about localized conflict? Let’s head over to Iceland (consulting The Saga of Thord Menace) to see what one could do if they were injured in a feud-skirmish:
“They (Thord and Indridi) fought for a long time, before Indridi fell at Thord’s feet, his wounds gaping. Then Thord charged at Indridi’s companions, and they did not fight long before Thord killed them both. After that, Thord sat down and bound his wounds, because he had received many deep wounds. He went over to Indridi and asked him if he could be cured.
‘I think there is some hope of it, if a healer sees me,’ he said.
Then Thord pulled Indridi out of the blood and helped him onto his horse. He got on his own horse, rode west into Bolstadarhlid and reported what had happened. Then he rode to Engihild with Indridi. Thorvald gave Thord a good welcome, told him to make himself at home, and asked him what had happened. Thord told him about the fight at Arnarstapi and the four deaths – ‘and I’ve come here because I want you to heal Indridi, since no man is braver than he.’ Thorvald said that he would do that. He took Indridi in, prepared a bath for him and cleaned his wounds. None of his wounds were life-threatening. Thorvald offered Thord treatment. He declined it: ‘I’m going to reach the north country, come what may.’
Indridi began to speak: ‘It’s like this: as you know, I tried to avenge Orm on Thord. But it turned out that four of my companions fells dead by Thord’s hand, and I am gravely wounded myself. My business with Thord might have been expected to turn out like this, because no man can match his valor. Now, Thord, my advice is that you ride north to my ship and wait for me there. The mistress of the house at Island is called Olof. She is a strong-minded woman, and a very skilled healer. Ask her for shelter, until I come north, and for treatment. …’
[He follows through with this plan, and Olof said (after debating with a man named Thorhall about whether Thord should be given treatment or not):]
‘I think anyone who helps him with be the better for it. Thord, I invite you to stay here as long as you like, and I’ll bind up your wounds and, if it’s fated, heal you.’
Then Thord dismounted. The mistress of the house took him to an outbuilding and the farmer unsaddled his horse. Olof laid a table for Thord, and he started to eat. When he’d finished, she prepared a bath for him and cleaned his wounds. He had several deep wounds.
Thord stayed secretly at Osland until all his wounds were healed.”
One may quickly notice just how similar these examples of healers (Thorvald and Olof) are to the (slightly) more detailed example from Heimskringla. But The Saga of Thord Menace is thought to be composed around the year 1350, which is much later than Snorri’s Heimskringla. Nevertheless, both of these accounts withhold much detail from us — and this is the nature of many saga accounts referring to healing (among other things). Just what kinds of herbs were used to treat these wounds? To answer this, we will have to depart from the sagas.
Herbal Remedies and Medical Books
Let’s first consider stanza 137 of Hávamál, which lists remedies to various illnesses:
137. I advise you, Loddfafnir, to take this advice,
it will be useful if you learn it,
do you good, if you have it:
where you drink ale, chose yourself earth’s power!
For earth soaks up drunkenness, and fire works against sickness,
oak against constipation, an ear of corn against witchcraft,
the hall against household strife, for hatred the moon should be invoked–
earthworms for inflamed parts, and runes against evil;
land must take up the flood.
Here we begin to see herbal remedies sneaking their way into lists for maintaining good health — which, by the way, includes runes (for those pesky wolf-demons). Unfortunately this list is a bit unsatisfying, though, for it only mentions a handful of herbal remedies.
There are medieval Icelandic manuscripts containing more detailed lists of herbs used for medical remedies, but I am not able to access all of them in order to share their wisdom with you all. One of these, however, is Lækningabók (AM 655 XXX 4to), which dates to the later half of the thirteenth century. Yet, there is also Lækningakver (AM 434a 12mo), which is quite the treasure trove of medieval Icelandic medical knowledge, and you can view this manuscript for yourself over at handrit.is. This text was written around 1500, and thanks to Ben Waggoner’s translation of the manuscript, I can more easily share its details with everyone this evening.
A few things, however, should be noted: this is a text heavily mixed with continental knowledge and practices; not all of these herbs were readily available in the North and had to be imported; and this cannot be used to reflect (accurately) any other period than that which it was written — but even then, caution should be taken.
The question about which herbs were native to medieval Iceland and which were not, as well as what herbs were actually grown and used in Iceland at that time, is quite a difficult one to answer. Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir has been engaged in a careful study of medieval Icelandic herbs within the context of monastic gardens. For those who may be curious (and don’t mind delving into the depth of archaeological discussion), feel free to check out her article “The Icelandic medieval monastic garden – did it exist?”
Medieval Medicine Abroad
But before we can continue, I should explain the absolute basics of medieval medicine as it was known to the rest of the medieval world: the humoral system. Medieval medicine was centered around the concept of four bodily humors: blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm. Each of these humors was then connected with different elements, seasons, and balances of heat and moisture. Consult the table below:
|Artistole’s Four Qualities Linked to the Body|
|Blood||Air 💨||Spring 🌺||Hot & Wet|
|Yellow Bile||Fire 🔥||Summer 🌞||Hot & Dry|
|Black Bile||Earth 🌿||Autumn 🍁||Cold & Dry|
|Phlegm||Water 🌧||Winter ❄️||Cold & Wet|
It was important to keep these humors balanced, which meant considering the season and conditions affecting a patient’s heat and moisture. Yet, these humors were also linked to complexions, which were medical ‘traits’ associated with people. A medieval physician would use these complexions in order to help them decided how to treat a patient. For example, a person described as having a “sanguine temperament” was associated with the humor ‘blood’, and was generally happy, charismatic, and pleasant looking. Their body, then, would be more hot and wet than, say, a person associated with Black Bile.
You may notice some of these theories scattered throughout our example.
But now, let’s have a look:
AM 434a 12mo: A Medical Manuscript from Iceland
Since April is around the corner, let’s make sure we know what to look out for this month:
“In April, it is good to let blood and take drinks, eat meat, let a cupful of blood, make use of warmth. Rue cures a stomach-ace. And drink lovage.”
Considering our saga examples from above, let’s look at the several suggestions for treating wounds:
“For a wound: lay salt on it and give the man oil with wine to drink.
If an arrow is stuck in a man (as was the case with Thormod), it may come out this way: take thistle and grapes and the white of an egg and bind them on.
For a wound, take an eggshell and burn it, and a spoonful of honey and an equal amount of butter, and rub it on and crush up everything together. This remedy is good for wounds.
If a wound has grown together and has become diseased all around, then take cheese; then it will be opened.
But if a wound is old, take goat turds and boil them in cold wine or in goat’s milk, as much as porridge or cabbage. Lay that on the wound. That will heal, even though it may seem hopeless to the healer.
Also, yarrow, crushed and laid on a wound, heals every wound remarkably well.
Also for a wound: take iron rust and make fern and crush it all together and [lay it] on. That heals well.
Crush the herb called celandine very well, with fresh fat, and lay it on. That cleanses and heals well.
Also, for the same: take plantain and grind it with the white of an egg and lay it on a wound. Then it will be cleansed and not leave a scar.
Also, for a wound which opens up by itself, take the herb called horehound and grind it with old fat. That cleanses and heals very well.
For a wound, take the skin from bacon, and honey, and the juice of the herb called celery, and white flour, equal amounts of each, and make a paste of them and lay it on the wound. That heals it quite well.
For a wound, take the powdered herb called century and sprinkle it on the wound. That heals and cleanses it.”
Also relevant to our saga examples is this:
“A steam bath does these good things: It moistens the body and opens the sweat pores and washes away filth and decreases the foulness that the body has. It loosens the humors and helps one sleep well. It makes blood thin which was thick before.”
But let’s also look at what there is to be said about a certain herb:
“Alanum, alum, cleanses the eyes and makes the sight clear, and shrinks excessive flesh in a man’s eyelids and in other parts, and doesn’t allow bad sores to grow. Alum tempered with honey and vinegar fastest loose teeth and heals swollen gums. Alum heals blisters and scabs, if they are washed with water in which alum is dissolved. Alum tempered with vinegar heals a sick belly and the sicklness called scruf.”
Certainly that is enough to give us a glimpse at a few possible herbal remedies used in the medieval North, although this can only attest to the time around 1500 (and in Iceland). Was this book used in actual practice? If so, it is doubtful that your neighborhood healer would have such an expensive object laying around their hall (unless they were a wealthy chieftain, that is). So, who used books like these? Where else did healing take place in the medieval North? For more answers, we must once again to to other sources.
Monastic Medicine in the North
For the purpose of this post, we will only be looking at one monastery, although it is certainly rich with information. Iceland’s last monastery, Skriðuklaustur, was founded in 1493, around the same time that AM 434a 12mo was written. Yet, archaeological digs between 2002 and 2010 have revealed that this location was not only a cloistered community of Augustinian monks, but also a hospital.
Medical Monks (and Nuns)
Iceland’s Skriðuklauster was certainly not a unique development, though. Monasteries all around the medieval world were places of learning and therefore had access to medical texts. It was also generally expected for them to take care of the sick within their respective communities. Hildegard of Bingen (d.1179) is a famous example of monastic medical practice in action. She wrote Causes and Cures, which is a medical text heavily concerned with conception and women’s health. By the twelfth century, however, the Church was becoming rather anxious about medical monks and gradually introduced new ordinances against the practice. In 1123, for example, monks were forbidden to leave the monastery in order to visit the sick. Later they would be told not to practice medicine for money. Medical practice was not always seen as a strictly spiritual endeavor, which was supposed to be a monk’s primary goal in life. But this, of course, did not stop all monastic healing.
The Saga of Skriðuklaustur
Excavations at Skriðuklaustur have revealed that it included an infirmary which tended to both men and women (when considered in light of the grave excavations), which suggests that it tended to lay people, and not just the monks living and working at the monastery. This is further supported by the evidence that most of the skeletons buried there show signs of various diseases. There were also objects associated with medical practice found at this location, including (but not limited to) eighteen lancets, scalpels and pins, which suggests that both healing and surgery took place at this location.
During these archaeological endeavors, evidence of ten herbs have been found at Skriðuklaustur, which may help shed some light on our manuscript example from before. The following table has been recreated from “Medicinal Herbs and Medieval Healthcare at Skriðuklaustur Monastery, East Iceland” by Deborah Smith, page 206:
|Medicinal Herbs Found at Skriðuklaustur|
|Latin Botanical name 🔬||Icelandic name 🇮🇸||English common name 🇬🇧|
|Plantago major||Græðisúra||Common plantain|
|Rhinanthus minor||Lokasjodur||Little yellow rattle, Rattlebox|
Given the increasing amount of archaeological discovery at locations such as this, it is becoming more apparent that places in the medieval North, such as Iceland, were able to sustain herbal gardens in their monasteries despite the difficult environmental conditions they faced. Furthermore, Skriðuklaustur demonstrates that medieval knowledge (and practice) from abroad (which we saw with AM 434a 12mo) was indeed put to use through willing monasteries, if not by wealthy or notable individuals alone. To what extent did such monasteries contribute to healing and medicine in the medieval North, though? More research will need to be done before we can be too sure about anything.
Medical Miracles by Northern Saints
But the Church certainly had much to say about healing, and their narratives about miraculous healing through their saints is nothing to ignore. Thus, I would like to at least touch on this subject by providing three examples of miraculous healing from three different saints from the medieval North. I will be rather brief here, but eventually I will do a Fireside History post about Christianity (or even one specifically on saints) in the medieval North, which will be far more detailed.
Saint Olaf Haraldsson of Norway (995-1030)
Saint Olaf, who’s saga we have already included in this evening’s gathering, was a king in Norway who came to be venerated as a martyr and saint after his death in the battle of Stiklestad. His cult spread rapidly across the medieval North, even finding place in England only twenty years after his death. He became the most popular saint in Scandinavia and was even held in such high regard in Iceland. The following medical miracle (which is but one of many) comes from The Passion and Miracles of the Blessed Olaf:
“Likewise, a year later, on Saint Olaf’s day, another girl won the bounty of the like grace, for her sinews were withered, and for more than five years her heels had been joined to her haunches. With the assistance of the faithful, she was carried before the door of the choir, and when the saint’s most holy body was lifted for the procession, a cracking of stretching sinews was heard, and at that moment she was healed by a miraculous power.” 
Saint Thorlak Thorhallsson of Iceland (1133-1193)
Saint Thorlak is perhaps the most well-known saint from Iceland, since he is the only one that managed to receive official recognition in the eyes of the Catholic Church. But his importance goes beyond that, for his veneration as a saint marked the beginning of indigenous hagiography in Iceland. He was elected bishop of Skálholt, and it is said that he fought for the Church’s right over property in Iceland, but his veneration seems to stem more out of his moral and ethical standing in life. The following medical miracle comes from his saga:
“There was a man called Tjorvi; he suffered a great injury to his hands. The hands went stiff and leprous so that he could not straighten his fingers, and that injury lasted for fifteen years. He invoked the blessed Bishop Thorlak for his healing. He fell asleep after that and, when he wakened and wished to wash himself, his hands had been completely healed and they were shown to everyone who was present, and then the Te Deum was sung. And as soon as this miracle had become known to all then one after another started to invoke the holy Bishop Thorlak, and it was not strange, since the miraculous power was so great that it was granted almost before it was asked.”
Gudmund the Good of Iceland (1161-1237)
Gudmund Arason was elected bishop of Hólar in 1203, although he was a priest since 1185. As bishop, he clashed with powerful chieftains over the issues of separating ecclesiastical courts from the secular courts (for no distinction was made in Iceland during his time). The result was a terrible feud that eventually cost him his life. The following medical miracle comes from his saga:
“There was a farmer called Kalf, who was a good friend of Gudmund the priest. He became afflicted with such a severe throat-disease that he was unable to speak or to swallow food. Gudmund went to visit him, and prayed over him and dropped water frojn holy relics onto his lips. He had such difficulty in swallowing it that it made him sweat heavily, and he straightway afterwards told of this in a low voice and then stood up cured. Thereupon he went out to his cowhouse to look after the cattle, with his health completely restored.”
While many of you may feel that including saints in a discussion regarding healing practices is unnecessary, we must remember that many people in the medieval period (including medieval Scandinavia after conversion) looked toward saints and their relics for healing when times were particularly difficult. It is true that some monasteries offered healing, but that was not the only option available to them. Some people living in the medieval North looked to religion for healing, hoping for a saint to work with God on their behalf.
Famous Medieval Scandinavian Healers
In fact, healing done by individuals who were not venerated as saints was actually not all that detached from the religious accounts we just spoke of. The Saga of Bishop Thorlak, for example, makes the following statement about healers: “God has established healers so that they should sometimes be able by God’s will to stop long discomforts with brief pain.” Whether we like it or not, healing in the medieval world was never entirely separated from religious belief, whether pagan or Christian. But nevertheless, many good medieval Scandinavian healers were educated by secular institutions abroad, such as the famous “school” of Salerno.
Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson of Iceland (d.1213)
Hrafn Svenbjarnarson was among those fortunate enough to travel abroad and reap the benefits of far away knowledge. As a chieftain in the Westfjords who descended from a famous line of healers (which is recounted in chapter 28 of The Saga of Magnus the Good), Hrafn was exceptionally skilled in the art of healing (and likely more so due to his extensive travels). Here is an example of Hrafn curing a patient using cauterization:
“There was a man named Thorgils who suffered from an affliction that his whole body swelled up — his head, trunk, arms, and legs. He went to see Hrafn at a place where he had lodgings, and asked him for treatment. Hrafn cauterized him with many marks in the shape of a cross — across his chest, and on his head, and between his shoulders. And a fortnight later all the swelling in his flesh had disappeared, so that he was perfectly well.”
Several other examples from his saga reveal a deep familiarity with continental surgical methods around the mid-thirteenth century. One such example is the account in which Hrafn performs surgery on a man named Marteinn, removing two bladder stones from him:
“Hrafn took [Marteinn] in and had him with him for a long time, and eased his suffering with great skill. But the illness afflicted him so that he became deathly ill, and lay swollen up like a bollock. And then Hrafn called in his priests and the wisest men in his household and asked whether they thought that the man was close to death on account of his sickness; and they all said that they thought he was doomed to die, unless treatment were administered. And Hrafn said that he would undertake it with God’s will and on their verdict. Then he ran his hands over the patient and felt the stone in his abdomen and manipulated it out of the penis as far as he could, and the he tied the penis behind it with a linen thread so that the stone should not shift back and then tied it in front of the stone with another thread. Then he asked everyone to chant five paternosters before he undertook the operation. And then he made an incision lengthwise with a knife and removed two stones. Afterwards he bandaged up the wound with salve and treated the man so that he grew well again.”
Guðrún P. Helgadóttir has pointed out this example’s striking similarity to several texts from elsewhere in the medieval world. Academic debates aside, this reveals that such knowledge was familiar to Icelanders, whether on behalf of the author or Hrafn himself (or even both, perhaps).
Henrik Harpestræng of Denmark (d. 1241)
Moving over the North Sea to Denmark, Henrik Harpestræng is perhaps the most famous of all medieval Scandinavian physicians. He is noted for introducing Salernitian medicine into Scandinavia through his writings, which influenced the manuscript we looked at today (AM 434a 12mo). Much of his work derives from texts written by Salernitan authors, such as Odo Magdunensis’ De viribus herbarum and Constantine Africanus‘ De gradibus liber, which was a translation of an Arbaic text. Although I do not have much at my disposal to discuss him with more detail, he is certainly worth including in our discussion, even if only briefly so.
Bringing Everything Together
But at last, my guests, we have finished our tale! After a tremendous amount of lecturing and recounting on my behalf, I do believe that it is time to recap all of the information shared today. What have we learned about healing after all of this? Let’s look:
In the medieval North, healing generally took place through individuals with varied levels of expertise and education. It wasn’t until after the twelfth century that we begin to see academically trained physicians and surgeons in the North, such as Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson. Prior to then, healing would have largely been in the hands of a few people in each district, and people who ended up getting injured (or sick) would have to seek them out if they wanted treatment — as we saw with Thord Menace.
Healing could be based in magic (via runes), herbal remedies, knowledge of the human body, or a combination of all three. Our sources are not always clear about their practice, but it is evident that a fair amount of individuals knew basic medical treatments, including how to clean wounds and provide certain herbal remedies. Our example from Heimskringla gave us a fair glimpse at how the average healer would have practiced their craft. As for magical healing, Egil’s Saga gave us a fair idea of whatnot to do, while our archaeological evidence gave us a better sense for what the practice would have actually looked like.
We also saw that healing began to change after the twelfth century as texts from abroad began to influence medical knowledge in the North. The one we looked was from c.1500 and contained a great deal of specialized information about herbs and various treatments. We also looked at a northern monastery in Iceland known as Skriðuklaustur, which gave us a sense for what a medical ‘institution’ may have looked like in the later medieval North. By this time, we see that medicine was not only the practice of a few notable individuals, but also communities of monks serving their local community.
A few pagan gods (such as Eir and perhaps Odin) could have been linked with healing, but our sources for that are unfortunately sparse. We do have evidence to suggest that healing chants existed in the early medieval period that invoked the powers of the divine in order to channel a healing spell. As for the later medieval period, we see several accounts of miraculous healing done by saints. Healing is still shown to be a complex relationship between religious and secular as even talented individuals, such as Hrafn, appeal to God before performing surgery of his patients.
And with that, I do believe we can all leave this hall with a better understand of healing than we had before. It is certainly a complex topic, and I have hardly scratched the surface of what could be discussed and examined further. Nevertheless, it should do well as a basic overview and introduction to healing in the medieval North.
If you have any questions or concerns about the contents of this History Raid, please feel free to send me a raven at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will make sure that your raven is well-received and happily fed before sending back a reply.
 It is important to remember the context of our sources. The Prose Edda was written in the early thirteenth century by a lay aristocratic Christian named Snorri Sturluson. While I call this ‘lore’, it is certainly not ‘pure’ — not that any historical source truly is. [return]
 To read this poem for yourself, see Carolyne Larrington trans., The Poetic Edda (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 259-67. But do remember that this source was also written post-conversion. [return]
 John Lindow is skeptical and advices caution in trusting Snorri. For more, see John Lindow, Norse Mythology: A Guide to Gods, Heroes, Rituals, and Beliefs (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 105. See also Rudolf Simek, A Dictionary of Northern Mythology, translated by Angela Hall (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1993), 71-2. [return]
 For the sake of context, Egil’s Saga is thought to have been composed between 1220 and 1230 (or even as late as 1250). This source, like the Prose Edda, is not purely ‘pagan’ (if at all). It too was written by a Christian, and some scholars even believe the author to be Snorri Sturluson himself. [return]
 Ibid., 118. [return]
 Ibid., 116. [return]
 Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla, vol. II, translated by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes (Viking Society for Northern Research, University College London, 2014), 261-2. (Ólafs saga helga, chapter 235). [return]
 Katrina C. Attwood trans., The Saga of Thord Menace, in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales, vol. III, edited by Viðar Hreinsson, 361-96 (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 380.. [return]
 Vésteinn Ólasson, “Family Sagas,” In A Companion to Old Norse-Icelandic Literature and Culture, edited by Rory McTurk (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 115. [return]
 I obtained the following information from a class offered by Dr. Anne Koenig at the University of South Florida titled: History of Science and Medicine in Western Society (From Antiquity through 1700). [return]
 Ben Waggoner trans., Norse Magical and Herbal Healing: A Medical Book from Medieval Iceland(New Haven: Troth Publications, 2011), 6. [return]
 Ibid., 9, 13, 16, and 17. [return]
 Ibid., 24. [return]
 Ibid, 21. [return]
 Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir, “Skriðuklaustur Monastery: Medical Centre of Medieval East Iceland?” Acta Archaeologica 79, 2008: 208. [return]
 Deborah Smith, “Medicinal Herbs and Medieval Healthcare at Skriðuklaustur Monastery, East Iceland”, International Journal of Humanities and Social Science 4, no. 13, (November 2014): 204. [return]
 Like endnote 20, I derived this information from my experience at the University of South Florida in the class History of Science and Medicine in Western Society (From Antiquity through 1700) with Dr. Anne Koenig. [return]
 Steinunn Kristjánsdóttir, “Skriðuklaustur: A Medieval Icelandic Monastery Following In The Christian Tradition” (September 2015): 30. [return]
 Ibid., 31. [return]
 Devra Kunin trans., A History of Norway and the Passion and Miracles of the Blessed Olaf (Viking Society for Northern Research, University College London, 2001), xxv-xxvi. [return]
 Ibid., 53. [return]
 Ibid., 24. [return]
 Ibid., 28. [return]
 Ian McDougall, “The Third Instrument of Medicine: Some Accounts of Surgery in Medieval Iceland,” In Health, Disease and Healing in Medieval Culture, edited by Sheila Campbell, Bert Hall, and David Klausner (Houndmills: Macmillan Academic and Professional, 1992), 66. [return]
 Ibid., 74-5. [return]
Now that we know what their environment was like, how did they organize it? What were their dwellings like? And how did they use them to work the land? The farmstead (bær) was the North’s basic social and economic unit, and they could vary considerably in terms of materials, size, construction, layout, and sustainability. These factors change depending on what part of the Norse world we look at (and, of course, what time period we look at, as well). In Denmark, it was typical for communities to come together in small villages. In Sweden, settlements were a bit more diversified due to there being less fertile land than Denmark, but in fertile areas such as Uppland, there were some villages that formed (at least towards the end of the Viking Age). The situation in Norway, on the other hand, was quite different. Due to the lack of arable land and the difficulty of the terrain, settlement was very dispersed and limited to isolated farmsteads rather than villages. The situation was similar in Iceland as well, which remained entirely rural (with no villages nor towns) even beyond the medieval period.
In general, there were roughly three different ‘types’ of typical Norse farmsteads, each of which depending on the availability of local resources:
[Fig.5] The Varied Materials Used for Norse Farmsteads Based on Regional Resources
|Norway 🇳🇴/Sweden 🇸🇪||Heavily forested||A layer of waterproof birch covered with turf for insulation||Solid wood|
|Denmark 🇩🇰||Less forested||Thatch (straw, water reed, or heather); sometimes wooden shingles||Timber-frame covered with clay-plaster; later planks|
|Iceland 🇮🇸||Treeless||Turf||Turf or stone (if available)|
Size and Construction
While that covers materials, what about size and construction? A Norse farmstead consisted of at least one all-purpose building, which was called either a hall (skáli) or a longhouse (langhús). The term skáli is often used for “main hall” (as in a single room within a larger building), but it may help to consider the skáli as a smaller version of the langhús (i.e. one that is only one room). Nevertheless, the longhouse was a type of building that had dominated Northern Europe for hundreds of years before the Viking Age, and it was the very heart of the farm.
These homes could vary considerably in size, depending on the resources available to the family building it. The average small longhouse was typically around 13.4 meters long by 5.4 meters wide (Grelútott, Iceland). The halls of nobles, however, could reach as large as 48.3 meters long by 11.5 meters wide (Lejre, Denmark). Farmsteads like Grelutótt typically housed a single family and a few workers, while the large halls like Lejre were the homes of great chieftains and often hosted marvelous feasts for the local community. Small farmsteads often depended on loans of stock and rentals of land to get by, while larger farms could be mostly self-sufficient (until the demands of feasting, hospitality, and feasting caught up with them).
Here is a list of some of the basic features that made up the average Norse longhouse. Below the list is also a diagram that should help you all visualize all of these features:
- Three naves
- Two rows of interior wooden posts (which were connected in pairs by beams)
- Wooden posts along the walls (which were connected to the interior posts)
- Benches and chests along the walls
- Rugs and tapestries on the walls (which protected against drafts)
- Central hearth
- Earthen stamped floor (sometimes wooden planks)
- Door (often decorated with woodcarvings or iron fittings; sometimes with locks)
- Roof (varied materials, see above)
- Walls (varied materials, see above)
The average longhouse in Scandinavia was typically divided into several different rooms, each with their own functions and purposes. The larger the house, the more specialized rooms one hall could hold. Traditionally, at least at the beginning of the Viking Age and earlier, the farmsteads were essentially divided into two parts: the western end for the living quarters and the eastern end for the animals during the winter months, but also for dairy work. This began to change towards the end of the Viking Age, when farmers began to build smaller longhouses for their own living spaces and separate, specialized buildings, such as buildings for their animals or for workshops. These additional buildings were typically pithouses, which were partially dug into the soil. Thus, over the course of the Viking Age, farmsteads went from being one larger building with several rooms, to several smaller buildings spread out over the property.
At least in Iceland, farmsteads also made use of off-site common lands (almenning), where animals were taken to graze and where shepherds, farmhands, and families could work during the summertime. While in the pastures, work would be done in small buildings called sel, which were especially used for milking ewes and cows. Sometimes the whole family would move to their sel during the summer, staying there for three to four months at a time.Such sites were not always very far from home, though. In chapter fifty-five of The Saga of the People of Laxardal (Laxdæla saga), for example, an account is told of a family who were at their sel for a summer. (If you are familiar with this saga, you’ll recall that this chapter is quite the scene). At that time they were living at a farm called Sælingsdalr, while their sel was at a place called Bollatóftir. To the right is a map showing the distance (in miles) between these two locations.
But that, my friends, wraps up our overview of Norse farmsteads! So let’s turn now to a more specific example from eleventh-century Iceland: Ströng. Perhaps in doing so we may be able to better understand and appreciate what a Norse farmstead was really like.
A Farmstead in Iceland: Ströng
Located in the Thjór’s River Valley of southern Iceland, Ströng was once an average-sized farmstead for a well-to-do farmer or chieftain. It was built during the eleventh-century and abandoned in 1104 when the volcano Hekla erupted, forcing them to flee. While it sucks to have your house smitten by the neighborhood fire-mountain (eldfjall), it was beneficial for preservation. But luckily for them, they had time to escape with their valuables, although archaeologists were disappointed that they did not find more than broken combs and needle-cases. Despite that, however, this site has still offered them (and us) some exciting insights. After all, Ströng provides a picture of farm life in the late Viking age that we don’t normally get.
Ströng was a multi-roomed farmsteads surrounded by a cluster of smaller buildings, which included two smithies, a cowshed with enough stalls for ten cows, a small church, and even a graveyard. The image to the left presents a visual example of how a typical farmstead was organized using archaeological data from Ströng as an example. Hay (taða) was typically kept in a haystack enclosure called a stakkgarðr. This protected the hay from weather, animals, and even neighbors. Another wall was erected around the property itself in order to protect their property and livestock claims. Without the supply of wood enjoyed back in Scandinavia, however, Icelanders had to adjust their methods. Using the materials most readily available to them, Icelanders made walls out of turf or stone instead, although the latter often meant struggling with brittle volcanic rock. But wall-building was serious business for Icelanders, and there were legal codes that regulated the process. First of all, there was a specific type of wall that was considered legal:
…a legal wall is five feet thick down at ground-level and three at the top. From the base it should come up to the shoulder of a man whose arm-size gives valid ells and fathoms [c.150cm].
And there were even legal times to build these walls:
Legal walls are to be built between work-seasons, and the spring work-season lasts until a month of summer has passed, and the walling work-season for two months after that, [then the haymaking season for another two months], and then the legal walling work-season for the last month of summer.
Thus, wall-building season was roughly May through June, and then September (with the Old Icelandic months being: Stekktíð through Sólmánuðr, and then Haustmánuðr). As for the other buildings on the property, there were typically two animal sheds (although Ströng only seems to have had one). These were sometimes attached to the longhouse, but it was more common for them to be built as separate buildings away from the homestead. This was especially true for sheep sheds, which were kept close to meadows used for grazing.
Now that we have a good sense for what these farmsteads looked like on the outside, what about the farmstead itself? What was it like inside? Since Ströng was the home of a prosperous farmer or chieftain, we have the opportunity to see what kind of rooms actually filled these multi-roomed farmsteads. But since this is a post focused on agriculture, I’ll be spending more time on the food storage room than the rest.
Nevertheless, we’ll start with the entrance room. This room was a sort of “mud room” where wet clothes, dirty footwear, and other types of equipment were kept. Ströng‘s entrance room included a storage closet, which could have stored smoked or dried fish (but could have also been used for sleeping). There was even an indoor latrine at Ströng, so the people living here did not have to go outside to relieve themselves. Next is the main hall (skáli). The majority of cooking occurred on the long-fire hearth, which was lined with stones and slabs. This room would have been smokey due to the fire, but the deigns of the roof (and possibly a few holes in the roof) helped ventilate the smoke. Along the walls were benches, and foldaway tables were probably used for meals (yes, the Norse had TV trays). Most shocking (for us) perhaps is that everyone slept in this room with no to little privacy. The husband and wife living at Ströng were fortunate enough to have a private, lockable bed-closet, but the rest of their household had to make due without such luxuries.
Now for the additional living quarters (stofa). The word for this room originally meant “heated room” and is indeed related to the English word for stove. This room was sometimes used for cooking as well, as well as a sitting room for the family in the evenings. The hearth in this room was a partially sunken stone box, and the benches along the walls were more narrow than those in the skáli. But these benches were not for sleeping! Instead, this room was used as a fine feasting hall! Even so, work still had to be done, so at the end of the room there was a raised platform called a pallr, which was where women could work with wool.
And finally, we have the food-storage room, which contained large wooden vats (each 1.44 meters in diameter) for preserving food. Ströng had three of these vats. They were typically buried into the ground partially in order to keep the contents within them nice and cool. So what was inside? Usually a sour whey called súrr, which was a liquid that served as a preservative since most Icelandic farmers did not have large qualities of salt, if any. The word for this substance is related to the English word for sour, because it would give food a sour taste. Thus, it wouldn’t be odd to find a vat full of pickled meat and whey in an Icelandic farmstead.
But other goodies could be kept in these vats as well, such as skyr. A technical definition for skyr is “a form of coagulated milk high in protein, which would keep over the winter.” But that doesn’t make it sound very appealing, does it? Although it may not sound good, it was actually the most important dairy product that Icelander made on their farmsteads, because it had such a long shelf life, even while there was no fresh milk to be found (which was most of the year). It typically had the consistency of a thick yogurt, but some people drank it by adding additional súrr, which helped thin it out a bit. Skyr was typically produced at the sel during the summer and transported back to the farmstead for storage. Here’s an example of that (and more of what we’ve discussed) from Grettir’s Saga (Grettis saga):
Grettir asked if Audun was [home], and the people there said that he had gone up to the sel to collect dairy goods. Grettir unbridled his horse. The home fiddled was a yet uncut, and the horse went there to graze on the best grass. Grettir entered the skáli, sat down on one of the side benches, and fell asleep.
A little later Audun came home. He saw the horse with its painted saddle loose in the home field. Audun was bringing back fair products loaded on two horses. One of the horses carried skyr, which had been placed in skin bags that were tied shut at the top and were called skyr-bags. Audun unloaded the horse and carried the skyr into the house.
Indeed, skyr was a very important dairy product for medieval Icelanders, and it continues to thrive even today! And while it may not have the most appealing definition, it is actually quite delicious (probably more so now that it used to be, though, I will admit). Better yet, the Icelanders of today have been kind enough to share their skyr with the world! In Vínland (North America), a company called Siggi’s sells skyr in many grocery stores. And if that’s not impressive, an Icelandic dairy company called Ísey has recently signed an agreement which will introduce their skyr to the Japanese market! And so the world may enjoy the fine Viking Age food product that medieval Icelanders themselves took pleasure in.
And now for another, final treat! Ströng has actually been reconstructed, which means that Norse-loving pilgrims can travel there and experience the site themselves. Here’s a gallery of images from this reconstruction for you to enjoy before we move on to our next section:
[Fig. 13] A Gallery of the Ströng Reconstruction: Þjóðveldisbær
Grazing Instead of Razing: The ‘Vikings’ Who Farmed
Now that we’ve spent time on both the environment and farmsteads, I think it is finally time to discuss the agricultural process. Who farmed the land? Where did they work? What tools did they use? And what foods (other than skyr) did they make? As was the case for all premodern agricultural societies, both men and women had to participate in the daily work that took place on the farmstead. In fact, a farmstead could not function without being headed by a couple. Indeed, although popular to do, it is an exaggeration to say that all able-bodied men in medieval Scandinavia left their wives during the summer so they could go raiding as Vikings. In reality, most of the men who went raiding were young, unmarried, and owned very little land.
Despite how often the sagas tell of husbands leaving their wives behind on the farmstead while they go í víking (raiding), the reality was that husband and wife were both needed at home in order to keep their farmstead (and families) alive and well. But even when those saga accounts tell of husbands going raiding, their wives are reluctant. Although it is certainly not the only account of its kind, a good example of this comes from The Saga of the People of Laxardal (Laxdæla saga):
It is said that one spring Olaf announced to Thorgerd [his wife] that he intended to travel abroad, “and I want you to look after our farm and family while I’m away.”
Thorgerd said she was not in favor of the idea, but Olaf said he intended to have his way.
Now, it is also important to mention that Olaf and Thorgerd were much more well-off than the average family, which meant that Thorgerd would have had more farmhands for support. Nevertheless, her hesitation can be explained not only by her love for Olaf (for they “cared greatly for each other”), but also by the fact that it would be a devastating loss to the farm if Olaf didn’t come home again. But most husbands could not afford to leave their farmstead behind for even one summer, nor could their wives always manage affairs alone without hiring additional help (if they could). Even families that were well-off had to ask their friends to help watch over their farms and help manage affairs while they went abroad (if a family member wasn’t available), which was the case for Gunnar in Njal’s Saga (Njáls saga):
“Will you look after my property while I am away?” said Gunnar. “I want my brother Kolskegg to go with me, and I would like you to and my mother to run the farm.”
In reality, going abroad usually meant making special arrangements. But a friend or family member could only watch over property if they had the means to do so. After all, helping another meant devoting less time to one’s own affairs. Thus, the ‘Vikings’ who farmed at home were often not actually Vikings at all.
The Division of Labor
With that having been said, men and women had relatively defined roles when it came to agricultural work on the farmstead: women held authority over affairs within the farmstead, while the men were in charge of the work taking place outside of it. While I may not like confining this discussion to their supposed gender roles, it is the best way to keep all of this information straightforward and organized. As a result, I will generally discuss the labor of men and women separately, although there were times when they would work together and cross the threshold separating their domains. Nevertheless, both of these domains were vital for agriculture in the North. While there is certainly a stigma for confining women to working indoors, their role cannot be discarded as being without value or importance.
Of course, no history is ever so cut and dry. Some scenes from the sagas suggest that not all women were very pleased with their role, nor were they always silent about doing work without their husbands doing their fair share as well. Consider this example from The Saga of Bjorn, the Champion of the Hitardal People (Bjarnar saga Hlítdælakappa):
It is said that early in winter Thord came to talk to Oddny and asked how the work was to be organized.
“We have much on hand,” he said, “and we need everyone to be useful in some way.”
And island lies in the Hitara river, abundantly stocked for both sealöhutning and egg-gathering, and with fields of hay and crops.
“Now both men and women are going there to stack corn,” he said, “but you are to stay at home, because the sheep will be driven in during the day, and you must be here to see to the milking, though you don’t usually do it.”
She said, “Then I can see just the man to shovel dung from the sheep-pens; that’s what you are to do.”
I would argue that Oddney’s line is among the best in the sagas, honestly.
Another thing to mention is that not all tasks were necessarily gendered at all, at least in their minds. Here is another example from The Saga of Bjorn, Champion of the Hitardal People (Bjarnar saga Hlítdælakappa), where Bjorn, the sagas protagonist and eminent warrior, helps his mother dry linen:
Bjorn and his mother were busy that day spreading out the linen that had been washed to dry.
But alas, let’s continue.
Men’s Labor: Working the Fields
Men typically managed the fields, which meant they were in charge of plowing, fertilizing, sowing, harvesting, and threshing (which is the removal of the edible part of a crop from its stalk). Their most important tool was called the ard, which was used to break up soil. However, because it did not turn the soil, farmers would frequently cross-plow their fields by going over the same ground more than once. These were generally pulled by oxen or slaves, but as we saw with Othere earlier, horses could be used on occasion. they were also typically made entirely out of wood, which meant that the ard’s edge wore out very quickly, resulting in it needing to be changed every other day or so. In the early medieval period, however, iron was used for the ard’s edge, saving Norse farmers much time and effort. The ard was eventually replaced by the moldboard plough, a transition which began during the Viking Age (for Denmark, at least).
That covers plowing, but what about the other tasks? When it came to fertilizing, Norse farmers used dung from their livestock (and household) that they had saved. In Iceland, dung was even used as a fuel for heating, since wood was scarce shortly after the settlement period (c.900).While that may sound gross, it was quite effective and practical for them. In fact, this manure was so important for medieval Icelanders that it was listed in property divisions in their legal codes (Grágás). Have a look for yourself:
If men are joint owners of arable land, the one who wants to have it divided is to go to the home of the other and call on him for a division of arable land, and similarly of hayfields [and manure] on it, seven nights before the division, and in division of arable land proceed in every way as when men divide buildings or meadowland.
As for sowing, seeds would probably have been kept in a sieve (a bag or basket of sorts) while they worked in the fields. An example of this comes from Njal’s Saga (Njáls saga), although some details in this passage are unlikely and included for narrative purposes only (carrying an axe and wearing a fine cloak while working in the fields would just not be very practical):
Gunnar had walked away from his house all alone, with a basket of seed in one hand and his hand-axe in the other. He went to his field to sow grain and put his finely-woven cloak and the axe on the ground and sowed for a while.
Some Norse farmers did practice crop rotation, which helped replenish the soil by alternating the crops that were planted in each field. When it came to harvesting, both men and women often contributed, especially during crucial times. Men typically cut the crops with a scythe with the women raked the farm. And finally we have threshing. In the rest of the medieval world, this task was done by using a threshing flail to beat the crop on a threshing floor. But since archaeologists have not uncovered a flail dating to the Viking Age, it is more likely that Norse farmers used clubs and pokes for this task instead.
But most of the work that needed to be done on the farm centered around livestock. Thus men typically led their livestock to pastures and meadowlands during the summertime for grazing, as well as transported them and various agricultural goods back to the farm. In Iceland, these task were frequently done on shared common lands called almenning or at their nearby sel.
Women’s Labor: Working the Yields
While men worked the fields and looked after the grazing livestock, women were responsible for the important task of processing and converting their yields into edible food, both for short-term consumption and long-term preservation. Generally speaking, women had three major roles in agriculture: processing grain, wool, and dairy.
Grinding, Cooking, and Brewing with Grain
Women would use hand mills to grind the grains down in order to make bread, which was an important aspect of the Viking Age diet. In Iceland, however, grain was scarce, so it never became the staple that it was for Scandinavia. Nevertheless, Viking Age bread was typically very thin (0.5 to 1.5 centimeters thick) and round. The main ingredient was hulled six-row barley, which was the most commonly cultivated grain in Scandinavia during the Viking Age. Rye, spelt, oats, flax, and even peas were sometimes mixed into these breads. Of course, we shan’t ignore the fact that grain was also an ingredient for beer and other brewed beverages. Brewing was also a task reserved for women, so you can thank them for your good ale!
At least in Iceland, wool became a crucial part of the economy after their source of silver ran dry shortly after settlement. In fact, homespun wool (vaðmál) was actually used as a form of currency in Iceland, where it was equated to a value of silver based on its wight. Thus, homespun was significant not only for the production of clothing but also for trade — and it was the women who typically made it.
So how did they do it? Their first task was to remove the wool from the sheep, which was originally done by plucking the wool off of the sheep while they were shedding; but the sheep would eventually be sheared. After that, the wool would be cleaned, probably using a mixture of urine and water (although our source for this comes from the twentieth century). Then the wool would be combed and straightened in order to prepare it for spinning. Once that was done, the wool was either kept in a special basket (ullaupr) or immediately spun. Spinning was done using a distaff (rokkr) and a spindle (snælda).
So how did they do it? Their first task was to remove the wool from the sheep, which was originally done by plucking the wool off of the sheep while they were shedding; but the sheep would eventually be sheared. After that, the wool would be cleaned, probably using a mixture of urine and water (although our source for this comes from the twentieth century). Then the wool would be combed and straightened in order to prepare it for spinning. Once that was done, the wool was either kept in a special basket (ullaupr) or immediately spun. Spinning was done using a distaff (rokkr) and a spindle (snælda). After this, she would move on to the loom to begin saving the wool into clothing. But, since this is a discussion about agriculture, we shall save that topic for another day.
Milking and Dairy Production
When it came to livestock farming in the North, women’s primary role was to do the milking. This task was extremely labor intensive and had to be done daily, at least once every twenty-four hours. During the wintertime, this task typically occurred at the farmstead, and women frequently rose early in the morning to do this work (as a part of their daily routine), as is told in Grettir’s Saga (Grettis saga):
One morning, towards the middle of winter, Thorhall’s wife [Gudrun] went to the cowshed at the usual time to do the milking.
During the summertime, this role frequently took women away from the farmstead, since most of the sheep and cattle would be grazing on off-site meadows and required constant attention. In Iceland, most livestock grazing occurred in common lands called almenning, and work was done in small buildings called sel. Sometimes entire families would travel to the sel, working there for up to three to four months of the summer. While there, the men would take to shepherding while the women milked, although some of the male shepherds would have milked as well. But after the milking, women sieved the milk into ceramic vessels (or other containers), which were also used to separate the curds from the why when making cheese. Butter, cheese, and skyrwere the most common products that they fashioned.
The Harsh Realities of Medieval Agriculture
Although I have talked about the tasks carried out by both men and women, I have not yet emphasized that children were included among them. Indeed, children were forced into their adult roles at a very early age. This was not a choice, but rather a necessity for families struggling to survive in the difficult environment of the North. In The Saga of the Slayings on the Heath(Heiðarvíga saga), for example, a mother and her two young daughters would work in the pastures, milking the livestock, while the father and their sons would work in the fields at home.Likewise, in Bard’s Saga (Barðar saga Snæfelsáss), a young girl named Thordis, who was only 15 winters old, worked in the pastures during the summers and in early autumn.
The tolls that this life had on a person is perhaps best illustrated by an Eddic poem called The List of Rig (Rígsþula). Here is how the poem describes the life of a boy and girl of the lowest class in Norse society: Thrall (þræll).
7. Great-grandmother had a baby, sprinkled him with water;
dark-skinned, they called him Thrall.
8. He began to grow and thrive well;
on his hands there was wrinkled skin,
knotted knuckles, …
thick fingers, he had an ugly face,
a crooked back, long heels.
10. Then there came to the farm a bandy-legged girl;
she had mud on her shoes, her arms were sunburned,
her nose bent downwards, her named was Thrall-girl.
12. Children they had, they lived together and were happy;
I think they were called Noisy and Cowshed-boy,
Stout and Horsefly, Shagger, Smelly,
Stumper, Fatty, Sluggard and Greyish,
Lowbent and Longlegs; they built fences,
put dung on the fields, looked after the pigs,
herded goats, dug the turf.
13. Their daughters were Stumpy and Dumpy,
Bulgy-calves and Ash-nose,
Rackety and Bondwoman, Great-gabbler,
Raggedy-clothes and Crane-legs.
From them are descended all the race of thralls.
While that poem does simplify the social reality of the Norse world, it does indeed reflect some level of the daily life experienced by poorer families (as well as the better off). People without much struggled to get by, working all day long while their bodies took the toil. Their appearances and, in the case of the poem, even their names show the level of hardship they lived through on a daily basis. But even the wealthier families, with larger farmsteads and hired help, often had to work in the fields and pastures themselves.
It is important that we do not romanticize life on the Norse farmstead, for their daily lives were filled with back-breaking work and constant threats looming around every corner, such as plague, famine, and local wars (or feuds). When reading old lore and sagas from the past, it is easy for us, who are sitting comfortably in our homes stocked with food that we didn’t have to grow, to become detached from the harsh realities that people faced in times long since passed.
Agriculture after the Viking Age
While the farmers and their tasks may not have changed a great deal after the Viking Age, their technology, crops, and overall diet did indeed change. During the Viking Age, grain cultivation gradually became more and more important in the North, while before it was livestock farming, even for areas that had plenty of arable land to work with. With the introduction of an improved and more productive plow into the North, the Norse were able to devote more of their land (which had been reserved for the pasturing of their grazing livestock) to grain cultivation. This, along with the introduction of the typical medieval diet into the North, resulted in a greater emphasis on grain consumption. This shift began in southern Scandinavia, especially Denmark, and gradually moved north.
This kind of shift, however, was not possible for Iceland. While grain cultivation was never a major part of Icelandic agricultural life, the little that did occur only declined as time marched forth. From the twelfth-century onwards, Iceland gradually lost its ability to support grain-growing. The south and west regions could support grain longer than other regions could, but grain-growing disappeared completely by the fifteenth or early-sixteenth century.
But even Iceland’s reliance on pastoral farming began to take a toll as the medieval period continued, threatened by a combination of climate change and the desire to protect their culture values and traditional way of life. Even with a plentiful sea surrounding them, Icelanders preferred farming over fishing and even established laws that forbade people from being full-time fisherfolk. Thus, when the productivity of farming started to decline as their environmental conditions worsened, they stubbornly clung onto their farming traditions. The independent farmstead was strongly valued for its symbolic representation of everything Icelandic: independence, power, and household honor. And so when it would have been better for Icelandic society to concentrate their labor on bigger (but fewer) farmsteads, they stubbornly refused.But while we may criticize them now, it can also be hard to blame them. It is never easy for a society to change their way of life, even when they can see their world cracking and crumbling around them.
So ends today’s gathering…
But at long last, after over 7000 words of a skald’s rambling, this discussion has finally come to its end. But before we all go our own ways, I’d like to take a moment to summarize everything we have learned today. With so much told in one evening, a recap is certainly necessary!
The North was a difficult environment to live with — it was cold and lacked good land for farming. Nevertheless, the ocean gave their land life, bringing warmth through the influence of the Gulf Stream, which blessed the coastal regions of western Scandinavia with a more mild climate. The situation was similar in the North Atlantic, since Iceland was also affected by the Gulf Stream. But Iceland faced difficult terrain, for it was both glacial and volcanic, resulting in an unstable environment and erosive landscape.
Since grain was not always easy to grow, most Scandinavians relied on livestock farming, or pastoralism. This was especially true for regions like Norway and Iceland. While these animals grazed in distant pasturelands, the Norse often took care of them on their very own farmsteads. The typical Norse farmstead was a longhouse, which had been the more prominent form of home built in the North for hundreds of years. The appearance of their farmsteads could change depending on location and available materials, but they often shared many features.
While we love talking about Vikings, most of those who went raiding were not people with much to come back home to. Instead, the Vikings were typically young men without land or families. Thus, the ‘Vikings’ who farmed weren’t really Viking at all, since it was necessary for both husband and wife to be home at the farmstead. Their farm could not survive without both of them. Men typically took care of the work outdoors, such as plowing and sowing the fields. Women, on the other hand, primarily worked indoors, producing wool and dairy products from the livestock. But women frequently worked outdoors as well, working in the pasturelands with shepherds to milk the animals and process their yields.
While such lives may seem pleasantly peaceful, the reality was much less pleasant. Not only was the labor intensive, but farmers typically worked all hours of the day to make ends meet, especially if they were a poorer family. Worse yet, children were forced to grow up quickly, working on the farm or in the pastures with their parents at a very young age. Their hard work took its toll on their bodies and lives, and we must not romanticize their experiences.
During the Viking Age, grain cultivation gradually became more important in Scandinavia than pastoralism, which used to be the primary form of agriculture. This was because of improvements made on the plough, which was introduced into the North through Denmark. This also resulted in the typical medieval diet gaining popularity in the North, as grain cultivation resulted in higher grain consumption. But this was not the case for Iceland, which gradually lost its ability to grow grain entirely. While grain was never a central aspect of Icelandic agriculture, their farming-centered way of life was threatened as their climate changed for the worse. This was not helped by their general desperation to cling onto their traditional way of life, which was centered around the independent farmstead. Thus fishing was disregarded, farming declined, and their environment worsened as time continued moving forward.
And with that, I do believe our story has been told, at least for today. We can all leave this Hall with a better understanding of what Norse farmsteads and agriculture was really like. While much more could be said about this topic, I hope that this information may serve you all splendidly in the future. Take it with you on your wanderings! For your mind is the best weapon that you have, especially when faced with folk who twist the past to suit their own desires.
Wander well, my friends, and keep your wits!
If you have any questions or concerns about the contents of this post, please feel free to send me a raven at email@example.com. I will make sure that your raven is well-received and happily fed before sending back a reply.
The Northern Environment
 Ibid., 22. Because of this, they also had a larger population than other regions in Scandinavia, despite their small size. [return]
 Ibid., 36. [return]
 Angus A. Somerville and R. Andrew McDonald ed., “The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan,” in The Viking Age: A Reader, Second Edition (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 3. Those wild beasts also include reindeer. This source is from the late ninth century and was interpolated into an Old English translation of Orosius’ latin Historiae adverse paganos. [return]
Iceland and the North Atlantic Environment
 Judy Quinn and Martin S. Regal trans., Gisli Sursson’s Saga and The Saga of the People of Eyri(London: Penguin Classics, 2003), 222. [return]
 William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (Chicago: The University og Chicago Press, 1990), 78. [return]
 Ibid., 173. [return]
A Farmstead in Iceland: Ströng
 Ibid. [return]
 Ibid., 111. [return]
 Viðar Hreinsson ed., The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales, vol. V (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 422. [return]
 Ibid., 364-5. [return]
 Ibid., 51. [return]
 Ibid., 47. [return]
Grazing instead of Razing: The ‘Vikings’ Who Farmed
 Keneva Kuntz trans., The Saga of the People of Laxardal and Bolla Bollason’s Tale (London: Penguin Classics, 2008), 57. (Chapter 29) [return]
 Ibid., 49. (Chapter 24) [return]
 Alison Finley trans., The Saga of Bjorn, Champion of the Hitardal People, in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales, vol. I, edited by Viðar Hreinsson (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 269. (Chapter 12) [return]
 Ibid., 268. (Chapter 11) [return]
Men’s Labor: Working the Fields
 Denis, Foote, and Perkins trans., Grágás II, 125. The part in brackets was added but is included in Konungsbók (Gl. kgl. Sml. 1157 fol.), which writes taðs (the sg. gen. of tað, meaning “manure”). [return]
 Ibid. [return]
Women’s Labor: Working the Yields
 Ibid., 135-6. [return]
 Ibid., 122. [return]
The Harsh Realities of Medieval Agriculture
 Keneva Kunz trans., The Saga of the Slayings on the Heath, in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales, vol. IV, edited by Viðar Hreinsson (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 89-90. (Chapter 12) [return]
 Sarah M. Anderson trans., Bard’s Saga, in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales, vol. II, edited by Viðar Hreinsson (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 252. (Chapter 11) [return]
Agriculture After the Viking Age
Images and Tables Used
[Fig. 2] Ibid., 17. [return]
[Fig. 7] Made by yours truly. [return]
[Fig. 9] Judy Quinn and Martin S. Regal trans., Gisli Sursson’s Saga and The Saga of the People of Eyri(London: Penguin Classics, 2003), 223. [return]
[Fig. 11] Ibid., 367. [return]
[Fig. 12] [x]
[Fig. 13] [x]
[Fig. 14] [x]
[Fig. 15] [x]
[Fig. 16] [x]
Books Used (In Order of Appearance)
I would like to offer my most sincere thanks and gratitude to Fjörn’s Fellowship. Without their support, this post would not be possible. In fact, this entire Hall would be nothing if not for their support and companionship. Here are the names (taken from Patreon) of the members of this Fellowship who supported me during the time I wrote this post:
Anastasia Haysler, Cataclysmit, Cooper Brown, Froggy, and Kathleen Phillips.
Gather around, friends; the fire is still warm and lively! One night, a fair bit ago now, a raven flew into my hall bearing an interesting question from an anonymous wanderer. It has particular relevance to this gift-giving season (Jól (Yule/Christmas) for some), which is quickly approaching us. Allow me to share the question with you all, if I may. It said:
“I was talking to a friend about gift-giving practices in Norse societies. I thought you’d have a more eloquent way of explaining the basics? And I’d love to hear what you think are the basic need-to-know’s about give-giving and reciprocity in ancient heathenistic societies. :)”
I am sure that everyone in the hall this evening can agree that this question is indeed a worthy one! Considering that gifts will soon be exchanged by many folk, it is high time that I got around to answering this anonymous wanderer’s request, já?
A NOTE OF CAUTION
Most of my knowledge about gift-giving in the Medieval North comes from Iceland, so I must admit that my discussion about this topic will heavily rely on sources written specifically about medieval Icelandic society. Do not fret, though! It is within reason to say that life in Iceland was not too drastically different from life in Scandinavia during this time (c.900-1300), at least in regards to cultural and social traditions. Such things have rather deep roots, after all. Yet, it is always good to remember the place and context of our sources. Most of the sources that I have mentioned throughout our discussion have their origins in Iceland from around the thirteenth century (1200-1299). That’s quite late, especially when many folk are thinking of the Viking Age (c.793-1066)! While these sources then provide far more insight regarding Icelandic society around the thirteenth century, they are still able to paint a relative picture of how Norse societies generally functioned before (and even after) this time period. This must be done with caution though, so do your best not to let the information discussed in the hall this evening wander too far from my warnings! Always be weary of the knowledge that you acquire, as well as how it was gathered.
THE SOCIAL WEB OF GIFT-GIVING
One thing that will quickly be noticed is that our sources frequently give precedence to gift-giving practices between chieftains (goðar) and well-to-do farmers (bœndr).1 This social class is the primary subject of many family sagas, which are prose narratives written around the thirteenth century, but set in the Saga Age (c.930-1030), about prominent Icelandic families. These sources often act as our dominant window into the Norse world, so it is important to understand their complexities. As scholars such as Jesse L. Byock and William Ian Miller have demonstrated, these sagas reflect genuine Icelandic (and, more broadly, Norse) social practices. Therefore, while their accuracy of their setting (the Saga Age) may be questionable, the social and cultural norms they illustrate are worth paying attention to. But enough of my technical rambling! Allow me to share some positive examples of gift-giving from Njáls saga (c.1280), which I will follow-up with some insights:
There was a man named Gunnar who was from Iceland. He was a great warrior and none were his equal. One summer he went abroad and fought against other Vikings in the Baltic. He and his companions, Kolskegg and Hallvard, had great success on this journey, and sailed away from the Baltic with many treasures. They headed for Hedeby in Denmark to meet with King Harald Gormsson, Harald Bluetooth’s father. When he arrived, the king welcomed him warmly and gave him a seat next to his own, which was a tremendous honor to give.
The king spoke to Gunnar: ‘It appears to me that your equal is not to be found far or near.”
The king offered to give him a wife and large holdings if he would settle down there. Gunnar thanked the king but said that first he wanted to return to Iceland to see his kinsmen and friends.
“Then you will never come back to us,” said the king (surely with a saddened tone).
“Fate must decide that, my lord,” said Gunnar.
Gunnar gave the king a good longship and many other valuables. The king gave him stately garments of his own, leather gloves embroidered with gold, a gold-studded headband, and a Russian hat.
Following this, Gunnar sailed north to Hrising, and then to Trondheim, where he intended to meet with Jarl Hakon of Norway. Jarl Hakon received him well and invited Gunnar to spend the winter with him; Gunnar accepted. He had the respect of everybody there. At Yule the jarl gave him a gold bracelet.
In the spring, Gunnar made his way back to Iceland. But before leaving, the jarl offered him as much flour and timber as he wanted — despite the fact that supplies were low that year. Gunnar thanked him and set off for Iceland, arriving there early in the summer. Gunnar then rode home, but soon after went to see his good friend Njal. They discussed Gunnar’s travels and Njal gave him warnings, for Gunnar’s new wealth would bring jealousy. Upon leaving Njal’s home, Gunnar gave him good gifts and thanked him for looking after his property while he was away.2
Even in this short passage from Njáls saga, several examples of gift-giving are mentioned. But the most important thing to mention here is that gift-giving always occurred within the context of building and solidifying social relations.3 Gunnar, who caught the eye of King Harald, was offered gifts by the king, who wanted him to stay in Denmark and enter into his service. The king’s gifts to Gunnar reflected a desire to better their social relationship with one another. While the king hoped to win over Gunnar, or perhaps make him feel obligated to enter his service, Gunnar turned him down.
Yet, one could argue that he was only able to do this because he offered the king gifts in return. This was another important aspect about gift-giving in the Norse world, that a gift was meant to be repaid, whether through more gifts or through social obligations.4 Both King Harald and Jarl Hakon would expect Gunnar to serve them in the future, if he were to sail abroad to their lands again. Jarl Hakon’s Yule-gift to Gunnar, after all, was in similar spirit as King Harald’s offers: to establish a positive social relationship.
Gifts could be given when social relations were already well-established, of course. When Gunnar returns to Iceland, he quickly makes his way to his best friend’s home, who, as we learned, watched his property for him while he was away. Njal also encouraged him to go abroad when Hallvard came to Iceland and urged Gunnar to join him in raiding.5 Thus, Gunnar offered Njal gifts to repay the favors that Njal had done for him: good advice, protecting his property, and continued friendship.
GIFT-GIVING AT FEASTS
But we cannot leave out the importance of gift-giving at social gatherings! While this type of gift exchange was closely related to that which we have already talked about together (i.e. gifts steeped with social context), we have yet to see how gifts are exchanged at larger scales. It was not infrequent for households to hold feasts in their halls and invites friends, kin, and neighbors to join them. In the Norse world, however, it was expected that the host would give their guests gifts as they left. These norms are expressed in Hávamál, an Eddic poem about social wisdom, magic, and Odin.6 But, to illustrate this norm in a narrative form, allow me to share another passage from Njáls saga:
There was a man named Hoskuld who was the foster-son of Njal. One day he invited Njal’s sons over for a feast, along with many other guests from the neighborhood. Everyone whom he had invited came to the feast, and it went very well. When people were ready to go home, Hoskuld chose good gifts for them and went along with the Njalssons on their way. The Sigfussons and all the others accompanied him. Both sides said that no one would ever come between them.7
This custom is mentioned several times in Njáls saga alone, as well as in several other sagas. Not much detail tends to be given though, likely because most folk listening to the saga were already familiar with such festivities. While this is indeed a woe for historians and curious readers, time need not be wasted on such things for them! To give more examples may run the risk of redundancy, but there is one from Laxdœla saga regarding Christmas that may be of particular interest to some folk in the hall this evening:
There was a man named Thorkel Eyjolfsson who became a leader of prominence in Iceland. After a summer spent in Norway, he returned to Iceland with a great deal of honor. Thorkel spent the following winter at home on his farm. He held a Christmas feast at Helgafell attended by a great number of people. Everything he did that winter was done extravagantly, with no opposition from Gudrun, who said that wealth was well spent if people gained esteem as a result, and anything Gudrun needed in order to have things in grand style was made available. That winter Thorkel gave gifts to his friends and many valuable objects he had brought with him from abroad.8
While it is true that our anonymous wanderer sought insight to how heathens gave gifts to one another, this example of converted Icelanders celebrating Christmas still holds some value for such ends! As we have spoken of to great lengths already, traditions and norms regarding the exchanging of gifts in the Norse world had rather deep roots (socially and culturally). Even after converting, these traditions did not change drastically. Feasts held for Christmas (ON jól) were likely much like those once held for Yule (ON jól), even the Old Norse word for such a holiday remained unchanged as conversion took place.9
GIFT-GIVING AT YULE
When Yule came around, a Yule-feast (jólaboð) was held, which included Yule-drinking (jóladrykkja), perhaps even the drinking of Yule-ale (jólaǫl), and the exchanging of Yule-gifts (jólagjafar).10 A wonderful example of gift-exchanges during Yule comes from Egils saga, which I will now retell below:
There was a man named Arinbjorn who was a close friend of Egil’s. One year he held a great Yule feast to which he invited his friends and neighbors from the district. It was splendid and well attended. He gave Egil a customary Yuletide gift, a silk gown with ornate gold embroidery and gold buttons all the way down the front, which was cut especially to fit Egil’s frame. He also gave him a complete set of cloths, cut from English cloth in many colors. Arinbjorn gave all manner of tokens of friendship at Yuletide to the people who visited him, since he was exceptionally generous and firm of character.
Then Egil made a verse:
From kindness alone
that noble man gave the poet
a silk gown with gold buttons;
I will never have a better friend.
Selfless Arinbjorn has earned
the stature of a king
— or more. A long time will pass
Before his like is born again.11
EXCHANGING THE GIFTS OF FEUD
Not all gift-giving was positive, though. While gifts were often used to promote new social relations and maintain old ones, as well as to satisfy guests and celebrate the holidays, gifts often had a broader scope in the Norse world. The gifts exchanged in feud, disputes between prominent families, were not in the form of goods from abroad or gifts from kings, but rather they were gifts of slander and blood. Consider this passage from Njáls saga:
After a feast gone wrong, Hallgerd, Gunnar’s troublesome wife, called Njal “Old Beardless” and his sons “Dung-beardlings.” These are grave insults for men to have received in the Norse world. News quickly spread of this slander, and when Bergthora, Njal’s wife, learned about this, she had this to say to her sons:
“Gifts have been given to you all, father and sons, and you’re not real men unless you repay them.“
“What gifts are these?” said Skarphedin, one of Njal’s sons.
“You, my sons, have all received the same gift: you have been called ‘Dung-beardlings,’ and my husband has been called ‘Old Beardless.’”
She then encourages them to act accordingly, and that night they left the farmstead with weapons and shields in their hands.12
As one can tell from this example, medieval Icelanders spoke about gifts not only in terms of goods exchanged, but also in terms of insults and offenses. These ‘gifts’ were much like those mentioned earlier: they had social implications and demanded repayment. Yet, a gift of slander is to be repaid in a similar fashion. So, what was their gift in return? They took the life of a man named Sigmund, who composed verses with these slanderous names at Hallgerd’s encouragement.13 Thus, the concept of gifts in the Norse world was not restricted to material goods exchanged between friends or social partners, gift-giving was also an intricate part of the larger game of honor and feud.14
GIFT-GIVING IN THE OLD LORE
To further illustrate just how imbedded gift-giving norms were in the Norse world, let’s consider some mythical examples involving the god Odin. As I mentioned briefly before, the Hávamál has much to say about host-guest traditions in the Norse world, and it is a poem ‘attributed’ to the High One, also known as Odin. Yet, his role in symbolizing gift-giving norms is highlighted through his interactions with great heroes, such as King Hrolf Kraki, Sigmund Volsungason, and Sigurd Fafnisbani. In these examples, Odin offers these heroes gifts that hold the promise of victory in battle. If they accept his gifts, they will be granted victory, but not indefinitely. He often offers these gifts in disguise, however, which tests the recipient. Odin performs the social expectations of a good host by offering gifts, but will the hero, as his guest, respond appropriately? Let’s see if King Hrolf Kraki can pass Odin’s gift-giving test:
King Hrolf and his men were riding one day when night was soon upon them. As the sun retreated from them, they came across a farm. When they went to the door for shelter, a farmer by the name of Hrani opened the door; they had run into him before. Hrani welcomed them in, and, performing wonderfully as a gracious host, he provided them with full hospitality. Before long, Hrani offered them gifts (as we saw with feasts in the sagas recalled above):
“Here, I want to give you these weapons,” said the farmer.
The king replied, “These are hideous weapons, farmer.” There was a shield, a sword, and a coat of mail, but King Hrolf refused to accept the equipment. Hrani’s mood quickly changed. He nearly lost his temper, thinking that he had been shown dishonor.
Hrani said, “You, King Hrolf, are not acting as cleverly as you think, and you are not always as wise as you might assume.” The farmer was much offended.
Now there was no staying the night and, even though it was dark outside, they prepared to ride away. Hrani’s face showed only displeasure; he thought himself poorly valued. The king had refused to accept his gifts, and he did nothing to hinder their leaving if that would please them. King Hrolf and his company rode out and, as matters stood, there were no farewells.
When they had not gone very far, Bodvar halted and said, “Good sense comes late to fools, and so it comes to me now. I suspect that we have not behaved very wisely in rejecting what we should have accepted. We may have denied ourselves victory.”
King Hrolf answered, “I suspect the same, because that must have been Odin the Old. Certainly the man had but one eye.”15
It was too late to reverse their offense; their victory was denied. What is important to make note of here, though, is that this mythological scene reveals much about Norse customs. As we saw before, hosts often gave their guests gifts, but little was said before about guests rejecting such gifts. Here we see this unfold, and the guests’ refusal of the host’s gifts results in a grave offense being made. This matter was made worse by the fact that Hrani was actually Odin. Nonetheless, it still reflects genuine social norms.
There are a few other examples of Odin’s gift-giving in Völsunga saga, but I suspect that I have rambled on far longer than I was requested to. After all, our anonymous wanderer asked for the basics of gift-giving, did they not? Let’s not get too carried away then, já? Allow me to summarize what has been said about Norse gift-giving practices for all the folk in the hall this evening:
- Our sources for gift-giving practices frequently give precedence to chieftains (goðar) and well-to-do farmers (bœndr), as well as kings abroad (especially Norway).
- For those people, gift-giving always occurred within the context of building and solidifying social relations (kings to heroes, friends to friends, kin to kin — usually occurring between people of relatively similar social status).
- A gift was meant to be repaid, whether through more gifts or through social obligations.
- At feasts and social gatherings, hosts would give gifts to their guests (this was expected social behavior; if a gift was not given, the guest would be insulted).
- Gifts were often exchanged during Yuletide at special feasts called jólaboð. This could occur between close friends or even to the local community.
- Gift-giving was also an intricate part of the larger game of honor and feud (an insult or injury was considered a gift, and was expected to be repaid as such).
- If a guest refuses the gifts of their host, the host will be insulted (just as a guest would be if the host does not offer them a gift).
- Odin is deeply connected with gift-giving, especially in regards to the guest-host relationship.
There is certainly more that could be said about gift-giving in the Norse world, such as the examples from the grágás of laws dictating that gifts were to be given to those who were less fortunate.16 But if I were to include everything, I wouldn’t be giving our wanderer the basics, would I? Thus, the bullet points above are my own selected basics of Norse gift-giving that folk gathered here tonight should be aware of. Yet, I should say that there is much more to learn by reading the sagas for yourself! As always, I highly encourage you all to delve into those fascinating tales from the days of old! They are all truly quite wondrous. But, for now, let’s return to drink and merriment, shall we? I hope that my stories have provided you with some wisdom and pleasure, but festivities await, so let’s not dwell!
— Fjorn the Skald
- For more on goðar and bœndr, see William Ian Miller, “Chieftains and Thingmen,” in Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 22-26.
- To read this passage in earnest, without summarization and reinterpretation, see Robert Cook trans., Njal’s Saga (London: Penguin, 2001), 48-52 (chapters 30-32).
- Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, 82.
- Cook trans., Njal’s Saga, 46 (chapter 28).
- To read this poem, see Carolyne Larrington trans., The Poetic Edda (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 13-35.
- Cook trans., Njal’s Saga, 185 (chapter 109).
- Retold and quoted from Keneva Kunz trans., The Saga of the People of Laxardal and Bolli Bollason’s Tale (London: Penguin Books, 2008), 164-66 (chapters 74 and 75).
- See Geir T. Zoëga, A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004), 234, for a full definition of jól and other related words.
- For the definitions of these terms, see the source cited above.
- Retold and quoted from Bernard Scudder trans., Egil’s Saga (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 146 (chapter 68).
- Cook trans., Njal’s Saga, 74 (chapter 44).
- For more on Norse feud, see Jesse L. Byock, Feud in the Icelandic Saga (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982) and William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Pacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).
- Retold and quoted from Jesse L. Byock trans., The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki (London: Penguin Books, 1998), 68 (chapter 30).
- Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, 82-83.
Originally posted on Tumblr on: June 29th, 2017
Anonymous asked: “Greetings brother, what do you know about sacrifices for odin? Are there sources directing to That?”
There are indeed many sources that speak of sacrifices to Odin. In fact, I would argue that his sacrifices are the most famous, at least among the Norse gods. I will tell you what I know, but do feel free to explore any of the sources that I cite as well.
The most important sacrifice involved with Odin is his own, when he hung upon Yggdrasil and pierced himself with a spear in order to gain wisdom; a sacrifice of himself to himself. This is not only important symbolically, but also in its impact on the sacrifice rituals that surrounded him.1So although this may not be the kind of sacrifice you came to me for, I would still like to share it as a lead-in to actual ritual practice. It comes from Hávamál, stanzas 138–141:2
“I know that I hung on a windswept tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
on that tree of which no man knows
from where its roots run.
“With no bread did they refresh me nor a drink from a horn,
downward I peered;
I took up the runes, screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.
“Nine mighty spells I learnt from the famous son,
of Bolthor, Bestla’s father,
and I got a drink of the precious mead,
I, soaked from Odrerir.
“Then I began to quicken and be wise,
and to grow and to prosper;
one word from another word found a word for me,
one deed from another deed found a deed for me.”3
And so Odin once hung himself upon a tree, the tree, in a sacrificial ritual. Yet, this ritual is not just unique to the lore, nor is it strictly a symbolic tale. Aye, animals and men alike were sacrificed in this manner to Odin, the All-Father and Lord of the Slain. Adam of Bremen recorded this type of sacrifice at the temple at Uppsala — a once very sacred location in Sweden.4 Here Odin is named as Wotan, and Freyr as Frikko:
“For all their gods there are appointed priests to offer sacrifices for the people. If plague or famine threaten, a libation is poured into the idol of Thor; if war to Wotan; if marriages are to be celebrated, to Frikko. It is customary also to solemnize in Uppsala, at nine-year intervals, a general feast of all the provinces of Sweden. From attendance at this festival no one is exempted. Kings and people all singly send their gifts to Uppsala and, what is more distressing than any kind of punishment, those who have already adopted Christianity redeem themselves through these ceremonies. The sacrifice is of this nature; of every living thing that is male, they offer nine heads, with the blood of which it is customary to placate gods of this sort. The bodies they hang in the sacred grove that adjoins the temple. Now this grove is so sacred in the eyes of the heathen that each and every tree in it is believed divine because of the death and putrefaction of the victims. Even dogs and horses hang there with men. A Christian seventy-two years old told me that he had seen their bodies suspended promiscuously. Furthermore, the incantations customarily chanted in the ritual of a sacrifice of this kind are manifold and unseemly; therefore, it is better to keep silent about them.”5
A few things should already sound familiar. Odin has been mentioned, who, in the Hávamál, said that he hung for “nine long nights.” Along the lines of that symbolic number, “nine heads” are offered and these ceremonies occur in “nine-year intervals.” A sacred grove is also referred to, and Odin hung upon a sacred tree. The trees of this grove are all considered sacred because of these sacrifices, which are hung upon these trees. Given the nature of this ritual, there is a connection between it and Odin, who sacrificed himself in a noticeably similar manner.
What may be surprising is the element of human sacrifice involved here. After all, Adam of Bremen clearly states that “even dogs and horses hang there with men (my emphasis).” More than one source, including non-textual sources, indicates that this was a truthful practice. In what is perhaps a less reliable source,6 Guatreks sagarecounts the sacrifice of King Vikar to Odin, who was even present himself in the judgement. This heroic legend is intertwined with lore and mythological fantasy, but echoes the attachment Odin has with the sacrifice of men. Here Odin, disguised as a man named Grani Horsehairs, has told his foster-son Starkad how to properly sacrifice King Vikar. But they must trick him and the others, for this was a king they were planning to sacrifice, after all. Odin gave Starkad a spear that would appear as a reed to everyone else. Furthermore, the “gallows” he constructs is made to look weak and harmless. And so the ritual unfolds:
“‘Your gallows is ready, king, and it doesn’t seem all that dangerous. If you come over here I’ll put the noose around your neck.’
‘If this contraption is no more dangerous than it appears,’ said the king, ‘it won’t do me any harm. But if things turn out differently, so be it.’
The king mounted the tree stump, and Starkad placed the halter around his neck. Then Starkad stepped down from the stump to the ground, thrust at the king with the reed, and saying, ‘Now I give you to Odin,’ let go of the fir branch. The reed turned into a spear and went right through the king. The tree stump fell away from under his feet. The calf’s entrails became strong rope, and the branch sprang up and lifted the king to the top of the tree.”7
Once again, the ritual is clear: a man is stabbed with a spear, hung from a tree, and dedicated to Odin. Even though the people did not find the sacrifice to be in good taste after it had happened, this saga still shows that there was some connection between this manner of sacrifice and Odin. Yet, it does not always have to be of this exact nature, at least when we choose to believe the word of each saga we consider. In Ynglinga saga, Snorri mentions that King Olaf Tretelgja, who did not sacrifice much and perhaps caused a famine as a result, was sacrificed to Odin in this manner instead:
“Then the Svíar mustered an army, made an expedition against King Óláfr, seized his house and burned him in it, dedicating him to Óðinn and sacrificing him for a good season.”8
Further examples of human sacrifice to Odin can be seen in even earlier sources, although we enter a possible debate in doing so (see endnote 9 for details). Regardless, there was at least a point in which the first man captured in war was sacrificed to Odin, which may answer the question that if men were to be the offering, what type of man would it be? Other examples suggest criminals as well (Tacitus mentions this in his Germania), but the most honorable sacrifices that one could offer to the Lord of the Slain were, well, the slain. And so, in the days of Old, before the dawn of the Viking Age, men of war were sometimes sacrificed in the same manner as Odin himself described in Hávamál:
“And they incessantly offer up all kinds of sacrifices, and make oblations to the dead, but the noblest of sacrifices, in their eyes, is the first human being whom they have taken captive in war; for they sacrifice him to Ares, whom they regard as the greatest god. And the manner in which they offer up the captive is not by sacrificing him on an altar only, but also by hanging him to a tree, or throwing him among thorns, or killing him by some of the other most cruel forms of death.”10
Procopius wrote this during the sixth century, which was near the end of the Migration Period.11Some may believe that the above passage refers to Tîwaz (later Týr), but it is known that Wodan (later Odin) took the reigns of war from him during this period.12 It was during the time of Tactitus, who wrote during the first and early second centuries that the god of war was still confidently Tîwaz. As a result, I consider this example to be referring to Odin, or at least an ‘older’ version of him, especially given the reference of “hanging him to a tree” when considering sacrificial options. It is generally accepted by scholars that this type of sacrifice was “known to be associated with Wodan from early times,”13 thus giving Odin an old relationship with this ritual; a part of Odin, however small, once demanded and expected this type of sacrifice.
Despite the nature of these more grim sources, the Prose Edda still retains this image of Odin; even by the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, Odin could still be called by names that reflected this type of ritual sacrifice. When Snorri introduces Odin, for example, it does not take long before a name related to this practices is revealed:
“Odin is called All-father, for he is the father of all gods. He is also called Val-father [father of the slain], since all those who fall in battle are his adopted sons. He assigns them a place in Val-hall and Vingolf, and they are then known as Einheriar. He is also called Hanga-god [god of the hanged] and Hapta-god [god of prisoners]…”14
The words of Adam of Bremen must also be remembered, for he also mentioned this sort of human sacrifice (that of hanging) and wrote of such just after the end of the Viking Age.15 Thus, we have sources from before and after the Viking Age that indicate that men and animals alike were hung from trees in sacrifice to Odin. His name as “Hanga-god” (Hangaguð), God of the Hanged, comes from this practice. As we have already seen in several written accounts, men are hung upon trees when they are sacrificed to Odin, hence the additional title being added to Odin’s long list of names. Yet, do we have any proof beyond written record that the Norse and other Germanic peoples, whether before, during, or after the Viking Age, sacrificed men in this manner? Is this ritual purely literary exaggeration and symbolism to make these people seem backwards and violent in the eyes of Greeks and Christians alike? The Tollund Man would suggest otherwise.
On May 6th, 1950, the body of a man was discovered in a bog in Denmark. This alarmed the locals who had stumbled upon the body, which still looked like it was sleeping beneath the ground. The police came by the 8th, and it was soon realized that this was no murder victim, at least not a recent one. Nay, it was a man who lived around the fourth century. Around his neck was a rope, and the medical examiner was certain that he had been hanged by it.16 Here is an image of the Tollund Man:
Although it is well-known, and well-documented, that Odin demanded hanged men for sacrifice, this was not the only option that was available to his worshippers; hanging men from trees may be a part of Odin’s vast complexity, but not all of his followers had the means to provide this. One could offer animal sacrifices, and they need not even be hanged. One could even host a ritual feast, which, of course, included ritually sacrificed animals, but also much ale-drinking and feasting in honor of the gods. Such a ritual is spoken of in Hákonar saga Góða, contained in Snorri’s Heimskringla:
“Sigurðr Hlaðajarl was very keen on heathen worship, and so was his father Hákon. Jarl Sigurðr maintained all the ritual banquets on behalf of the king there in Þrœndalǫg. It was an ancient custom, when a ritual feast was to take place, that all the farmers should attend where the temple was and bring there their own supplies for them to use while the banquet lasted. At this banquet everyone had to take part in the ale-drinking. All kinds of domestic animals were slaughtered there, including horses, and all the blood that came from them was then called hlaut (‘lot’), and what the blood was contained in, hlautbowls, and hlaut-twigs, these were fashioned like holy water sprinklers; with these the altars were to be reddened all over, and also the walls of the temple outside and inside and the people also were sprinkled, while the meat was to be cooked for a feast. There would be fires down the middle of the floor in the temple with cauldrons over them. The toasts were handed across the fire, and the one who was holding the banquet and who was the chief person there, he had then to dedicate the toast and all the ritual food; first would be Óðinn’s toast—that was drunk to victory and to the power of the king—and then Njǫrðr’s toast and Freyr’s toast for prosperity and peace. Then after that it was common for many people to drink the bragafull (‘chieftain’s toast’). People also drank toasts to their kinsmen, those who had been buried in mounds, and these were called minni(‘memorial toasts’). Jarl Sigurðr was the most liberal of men. He did something that was very celebrated: he held a great ritual feast at Hlaðir and stood all the expenses.”17
In the end, there is much to be said about Odin and the sacrifices that were made to him, the prevalent theme of which is consumed by spears and the hanging of men from trees; sacred groves, spears, hanging, and the men of war are all associated with Odin and the rituals of sacrifice in his name. Yet, one could also offer him a ritual toast and feast, which was far more ‘peaceful’ than hanging men in trees; sacrifices of this less extreme nature were likely the norm. Although, that still usually involved the sacrifice of animals and the use of their blood, which, it seems, could have been either hanged or slaughtered in order to be sacrificed properly. Apart from the hanging of men, the sacrifices made to Odin were much like that made to other gods, such as Thor, Freyr, and Njord (all mentioned above, at one point or another). Regardless of the available options, though, the spear-pierced man (or animal) hanging upon the branch of a sacred tree was a type of sacrifice ritual specially devoted to Odin, the God of the Hanged.
* * *
I hope this information satisfies your search for knowledge, friend, for that is what I know in regards to sacrifices to Odin. Feel free to ask me any follow-up questions you may have, or even investigate the sources that I used in the composition of this post. Regardless of what you do now, I wish you the best in all your endeavors.
Friður sé með yður.
(Peace be with you.)
1. This could be the opposite of what happened, though; the story could have derived from already existing rituals, versus being the cause for its beginning. The poem itself, however, is likely later than the rituals themselves, but that does not mean that the lore behind it was not already alive and well in the hearts of men long before.
2. Some include stanzas 141–144/5, which consists of the knowledge of runes that he acquired while hanging upon Yggdrasil. I have decided to omit them since our purpose is the ritual of the sacrifice itself.
3. Carolyn Larrington trans., Poetic Edda (Oxford: University of Oxford Press, 2014), 32. (Hávamál, st. 138-141.)
4. His account, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, is from ca. 1072-75/6, and was later revised in the early 1080s.
5. Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, translated by F.J. Tschan with new introduction by T. Reuter (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 207-8. (Via the Viking Age Reader.)
6. Sagas are always challenging for the scholar, for we must beware the motifs being used for the purpose of symbolism. It is clear here, after all, that the example stands more strongly for the purpose of symbolism, as the passage will soon tell. Regardless of the inherent insecurities that we may have when history meets mythological fantasy, the existence of other sources that attest to human sacrifice makes this example all the more likely. Furthermore, it strengthens the connection of this practice to Odin.
7. A.A. Somerville trans., Gautreks saga, in Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda, edited by Guðni Jónsson, Vol. 4 (Reykjavík, 1959), 31. (Via the Viking Age Reader.)
8. Snorri Sturluson, Ynglinga saga, in Heimskringla, Volume I: The Beginnings to Óláfr Tryggvason, translated by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes, 2nd ed. (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, University College London, 2016), 42. The topic of burning the dead is actually a rich discussion to be had itself, although not necessarily in the form of burning men alive in homes, which is a separate fruitful discussion to be had.
9. The source soon to be mentioned was written by Procopius, an outsider writing in the early sixth century. The key problem is not that he was an outsider, but rather the date of the source. Gods change, and this is a very early look at Odin, or rather Wodan. Some actually would consider these gods to be very different from one another. In fact, because gods change over time, does the Odin of Snorri’s Edda truly compare to the Wodan on the sixth century? They are the same, and yet they are different. Odin is clearly considered God of the Hanged in later works (soon to be mentioned in more detail), but not to the intense nature that is seen in even earlier records. Thus, to use an early source to attest to Odin’s thirst for human sacrifice in war raises the question of temporal placement. Did the men of the Viking Age sacrifice war-captives like this? Perhaps not. Other source do suggest, though, that the practice had not quite died out completely. At the very least, it was perhaps not to the same scale as it was in the more distant past. Yet, even that scale is questionable.
10. Procopius, History of the Wars: Book V and VI, translated by H.B. Dewing (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), Chapter XV.
11. The period, lasting primarily from the second century up to the sixth century, is named for clear reason: many of the Germanic peoples were on the move — mostly moving south into the territories of the Roman Empire.
12. The process is complicated, of course. In fact, it appears likely that Odin is not simply the later version of Wodan, but a combination of both Wodan and Tîwaz (see H.R. Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, 56-7). This returns us to the debate mentioned above in endnote 9, which argues that the Odin of the Viking Age may not be the same god we hear of from before the Viking Age. Debates aside, though, this is still a part of Odin’s overall image. Whether the influence is direct or indirect does not matter, for the fact still stands that a part of him once, or always had, demanded human sacrifice in such a manner.
13. H.R. Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (repr., 1964; London: Penguin Books, 1990), 144.
14. Snorri Sturluson, Edda, translated by Anthony Faulkes (London: Everyman, 1995), 21. (Online Edition.)
15. Within a single decade, in fact. The Viking Age ‘officially’ ends in 1066, with King Harald Hardradi’s defeat at Stamford Bridge; Adam of Bremen wrote his text around the year 1075.
16. This information, and much more, was found at http://www.tollundman.dk, which was developed by the Silkeborg Museum and Library, along with ACU Århus County. I thus consider the information to be fairly reliable.
17. Snorri Sturluson, Hákonar saga Góða, in Heimskringla, Volume I: The Beginnings to Óláfr Tryggvason, translated by Alison Finlay and Anthony Faulkes, 2nd ed. (London: Viking Society for Northern Research, University College London, 2016), 98-9.
Anonymous asked: “I hear the term “weights” often in heathen circles. I know little more than that they are land-spirits. I would like to learn more about them and how they were honored and their place in old nordic practices. I thought you might be willing to share some of what you know, or some resources you recommend I explore? If it’s not a hassle.”