This is a post about ancient Norse marriage, that which comes after the wedding. Sounds obvious and yet most of the information about marriage for polytheists seems to begin and end with setting up a wedding or handfasting. The same could be said for marriage in general – it seems everyone wants to focus on that one day’s events instead of the long road that follows.
Marriage is one of the most important relationships in society. It brings together family groups, resources and can even bring together communities. In some cultures, marriages were/are arranged to bring about peace, to expand territories, and strengthen whole countries. On a basic level, marriage is a microcosm of a larger macrocosmic way cultures work – how people get along with each other, how resources are distributed, and people create the next generation and raise them to keep the species alive.
This might not sound terribly romantic and there’s a reason for that we will get to shortly.
Before we begin:
For this post I will be discussing marriage and as a cis woman married to a cis man, I might end up talking about husbands and wives mostly because I’ll be talking from my own experience for much of it. This does not mean that this post is only for heteronormative appearing couples or just couples. This is a space welcome to people of all genders, sexualities, and for polyamorous people as well as monogamous. I will try and keep my pronouns and other terms general but wanted to make sure I post this to give a heads up just in case I get carried away in the writing and am thinking mostly about my experiences instead of the general reader.
For the purposes of these blog posts I will be focusing on Northern Tradition Paganism/Heathenry/Norse Gods. I invite those of you who are Polytheists of other traditions to share your own family beliefs and traditions. If you have a blog post or article about them, please comment with links. Thank you.
Ancient Norse and Viking Marriage
The Viking Answer Lady says it best in her essay on Viking marriage why looking back to these ancestral traditions of marriage and relationships can be so difficult:
Unless one day we recover and revive some hapless Viking who has been preserved frozen in glacial ice, and are able to extract from him a detailed account of his life and culture, it is unlikely that modern historians will ever be able to present an absolutely accurate and authoritative description of the life of the Viking Age. The Saga Time has passed away, and like the Golden Age of Homer, may only be recovered in bits and potsherds, in romanticized remembrances and distant echoes. In order to re-create the society of the Vikings within recreationist organizations such as the S.C.A., or to resurrect the religious beliefs and tenets of the pagan Scandinavians as do the Asatruar, we frequently blend together a mix of historical fact, period fiction, and the creativity of our own imaginations in order to create a new reality which we hope is not too far from the truth of history. With this in mind, we can let the information contained in these pages teach us what the Viking marriage was, or at least, might have been.
Despite the many excavation findings of female warriors and tales of female leaders in Old Norse and Viking societies, the culture was still male dominated. That said, women in Norse society did have more freedoms than women in some other cultural groups and would hardly have garnered or put up with pity from their modern descendants.
There are exceptions to the rules/roles discussed here but this is a blog post, not a book on history and outliers. I encourage you to read more than this one post can possibly contain if you are interested in gender roles, Ancient Norse and Vikings, and the rebels.
For a fantastic podcast about Viking Women and gender roles, I highly recommend Viking Age Podcast, specifically the miniseries called Mother of Kings.
Despite some archeological evidence (that is still being studied and claims are being disputed) that women fought alongside men in the Viking period, the role of the woman was traditionally and largely in the home.There they ran the household – having and raising children, tending to home trades like spinning and weaving, tending animals and growing food, cooking and beer making and preserving the harvest, etc. They kept the household accounts, networked with other families, and if the family was prominent probably did quite a bit of negotiating outside of the courts system to make things run smoothly (this is my projection from reading about women in patriarchal systems across cultures and seeing similarities).
Women who did not take up the roles of housewife (whether small or grand) also had the option (depending on your beliefs of how witches and shamans come into their power by choice or by God-chosen) of becoming a volva (a Norse witch, diviner, etc). This topic, while a favorite, is outside the realm of this particular blog post and series as Volva’s, to our understanding were either unwed or were past their child bearing and raising years and were crones who traveled without family or family ties.
The roles of men varied from life on the home (usually agriculture as well as trade labor), life in court, and of course the more enticing subject of life traveling or in battle. According to Kirsten Wolf, men alone were able to hold political office and only men could speak at legal assemblies or testify as witnesses before a court.
While the work of women was respected and honorable, their tales are not told in sagas like that of warriors and leaders. We don’t have epic poems about Lady Áskatla and her glorious tapestry or Bjálfi’s wife’s ale that took her years of yeast preserving and choosing to perfect. Like I said before, these are the unseen stories that were important to daily life but not seen as important or notable enough to preserve.
That being said, women of the Viking age and older did have more freedoms than some other cultures allowed their women. Muslim visitors to Northern Europe wrote back their surprise at the women’s freedoms here (especially the right to divorce their husbands). They also had rights to owning land (usually that of a deceased male family member) and making their own money or having their own trade (some trades we now think of as masculine like brewing were women’s work at this time).
Premarital sex happened and, from what we know, it wasn’t that big of a deal.
Proposals were a financial and social arrangement rather than a matter of emotion or love. This was a society that focused on survival in a harsh environment that shaped their culture and therefore didn’t allow much for matters of the heart when food, shelter, and safety was the matter always at hand.
From my understanding of Frith – while marriage arrangements were more like business arrangements, women were often willing participants because of Frith. Frith means standing up for and doing what is best for your family/kindred. The idea of acting for yourself rather than for your tribe wasn’t considered as honorable as it is in modern times.
Marriage proposals were initiated by the man. The families of the bride and groom (or rather the bride’s family and the groom himself) sorted out the details. The bride’s feelings may not be factored into the matter or, if they are, they are presented by her family, specifically her fastnandi who was usually her father or other male head of house hold (brother, even eldest son). That being said, as Viking Answer Lady points out, a bride’s consent was likely desired at least to get along with her spouse:
While the law did not require that a woman consent to her marriage, it seems to have been a very good idea to get her approval, for in the sagas, “all five marriages made contrary to the stated will of the girl are unmitigated disasters, ending with the death, maiming, or divorce of the husband”
Most women (I use this term loosely) were engaged and wed by the age of 12. This probably makes many modern history-seekers cringe. Keep in mind, these were a people that did not often live to see 50 or 60 years and children led harder lives back then.
Looking further back, we can get a tip on how marriages were arranged in pre-Viking cultures by looking at the Saami – a culture that neighbored Northern Europe and survived the Christian colonization influence. It is believed the Saami share many traits with the ancestors of Norse culture. In their society, marriage is often between cousins and focuses on merging subsistences – bringing together reindeer herds or land holdings. Couples are known to choose their own mates, sometimes after having children together.
But What About Love?
Did all this practicality and survival mode mean that there was no love among partners? We do have some small evidence that there was romance among the North men and their wives.
Happy am I to have won the joy of such a consort; “ said the condemned man of his wife. “I shall not go down basely in loneliness to the gods of Tartarus. So let the encircling bonds grip my throat in the midst; the final anguish shall bring with it pleasure only, since the certain hope remains of renewed love, and death shall prove to have its own delights. Each world holds joy, and in the twin regions shall the repose of our united souls win fame, our equal faithfulness in love ~Saxo Grammaticus
We can look at other similar cultures that have arranged marriages that recorded their lives such as American pioneers. Many developed affection for their spouse after marriage, learning to love each other as they learn to make a life for themselves in a world that was not conducive to romance outside of modern historical fiction.
Bride Prices (mundr) and Dowry (heiman fylgia) was a societal norm. A groom would pay the bride’s family for the loss of the family member (household labor, caregiver, not to mention any hamingja a child might bring her family) and the bride would bring her inheritance as well as the things she’d created and inherited/was given to start a household. In some ancient laws, base prices of silver in ounces were set.
Speaking of hamingja, I think Raven Kaldera explains it really, really well in his books. In Wyrdwalkers, Raven points out hamingja and the wife’s role:
A gift has more hamingja than something that you bought, because it has the energy of the giver’s intention and good wishes behind it. A gift that was used frequently by someone or worn on their body has even more. An heirloom passed down over time has yet more hamingja, for the same reasons. Gifts given by children out of real feeling for the recipient seem to have an inordinant amount of hamingja. A bride was considered to have a great deal of hamingja, and the wife was the keeper of the house-hold’s hamingja, because she was closest to the hearth, the center of the home.
The actual wedding is mostly conjecture. One of the first things Christianity destroyed with colonizing indigenous was fertility rituals and symbols which likely included wedding ceremonies that would ensure the fecundity of the bride and groom. What we do know is that the traditional day of weddings was on Fridays, the day sacred to Frigga. Sacrifices were made to the Gods and the Gods of fertility, marriage, and oaths (Frigga, Freya, Frey, Thor, Odin, Vor, Lofn, etc) were likely requested to be present.
From the Gods themselves, we have the story of Thor acting the part of the bride to obtain Mjolnir from the Jotun. There was a great feast and the Hammer was set in the bride’s lap to swear oaths on and ensure her fertility. Of course, in this case, the groom was not so lucky.
Gifts would be exchanged, usually ancestral items to bring the families together and be passed on to their children, and the oath of the bond set.
This was all followed by feasting, telling of tales, and other traditions like carrying the bride over the threshold.
We don’t have a lot of information about this part of a couple’s life, ironic given its longer than a wedding or courtship. What we do have is gleaned from other aspects of every day life.
It is known that the wives took care of the home and, in that regard, the husband was expected to hand his household over to her. He was given an allowance as part of the budget but the finances were cared for by her. I am fond of Galina Krasskova’s take on this matter, you can read it here on her blog.
Viking husbands and wives were not recorded or known for letting themselves go after marriage. Their care in clothing, dying their hair, and keeping well-groomed was noted by Saxon cleric John Wallingford as to “undermine the virtue of married women.”
Slavery was common among Vikings, including sex slaves. Natasha Sheldon of History Collection explains:
The basic requirement of a Norse man was to produce children with his wife. He was not, however, obliged to be faithful. Norse men could keep concubines known as frilles– lower status women who they did not marry and who lived with the man and his wife. According to Adam of Breman, a man could keep as many frilles as he could afford. Society regarded any children from these liaisons as legitimate.
Wives often were over the house trades as shown in burial mounds of women buried with their set of scales for calculated the trade of goods. They oversaw everything from spinning and cloth creation for clothes and linens and art, the trade of livestock, and cooking/baking/brewing/etc.
They also saw to the education of young children before the sons were taken under the training of their fathers and uncles. The daughters were trained by their mothers to prepare them for similar fates in their future. The early education of children would include the basics of their way of life – including the worship of the Gods and honoring the ancestors.
For pre-Viking culture, we again turn to the Saami people. There was no strict gender-based division of labor. The survival needs of the family groups weighed in more in societal structure than any sort of gender taboos. In a family unit, some work that might be more common among the men included preparing firewood while women might be more likely to prepare food and repair clothing but both genders were trained to know how to do these necessary tasks.
Regarding the spiritual aspects within married relationships, we mostly have gender roles to turn to rather than specific to relationships.
Much like the Norse concept of the wife holding the family’s hamingja and the inherent female-ness of the volva, Saami women have their own magic associated solely with women. Saami women are often associated with the word mugga, which can also be translated “spiritually powerful, magically efficacious, dangerous.” Women were and are seen as having the potential for special connections with the Mistress of Game, and it may well be that it was for this reason their actions were ritually circumscribed – these circumscriptions that would effect their relationships including with their spouse.
The Arabic poet al-Gazal reported that he was told by a Danish queen that “jealousy was unknown in that country, and that women stayed with men of their own free will, and left them whenever they wanted to” (Jacobsen, Sexual Irregularities, pp. 78-79).
Divorce was relatively common and somewhat egalitarian. Either a man or a woman could initiate a divorce. Women were not left out in the cold by divorce proceedings – in fact they were set up with means to support themselves after.
Adultery was common for men and not necessarily grounds for divorce. Unfortunately, for women, if they were found to be sleeping around, their husband had rights to kill them and their lover. Other punishments for unfaithful wives included having her hair cut off (a cultural norm that we see in the myth of Loki cutting Sif’s hair to suggest She was unfaithful to Thor) and slavery.
The reason for women’s faithfulness and chastity lied mainly in the lack of birth control. Men needed to be certain of the paternity of their children in an otherwise uncertain world. This certainty was necessary not only for emotional and naming considerations but also for the passing on of wealth and blessings from ancestors.
Unacknowledged children, such as those by lovers, were not supported by their fathers and had to rely on the financial support of their mothers and maternal family, if available.
While sleeping with a woman not their wife was not a big taboo for a Norse man (this did have to pay a fine for known liasons not with slaves), it was however taboo to sleep with another man’s wife. If a man did this, he could be killed (as already state) or fined heavily in court (not to mention his honor and reputation was forfeit).
Some Wedding and Marriage History Resources
I know this was a lot. Thank you for hanging with me. Please let me know if you have any more resources on Ancient Norse and Viking marriage, especially after weddings and before divorce. I’ll return to this series next with modern Polytheist marriage commentary.