Freya (Freyja in the Old Norse), her name meaning “the lady,” was derived from the Proto-Germanic frawjon, an honorific title used for a mature woman of high social standing. As one of the principal deities of the Norse pantheon, the lovely and enchanting Freya was a goddess of blessings, love, lust, and fertility. A member of the Vanir tribe of deities, Freya shared her people’s penchant for the magical arts of divination. It was Freya who introduced the gods to seidr, a form of magic that allowed practitioners to know and change the future.
While many people believe that she could have been prayed to so that she would bestow eternal love upon the worshipper, this is a debated topic. Vikings had a different relationship with the gods than what we would think today. The Viking gods did not seem to be “big” gods by today’s standards. They lacked many attributes that world deities possess, such as immortality, omnipotence, and they weren’t the original beings. Norse mythology holds that the deities were fated to die in a cataclysm called RagnarÃ¶k. According to the Prose Edda, Odin and his brothers were born of the first man (licked out of a salty ice block by a cow) and the daughter of a frost giant. And, morally speaking, they were kind of a mess. So while there is a lot of very interesting mythology surrounding Freyja and the other gods, it doesn’t seem like the gods influenced society as much as we see in other cultures.
The Sagas Tell Us about the Courtship Rules… and Consequences
The closest thing we have to ancient written accounts of Norse mythology and Viking history are the Eddas and Sagas. Created in the 12th and 13th centuries, these written records show us how Vikings were using these stories to form a set of morals and values to adhere by. Much like modern day Christians and Jews use the Bible to understand their religions’ origins. Eddas are two 13th– century Icelandic books, the older ‘Poetic Edda’ (a collection of Old Norse poems on Norse legends) and the younger ‘Prose Edda’ (a handbook to Icelandic poetry by Snorri Sturluson). The Eddas are the chief source of knowledge of Scandinavian mythology.
Sagas in Viking culture are one of many long stories of heroic achievement focusing on Norse, Icelandic and Viking related history and folklore, recorded in Iceland during the 12th and 13th centuries. In the middle of the 13th century – more than 150 years after the last Vikings sailed the seas or stood in battle – Iceland was undergoing a violent political crisis. This crisis of politics became a crisis of identity, and perhaps because of this, there was a strong intellectual impulse to record the remnants of their ancient heritage. For the first time, Viking lore was set down in writing for future generations to read. And this is where we are going to be talking about how you would use these texts to make sure you’re doing things by the book. So that there are no detrimental consequences. (Many scholars are unsure if these texts were influenced by Christians of the time and, therefore, diluted the culture. But many still believe this is as close to a representation as you can get.)
If you find yourself in a typical Viking situation, you may find yourself to be led more by building alliances than romance. So if this is your path, here’s what it looks like. Former writer for History Collection and historian, Natasha Sheldon, writes: “Courtship wasn’t strictly necessary in Norse culture as marriage was more about alliances than love. The prospective bride and groom’s families would command the negotiations, to create a match that would bind the two clans as allies – and sometimes end feuds. Many brides were promised as âpeace pledges’ to smooth troubled waters between rival families. Although the couple in question could voice an opinion, it was fair to say they had little choice but to go ahead with the match.”
But don’t worry. That doesn’t mean that romance is a lost cause for a lonely Viking. But in this culture, one must adhere to specific ways of handling passion. Navigating between potential bride and family could be a very delicate matter. On one hand, you don’t want to be too hasty in advances on the bride, but if you wait too long, the bride-to-be’s family could become insulted. If this is the case during a drawn out courtship, the family could escalate the situation by seeking blood revenge on the groom dragging his feet. It seems as though this was probably inspired by longer courtships sometimes leading to illegitimate children.
The most common method for locating a suitable bride was at “the Thing”. Fathers would bring their daughters not only to perform the housekeeping and cooking at his booth for his comfort, but also to make the girls and their wifely skills visible to prospective suitors. Other social gatherings such as feasts, ceremonies, markets, fairs and the like were also good places for spotting a prospective wife. The “marriage market” provided by the gathering at the Thing fitted neatly with the basic character of the Viking wedding as a formal contract between families: the law codes show that negotiating a marriage followed the same sort of rules as formation of any other contract or legal agreement, and thus benefitted from being conducted at the Thing, along with other undertakings of a legal nature.
So if you’re a Viking looking for a special person to fill your life, this would be the place to be. If you’re looking to make a suitable match, make sure you bring some important friends along. Men of prestige, power, and wealth should act as a broker or advocate when making the proposal of marriage. Basically, having a powerful friend would inspire a bride’s family to want to align with you and your connections as well. While love might not be in the mix yet… payment sure would be. The bride-price consisted of three payments: from the groom would come the mundr and morgengifu, this was a payment to the father of the bride for control of the guardianship of the bride. The bride’s family provided the heiman fylgia, the dowry. There were additional payments after this that get pretty complicated based on socioeconomic status and location.
The reputation of a woman represented the honor of the family in Viking culture. The prohibitions against love poetry help to explain why courtships were little practiced in the Viking period. While the goddess Freyja was the patroness of mansongar, and delighted in love poetry, mortal women had to be more cautious. Love poems were viewed in law as a distinct slur upon a woman’s reputation, suggesting that the poet had had a more intimate knowledge of his beloved than was considered seemly. But Viking culture could sometimes be a bit confusing, considering intimacy out of wedlock was not prohibited. It wasn’t encouraged, but it seems as though it was fairly common to have relations prior to marriage.
Skalds also made mansongr, “maiden-songs” or love poems, composed despite laws ordaining outlawry or death for the skald who dared to make them: “Well considered, the woman’s worth the whole of Iceland…/ Heavy though my heart… of Hunland, and of Denmark;/ Not for all of England’s earth and kingdoms would I / Forego the golden-braided girl, ay, nor for Ireland.” (The Skalds: A Selection of their Poems with Introduction and Notes). Another touching passage sings the song of love: ” I little reck… to reach her risked I have my life oft… / Though I be slain within the arms of my beloved, / Sleeping in the Sif-of-silken-gowns’ embraces: / For the fair-haired woman feel I love unending.” (Ibid., p. 134).
Slap your Viking Lady Love gently in the face with purple flowers
Yes, you heard me. Gather up some lovely purple flowers, walk up to your love interest, and gently slap him/her in the face with them. Why? To be honest, it’s hard to figure out why this was a Viking courtship tradition. Through history, flowers have carried powerful symbolism for many cultures. Specifically, cowslip, a small yellow flower, is symbolic in the British Isles. It is attributed to Freyja, goddess of love, beauty and fertility in Norse mythology. It’s told that the flowers represent the keys to open the door to her secret hall, and the treasure of inner knowledge. For this reason the flowers are often associated with unlocking secrets. So you would think this would be the Viking flower of choice for love.
But it’s harder finding records or reason for this Viking tradition. Other myths attribute wild Columbine, which is a purple flower, to being one symbolic of Freyja. Columbine is said to symbolize so many different things, it’s hard to pinpoint which one would be the most accurate during the Viking Age. However, the purple Columbine seems to be a good lead on which purple flower they were using, because it is, in fact, native to Britain. But I’m sure that nobody will complain too much about having flowers in their face. So we will just enjoy the imagery this tip invokes.
Central to making a good impression on a potential or actual partner is practicing good personal hygiene and pride in one’s appearance. This practice applied to both men and women. Norse graves are packed with grooming essentials for the afterlife- regardless of whether they belonged to a man or a woman. Combs, toothpicks, tweezers and ear spoons were all familiar, demonstrating the Norse liked to be neat and tidy and clean. The Arab, Ibn Fadlan may have felt horror at the Viking practice of sharing a communal washbowl, but at least his Norse acquaintances washed their face and combed their hair daily.
In fact, the Norse were probably the cleanest people in the Dark Ages. According to the Saxon cleric, John of Wallingford, they bathed weekly, on a Saturday. Wallingford complained that this, and their habit of changing their clothes regularly, was to ” undermine the virtue of married women and even seduce the daughters of nobles to be their mistresses.” However, the Norse were not content merely to be neat and tidy. Ibn Fadlan also noted the Rus- Viking traders who occupied what is now modern Russia-favored bleaching their beards to a saffron yellow, using a strong lye soap.
When a woman wanted to express a romantic interest in the man, she made him a shirt. Although, just like the purple flowers, there isn’t much more information on why that posed significance. We would assume that it’s similar to having daughters at the feast to show off their domestic abilities. Just like today, women in the Viking period sought a suitable partner. The sagas are filled with stories of women competing over who has the best man. However, love did not always last. So it was good that Scandinavia was a pioneering region when it came to equal opportunities. The Viking woman could choose a husband and later decide not to marry him after all, if she so wished. However, there were limits to the extent of these equal opportunities. For example, only men could appear in court in the Viking Age.
There is believed to have been a hidden moral in the sagas in relation to a woman’s choice of husband. The family probably wanted to participate in the decision-making. When an attempt was made to woo a woman, the father did not need to ask his daughter’s opinion about the interested male. In cases in which the girl opposed the family’s wishes, the sagas describe how this often ended badly. The Icelandic sagas give examples of how a strong woman could overshadow her husband. It was a dangerous balancing act. Sometimes a wife’s drive and energy could make her husband respect her, whilst in other cases the man lost his reputation due to a powerful wife. The woman’s reputation, on the other hand, remained intact.
The sagas never mention any intimacy, but it was fairly common for young unmarried couples to have secret meetings. Especially those forbidden to marry. The sagas make constant reference to “the illicit love visit.” Even though the sagas do not mention more physical affection happening, it is highly unlikely the young man would risk a secret tryst simply to âtalk’ to the object of his affections. The lovers, however, were said to âenjoy’ each other. A document detailing a wife’s dissatisfaction with her impotent husband because she couldn’t âenjoy‘ him suggests this is a term linked to conjugal intimacy. While this was not illegal, the ideal for women was virginity and purity. Once again, the texts always seem to point towards it reflecting the honor of the family – specifically fathers, brothers, uncles… the male family.
This intimacy would become especially tricky if an illegitimate child became involved. This restriction was not for moral reasons. Illegitimate sons could become their father’s heirs- if he recognized them. Rather, society censured Illegitimacy because of the burden it placed on the maternal family, not because it was deemed wrong or shameful. So this burden of an illegitimate child would fall on the shoulders of the mother’s family. And the father and his family (if marriage was not considered) was only responsible for two-thirds of the financial support provided. In typical patriarchal tradition, women suffered worse repercussions from these secret trysts than the men did. If a man was promiscuous prior to marriage, it did not matter as long as he planned on getting married in the end. If he did not marry, however, he would be considered a social outcast.
The Norse focused on âinn matki munr’ (‘the mighty passion’). These were intricate and involved specific rituals. Before the marriage, however, meeting and talking was one way to try to make a connection. Despite the hazards, such as a child out of wedlock or blood vengeance, some courtships did occur. Attentions paid to a woman by her suitor, including visits, conversations, and the making of poems in her praise were expected, and apparently welcomed by the girl, no matter what her family may have thought. The most important, unwritten rule of courtship was that the less a potential groom saw of his intended bride before entering into formal marriage negotiations with her family, the better his chances were of staying alive.
But after marriage, love can be expected and encouraged in a match. The sagas give us romantic passages that inspire even the most cynical of romantics. InRigsÃ¾ula (v. 27), a Father and Mother sit gazing into one another’s eyes, their fingers intertwined. They are obviously happily in love (Hollander,Poetic Edda, p. 120). Sometimes a declaration of love in the sagas will be very short and indirect, as when BergÃ¾Ã³ra refuses the amnesty of those attacking her home, preferring to perish with her husband: “I was given to Njal in marriage when I was young, and I have promised him that we would share the same fate”. Men, perhaps, were more free to express their love than women.
Traditionally, Vikings held their weddings on Fridays. Also known as Frigga’s day, a day sacred to Frigg, the goddess of marriage, love, and fertility. As is common today, the bride and groom exchanged rings- both finger rings and arm rings as they spoke their vows. Once the ceremony was complete, the “brud hlaup” occurred. This was a race run by both wedding parties to the feasting hall. Whoever arrived last served the ale. But before the bride could enter, she had to be escorted over the threshold by the groom. The Norse, like many pagan peoples, believed thresholds were dangerous places for in transition to a new stage in their life.
The groom would then thrust a new sword, a gift from his bride, into the central pillar of the house. The depth of the resulting cut was used to determine the success of their union. Then, after the feast, eight witnesses lighted the bridal couple to bed. The groom then removed the bridal wreath from the bride- a ritual deflowering before the real event. One beverage was of particular importance. The âbridal ale’ was first consumed in a loving cup by the bride and groom at the marriage feast. The couple would use the mead-like brew to seal their union with a toast to Odin and Freya. The bridal ale was brewed with a good deal of honey, to ensure the fertility of the newlyweds. Their families gifted the couple with enough of this sweet beer to last them a month- a custom that gives us the modern term âhoneymoon.’
Even if they were not in love before the wedding, the couple would try and cultivate it afterward. Husbands would seat their wives next to them if they wanted to show affection. Couples could also express their closeness by sharing the same drinking horn. If a husband were feeling very affectionate, he would âput her on his lap’ where he and his wife could indulge in “kyssir hana’ – a kiss and a cuddle. Or he would put his head on her lap, and she would stroke his hair. Men did the hunting, fighting, trading and farming, while women’s lives centered around cooking, caring for the home and raising children. Viking burials reflected these roles in society; men were typically buried with weapons, while women were buried with domestic tools.
Women tended to marry between the ages of 12 and 15. True to these times, women typically played a subservient role in the marriage. Though the man was the “ruler” of the house, the woman played an active role in managing her husband, as well as the household. Norse women had full authority in the domestic sphere, especially when their husbands were absent. If something happened to the man of the household, his wife would adopt his role on a permanent basis, singlehandedly running the family farm or trading business. Many women in Viking Age Scandinavia were buried with rings of keys, which symbolized their roles and power as household managers. Some women even were allowed to own property and there are some records of female Viking warriors in 971 AD.
While Vikings were considered to be a direct peoples, they were rather shy about talking about… the deed. Ya know, the conjugal relations? The sagas had various ways to refer to this intimate act. A man about to have relations with a woman was said to âturn towards’ her, “laying his hand/arm/thigh ” on her. The rest was up to the audience’s imagination. However, what was clear was the man was in charge. He took the lead. His partner followed. Once the action warmed up, the sagas implied the increased activity in similarly guarded terms. A couple in the throes of passion would âcrowd together in bed” (hviluthrong) and ‘enjoy each other. ‘
If you wanted to describe it in a more racy fashion, the tales would describe the man as enjoying a good old brolta a maga or âromp on her belly’ or describe the couple as âtraveling together.” Once they had exhausted themselves, the couple spent the aftermath at âhvila meth henna ” (rest with her), or he would âamuse one’s self.’ This activity referred to him enjoying a quiet conversation or game of cards with his partner. Of course, while their language was shy, it seems as though they were more open with physical relations than other cultures of the time. This includes being open with extramarital affairs.
Extramarital affairs were a common occurrence in the Viking Age. Despite their ubiquity, infidelity was generally frowned upon and was eventually considered a crime for both men and women. If a woman was caught having an affair, her husband was believed to be justified in ending both her and her lover. But it seems that many Norse men adored their wives, judging by the last words of one man just before he was hung: “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)
Unfortunately, not all Viking husbands practiced “faithfulness in love”. Marriage was meant to produce children. Family was one of the most important staples in Viking society. However, that did not mean he had to only share a bed with 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. Other accounts also mention that Norse men would also keep bed slaves. And it’s just as brutal as it sounds; these women did not have a choice in the matter. But, once again, since this was a male dominated society, women were expected to be held to higher standards. They were not allowed extramarital affairs despite her husband’s indiscretions. There were harsh penalties for women who were unfaithful during marriage.
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 passing, maiming, or divorce of the husband”. The Icelandic law code,GrÃ¡gÃ¡s, allows divorce in only three cases. The first was if the couple gave each other “large wounds” or meira sar metiz, generally defined as those wounds which penetrated the brain, body cavity or marrow. The second was the case in which a couple was too poor to support themselves and had to rely on their families for support, in which case they could be forced to divorce by their kin, or a divorce might be granted “if one spouse with little or no money of his- or her own was suddenly charged with the support of poor relatives”, thus enabling the solvent member of the partnership to escape with his- or her goods safe from predation by in-laws. The third legal provision for divorce was if a husband tried to take his wife out of the country against her will. If one of these conditions was not cited,GrÃ¡gÃ¡s states that “no divorce shall exist”. This may be due to the fact that the redactions ofGrÃ¡gÃ¡s which we possess today have been influenced to some degree by canon law, for the sagas list a whole variety of grounds for divorce which are not mentioned in the law code.
The reasons given in the sagas for divorce would be familiar to any modern-day divorce court. First were problems with relatives, such as a family feud, or one spouse failing to treat the family of the other “with due consideration”. Family violence was also a reason for divorce, especially in those parts of Scandinavia heavily influenced by Christianity where divorce was harder to obtain. Aside from the “large wounds” cited inGrÃ¡gÃ¡s, a spouse might seek a divorce because the other partner made mocking verses about him or her, excessive anger or jealousy displayed by one spouse, or if one partner slapped the other. Slapping a spouse, especially in front of witnesses, was considered extremely humiliating. TheGulaÃ¾ing Law of Norway made special provisions against a husband slapping his wife: if a man struck his wife in front of witnesses, she could not only claim monetary compensation for the blows equal to what he would have received had another man struck him, the wife had the right to divorce the husband on top of the fine after the third slap. Slapping a wife is the most common reason given for a divorce in the sagas.
Pre-Christian Norse views on homosexuality weren’t simple. While Viking cultures seemed to be accepting of physical relationships between two men, it was more complicated. Men were still expected to marry women. There was never a way out of that which did not result in social ostracism. But when married, a wife was expected to ignore any extramarital affairs her husband entertained, whether it be with men or women. But intimacy with a wife was always a must – mostly to procure children. Of course, we’ll talk a bit more about how a woman had legal grounds to divorce her husband if she was not satisfied in bed. So other than not being able to marry a male counterpart, it sounds like it was pretty open, right? This is where it gets even more complicated.
Viking men were known to violate both men and women as a ways to degrade and demean them during raiding trips. It was common practice. So penetrating a man was fairly common. However, it was considered extremely shameful if you were on the receiving end of that action. One of the worst insults an enemy could hurl at a Norse man was “sordinn” (penetrated). Any man branded as such would fight until a fatal end to defend his honor. These conflicts led to Scandinavian law codes making such types of insult illegal because of the violence that ensued with the slanderer often outlawed. However, if such abuse was believed or proven, it had grave consequences for the man in question. Although Norse myths tell of gods such as Loki and even Odin taking on a submissive role during intimacy., Norse mortal society did not tolerate passivity in men. The man in question would become a social outcast, branded âergi”-or unmanly.’
But it was also complicated for women who loved other women
While there are many people who like to think of the “butch” warrior lesbian Viking, we’re afraid to tell you that we don’t have any documentation of these figures. There is no mention of lesbianism in the sagas. Though many scholars believe that it was a fairly common practice among married women. Nor are there any references in other Old Norse texts to female on female relationships, so we cannot gauge pre-Christian attitudes to female homosexuality. However, Icelandic Christian law suggests lesbianism did occur in Norse society. In the 12th century, Bishop Porlakr Porhallson decreed “if women satisfy each other they shall be ordered the same penance as men who perform the most hideous adultery between them or with a quadruped.” So there was an obvious distaste and intolerance on it in later Viking culture.
Christie Ward, an independent scholar and expert in Norse mythology pointed out that many Vikings used to have relationships with multiple women. A Viking married one woman, but created a harem-like structure in his own house, having concubines from inferior social classes. A Viking’s wife then could develop a bond with other women under her roof. A bond which involved intercourse in many instances. There was a high tolerance for these types of relationships. A Viking’s wife, in fact, was more independent if compared to women in other societies of the time. She was in charge of the house from a financial point of view and could even decide to divorce her husband. There are also indications that Vikings practiced polygamy, which in their highly stratified society would have meant that poorer unmarried men might have had limited access to women, and would have targeted female slaves as concubines (or even wives).
Where did we find this stuff? Here are our sources: