I was asked by the leadership at Asatru And Heathen Order to write a short article for their Facebook page on the topic of swearing oaths in the Viking period. This was the result, penned over a weekend.
Swear Like A Viking: Rings, Swords And Right Hand Men – by Trudi Hauxwell
Amongst modern Heathen groups the arm or ‘oath’ ring is a popular way to display one’s Heathen faith. These rings, which are worn as an item of personal adornment, are also used as a ceremonial tool in rituals and public declarations of fealty to a group or group leader. But what do we know of their use in the Viking period and how much do modern practices reflect the beliefs and customs of our ancestors?
In 2016, workers excavating a new road tunnel at Hjulsta, near Stockholm, uncovered a previously unknown, 6th century burial ground. Amongst the finds recovered from the site were over 200 decorative iron rings. Whilst the number of rings is impressive, the rings themselves are not unusual. Similar objects have been found at archaeological sites from right across the pagan north of Europe. Ranging in size from 5 to 15cms in diameter decorative rings have been found in graves, post-holes, temples and other ritual sites and their location in a wide variety of contexts shows their use continued well in to the Viking expansion and Christian eras. Many have small axes, hammers, sickles, and other charm like objects hanging from them. Whilst some could have been worn as items of personal adornment many, due to their size and weight, have no practical use and must have been designed as ritual objects. Larger ones were nailed to temple walls and doors, and smaller ones may have been used as part of the paraphernalia of portable altars.
Given the obvious importance of these rings to the pre-Christian inhabitants of Hjulsta and elsewhere, it is not surprising that they make their appearance in various Viking sagas and stories. In the Eyrbyggja Saga we hear how Thorolf,
“established settlements for his crew and set up a large farm by the cove Hofsvog which he called Hofstadir. There he had a temple built, and it was a sizeable building, with a door on the side-wall near the gable. The high-seat pillars were placed inside the door, and nails, that were called holy nails, were driven into them. Beyond that point, the temple was a sanctuary. At the inner end there was a structure similar to the choir in churches nowadays and there was a raised platform in the middle of the floor like an altar, where a ring weighing twenty ounces and fashioned without a join was placed, and all oaths had to be sworn on this ring. It also had to be worn by the temple priest at all public gatherings.”
Whilst this account doesn’t make clear whether the ring Thorolf had fashioned was an arm ring or a neck band, a 20 ounce ring (over half a kilo) would clearly be impractical to wear on a daily basis in either case. Therefore it’s not surprising that the Eyrbyggja Saga makes clear that the priest was only expected to wear it during ceremonial events. But what type of oaths were sworn on it? There is a more detailed account of ritual ring use in the Landnamabok of Iceland.
“A ring, weighing two aurar or more, was to lie in every head temple on the altar and every godi was to wear it on his arm at all Law-things which he should hold himself and to redden it in the blood of the cattle which he himself sacrificed there. Every man who had to perform legal duties there had first to take an oath on this ring and name two or more witnesses and say, “I call to witness that I take oath on the ring, a lawful oath, so help me Frey and Njord and the Almighty As (Odin), to defend or prosecute this case or give the evidence, verdict or judgement which I know to be most true and right and lawful and to perform everything as prescribed by law which I, may have to perform while I am at this Thing.”
Aurar is an old unit of measurement, roughly equivalent to a modern ounce, so the Landnamabok’s ring is a much lighter affair than the one mentioned in the Eyrbyggja Saga. Nevertheless it performs the same function. It is part of the altar paraphernalia of the heathen temple and is worn by the priest, on his arm in this account, after having been blooded as part of a sacrifice to the gods. Also, like Thorolf’s ring it is used to swear oaths, in this case a very specific kind of oath, a legal or testimonial oath. Indeed, anyone familiar today with the workings of an American or English court may find the wording used in the Landnamabok bears a striking resemblance to the wording we still use today, when we take the stand in a legal dispute or criminal proceeding. The ceremonial object may have changed, from a ring, made sacred in the blood of sacrifice, to a holy book, and we are now also required to raise our right hands (more on this later), but the basic idea, of making pledge in front of witnesses to act with honor and integrity in all proceedings, is essentially the same.
We’ve so far looked at oaths sworn at public gatherings, where the purpose of the oath is to ensure the honest conduct of business or legal affairs. But what of more intimate oaths made in secular surroundings? Did ritual rings play a part in the pledges of loyalty and fealty between individual members of a community and their chieftain or Jarl? Well, it is here that the historical written accounts begin to diverge from the modern image of the role of the oath ring.
Written accounts of personal pledges of fealty are numerous, which confirms the importance such declarations had for Viking age people and the weight they placed on personal loyalty and honor. In the HBO series Vikings, several characters are seen kneeling before their Jarl to make a pledge of fealty, symbolised by the gift of an oath ring, which is then worn by the recipient as a reminder of that promise. Whilst much of the detail in these scenes is accurate, the historical accounts of these ceremonies suggest the show’s writers got it wrong in one fundamental aspect. Pledges of loyalty were not sworn over rings, but on swords, grasped in the right hand.
A thirteenth century Norwegian legal code called the Hirðskrá provides a step by step guide to the ceremony of swearing personal loyalty. Translated in to modern English by Hilda Ellis-Davidson in ‘The Sword In Anglo Saxon England’, it reads,
“At the time when the king appoints hirðmenn, no table shall stand before the king. The king shall have his sword upon his knee, the sword which he had for his crowning, and he shall turn it so the chape goes under his right arm, and the hilt is placed forward on his right knee. Then he shall move the buckle of the belt over the hilt, and grasp the hilt. so that his right arm is over everything. Then he who is to become a hirðsmaðr shall fall on both knees before the king on the floor … and shall put his right hand under the hilt, while he keeps his left arm down in front of him in the most comfortable position, and then he shall kiss the king’s hand.”
Note the position of the hirðsmaðr’s hands. His left hand is kept down my his side, perhaps as a display of non-aggression. His right hand, most likely the hand with which he usually carries his own weapon, is placed beneath the sword hilt, which itself is held beneath the right hand of the king. This can be seen as a clear sign of the submission of the hirðsmaðr to the King’s will, and his agreement to fight under the King’s orders. The hirðsmaðr signals, quite literally that he is now the King’s ‘right-hand man’.
The 13th century Gesta Danorum (History of the Danes) offers a similar first hand account to the one above, and suggests, by referencing Rolf (the 10th century Viking founder of Normandy) that the swearing of oaths on the hilt of a sword was already a centuries old tradition by this time, although in this case it comes with a surprising twist.
“Then Wigg came forth, and Hiartuar, as though he were congratulating him on the gift, asked him if he were willing to fight for him. Wigg assenting, he drew and proferred him a sword. But Wigg refused the point, and asked for the hilt, saying first that this had been Rolf’s custom when he handed forth a sword to his soldiers. For in old time those who were about to put themselves in dependence on the king used to promise fealty by touching the hilt of the sword. And in this wise Wigg clasped the hilt, and then drove the point through Hiartuar; thus gaining the vengeance which he had promised Hrólfr to accomplish for him.”
Today, such pledges of personal loyalty have fallen out of fashion for most of society, as has the wearing or carrying of a sword. So, unlike testimonial or legal oaths, modern equivalents are hard to find, but there are a few. Apprentice Freemasons are expected to swear an oath of loyalty, or more accurately secrecy, to their Lodge by kneeling before the altar and placing their right hand on the Bible. In America new citizens take an oath of allegiance to their adopted homeland, during which they raise their right hand, and law enforcement agencies the world over practice oaths of honor, also taken with right hand raised. What these modern versions of the oath of fealty have in common with their Viking age equivalent, as you can probably tell by now, is not so much the use of a ritual object, be it a sword or a ring, but the swearing of that oath with the right hand.
A common myth exists on why we swear oaths with our right hand, and it comes from 17th century English criminal cases. At a time when tracking an individual’s criminal record was all but impossible, judges could sentence a person to be branded with a symbol of their crime, and the right hand or forearm was a popular spot. Remember Captain Jack Sparrow’s pirate brand on his right wrist in Pirates of the Caribbean? By requiring a witness or defendant to raise their right hand to take the oath, a court could judge their honesty and integrity, and therefore the likely veracity of their testimony by checking for previous brands.
Unfortunately, this myth doesn’t hold water. As we’ve already seen from the Hirðskrá, the importance of swearing an oath with your right hand pre-dates the English legal system by several centuries and has nothing to do with an assessment of a person’s character. Rather, it is a symbol of submission. Other ancient sources suggest that the right hand has always been seen as both a symbol and executor of power. The Bible is littered with references to the right hand, usually as a metaphor for the omnipotence of God, and the connection of the right hand with both power and protection can still be seen today on British roads, where the tradition of driving on the left is a reminder of the days when a traveler would need to have his sword hand free to strike at an assailant coming in the opposite direction.
So, as we can see from the written sources, the swearing of personal oaths between two people was not carried out using rings, but swords, and that the right hands of both parties played a vital role in the ceremony, symbolising the power of the King, the might of the warrior and the submission of one to the other. But is there any evidence from other sources that rings could have once played a part in such ceremonies? Well, yes there is, but we have to go back again to the 6th century to find it.
Ring-swords are mentioned briefly in Beowulf, but archaeological evidence suggests they pre-date the writing of that poem by a few hundred years. Indeed they had died out by the time Beowulf was written, in the late 10th century. Fashionable during the 6th and 7th centuries across much of mainland Europe, Scandinavia and Anglo-Saxon England, these ceremonial swords were made with a ring embedded in the hilt. As there is no practical function to these rings archaeologists have concluded they were designed as oath rings. Whether they were added to swords purely for practical reasons, or in order to symbolically amplify the power of oaths sworn on the sword is unknown, but it does suggest that oaths sworn on rings and oaths sworn on swords are traditions that are at least as old as one another, and that oath rings may even be the older of the two, if they were used to add weight to oaths sworn on swords. Nevertheless, the use of ring swords died out in the 7th century. Personal oaths continued to be sworn on plain swords, as we’ve seen from the written accounts, while legal oaths were taken on separate ritual rings.
What does all this mean for the modern practice of swearing personal oaths of loyalty or fealty on arm rings? There is no evidence to suggest that oath rings were worn by anyone, other than a priest, and even then only on special occasions. The majority of ritual oath rings were simply unwearable. Written accounts also suggest that rings were reserved for oaths taken at public gatherings, during which disputes or business dealings were to be resolved. In contrast the more intimate ceremony of swearing fealty to one’s Jarl was conducted with a sword, which both parties would grasp in their right hands. The symbolism for a martial society, in which survival was utterly dependant on the political power of the Jarl and the physical strength of his warriors is obvious.
That is not to say that the use of rings in the swearing of personal oaths today has no validity. As we have seen in the example of the ring-sword, customs evolve over time, and there is no reason to think that our ancestors would not understand the way in which oath rings are used today. It would be different, but not completely alien. Had the practice of swearing personal fealty survived beyond the habitual use of the sword as a battlefield weapon, rings may have made a comeback, replacing the use of even ceremonial swords, which have almost completely died out. Whether oath rings would have survived the spread of literacy, which meant most contracts and verbal oaths came to be written down is doubtful however. The fact that most oaths are taken today simply by raising the right hand, in a gesture of submission to a higher power, whether it’s spiritual or secular suggests the oath ring would not have survived as a ritual object in widespread use.