The year is 966 A.D. and I am a Norseman named Olaf the Strong. Harvest is nearly done and the day of my wedding is fast approaching. As you are an outsider to our way of life, I will attempt to relay to you our customs regarding the process leading up to and following my upcoming nuptials. This statement might have been said to one of the travelers who visited the Scandinavian region in the late 10th century. The story told by Olaf may have been written down by the visitor. Although the story may have been embellished slightly or biased by the visitor’s own beliefs, it can give us a look into the somewhat unknown rituals of the peoples of Viking age Scandinavia. The primary sources for the Viking period come from archaeology, runic inscriptions, and contemporary literary evidence provided by Arabic travelers and Germanic chroniclers such as Adam of Bremen (Courtship, Love and Marriage in Viking Scandinavia). With this in mind, it seems truly impossible to be certain that any description of a Norse wedding can be truly accurate. All that can be done is to create a scenario as close as possible with what information we have at hand. With that being said, I’ll continue with the story of my impending wedding.
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As with most marriages in Viking age Scandinavia, mine is an arranged marriage. My father, like most other fathers seeking a bride for his son, had been scouting prospective brides at social gatherings, feasts, other ceremonies and of course, the Thing, since last harvest season. The Thing is a gathering where fathers bring their daughters not only to perform housekeeping and cooking at his booth for his comfort, but also to make the girls and their wifely skills visible to prospective suitors (Mary Wilhelmine Williams, Social Scandinavia in the Viking Age. 1920; New York: Kraus Reprint Co., 1971. p. 282). After my father located a bride he thought suitable for me and he and the father of my prospective bride had agreed that an alliance between our two families was acceptable to both, the negotiation of the bride-price began. The bride-price consists of three payments: from the groom, me, comes the mundr and morgen-gifu, while my bride’s family is providing the heiman fylgia (Courtship, Love and Marriage in Viking Scandinavia).
The mundr, or “bride-price”, as you may refer to it, will be paid by me to the father of my bride to be. I will pay it in silver, as is the custom, and it will be equal in value to the dowry of my soon to be wife. The morgen-gifu, or “morning gift”, was also set at this time. I will give the morning gift to my wife, as the name implies, the morning after our union is consummated. The last sum that was agreed upon was the heiman fylgia, or dowry. The dowry represents the portion of my bride’s father’s inheritance to be trusted to me to use wisely for her maintenance during our marriage and to provide for her and our children should I die. Once all the amounts had been agreed upon it was finalized by the handsal or formal agreement of betrothal sealed by a hand clasp and witnessed by at least six men, “since the oral agreement reached would have validity only as long as the witnesses were alive” (Frank, p. 475-476).
As with most weddings of our society, ours is to be held on the traditional day for weddings in the North, Friday or “Friggas-day”, sacred to the goddess Frigga, the goddess of marriage (Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1964. pp. 110-112). Our wedding date has been known for many months. This was to allow for enough time to have ample food stocked up for the week-long celebration and so that enough mead, a honey based ale, is available for my bribe and I to share together over the month following our wedding, also referred to as the “honey-moon” (Edwin W. Teale. The Golden Throng. New York: Universe. 1981. p. 127; also see John B. Free. Bees and Mankind. Boston: Allen & Unwin. 1982. p. 103).
While my wedding is yet to happen, I can tell you what will happen from stories and observing the weddings of others. My bride will be hidden away with her attendants, her mother and other married women and perhaps a gyÃ°ja or priestess. They will remove her old clothing and any symbols of her unwed status such as the kransen, a gilt circlet that is worn by Scandinavian girls of gentle birth upon the outspread hair that is likewise a token of her virginity (Sigrid Undset. The Bridal Wreath. trans. Charles Archer and J.S. Scott. New York: Bantam. 1920. p. 331). The kransen will become an heirloom. The attendants will wrap it up to be put away for my bride until the birth of our firstborn daughter. She will then visit the bath-house. The steam bath symbolizes the “washing away” of her maiden status, and a purification to prepare her for the religious ritual the following day. Her attendants will instruct her on her duties as a wife, religious observances to be followed by married women, advice on the best ways of living with a man, and the like(Courtship, Love and Marriage in Viking Scandinavia). Finally she will be dressed for the coming ceremony. Her hair will be left down and to replace the kransen she wore as a maiden, she will instead wear the bridal-crown, an heirloom kept by her family and worn only during the wedding festivities (Undset, p. 331).
As for me, I will also be taken away by my own attendants, including my father, my married brother and several other married men and perhaps a goÃ°i, or priest. Tradition requires that I obtain an ancestral sword that belonged to one of my forebears, which will be used in ceremony the following day. I have several options in obtaining this sword. If I have any ancestors buried close by I can retrieve the sword from their grave-mound. If this is not possible, my relatives may hide an ancestral sword for me to retrieve, where I would be confronted by a man costumed as a ghost or aptrgangr of my ancestor, he will elaborate on my instruction by reminding me of my family history and lineage, the importance of tradition, and the need to continue the ancestral bloodline. On the other hand, the sword which I have to obtain might instead be given to me by a living relative, complete with a lecture on family history (Courtship, Love and Marriage in Viking Scandinavia). I then will also visit the bath-house with my attendants to symbolically wash away my status as a bachelor and purify myself for the coming wedding ceremony. My attendants will also impart their wisdom of what my husbandly duties will consist of. I will then be dressed and the sword of my ancestors will be worn at my side.
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The night has passed and the time has come for the wedding ceremony. The first order of business will be the exchanging of the mundr and the heiman fylgia before the gathered witnesses. After the exchange, my bride will be led to the chosen location, preceded by a young kinsman of hers bearing a sword that will be her wedding gift to me, her new husband (Ellis-Davidson, Sword at the Wedding, p. 97). The ceremony will then continue with an invocation to summon the attention of the gods and goddesses. After this, I will present my bride with the ancestral sword which I recovered the previous night. She will hold this sword in trust for our firstborn son, just as was done by earlier Germanic tribes as described by Tacitus: “She is receiving something that she must hand over intact and undepreciated to her children, something for her sons’ wives to receive in their turn and pass on to their grandchildren” (Tacitus, p. 117). My bride will then present to me the sword which had preceded her to the ceremony. “This interchange of gifts typifies for them the most sacred bond of union, sanctified by mystic rites under the favor of the presiding deities of wedlock” (Tacitus, p. 116). The ancestral sword signifies the traditions of the family and the continuation of the bloodline, while the sword given to me by my bride symbolized the transfer of her father’s power of guardianship and protection over the bride to me, her new husband (Courtship, Love and Marriage in Viking Scandinavia). Following the exchange of swords, my bride and I will exchange finger rings (Williams, p. 98). I will offer my bride her ring on the hilt of my new sword, and she will present my ring in the same fashion: this juxtaposition of sword and rings further “emphasizes the sacredness of the compact between man and wife and the binding nature of the oath which they take together, so that the sword is not a threat to the woman only, but to either should the oath be broken” (Ellis-Davidson, Sword at the Wedding, p. 95). With the rings upon our hands, and our hands joined upon the sword-hilt, we will then speak our vows. This will conclude the wedding ceremony, but there is still more yet to come.
After the conclusion of the wedding ceremony will come the bruÃ°-hlaup or “bride-running,” which may be connected with the bruÃ° gumareid or “bride-groom’s-ride” (Williams, p. 97), a race by the parties of my bride and myself to the hall for the wedding feast. Whichever group arrived last at the hall had to serve the ale that night to the members of the other party. Of course, my party is mounted for the “bride-groom’s-ride,” so it is a foregone conclusion that we will win the contest. What will happen next is something steeped in tradition and superstition. When my bride arrives at the feast hall I will block her way and have my bared sword laid across the threshold. This ensures that I lead my new bride into the hall and that she would not stumble over the threshold. It is of great importance that my bride should not fall as she passes the door, for that would be an omen of extreme misfortune (Courtship, Love and Marriage in Viking Scandinavia).
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