This article is to discuss this reasonably common yet rarely recreated Viking Age item. So what exactly is a rangle? A rangle is a type of sliding rattle consisting of a large metal ring which has other smaller rings attached to it, it often has a socket or hasp by which a handle can be attached or a shaped hook on the end. When the rangle is shaken the smaller rings known as soundings clash together creating a jingling metallic sound. The number of soundings varies and on the more elaborate rangles there could be multiple rows of different sized soundings which would produce a different tone.
Finds and interpretations
Interestingly enough, we have no clear literary or pictorial evidence. Our only sources are actual archaeological finds. The rangle seems to be a Norwegian phenomenon with roughly 98% (249 examples) of the finds coming from (mainly eastern) Norway with others were located in Sweden and Finland. Of the 150 finds from graves there is a strong male bias with 92% of finds being attributed to male graves and only 8% to female (Petersen 1951: 55). Their design and size varies significantly.
The first and most widely accepted theory is based around the fact that the rangles seem to appear predominantly in elite graves where riding equipment is present (Petersen 1951: 43). This would seem to suggest some sort equine related use, possibly as sleigh bells on carts or sledges, making the ride of the noble person more impressive. Norwegian archaeomusicologist Casja Lund performed a successful experiment to validate this argument using the rattles on a replica of the Oseberg wagon (Lund 1974). We can find many historical and ethnographic parallels.
The second view is that the rangles (as well as bells) use was in ritual, ceremony or shamanism. This school of thought seems to be based heavily on the rangles found in the Oseberg burial, because those are atypically decorated with dragon heads inlayed with precious metal. Moreover, the mound of Oseberg is contained several other objects that are associated with seiðr and seeresses, for example a wooden staff or wand, and cannabis seeds in a purse.
Scholars often propose the suggestion that the rattle was used to frighten or ward off evil spirits. This idea is also supported by Saxo Grammaticus and his Gesta Danorum (early 1200s), where he connects jingling or rattling with the worship of Freyr:
“He went into the land of the Swedes, where he lived at leisure for seven years’ space with the sons of Frey. At last he left them and betook himself to Hakon, the tyrant of Denmark, because when stationed at Uppsala, at the time of the sacrifices, he was disgusted by the effeminate gestures and the clapping of the mimes on the stage, and by the unmanly clatter of the bells.” (Traslated by O. Elton)
Based on this message, Terry Gunnell came with the theory that rangles could be used during leikar, the costumed ceremonies connected to the cult feasts (Gunnel 1995: 78-79). Julie Lund thinks that this powerful tool was included to the liminal phase of the funeral, similarly to medieval bells (Lund 2006: 335).
The third possible use for the rangle was as a musical instrument. Apart from the Grammaticus quote above, there are modern day folk instruments, such as the lagerphone, which could be used in a similar fashion by tapping out a rhythm and causing the soundings to jingle.
I first encountered the rangle when doing some research into Viking Age music and instruments, which are quite underrepresented in my local reenactment scene. The item in question did not resemble anything I had ever seen in a reenactment context and I was curious if it could be the ‘clattering bells’ described by Grammaticus. Some quick research revealed some debate about the use of these rangles and I thought that a recreation may help me form an opinion if the rangle could be used as a musical instrument or if it was more suited to one of the other proposed uses.
While searching for more information to commence my reproduction I was lucky enough to come across a toolmaker who was already producing the metalwork component. Dennis Riley from Daegrad tools in the UK makes some fantastic replica items and always provides the find details along with the item.
I ordered the replica of the find from Torshov from Daegrad and once it arrived I decided to mount it on a smaller handle. I used some oak dowel I had lying about and carved a simple spiral serpent into it to assist with grip. I was unable to find any record of a surviving handle so my handle was pure conjecture but given some of the finds are from high status graves and feature elaborate decoration on the heads my modest handle decoration did not seem overboard. With a now complete rangle there was only one thing left to do and that was try it out.
Questions and answers
A surprising part about the reconstruction is that it has been a source of curiosity and speculation to everyone who sees the rangle. It’s constantly being picked up and swung around by people testing the best way to make it jingle and clatter.
Reenactors of many years experience will express surprise that they have never even heard of such a thing and then be found passing it back and forward while debating the possible uses. Seeing that engagement and spark of curiosity has been one of the most rewarding parts of this simple project.
So to premise one, the rangle as a musical instrument?
Plausible but unlikely as a solo instrument. Although it could have been used as a percussion accompaniment, it’s sound is very raucous and not at all pleasing to the ear. Some modern musicians such as the group Eldrim have used rattles in attempts to recreate Viking music.
Premise two, the rangle as a ritual item?
Plausible. The rangle bears some resemblance to the wands used by vǫlur and the loud rattling could have been used in ritual as suggested to frighten or ward off evil spirits. Moreover, The Book of the Settlement (Landnámabók) mentions a man called Loðmundr gamli that performed sorcery, using his stick with a ring. Another possible ritual use could simply be to gain attention, such as a leader using it to call for silence before speaking.
Premise three, the rangle as an equine accessory?
Probable. As experts have pointed out the frequency of the rangle being discovered in graves with horse related goods is too high to discount. And while I am yet to test it on horseback I did find that if held over the shoulder while walking it gets a nice rhythmic clinking in time with your step.
Saxo Grammaticus, The Danish History of Saxo Grammaticus, translated by Oliver Elton, 1905. London: Forgotten Books, 2008.
Gunnell, Terry (1995). The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia. Cambridge: D. S. Brewer.
Lund, Cajsa (1974). Paa rangel 1974. In: Stavanger museums årbok, Stavanger, pp. 45-120.
Lund, Cajsa (1981). The archaeomusicology of Scandinavia, World Archaeology, 12:3, pp. 246-265.
Lund, Julie (2006). Vikingetidens værktøjskister i landskab og mytologi. In: Fornvännen 101, Stockholm, pp. 323-341.
Petersen, Jan (1951). Vikingetidens redskaper. Skrifter utgitt av Det Norske videnskapsakademi i Oslo 2, Oslo.