Some Viking Age amulets and their symbolism
„A Viking-Age person would no more claim to ‘believe in’ the Norse gods and other similar beings than they would ‘believe in’ a mountain or the sea. These things were self-evident, a matter rather of knowledge, with no distinction between the physical and the spiritual.“
(Price 2013: 166)
I have been dealing with protective items and pendants from the Viking Age for a long time and I try to draw attention to their misuse in the current reenactment. Most male reenactors, for example, only use hammer pendants, which are not made according to the originals and to which they attribute different meanings – in most cases it is a symbol of belonging to a certain subculture (metal, Ásatrú, historical reenactment), in other cases it is a personal talisman (masculine strength, an ancestral legacy or the aesthetic quality of the hammer as a piece of jewellery). At the same time, modern research has shown that the number of hammer amulets in graves is 28% : 72% in favor of female graves (Jensen 2010: 107) and that hammers played the role of a wedding symbol bringing fertility in bed, or a symbol of health, happiness and prosperous offspring, until the Modern age (Boudová 2012: 34–37; Elgqvist 1934). This contrast nicely illustrate the basic problem associated with amulets and talismans – namely, the fact that we look at artifacts through the lens of today’s man and that at first glance we see only a preserved material culture, whose spiritual background pass unnoticed without a deeper analysis. This is why we agree with Leszek Gardeła when he writes the following in his book on amulets: „As much as all this [historical festivals and reenactment in general] is exciting, at the same time the current public and academic ‘obsession’ with the Vikings may (and does) give rise to a range of problems and controversies that could ultimately lead to dramatically distorting our perception of the past“ (Gardeła 2014: 18).
At the outset, we must say that this topic is fraught with many problems. For example, it is very difficult to define what can actually be described as an amulet or a talisman. We will probably not be far from the truth if we say that it is such an object that, despite all the decoration, was „created specifically for a magical purpose, and that can be worn on a person“ (Zeiten 1997: 5). Although objects that could be amulets are mostly found in funerary equipment (graves: 650, treasures: 217, settlement finds: 296, random finds: 196; see Jensen 2010: 94–138), in the vast majority of cases nothing can be said to the relationship between the owner and the object and the manner in which the object was worn. An interesting finding could be the fact that female graves contain almost four times more amulets than male graves (149 : 36; Jensen 2010: 107) and that the most common methods of wearing could be hanging around the neck (alone or as part of a necklace), carrying in a bag, hanging on a belt or sewn onto a textile or between two pieces of textile (Jensen 2010: 5). Another problem is that our term „amulet/talisman“ does not describe Viking Age magical objects accurately enough – „‘amulet’ might not be the best term for the Viking Age miniature symbols, yet it is the term established in tradition and no better term springs to mind“ (Jensen 2010 : 8).
Leszek Gardeła, who wrote probably one of the most comprehensive books on Viking Age amulets (Scandinavian Amulets in Viking Age Poland, 2014), defines a total of 21 types of Scandinavian amulets – miniatures (pp. 54–55):
- Anthropomorphic figures and body parts (arms, legs)
- Amulets of natural origin (fossils, teeth, stones, bones, claws, herbs)
- Clay bear paws
- Runic plates
- Stone Age axe heads
- Þórr’s hammer pendants
- Þórr’s hammer rings
In this post, I would like to focus in more detail on anthropomorphic figures, specifically three-dimensional male figures, mainly because of their importance, which is indicated by the concordance of archaeological finds and literary references. I believe that the reason for owning amulets can be most vividly shown on this type of magical objects.
In the archaeological material, such miniature statuettes or ‘idols’ are somewhat rare and are mistakable with game pieces or weights (Jensen 2010: 9; Perkins 2001: 89). There has long been speculation about their cultic function. We can define different types and materials. I would like to focus on those statuettes that show the most obvious resemblance with written sources, which includes most three-dimensional male figures.
Four figurines (Baldursheimur, Chernihiv, Eyrarland and Lund) that share very similar attributes have been convincingly interpreted as statuettes of the god Þórr (see Perkins 2001: 101–127). The fact that these are not just anonymous figures is evidenced by the typical features associated with Þórr and his described depiction (a powerful beard, a throne, prominent round eyes, a wide belt or a held or carved hammer on the back of one of the figurines). A figurine from Rällinge, Sweden, has been interpreted as a statuette of the fertility god Freyr, particularly because of his erect phallus (Perkins 2001: 97). Similarly, a one-eyed figurine from Lindby, Sweden, is referred to as a statuette of the god Óðinn (Perkins 2001: 100). The height of all six statuettes varies between 3.5–7 cm and the weight up to 150 grams (Perkins 2001: 125). You can see the list of figurines here.
In Old Norse sources, these figurines are named as hlutir or heillir. Before a deeper analysis, let’s see how they are described:
„Then the king took the good scales he possessed. They were made of pure silver and were all gilded. They also included two weights, one of gold, one of silver. Both weights had human form and were called hlutir, and they were indeed things that people wanted to possess.“
(Jómsvíkinga saga, ch. 31)
„Ingimundr did not feel at home anywhere, so King Haraldr forced him to sail to Iceland to seek his fortune. Ingimundr replied that this was not exactly what he wished, and sent two Finns in animal form to Iceland to find his hlutr, which was Freyr made of silver. The Finns returned and said they had found the hlutr but could not seize it […].“
(Landnámabók, ch. 179 [version S])
„One day it happened that the king asked where Hallfreðr was. Kálfr replied: ‘Apparently he still adheres to his custom of secretly sacrificing, and carries an effigy of Þórr made of a [walrus] tusk in his bag. You trust him so much, sir, and you still haven’t checked him.’ The king had Hallfreðr called to answer the question, and Hallfreðr came. The king asked him: ‘Is it true what is said about you that you carry Þórr’s effigy in your bag and make sacrifices?’ ‘It is not true, sir,’ replied Hallfreðr, ‘search my bag. Even if I had wanted to, I could not have carried out any ruse, for I had no idea of this charge.’ No such thing [hlutr] that would resemble Kálfr’s description was found in his possessions.“
(Hallfreðar saga vandræðaskálds, ch. 6 [Möðruvallabók version])
From a cursory reading, we can learn that the object called a hlutr belonged to personal property, was similar to a weight, had a human-like appearance, and was apparently very popular. It was made of different materials (silver, walrus) and could be kept in a bag (púss) or a wallet/pouch (pungr). The fact that the mentioned hlutir have the form of the gods Þórr and Freyr allows us to safely connect the archaeologically evidenced figurines with literary records.
This brings us to the question of what relation the Old Norse people had to the gods. The Old Norse understandably believed in the existence of an entire divine pantheon, yet they had their “trusted“ individuals (from trúa; literally „to believe“). Hrafnkell from Hrafnkels saga freysgoða is a good example: he „loved no other god but Freyr“ (ch. 2). Most likely, every averagely religious individual or family had such a divine patron, although the range of approaches to faith was apparently wider and bordered on obsession/devotion (e.g. berserkir, vǫlur) on the one hand and atheism on the other, as evidenced by Landnámabók, ch. 12 [version S]: „There lived a man named Hallr the Godless, and he was the son of Helgi the Godless. Father and son believed in their own strength and refused to hold sacrifices.“
The most common words used to designate a patron are fulltrúi („confidant“), vinr („friend“) or ástvinr („dearest friend“). A closer reading of the sagas reveals that the most popular patrons were Þórr, Freyr and Óðinn, a triad also depicted in the Uppsala shrine according to Adam of Bremen (Book IV, Ch. XXVI). While Þórr and Freyr are mentioned as patrons of the broad masses (common people, landowners and sailors) and sanctuaries were built for them (and gods were supposed to protect them), Óðinn may have been more of a patron of the elites, warriors and the less numerous intelligentsia (e.g. poets). The popularity of this triad, especially Þórr, is also evidenced by known proper names – e.g. Þorsteinn, Freyviðr and Óðindísa – or the frequency of hammer amulets. The attempt to ensure good luck for a child by giving a name containing the name Þórr was common in Scandinavia even after the Viking Age, as is evident in case the 12th century Icelandic bishop and saint Þorlákr Þórhallsson.
To understand the broader context, we can look at how the Old Norse people reported on their relationship with their patrons. First I choose the case of the so-called „throne columns“ (ǫndvegissúlur / setstokkar), which were carved columns standing closest to the seats of honour in the halls. I strongly believe that owning and handling these pillars can best be compared to owning three-dimensional figures.
Hrólfr Ǫrnólfsson of Eyrbyggja saga (esp. ch. 3 and 4) was so ardent a lover of Þórr and guardian of his shrine that he took the name Þórólfr Mostrarskegg, and when he later went to Iceland: „he threw overboard the posts of his throne that stood in the sanctuary. One of them was carved with Þórr. Þórólfr said that he would settle in Iceland wherever Þórr wanted to reach the land.” In another (and older) version of the same story from Landnámabók (ch. 85 [version S]), Þórólfr Mostrarskegg is „the great sacrificer” (blótmaðr mikill) who „trusted in Þórr“ (trúði á Þór) and who „invited Þórr to reach the land where he wanted Þórólfr to settle, and promised to dedicate his whole land to Þórr and name it after him.“ Þórólfr’s case must not be taken as an isolated one, as Landnámabók explicitly mentions five other crews who performed the same seizing ritual (Ingólfr Árnason, Loðmundr the Old, Þórðr Hrappsson, Hrollaugr Rǫgnvaldarson, Hásteinn Atlason), while in one other case we learn that the settler refused to perform this ritual (Hreiðarr Ófeigsson). The same ritual is also mentioned twice in Laxdæla saga (siblings Bjǫrn Ketilsson and Auðr Ketilsdóttir). From these references, it is obvious that the column with the carved image was not just a passive piece of wood in the Old Norse worldview, but a materialization of god through which god could act. It is Þórr who, together with fate, chooses a new place for his ward.
The same can be seen in the case of Ingimundr’s hlutr of Freyr, which tells its owner where to settle (Vatnsdæla saga, ch. 12): „Freyr seems to want to take his hlutr where he wishes to have a place of honour built for him.” From the excerpts there is clear a communication, or rather an agreement with the god – in a time when there were no written contracts, an oral agreement / promise was a sacred guarantee. Þórólfr entrusts himself to Þórr’s protection, and keeps his part of the agreement: after landing on land, he took the nearest cape, he named it Þórsnes, held a great assembly on it, named the nearest river Þórsár, and built a great shrine in which he placed sacred columns and in which he held sacrifices. The assembly-place and the adjacent hill of Helgafell were said to be places so sacred that calls of nature were prohibited there, blood was not to be spilled on them, and they were not to be looked upon unless one was washed.
Moreover, in Landnámabók (ch. 371 [version S]), we read that throwing the columns overboard was an „old custom“ (forn siðr); and far more important, I believe, is the mention of Ingólfr, who „threw overboard his throne-columns for good luck [til heilla]“ (ch. 8 [version S]). It seems likely that the throwing of the pillars overboard was carried out by the more prosperous settlers, who in several cases organized the spiritual life in their original regions, managed the shrines and intended to perform the same function in the new homeland; see Þórhaddr the Old (Landnámabók, ch. 297 [version S]), who was „a priest [hofgoði] in the shrine in Mæri in Þrándheimr. He wanted to sail to Iceland and before sailing he tore down the shrine and took the soil and pillars from the shrine with him. And when he reached Stǫdvarfjord, he imposed the ‘sanctity of Mæri’ [Mærina-helgi] on the whole fjord and did not allow a single cattle to be slaughtered there, even if it was a domestic one.” For those interested in a more detailed view of Icelandic settlement rituals, I refer to Słupecki (1996).
As another example, I chose the plea of Þorkell the High from Víga-Glúms saga (ch. 9): „And before Þorkell departed from Þverá, he went to Freyr’s shrine and brought an old ox to it and said: ‘Freyr has long been my confidant [fulltrúi], he received many gifts from me and repaid them superbly, and so I now give you this ox in order that Glúmr may leave Þverárland involuntarily, as I did. And show a sign whether you have accepted it or not.’ Then he struck the ox so hard that it bellowed and fell dead, which he considered a sign of good reception.“ In this passage it is more apparent that the friendly agreement between man and god is based on the exchange of gifts. Þorkell and his confidant Freyr have a strong and long-lasting friendship, which they strengthen in the traditional Old Norse way (Hávamál 41-42, 44):
„With presents friends should please each other,
With a shield or a costly coat:
Mutual giving makes for friendship
So long as life goes well.
A man should be loyal through life to friends,
And return gift for gift,
Laugh when they laugh, but with lies repay
A false foe who lies.
If you find a friend you fully trust
And wish for his good-will,
exchange thoughts, exchange gifts,
Go often to his house.“
Friendship with Óðinn is described in 10th century poem Sonatorrek (stanzas 22-24) by Egill Skallagrímsson. Egill tries to come to terms with the death of his sons, which he blames on Óðinn, and is finally comforted by the realization that he has received from his patron both a poetic mind and a brave mind, gifts of immense value: „I had good relations with the lord of the spear, I had confidence in him, until the friend of carriages, lord of victory, broke off friendship with me. I do not sacrifice to the brother of Vili, the protector of the gods, because I am keen to; nevertheless, Mímr’s friend has, if I consider the better side of it granted me recompense for my ills. The enemy of the wolf, the experienced fighter, gave me a faultless art, and the mind which enabled me to make shifty cowards of obvious enemies.“
The example of Þorkell from the previous example is strikingly reminiscent of the account left by the Arab traveler ibn Faldan of Rus rowers sacrificing in a busy trading post (Risala, § 85):
„The moment their boats reach this dock every one of them disembarks, carrying bread, meat, onions, milk and alcohol, and goes to a tall piece of wood set up. This piece of wood has a face like the face of a man and is surrounded by small figurines behind which are long pieces of wood set up in the ground. When he reaches the large figure, he prostrates himself before it and says, ‚Lord, I have come from a distant land, bringing so many slave-girls priced at such and such per head and so many sables priced at such and such per pelt.’ He continues until he has mentioned all of the merchandise he has brought with him, then says, ‚And I have brought this offering,’ leaving what he has brought with him in front of the piece of wood, saying, ‚I wish you to provide me with a merchant who has many dinars and dirhams and who will buy from me whatever I want to sell without haggling over the price I fix.’ Then he departs. If he has difficulty in selling his goods and he has to remain too many days, he returns with a second and third offering. If his wishes prove to be impossible he brings an offering to every single one of those figurines and seeks its intercession, saying, ‚These are the wives, daughters and sons of our Lord.’ He goes up to each figurine in turn and questions it, begging its intercession and grovelling before it. Sometimes business is good and he makes a quick sell, at which point he will say, ‚My Lord has satisfied my request, so I am required to recompense him.’ He procures a number of sheep or cows and slaughters them, donating a portion of the meat to charity and taking the rest and casting it before the large piece of wood and the small ones around it. He ties the heads of the cows or the sheep to that piece of wood set up in the ground. At night, the dogs come and eat it all, but the man who has done all this will say, ‚My Lord is pleased with me and has eaten my offering.’“
Similar ritual practices – feasts and hanging animals on stakes or trees – are also described in other sources. I choose only two of them:
„It was an old custom that when all the householders had made a sacrifice, they would gather where the shrine stood and bring with them all the things they needed for the celebration. All the people brought beer with them for this celebration. All kinds of cattle and horses were slaughtered there. All spilled blood was called ‘hlaut’ and was collected in ‘hlaut bowls’ [hlautbollar]. ‘Hlaut rods’ [hlautteinar] were also made, which served as sprinklers and with which the entire altars, the outer and inner walls of the shrine and also the people were coloured. The meat was cooked for a feast for those present. In the center of the shrine, there was a fire on the floor, and cauldrons were hung above it. Cups were also hung over the fire, and the host of the feast, who was the chieftain, blessed the cups and all the sacrificial meat. The first toast was the cup consecrated to Óðinn and they toasted to the glory and power of the king, afterwards they drank from the cup consecrated to Njǫrðr and the cup consecrated to Frey and toasted to harvest and peace. Then, according to custom, many people drank the ‘best cup’ [bragafull]. Guests also later drank from cups for their deceased friends, and such a cup was called a memorial cup.“ (Hákonar saga góða, ch. 16)
„Al-Ṭarṭûshi related that they had a feast in which they all gather to glorify their deity, to eat and to drink. If someone slaughters a sacrifice he erects a post in the door of his hourse and puts the sacrifice on it whether it was a cow, a ram, a billy-goat or a swine in order to let the people know that he has sacrificed it in glorification of his deity.“
(al-Qazwini: Athar al-bilad; ed. Samarra´i 1959: 191)
An intimate relationship between man and god emerges from all these references, which is based on trust and help. Three-dimensional figurines are a material manifestation of this relationship. It can be assumed that the statuettes had some function in sacrifice, for example they could be dipped in blood or offerings were brought to them. An Old Norse man could thus be sure that he still had his intimate friend close by and could contact him at any time. Significantly, both the hlutir and throne pillars are associated with the pronoun his or her, which is just further evidence that these objects were considered personal property. It is hard to imagine how serious the loss or destruction of such an intimate object, which could be the same as a mobile phone for a modern person, could have been.
The final remark I would like to outline in this article is the question of to what extent a sacrifice and friendship with god is related to luck and destiny. The Old Norse people were, at least the vast majority of them, pragmatic, and one cannot imagine them blindly worshiping a god that did not support them. A beautiful testimony can be the mention of a settler called Helgi the Lean (Landnámabók, ch. 218 [version S]), who „was very fickle in his faith: he believed in Christ, but when sailing at sea or in trouble he turned to Þórr. When Helgi saw Iceland, he questioned Þórr where he should take the land, and the answer ordered him to sail north round the land, and commanded him to turn neither west nor east.“ For an Old Norse man, an important criterion for choosing a god was that he supported his cause, that is, his happiness and destiny. Under luck and destiny, in this case, we have to imagine a combination of certainties and current wishes, for example, safety, health, financial security, favorable wind, banishing a certain person from the region, and the like.
In one of the previous excerpts, we could see that the settler threw the throne pillars overboard „for luck“ – in today’s language – for a good future. In the same way, we often find „the search for luck in Iceland“ in the Family sagas. In rare cases we find comparisons of Þórr and Christ, which measures the amount of luck the gods bring their believers; see Þórhallr from the Eiríks saga rauða (ch. 8): „Redbeard has now proved himself better than your Christ. I received this from him for a poem I composed about my confidant Þórr. He rarely disappointed me.“ In connection with Christ and the arrival of Christianity in Scandinavia, it must be said that Christ was often „ranked next to the old gods […]. People turned to him in times of sickness, wars and other worldly difficulties, but they did not accept baptism automatically. Christ was chosen as one of the possible fulltrúi, a powerful god, helping worldly welfare“ (Bednaříková 2009: 101).
In 2014, my friend and colleague Ondřej Vaverka gave a lecture „Terminology of individual’s, family’s and world’s Fate in selected Old Norse sources“ at the „Fate and Destiny in Old Norse Culture“ seminar, the result of which was that the Old Norse people had a large arsenal of expressions for fate, a large part of which is identical to the term „luck”. The terms hlutir and heillir, which were used for three-dimensional figurines, are included between them; and the fact that the literal translation could be „lots“ and „lucky charms“ could not be more surprising. I would also like to point out that the Czech word for luck (štěstí) takes on the meaning of an inner feeling of bliss and contentment, which is opposed to the Old Norse luck, which is external, related to a better future and can be brought about by your own doing. I believe that the Old Norse luck had a much more concrete form than modern abstract inner happiness. Let me demonstrate Old Norse luck and the relationship to a supportive god by quoting from probably the best of Viking fiction, The Long Ships by Bengtsson (Bengtsson 1985: 24, 90):
„‚But you seem to be a man whom Fortune smiles on, and it may be that you will bring us all into her good favour. We have already seen three manifestations of her love for you. Firstly, you slipped on the rocks as two spears were flying towards you; then Ale, whom you slew, has no kinsman or close comrade among us who is bound to avenge him; and thirdly, I did not kill you, because I wished to have an oarsman to replace him. Therefore I believe you to be a man of great good luck, who can thereby by of use to us […].’
‚I do not believe that any man can be certain just how powerful this or that god is, or how much he can do to help is. And I think we should be foolish to neglect one god for the sake of not offending some other. But one thing we know, that there is one god who has served us well on this enterprise; I mean St. James; for it is his bell that keeps our ship from turning turtle and, apart from this, it has helped the rowers to keep time. So let us not forget him.’ They agreeded that this was well spoken, and sacrificed meat and drink to Agir, Allah, and St. James, which put them in better heart.“
Summary and conclusion
At the beginning of the article, I showed that without a detailed survey of archaeological and written material, it is impossible to draw any conclusions about the wearing of amulets and their function. Then I mentioned all kinds of magical items that were used in Viking Age Scandinavia. We have specifically focused only on three-dimensional male figurines that have been convincingly interpreted as statues of the gods Þórr, Freyr and Óðinn, and which incidentally are valuable material for fashion, metalwork and art of the Viking Age. In light of the numerous written references to the description of the cult, I have shown that these figurines were considered pocket friends and were used to communicate with their patrons/friends. The content of this communication was considered confidential and took the form of a request+promise or gifts (in the form of offerings). On the other hand, we also know collective sacrifices associated with feasts, which had an important social role. However, friendship with god certainly did not only concern sacrifice, which we can observe in the sources as the deepest expression of friendship; I believe that even proper names containing the names of gods can refer to friendship or predestination to friendship.
The next and last point of this article was the statement that ritual action and friendship with god is largely related to the effort to secure a better future, which in the Old Norse environment is referred to as fate / luck. As one of the few tangible monuments, the figurines offer a great insight into Old Norse belief, the individual’s relationship with god, and portray the Old Norse people as pragmatic yet religious, friendly and generous traders on all levels, both physical and spiritual. „I see that this will happen to anyone who does not want to sacrifice,“ says Iceland’s first permanent settler Ingólfr Árnason, the great sacrificer and friend of his god, over the corpse of his forster-brother Hjǫrleifr, who „never wanted to sacrifice“ (Landnámabók, ch. 7, 8 [version S]). It is in this light, in my judgment, that we should perceive any surviving ritual action, including the wearing of certain amulets and other material remains.
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