Gift-Giving in the Medieval North
Gather around, friends; the fire is still warm and lively! One night, a fair bit ago now, a raven flew into my hall bearing an interesting question from an anonymous wanderer. It has particular relevance to this gift-giving season (Jól (Yule/Christmas) for some), which is quickly approaching us. Allow me to share the question with you all, if I may. It said:
“I was talking to a friend about gift-giving practices in Norse societies. I thought you’d have a more eloquent way of explaining the basics? And I’d love to hear what you think are the basic need-to-know’s about give-giving and reciprocity in ancient heathenistic societies. :)”
I am sure that everyone in the hall this evening can agree that this question is indeed a worthy one! Considering that gifts will soon be exchanged by many folk, it is high time that I got around to answering this anonymous wanderer’s request, já?
A NOTE OF CAUTION
Most of my knowledge about gift-giving in the Medieval North comes from Iceland, so I must admit that my discussion about this topic will heavily rely on sources written specifically about medieval Icelandic society. Do not fret, though! It is within reason to say that life in Iceland was not too drastically different from life in Scandinavia during this time (c.900-1300), at least in regards to cultural and social traditions. Such things have rather deep roots, after all. Yet, it is always good to remember the place and context of our sources. Most of the sources that I have mentioned throughout our discussion have their origins in Iceland from around the thirteenth century (1200-1299). That’s quite late, especially when many folk are thinking of the Viking Age (c.793-1066)! While these sources then provide far more insight regarding Icelandic society around the thirteenth century, they are still able to paint a relative picture of how Norse societies generally functioned before (and even after) this time period. This must be done with caution though, so do your best not to let the information discussed in the hall this evening wander too far from my warnings! Always be weary of the knowledge that you acquire, as well as how it was gathered.
THE SOCIAL WEB OF GIFT-GIVING
One thing that will quickly be noticed is that our sources frequently give precedence to gift-giving practices between chieftains (goðar) and well-to-do farmers (bœndr).1 This social class is the primary subject of many family sagas, which are prose narratives written around the thirteenth century, but set in the Saga Age (c.930-1030), about prominent Icelandic families. These sources often act as our dominant window into the Norse world, so it is important to understand their complexities. As scholars such as Jesse L. Byock and William Ian Miller have demonstrated, these sagas reflect genuine Icelandic (and, more broadly, Norse) social practices. Therefore, while their accuracy of their setting (the Saga Age) may be questionable, the social and cultural norms they illustrate are worth paying attention to. But enough of my technical rambling! Allow me to share some positive examples of gift-giving from Njáls saga (c.1280), which I will follow-up with some insights:
There was a man named Gunnar who was from Iceland. He was a great warrior and none were his equal. One summer he went abroad and fought against other Vikings in the Baltic. He and his companions, Kolskegg and Hallvard, had great success on this journey, and sailed away from the Baltic with many treasures. They headed for Hedeby in Denmark to meet with King Harald Gormsson, Harald Bluetooth’s father. When he arrived, the king welcomed him warmly and gave him a seat next to his own, which was a tremendous honor to give.
The king spoke to Gunnar: ‘It appears to me that your equal is not to be found far or near.”
The king offered to give him a wife and large holdings if he would settle down there. Gunnar thanked the king but said that first he wanted to return to Iceland to see his kinsmen and friends.
“Then you will never come back to us,” said the king (surely with a saddened tone).
“Fate must decide that, my lord,” said Gunnar.
Gunnar gave the king a good longship and many other valuables. The king gave him stately garments of his own, leather gloves embroidered with gold, a gold-studded headband, and a Russian hat.
Following this, Gunnar sailed north to Hrising, and then to Trondheim, where he intended to meet with Jarl Hakon of Norway. Jarl Hakon received him well and invited Gunnar to spend the winter with him; Gunnar accepted. He had the respect of everybody there. At Yule the jarl gave him a gold bracelet.
In the spring, Gunnar made his way back to Iceland. But before leaving, the jarl offered him as much flour and timber as he wanted — despite the fact that supplies were low that year. Gunnar thanked him and set off for Iceland, arriving there early in the summer. Gunnar then rode home, but soon after went to see his good friend Njal. They discussed Gunnar’s travels and Njal gave him warnings, for Gunnar’s new wealth would bring jealousy. Upon leaving Njal’s home, Gunnar gave him good gifts and thanked him for looking after his property while he was away.2
Even in this short passage from Njáls saga, several examples of gift-giving are mentioned. But the most important thing to mention here is that gift-giving always occurred within the context of building and solidifying social relations.3 Gunnar, who caught the eye of King Harald, was offered gifts by the king, who wanted him to stay in Denmark and enter into his service. The king’s gifts to Gunnar reflected a desire to better their social relationship with one another. While the king hoped to win over Gunnar, or perhaps make him feel obligated to enter his service, Gunnar turned him down.
Yet, one could argue that he was only able to do this because he offered the king gifts in return. This was another important aspect about gift-giving in the Norse world, that a gift was meant to be repaid, whether through more gifts or through social obligations.4 Both King Harald and Jarl Hakon would expect Gunnar to serve them in the future, if he were to sail abroad to their lands again. Jarl Hakon’s Yule-gift to Gunnar, after all, was in similar spirit as King Harald’s offers: to establish a positive social relationship.
Gifts could be given when social relations were already well-established, of course. When Gunnar returns to Iceland, he quickly makes his way to his best friend’s home, who, as we learned, watched his property for him while he was away. Njal also encouraged him to go abroad when Hallvard came to Iceland and urged Gunnar to join him in raiding.5 Thus, Gunnar offered Njal gifts to repay the favors that Njal had done for him: good advice, protecting his property, and continued friendship.
GIFT-GIVING AT FEASTS
But we cannot leave out the importance of gift-giving at social gatherings! While this type of gift exchange was closely related to that which we have already talked about together (i.e. gifts steeped with social context), we have yet to see how gifts are exchanged at larger scales. It was not infrequent for households to hold feasts in their halls and invites friends, kin, and neighbors to join them. In the Norse world, however, it was expected that the host would give their guests gifts as they left. These norms are expressed in Hávamál, an Eddic poem about social wisdom, magic, and Odin.6 But, to illustrate this norm in a narrative form, allow me to share another passage from Njáls saga:
There was a man named Hoskuld who was the foster-son of Njal. One day he invited Njal’s sons over for a feast, along with many other guests from the neighborhood. Everyone whom he had invited came to the feast, and it went very well. When people were ready to go home, Hoskuld chose good gifts for them and went along with the Njalssons on their way. The Sigfussons and all the others accompanied him. Both sides said that no one would ever come between them.7
This custom is mentioned several times in Njáls saga alone, as well as in several other sagas. Not much detail tends to be given though, likely because most folk listening to the saga were already familiar with such festivities. While this is indeed a woe for historians and curious readers, time need not be wasted on such things for them! To give more examples may run the risk of redundancy, but there is one from Laxdœla saga regarding Christmas that may be of particular interest to some folk in the hall this evening:
There was a man named Thorkel Eyjolfsson who became a leader of prominence in Iceland. After a summer spent in Norway, he returned to Iceland with a great deal of honor. Thorkel spent the following winter at home on his farm. He held a Christmas feast at Helgafell attended by a great number of people. Everything he did that winter was done extravagantly, with no opposition from Gudrun, who said that wealth was well spent if people gained esteem as a result, and anything Gudrun needed in order to have things in grand style was made available. That winter Thorkel gave gifts to his friends and many valuable objects he had brought with him from abroad.8
While it is true that our anonymous wanderer sought insight to how heathens gave gifts to one another, this example of converted Icelanders celebrating Christmas still holds some value for such ends! As we have spoken of to great lengths already, traditions and norms regarding the exchanging of gifts in the Norse world had rather deep roots (socially and culturally). Even after converting, these traditions did not change drastically. Feasts held for Christmas (ON jól) were likely much like those once held for Yule (ON jól), even the Old Norse word for such a holiday remained unchanged as conversion took place.9
GIFT-GIVING AT YULE
When Yule came around, a Yule-feast (jólaboð) was held, which included Yule-drinking (jóladrykkja), perhaps even the drinking of Yule-ale (jólaǫl), and the exchanging of Yule-gifts (jólagjafar).10 A wonderful example of gift-exchanges during Yule comes from Egils saga, which I will now retell below:
There was a man named Arinbjorn who was a close friend of Egil’s. One year he held a great Yule feast to which he invited his friends and neighbors from the district. It was splendid and well attended. He gave Egil a customary Yuletide gift, a silk gown with ornate gold embroidery and gold buttons all the way down the front, which was cut especially to fit Egil’s frame. He also gave him a complete set of cloths, cut from English cloth in many colors. Arinbjorn gave all manner of tokens of friendship at Yuletide to the people who visited him, since he was exceptionally generous and firm of character.
Then Egil made a verse:
From kindness alone
that noble man gave the poet
a silk gown with gold buttons;
I will never have a better friend.
Selfless Arinbjorn has earned
the stature of a king
— or more. A long time will pass
Before his like is born again.11
EXCHANGING THE GIFTS OF FEUD
Not all gift-giving was positive, though. While gifts were often used to promote new social relations and maintain old ones, as well as to satisfy guests and celebrate the holidays, gifts often had a broader scope in the Norse world. The gifts exchanged in feud, disputes between prominent families, were not in the form of goods from abroad or gifts from kings, but rather they were gifts of slander and blood. Consider this passage from Njáls saga:
After a feast gone wrong, Hallgerd, Gunnar’s troublesome wife, called Njal “Old Beardless” and his sons “Dung-beardlings.” These are grave insults for men to have received in the Norse world. News quickly spread of this slander, and when Bergthora, Njal’s wife, learned about this, she had this to say to her sons:
“Gifts have been given to you all, father and sons, and you’re not real men unless you repay them.“
“What gifts are these?” said Skarphedin, one of Njal’s sons.
“You, my sons, have all received the same gift: you have been called ‘Dung-beardlings,’ and my husband has been called ‘Old Beardless.'”
She then encourages them to act accordingly, and that night they left the farmstead with weapons and shields in their hands.12
As one can tell from this example, medieval Icelanders spoke about gifts not only in terms of goods exchanged, but also in terms of insults and offenses. These ‘gifts’ were much like those mentioned earlier: they had social implications and demanded repayment. Yet, a gift of slander is to be repaid in a similar fashion. So, what was their gift in return? They took the life of a man named Sigmund, who composed verses with these slanderous names at Hallgerd’s encouragement.13 Thus, the concept of gifts in the Norse world was not restricted to material goods exchanged between friends or social partners, gift-giving was also an intricate part of the larger game of honor and feud.14
GIFT-GIVING IN THE OLD LORE
To further illustrate just how imbedded gift-giving norms were in the Norse world, let’s consider some mythical examples involving the god Odin. As I mentioned briefly before, the Hávamál has much to say about host-guest traditions in the Norse world, and it is a poem ‘attributed’ to the High One, also known as Odin. Yet, his role in symbolizing gift-giving norms is highlighted through his interactions with great heroes, such as King Hrolf Kraki, Sigmund Volsungason, and Sigurd Fafnisbani. In these examples, Odin offers these heroes gifts that hold the promise of victory in battle. If they accept his gifts, they will be granted victory, but not indefinitely. He often offers these gifts in disguise, however, which tests the recipient. Odin performs the social expectations of a good host by offering gifts, but will the hero, as his guest, respond appropriately? Let’s see if King Hrolf Kraki can pass Odin’s gift-giving test:
King Hrolf and his men were riding one day when night was soon upon them. As the sun retreated from them, they came across a farm. When they went to the door for shelter, a farmer by the name of Hrani opened the door; they had run into him before. Hrani welcomed them in, and, performing wonderfully as a gracious host, he provided them with full hospitality. Before long, Hrani offered them gifts (as we saw with feasts in the sagas recalled above):
“Here, I want to give you these weapons,” said the farmer.
The king replied, “These are hideous weapons, farmer.” There was a shield, a sword, and a coat of mail, but King Hrolf refused to accept the equipment. Hrani’s mood quickly changed. He nearly lost his temper, thinking that he had been shown dishonor.
Hrani said, “You, King Hrolf, are not acting as cleverly as you think, and you are not always as wise as you might assume.” The farmer was much offended.
Now there was no staying the night and, even though it was dark outside, they prepared to ride away. Hrani’s face showed only displeasure; he thought himself poorly valued. The king had refused to accept his gifts, and he did nothing to hinder their leaving if that would please them. King Hrolf and his company rode out and, as matters stood, there were no farewells.
When they had not gone very far, Bodvar halted and said, “Good sense comes late to fools, and so it comes to me now. I suspect that we have not behaved very wisely in rejecting what we should have accepted. We may have denied ourselves victory.”
King Hrolf answered, “I suspect the same, because that must have been Odin the Old. Certainly the man had but one eye.”15
It was too late to reverse their offense; their victory was denied. What is important to make note of here, though, is that this mythological scene reveals much about Norse customs. As we saw before, hosts often gave their guests gifts, but little was said before about guests rejecting such gifts. Here we see this unfold, and the guests’ refusal of the host’s gifts results in a grave offense being made. This matter was made worse by the fact that Hrani was actually Odin. Nonetheless, it still reflects genuine social norms.
There are a few other examples of Odin’s gift-giving in Völsunga saga, but I suspect that I have rambled on far longer than I was requested to. After all, our anonymous wanderer asked for the basics of gift-giving, did they not? Let’s not get too carried away then, já? Allow me to summarize what has been said about Norse gift-giving practices for all the folk in the hall this evening:
- Our sources for gift-giving practices frequently give precedence to chieftains (goðar) and well-to-do farmers (bœndr), as well as kings abroad (especially Norway).
- For those people, gift-giving always occurred within the context of building and solidifying social relations (kings to heroes, friends to friends, kin to kin — usually occurring between people of relatively similar social status).
- A gift was meant to be repaid, whether through more gifts or through social obligations.
- At feasts and social gatherings, hosts would give gifts to their guests (this was expected social behavior; if a gift was not given, the guest would be insulted).
- Gifts were often exchanged during Yuletide at special feasts called jólaboð. This could occur between close friends or even to the local community.
- Gift-giving was also an intricate part of the larger game of honor and feud (an insult or injury was considered a gift, and was expected to be repaid as such).
- If a guest refuses the gifts of their host, the host will be insulted (just as a guest would be if the host does not offer them a gift).
- Odin is deeply connected with gift-giving, especially in regards to the guest-host relationship.
There is certainly more that could be said about gift-giving in the Norse world, such as the examples from the grágás of laws dictating that gifts were to be given to those who were less fortunate.16 But if I were to include everything, I wouldn’t be giving our wanderer the basics, would I? Thus, the bullet points above are my own selected basics of Norse gift-giving that folk gathered here tonight should be aware of. Yet, I should say that there is much more to learn by reading the sagas for yourself! As always, I highly encourage you all to delve into those fascinating tales from the days of old! They are all truly quite wondrous. But, for now, let’s return to drink and merriment, shall we? I hope that my stories have provided you with some wisdom and pleasure, but festivities await, so let’s not dwell!
— Fjorn the Skald
- For more on goðar and bœndr, see William Ian Miller, “Chieftains and Thingmen,” in Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 22-26.
- To read this passage in earnest, without summarization and reinterpretation, see Robert Cook trans., Njal’s Saga (London: Penguin, 2001), 48-52 (chapters 30-32).
- Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, 82.
- Cook trans., Njal’s Saga, 46 (chapter 28).
- To read this poem, see Carolyne Larrington trans., The Poetic Edda (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 13-35.
- Cook trans., Njal’s Saga, 185 (chapter 109).
- Retold and quoted from Keneva Kunz trans., The Saga of the People of Laxardal and Bolli Bollason’s Tale (London: Penguin Books, 2008), 164-66 (chapters 74 and 75).
- See Geir T. Zoëga, A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2004), 234, for a full definition of jól and other related words.
- For the definitions of these terms, see the source cited above.
- Retold and quoted from Bernard Scudder trans., Egil’s Saga (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 146 (chapter 68).
- Cook trans., Njal’s Saga, 74 (chapter 44).
- For more on Norse feud, see Jesse L. Byock, Feud in the Icelandic Saga (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982) and William Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Pacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990).
- Retold and quoted from Jesse L. Byock trans., The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki (London: Penguin Books, 1998), 68 (chapter 30).
- Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking, 82-83.