This blog post will teach you how to tell time like a Viking! Well….not exactly. First of all, not all Scandinavians were Vikings, but that’s a conversation for another post (like this one). Secondly, the information that we actually do have about the Norse calendar comes from medieval Icelandic sources, hence why I constantly add a lovely dash between ‘Old Norse’ and ‘(Old) Icelandic’. What this page will do, though, is help you familiarize yourself with how the people of the medieval North conceptualized the passing of time–and that’s still pretty cool (even if it’s not exactly how everyone in the medieval North thought about the year). So, if you haven’t left yet in a berserkr rage here’s a lovely bullet-point list of the topics that will be covered along the way:
If you’re interested in learning more than this page has to offer, the majority of the information on this page comes from Kirsten Hastrup’s book Culture and History in Medieval Iceland. It’s a hard book to get your hands on, but if you can manage it I highly recommend it! Especially since there is a lot in that book that this page doesn’t cover. But if that’s not for you (since academic books aren’t always everyone’s favorite thing to read in their spare time), this page should be satisfying enough.
Days (and Time)
The day (dagr) was the basic unit of time within the Old Norse-Icelandic calendar, and so it is where we shall begin. But first, we must talk about telling time. Today, we have the luxury of digital clocks that tell the time for us. All we have to do is make sure that it’s set to the right time, which is usually provided to us automatically by our handy phones. This modern system, which has been divided into global time zones (with some following daylight savings) no longer relies on the exact (local) position of the sun, having been ‘averaged out’ to accommodate larger areas of population. For most people, when the clock says noon, it’s not actually local noon (when the sun is at it’s highest point). In other words, our time has been fixed and standardized, despite how much the world around us fluctuates.
Unlike us, the Norse used a more fluid system known as the sólarhringr, or sun-ring. While that may sound more like a powerful magical ring straight from Middle Earth, it’s actually just a cool name for a compass that was used to determine both direction and time by working out what part of the sky the sun was in at any given time. It was divided into eight parts called áttir (sg. átt), which represented cardinal directions: norðr (N), landnorðr (NE), austr (E), landsuðr (SE), suðr (S), útsuðr (SW), vestr (W), útnorðr (NW). These terms were intimately tied to the geography of Norway, even when they were used in Iceland. Út meant a direction that goes ‘out’ to sea, while land meant a direction that goes over ‘land’. The graphic below offers an interpretation of what this concept/system looked like:
Alright, but what does all that have to do with telling time? Well, since these directions reflect the portions of the sky that the sun transversed, these áttir also function somewhat like our modern hours, except that each átt is roughly 3 hours in length. But before that, it is important to understand how the sun actually moves along this ring:
The graphic above illustrates how the sun moves along the sólarhringr, using Trondheim (~64°N latitude) as a reference point. During an equinox, when night and day are equal, the sun rises halfway through the austr átt (direct east) and moves across the landsuðr, suðr, and útsuðr áttir before setting halfway through the vestr átt (direct west). But this movement changes dramatically during the solstices. During the winter solstice, for example, the sun rises directly between the landsuðr and suðr áttir and sets directly between the suðr and útsuðr áttir. In other words, the sun is only in the sky during the suðr átt. So how did they tell time without the sun? The stars. The most important one was Arcturus, which they called dagstjarna (day-star), although it is only visible in the útnorðr, norðr, and landnorðr áttir. For the rest of the nighttime áttir, other locally relevant stars were chosen.
Now, with all those technicalities behind us, let’s tell some time:
In the graphic above, I have presented the sólarhringr as a clock with our modern 24-hour system superimposed onto it. Keep in mind that the Norse would not have conceptually thought of halfway through the austr átt as 06:00, but rather as miðr morgun, or mid-morning (as the table below will soon show). Compared to our system, their sense of time was not as ‘precise’ as ours–1 hour for them is equal to 3 of ours–but do remember that they didn’t need smaller measurements. Not having them doesn’t mean their system was primitive, it just means that their society required a different system than ours. Furthermore, it is important to remember that these times reflect local time. In other words, 12:00 is local noon (when the sun is at its highest point). For practical purposes, you could consider it as equal to the 12:00 on your phone, but at least keep in mind that their system was not standardized, but rather relative to one’s specific location.
Up until now, we have been using the terms that reflect cardinal directions. These directions reflect the location of the sun in the sky, which was then used to determine what part of the day a person was experiencing. The middle points of these áttir, however, were known as dagmörk, or day-marks. Below is a table containing the various dagsmörk (with times relative to an equinox):
[Fig.4] Old Norse-Icelandic Day-marks (O.I. dagsmörk)
|Cardinal Direction||Modern Hour||O.I. Name(s)||English Translation|
|austr átt (E)||06:00 (04:30–07:30)||rismál or miðr morgun||hour of rising;
|landsuðr átt (SE)||09:00 (07:30–10:30)||dagmál||day-meal|
|suðr átt (S)||12:00 (10:30–13:30)||hádegi or miðdegi||high-day; midday|
|útsuðr átt (SW)||15:00 (13:30–16:30)||undorn or nón||mid-afternoon meal;
nine (from latin: nona)
|vestr átt (W )||18:00 (16:30–19:30)||miðr aptan||mid-evening|
|útnorðr átt (NW)||21:00 (19:30–22:30)||náttmál||night-meal|
|norðr átt (N)||00:00 (22:30–01:30)||miðnætti||midnight|
|landnorðr átt (NE)||03:00 (01:30–4:30)||ótta or elding||the last part
of the night; daybreak
And so these were the hours (generally speaking) that formed the Old Norse-Icelandic day. Of course, these times were all relative to the local position of the sun, meaning that these ‘hours’ shifted with the sun’s movements throughout the year. Thus, while rismál may occur at 06:00 during an equinox, it could occur earlier during the summer solstice. Rismál was the time of the sun’s rising, not a fixed time established by an imposed standard (as we have today). This was true for each day-mark.
But perhaps to everyone’s relief, weeks were much simpler than days in the Old Norse-Icelandic calendar, especially since most of them probably look strangely familiar:
[Fig.5] Old Norse-Icelandic Days of the Week
If you’re a fan of Norse mythology, then you probably already noticed that the days of the week are mostly named after heathen gods, such as Tyr, Odin, Thor, and Freyr. Even today these are still how the days of the week are named in modern Scandinavia. Iceland, however, changed these names during the twelfth century thanks to a zealous bishop named Jón Ögmundarson:
[Fig.6] Bishop Jón Ögmundarson’s Weekdays (early 12th c.)
|* These days, while important in Iceland’s legal codes (Grágás),
did not find an enduring home in daily usage.
Instead, sunnudagr and mánudagr continued to be used.
Thus, despite how conservative Iceland has been in regards to their language, the names of their weekdays changed, exchanging the old heathen gods for more neutral terms.
Aside from the individual days of the week, there were a few weeks that were particularly important, at least for the Icelandic Commonwealth (c.930–1262). These weeks occurred over the summertime and were primarily concerned with the meeting times of legal assemblies. Summer was 26 weeks in length (as was winter), and so each number listed below refers to the amount of weeks into summer that these times typically occurred. So, for example, 4 means that várþing occurs during the fourth week of summer (or by the end of the fourth week of summer). Check them out:
[Fig.7] Important Weeks in the Old Nose/Icelandic Calendar
|4||várþing||spring thing||This was a time when local assemblies gathered.|
|7||fardagar||moving days||This is when people moved homes, bought or sold property, and made agreements about tenancy.|
|10||alþingi||Althing||This was when the national assembly gathered.|
|b/w 13 and 14||sumarauki||summer-increase||This was a special week added into the calendar every seventh year.|
|19||leið||autumn thing||This was a time when local assemblies gathered.|
Some special attention is necessary for sumarauki. While the Icelanders were still working out their calendar system, they noticed that their calendar fell a day behind each year (which was 364 days, as you’ll soon read). The solution to this problem took the form of this intercalary week (added into the calendar every seventh year), which (according to Ari Thorgilsson) was proposed by a man named Thorstein Black around the year 950:
It was also at that time, when the wisest men in this country had reckoned 364 days in the two seasons of the year (which makes 52 weeks, or twelve months of thirty days each and four days left over), that they noticed from the course of the sun that summer was moving backwards into spring; but no one could tell them that there was one day more in two seasons than was equal to the number of full weeks, and that was what was causing it. But there was a man called Thorstein Black…[who] put forward the proposal at the Law-Rock that they should extend every seventh summer by a week, and see how that would work. …everyone then welcomed the proposal warmly, and it was immediately made law with the consent of Thorkel Moon and other wise men.
And so the Icelanders included an additional week every seven years to account for this shifting. But I do have to wonder…why not just add another day to the auknætr, which were 4 additional days added before the month of miðsumar? But perhaps instead of asking questions, maybe we should talk about these things (months and the additional days between them) too.
Like ours, there were 12 months in the Old Norse-Icelandic calendar. But unlike our system, their months were conceptually divided into 2 seasonal half-year units called misseri: summer (sumar) and winter (vetr). That said, the first month of the Old Norse-Icelandic calendar was the first month of summer, which was not equivalent to our month of January. Furthermore, according to medieval Icelandic law, each month was 30 days long. Of course, that means there were technically only 360 days, but an additional 4 days were added during the summertime to account for the gap (called auknætr). Ah yes, now we can actually figure out what that is.
Below is a table containing the months of their calendar. You’ll notice that many of these months have various names (some of which without a clear meaning). In general, these names referred to social activities (especially agricultural), along with natural seasons and festive holidays–all of which we could talk about quite a bit (but won’t…today).
[Fig.8] Old Norse-Icelandic Months
|mid-April to mid-May||harpa, skerpla, or sátíð||?; ?; seed-time|
|mid-May to mid-June||stekktíð or eggtíð||lamb-fold time; egg-time|
|mid-June to mid-July||sólmánuðr or selmánuðr||sun-month; shieling-month|
|auknætr (lit. ‘additional-nights’, a period of 4 days)|
|mid-July to mid-August||miðsumar||midsummer|
|mid-August to mid-September||heyannir or tvímánuðr||hay-time; double-month|
|mid-September to mid-October||haustmánuðr or kornskurðarmánuðr||harvest-month; corn-cutting month|
|mid-October to mid-November||gormánuðr||slaughtering-month|
|mid-November to mid-December||ýlir or frermánuðr||(cognate with yule); frost-month|
|mid-December to mid-January||hrútmánuðr, jólmánuðr, or mörsugr||ram-month; yule-month; fat-sucker|
|mid-January to mid-February||þorri||Thorri, a legendary Norse king of the snow?|
|mid-February to mid-March||góa||Gói, Thorri’s daughter?|
|mid-March to mid-April||einmánuðr||one-month|
Since we’ve already talked about all of the stuff that makes up a year, there’s really not much left to say about it (and I won’t overcomplicate it for the sake of making his section look more swole). A year in the Old Norse/Iceland calendar was composed of 2 seasons (summer/winter), 12 months, 52 weeks, and 364 days (with the extra day being accounted for every 7 years through an additional week). Pretty similar to ours, right? Well, I don’t have a curveball for you this time, so you can relax! Here are the only major differences: the year began with the first day of summer (mid-April) and the passing of years was marked by winters.
As a result, one’s age was also based on how many winters they had experienced:
Ek var þaðan hertekin fimmtán vetra gömul.
I was captured from (Ireland) when I was fifteen winters old.
Not gonna lie, I think that sounds much cooler. Well, aside from being stolen away from your homeland as a young girl…that’s not so cool.
A Few Holidays
We’re getting pretty close to the end of this page, but before we take a look at a visual example of what this whole calendar looked like, let’s talk about holidays for a moment (since I know many folk are particularly interested in this aspect of the Old Norse-Icelandic calendar). But while it may be disappointing and very unfulfilling, I’m only going to mention two holidays: veturnætur (Winter-Nights) and jól (Yule). To make matters even less satisfying, I’m only going to tell you when they took place. I’ll be saving the cool stuff (customs, activities, saga accounts–you name it) for another time (aka individual posts dedicated to each holiday–that’s worth the wait). Nevertheless, it’s still important to know when these holidays actually took place, isn’t it? So let’s take a look:
[Fig.9] A Few Important Holidays in the Old Norse-Icelandic Calendar
|veturnætur||Winter-Nights (the beginning of winter)||The time between haustmánuðr and gormánuðr (usually 2 days)|
|jól||Yule (3-day midwinter celebration, later Christmas)||The 3 nights between hrútmánuðr and þorri (moved to Christmastime after conversion)*|
*The moving of Yule to Christmastime has been attributed to King Hakon the Good of Norway. For more, see my Sagnaskemmtun post: King Hakon the Good Complicates Yule.
Now we can actually place them on our calendar!
Bringing it All Together
For this endeavor, we are going to reconstruct the Old Norse-Icelandic calendar using the idealized (and not always realistic) standards established by medieval Iceland’s legal codes, the Grágás. But to make it more fun for us we’ll be using the dates for this year (2018-19)! And since the Old Norse-Icelandic year starts in April, we’re actually not that far in.
Since not all of you have a copy of the Grágás laying around, here’s what they have to say about the calendar:
The first day of summer is to be a Thursday; from then three months of thirty nights and four nights in addition are to be counted to mid-summer. From midsummer there are to be three months of thirty nights to winter. The first day of winter is to be Saturday and from then there shall be six months of thirty nights to summer; and ten weeks of summer are to have passed when men come to the General Assembly. Throughout the calendar a day precedes a night.
And so, lest we want to incur the wrath of medieval Icelandic law, we shall begin our calendar with a Thursday, (April 18th, 2018), make sure our winter starts on a Saturday (which, by some miracle actually does–October 20th, 2018), and end our calendar on April 17th, 2019. You may even notice that the year does actually end one day behind (which is exactly why Thorstein Black suggested they add another week every 7 years). But now, our grand finale:
And now, after all that hardship and (possible) head-throbbing, you can now boast to all of your friends that you know the Old Norse-Icelandic calendar. They definitely need to know that today is actually Þórsdagr, sólmánuðr 4th. Oh, and do remind them that the Alþingi is this week!
But with that, I shall deem this resource room complete (for the time being)! As always, I shall update it in the future if new information comes my way; but for now, I hope that this information serves you well in your future wanderings.
If you have any questions or concerns about the contents of this post, please feel free to send me a raven at email@example.com. I will make sure that your raven is well-received and happily fed before sending back a reply.
Days (and Time)
 Ibid. [return]
 Ibid., 24. [return]
 Ibid., 21. [return]
 Ibid., 23-4. [return]
 Ibid., 31. [return]
 Ibid., 27. [return]
 Old Norse text from Einar Ól. Sveinsson ed., Laxdœla saga, in Íslenzk fornrit V (Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1934), 27-8. (Chapter 13) Translated by yours truly. [return]
Bringing it All Together
[Fig.2] Made using information from Kirsten Hastrup, Culture and History in Medieval Iceland (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 20; Jesse L. Byock, Viking Language 2: The Old Norse Reader (Pacific Palisades: Jules Williams Press, 2015), 107; and information from Stellarium. [return]
[Fig.6] Ibid. [return]
[Fig.8] Made using information from Kirsten Hastrup, Culture and History in Medieval Iceland (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 32; and Viðar Hreinsson ed., The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales, vol. V (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 422. [return]
[Fig.9] Made using information from Kirsten Hastrup, Culture and History in Medieval Iceland (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 38-9; and Viðar Hreinsson ed., The Complete Sagas of Icelanders: Including 49 Tales, vol. V (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson Publishing, 1997), 422. [return]
[Fig.10] Made using information from Kirsten Hastrup, Culture and History in Medieval Iceland (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), 24-45; and Andrew Dennis, Peter Foote, and Richard Perkins trans., Laws of Iceland: Grágás I (repr., 1980; Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2012), 51. [return]
Books Used (In Order of Appearance)
My sincerest thanks go to Fjörn’s Fellowship (on Patreon) for their gracious support. Without your companionship, this Hall would be nothing. Here are the names (taken from Patreon) of those who supported me while I wrote this post: Anastasia Haysler, Cataclysmit, Cooper Brown, Froggy, and Kathleen Phillips. Þakka ykkur kærlega fyrir!