History.com checks in with Vikings show researcher Justin Pollard to get the historical context for each Vikings Season 2 episode.
Season 2, Episode 7: Blood Eagle
Question: Jarl Borg faces a harsh punishment. What is the significance of a blood-eagle? When and why is it used? What does the eagle mean to the Vikings?
Justin Pollard: The blood-eagle was a punishment we know of from a number of Viking sources. The early 11th century skaldic poet Sigvatr is the first to mention it, stating in a poem in praise for the later Scandinavian king of England Cnut, that:
“Ivarr, who dwelt in York, carved the eagle on Aelle’s back”
This is a reference to Ragnar’s son Ivarr the Boneless who revenged himself on Alle, King of Northumnbria. The legend states that Aelle lost a battle to Ivarr, but did not die in the fighting. He was captured and brought before Ragnar’s son as he reveled in his victory. Seeing the humbled Northumbrian king before him, he ordered him sacrificed to Odin in thanks for the victory in the ceremony of the blood-eagle. By the time the 13th century tale of the Sons of Ragnar was written, the scene is further described as involving hacking open the victim’s chest and removing their lungs, so they resembled the folded wings of a bloody eagle.
Q: We see two very different wedding ceremonies. What is a Viking wedding ceremony like? What is the significance of the sword in the ceremony?
JP: In the Viking world marriage was first and foremost a contractual arrangement between families. What we know of the ceremonies themselves come from slightly later Icelandic sources, but these would probably have been familiar to Vikings of the 9th century.
Marriages usually took place on Friday as it was the day of Frigga, the goddess of marriage. In much of the Viking world marriages could also only take place in summer due to weather conditions.
Before the wedding itself the bride would be symbolically removed from her former role, and prepared for her new life. This involved taking a steam bath–a sort of early sauna–to wash away her old status before being dressed in new clothes. Later in Scandinavian history, we know that unmarried girls wore a circlet on their heads which was replaced for their marriage with a bridal crown, usually a family heirloom. We don’t know if Viking girls did this, but it may well date from this period. There were probably other rituals to prepare the bride and advice from older member of the community on the duties (and rights) of a wife.
Whilst this was going on, the groom underwent a similar rite, surrounded by his married male relatives, taking a steam bath to “wash away” his previous status. According to the sagas, the groom was also required to produce an ancestral item, usually a sword, to demonstrate his lineage. This he could obtain from a burial mound or from a living relative. The sword represented his ancestry, his place in society and acted as a reminder of the fame of those who had gone before him.
For the wedding itself, the bride wore her hair down–the last time she would do so–and both bride and groom wore new clothes, although neither were specifically bridal outfits.
Before the ceremony, the dowry and bride price had to be paid before witnesses. Then the ceremony itself probably took place outside starting with religious invocations and perhaps a sacrifice. Blood from the sacrificed animal would then be sprinkled on the couple. The groom would then present his ancestral sword to his new wife and she would present the sword that she had brought to him. This represented the coming together of the two families. Finger rings were then sometimes exchanged and an oath might be taken on an arm ring in a local temple or at a temporary altar.
After the ceremony, came the bride-running–a race to the hall where the feast would be served. At the threshold, the groom would escort his wife over, representing her stepping into a new life with his protection–doorways were considered spiritually dangerous places. Some stories tell of the groom then plunging his sword into a roof beam–the deeper the incision, the stronger the marriage would be. Feasting was an important part of Viking culture, as we’ve mentioned before, and a bridal feast would be accompanied by all the usual story-telling, toasting and singing. In particular, the bridal ale was drunk—which represented a legally binding part of the marriage.
At some point during that night’s feasting, the bride and groom would be accompanied to bed. These witnesses were there to ensure that they saw the bride and groom in the room together. When the witnesses left, the marriage would be consummated. The dreams of the bride that night were considered prophetic, hinting at the number of children the couple would have and the fate of the family.
The next day the bride was taken away by her female attendants and her hair tied up in marital braids. Back in the hall, the husband then paid his wife the “morning gift” (a sort of male dowry) and handed over the keys to the locks of the house demonstrating her new power as mistress of the household. Further celebrations then ensued, which might last for a week.
Q: Lagertha is now an earl. Did many women become earls in the Viking age?
JP: We gave Lagertha the position of earl (jarl) in the series to demonstrate the power and respect free women could command in Viking society at a time when women in much of the rest of Europe have a far less prominent role. Certainly women could own land in their own right and command men, but in making Lagertha an actual earl we were taking a bit of license.
The point we were hoping to make is that women have a role in Viking society very unlike that of women in most of the rest of Europe. This obviously depends on class, as slave women, like their male counterparts, have no real rights at all. However, what marks out Viking society is that the difference between male and female rights are much less stark.
In Frankia, the women were chattels–belonging first to their fathers and then their husbands. Their property and possessions equally belonged in law not to them, but the man who had power over them. There were some exceptions amongst the very highest in society, but this was the general rule.
In Viking society, this wasn’t the case. Fathers would generally select a suitable husband for their daughters, but would ask the daughters opinion as well. Marriage was fundamentally considered a practical political institution—helping to bond families together—rather than a love match. Love might follow later. A father who didn’t ask his daughter could still force the marriage through, but might find that the daughter later renounced it.
Viking society was still delineated on male/female lines and women couldn’t vote in the Thing or explicitly hold a lot of political power, but women did wield huge influence. It was the husband’s place to travel, trade and hunt, but the wife ruled the home. Step over the threshold and you enter her world. On her belt, she would carry the keys to every lock in the house—the treasure, the land and all the family had was in her care. Those possessions were hers and if the marriage ended, she could take them all with her.
Although the man was still considered the “ruler” of the household, women took a robust role in managing him–often demanding vengeance when insulted by another family or sometimes cooling down situations where hot-headed men might otherwise get into a dangerous feud. A woman expected to be listened to, if not obeyed. Whilst there was undoubtedly domestic violence—there are few records of husbands hitting their wives–violence against women was generally taboo. There are cases where, having done so, the woman has repaid the blow with a knife in the chest whilst he slept. No one seemed to think this unreasonable.