“King Gautrek’s saga” is a good Norse saga that has many examples of traits found in the Viking era Norse, particularly in Norway and Sweden, where the happenings of this saga take place. Some of these examples include:
There is a place called Gillings Bluff. It is a large cliff. A family, who lived nearby, called it the Family Cliff as anyone from the family could, if so desired, jump off this cliff if they decided to end their life. There is mention that this could be done if they could no longer endure the misery of life . This is not because the way of life was miserable but, really, more because the family is a bunch of misers who can’t stand to see anything they have dwindle. One of the sons, for example, decided to end his life because a small bird pecked at a grain in his crops.
The father of the house, called Skinflint, decides to jump over the cliff because a man came and stayed the night, eating some of their food. He makes a statement: “I’m going to take my wife and slave along to Valhalla with me, since the least I can do to repay him for his faithful service is to let him go there with me.” This statement, I think, shows a number of interesting points.
- First of all, Skinflint mentions he’s going to Valhalla. We must remember that he is a peasant man living on a farmstead hidden in the forest and not a great warrior. Snorri Sturloson, in this “Gylfaginning” tends to make out Valhalla as a place for slain soldiers who have shown bravery in battle. Many other references seem to suggest this. But Skinflint is no soldier and showed no real bravery, except that he jumped off the cliff. This may reveal that there is more to Valhalla than is generally thought. Perhaps, though, it may be that jumping over the Family Cliff is something that takes great courage and there is a belief that a person who dies with great courage will go to Valhalla? But I think its more accurate to say that it refers to the fact that any sacrifice is given to Odin. War is just a form of sacrifice, and there are many accounts of the slain of the battlefield being dedicated to Odin before battles (I spoke of similar things in an article I wrote called “Thoughts on how the Norse god Odin’s association with sacrifice, and historical circumstance, turned him into a ‘war god’ and a ‘god of the dead’“). When Skinflint jumps over the cliff he is sacrificing himself to Odin, willingly giving up his life for him. This would suggest that Valhalla is actually the “hall for the sacrificed”. Whether it is done as a result of battle, or any other way, does not matter.
- The statement says that taking his slave over the cliff will be a way to “repay” his faithful service. Earlier Skinflint mentions that the least reward for the slave would be let him go over the cliff and share his “bliss” with him. He then mentions that he’s quite sure Odin will not accept him unless he goes with him. This is showing a reward for dying with him. Here it shows a hierarchical society, that the ‘lower people’ will, in some way, inherit the rewards of the ‘higher people’ by association. This point of view makes me wonder if Skinflint is not just a peasant farmer but someone more, like nobility, that has not been mentioned in the saga.
There is mention of how King Herthjof had beacons on top of mountains in his kingdoms. When war broke out, one would be lit and then the next would be lit, and on down the line. This same technique was mentioned in the Heimskringla in case of Viking attacks and seems common in Norway.
An Ox As A Symbol Of Wealth
There is mention of a great ox owned by Rennir, his most valued possession. It had great horns that were inlaid with gold and silver and had a silver chain in between the tips with 3 rings. This honoring and decorating of ox or cattle is mentioned a lot in Norse accounts, showing that they were great symbols of wealth.
Odin And Human Sacrifice
At one point, some of the characters have difficulty getting a wind for sailing. It mentions that they decided to do divination which showed that Odin wanted a human sacrifice. Here is a good reference of how Odin is associated with human sacrifice.
How this divination was done is not stated nor do we, as far as I know, have any hint of how this was done. But it does show that the will of Odin was often determined by divination. Who was to be chosen for the sacrifice was determined by lots. The fact that they used lots may hint that the divination may have used a similar procedure. By this I mean they did some procedure that would randomly create a result, such as throwing sticks onto the ground. Because there are many ways to do divination, and one has to “know” how to do it as well as read it (a person just doesn’t make it up on the spot), it shows that there was a “known technique for divining and determining the will of Odin” which has been lost. More than likely, there were many forms.
It was a king, King Vicar, who was chosen for sacrifice and kept being chosen, even after several tries at the lots. Because they did not want the king to be sacrificed one of the Vikings, Starkad, suggested performing a ‘mock sacrifice’. Basically, a ‘mock sacrifice’ is a sacrifice that is done in action but designed to fail. Because Starkad seemed to come up with it, I’m inclined to think that this was not common and may have been the only time it was attempted (if it truly happened at all). In this story, though, Odin intervened so that the king was sacrified showing that ‘Odin gets his way’.
In this sacrifice the king was to have a noose put around his neck that was connected to a bent tree branch. He was then stabbed and the tree branch let go, pulling him up, so he is hanged. This appears to be the pattern of sacrifice commonly seen with Odin: stabbing with a spear and hanging (or strangulation). Often, this stabbing by a spear before death is described as “being marked for Odin” showing that it had strong religious connection. And, speaking of spears, its interesting that, early on in the story, it mentions that one of the characters, King Gauti, went hunting with a spear. This is not unusual as hunting was done with a spear by the early Vikings. Bows and arrows, which is often used, were not originally used by the Vikings. These appear to have been brought up from the south and appeared later on in the Viking era. Because spears are used to hunt and as a “mark for Odin” it may hint that Odin may have been “invoked” for hunting at one time. We know that many primitive tribes often go through a ceremony before a hunt where they “imitate” the hunt, stabbing or shooting images of the animal, depending on the weapon they use. Being that the early Vikings used spears they would have stabbed it with a spear. Could the “mark for Odin” be a remnant of an early Viking hunting ritual? It’s difficult to say, but it would explain its religious meaning. I’ve often felt that the hanging or strangulation was just an easy way to bring about the death and that it has no other significance than that. In other words, it was the ‘means of sacrifice’, that’s all.
There is an interesting account of a judgement that is quite revealing. The judgement is in regard of what to do with Starkad, who was a close associate and one of the main men to King Vicar, who was sacrificed. It states that the judgement was to determine Starkad’s fate. But why? Was it because he was a close associate to King Vicar? No explanation is given. It was also Starkad who planned the ‘mock sacrifice’. Could it be because of that? It’s difficult to say.
This judgement was on an island and took place in the middle of the night. These two qualities – an island and at night – show that it is a religious affair. An island is often perceived as being ‘removed from the world’. And night time is not in the time we “live”, so to speak. As a result, the island and night show that it is an event ‘removed from the world’, that is to say, in the world of the sacred.
It states that there were twelve seats there. We know that one of the men there was called ‘Odin’. There was another man there called ‘Thor’. We know of no other names. The accounts describe the judgements laid out by these two men. There then goes on a conversation between ‘Odin’ and ‘Thor’ laying out the judgements of Starkad. Basically, ‘Thor’ creates six bad judgments, ‘Odin’ creates six good judgements. This shows some interesting points:
- It describes that there were 12 seats. Because ‘Odin’ and ‘Thor’ are mentioned it could very well refer to the 12 main Norse gods. In other words, each person there represented a specific god and was referred to by the name of that god. It was probably believed that the will of that god was portrayed through his statements.
- Whats more, the judgement was sort of a “trial” with 12 people. In our trials, nowadays, we use 12 jurors. This could very well show that the 12 person trial may have origins with Viking judgements where each person represented a god.
- The question of why ‘Odin’ did good judgements and ‘Thor’ did bad judgements is mystifying. In many ways, it was like a competition between gods, father and son.
- Though these judgements were given I often wonder if they come true assuming, of course, that they actually did these things. I doubt that much of the judgements would actually of taken place.
- The sacrifice and judgement described in this tale suggests that there is probably so much more to Viking religion and custom than we will ever know.
” . . . it seemed to him a great disgrace to abandon ones weapon.” – When war became common with the Vikings it’s not surprising that having, and maintaining, ones weapons were looked at so seriously. The importance of weapons is common in Viking sagas.
“Now I give you to Odin.” – This was said right before King Vicar was stabbed. It’s possible that this was said before all sacrifice.
“You can never tell what will bring you luck.” – The idea of luck is a common theme in Viking sagas. Often, it was believed that if a person who was above you socially, such as a King, had luck then you would have luck too. As a result, people wanted to be under people with good luck.
“Good luck to a generous man.” – This shows the great feelings the Vikings had toward generosity.
“I’d hardly have a reputation for wisdom if I couldn’t see further into the future than you.” – This is interesting as it seems to show that ‘wisdom’, in the Viking sense, is often viewed as being able to ‘put things together before they happen’ or in ‘foreseeing’ people’s behaviour. Many other accounts seem to suggest this. In the later part of the tale Earl Neri advises Ref to do some very elaborate gift giving to various people to repay him for an ox he had given him. Ref became rich and powerful as a result because of all the gifts he received. In order for Earl Neri to do this in the way that he did (as he knew how people would react) shows that much of the Viking customs were very solid, unchanging, and ‘predictable’, showing that there were consistencies in people’s behaviour as a result of these customs. Not only that, these customs were very prevalent over the Viking world as the people involved were all over the Viking world (Sweden, Denmark, England, etc.). Much of the ‘wisdom’ described in Viking saga’s often involve the awareness and use of these solid unchanging customs which made people know how people will react . . . making them ‘wise’. This was used a lot in law, as is seen in many Icelandic sagas (where law was particularly important in order to keep order).
General Layout Of The Story
Like many Viking saga’s there is no really “moral” to the story. Though it may contain moral-like parts, the saga is largely a description of happenings. Many Viking sagas are nothing but historical recordings. Though often containing legend or myth, they are generally written as a description of what is believed to of taken place. This is one reason why many sagas have a haphazard way about them, jumping from place to place and person to person. Most sagas have no real ‘overall point’ or statement to be made.
As to their accuracy, no one can say for certain. I’m inclined to believe that most authors state what they believe to be true at the time. Like everyone, I’m sure they embellish some parts at times and alter things according to point of view. There are quite a few sagas that describe the same historical event but have significant variations, making them almost different stories in some cases. But there is usually a lot of similarity. Typically, they vary only on small details, such as names or places. Overall, I tend to believe that there is usually a large degree of accuracy in their accounts and that they describe conditions very well.
We must also remember that many of these sagas were written before Christianity arrived, or at least they often originated before then, and so they usually do not contain Christian themes, such as trying to teach a “moral”, or in describing “good” people, that have influenced much of storytelling since.
Wealth, Giving, And Receiving
There is a theme that is seen a lot in this story: the theme of possessions and wealth, of being a miser, of generosity, and of giving and receiving. These themes should not be looked at from a Christian perspective, that is, as greed, and materialism. These are themes that are commonly seen in Viking sagas and were a big part of life. In fact, the receiving and giving of possessions and wealth (in whatever form) was a big part of Viking society. It was common for people, for example, to “give” their children (a form of ‘wealth’) to other people to be raised which, in turn, required something in return (usually a faithfulness). Kings and Vikings gave gold, swords, and other possessions to their men to guarantee their faithfulness as well and they were often praised for it. In short, the receiving and giving of possessions and wealth formed a bond between people during the Viking era. As a result, being a miser or a generous persons was looked at very seriously. In fact, many Viking accounts make specific mention if someone was a miser or generous, and this would be one of the qualities most remembered by people. Odin, in many tales when he walked upon the earth, often would test people by how generous they were. If they did not do this well then they were often punished. The fact that this figured prominently in the accounts of Odin, a main god of the Norse, shows its importance.