By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
Our understanding of the Vikings’ cultural values comes not from any creed or explicit instructions handed down to us from this time period, but by inference from the values, norms, and oaths upheld and broken in the Norse myths and sagas. But, are those the correct representation?
The Norse Myths
The Norse myths can only rarely be said to have a message, especially any kind of moral message. They seem mostly to have been retold over the centuries as a form of entertainment rather than as a form of indoctrination.
Yet, it may be exactly from the stories that a culture tells to entertain its members that we may see the clearest picture of what they value and what they condemn with regard to human behavior.
Premium on Hospitality as a Virtue
Predictably, in common with many ancient cultures, including ancient Greece, Old Norse society also put a premium on hospitality as a virtue. In a world without inns or hotels, and an often predatory view of unknown people, a traveler was subject to bad weather and the potential for robbery or murder by strangers any time he ventured outside of his familiar home neighborhood.
Since everyone might have occasion to travel for one serious purpose or another eventually, there grew up a cultural understanding that there was real virtue in providing for any guests who might request a night’s stay.
This hospitality was not necessarily extravagant, but surely in many rural districts, a traveler from outside of the area was a rare and treasured occasion, and probably a time to pull out whatever stops there were in a materially poor world.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Norse Mythology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Norms Related to Hospitality
However, certain superstitions were attached to hospitality, as on some occasions in the Norse sagas we see evidence that it was considered unlucky for a guest to knock after the sun has set.
And there was as much horror at the notion of killing your own guests as there was at the notion of killing your own family. Indeed, giving or receiving hospitality was regarded as a kind of distant kinship, with your previous hosts or guests regarded as acceptable targets by your enemies in some ongoing vendettas.
These norms applied to the Norse gods as well. Even the gods’ direst and most violent enemies were served as guests to their hearts’ content if they came within the walls of the gods’ enclosure; the gods refused to kill anyone who came within those walls.
Now, the gods might kill anyone to prevent him from coming within the walls, but this seems to be regarded as an accepted loophole; once they got inside the fence around one’s residence, however, they were in a safe zone.
Another norm that was intended to prevent bloodshed and put limits on extravagant behavior, but which at least in the Norse sagas and myths often precipitates bloodshed with its unintended consequences, is the emphasis on swearing and honoring oaths in the most ironclad, literal fashion possible.
Odin, for instance, had sworn an oath for unknown reasons that when he was served a drink, the murderous Loki would be served as well.
Odin kept this oath—although he didn’t keep others!—and this was in spite of Loki’s well-documented breaking of the gods’ own norms, including killing the Norse god Balder, and killing one of the gods’ servants within the gods’ enclosure. Loki was a strange, rule-breaking, often vicious figure one encounters in Norse mythology.
And many sagas contain conflicts that are precipitated because of the unforeseeable consequences of an oath that either could not be kept, or an oath that forced the oath-bound individual into otherwise inconceivable actions in order to keep his or her own sworn word.
Thor and Tyr
This norm seems to apply to some of the Norse gods more fastidiously than to others. Thor and Tyr, for example, were extremely loath to break oaths—Tyr even lost a hand in order to keep his word.
By contrast, as we just noted, Odin and Loki honored some of their oaths very seriously, but openly violated others. This proclivity is attested to by Loki’s sewn together lips, which he endured as the price of breaking an oath to several dwarves. Odin himself, in the poem of his wisdom, Hávamál, asks the question “Who can trust Odin?”
Names of Norse People
Down in the human realm, the names of Norse people reflect the dominant values of their society.
Names are usually built by compounding two meaningful elements together, though not necessarily into a meaningful whole (for example, the woman’s name Gunnhild or Hildigunn means ‘battle-battle’). These elements often convey the name of a predatory animal like a wolf, eagle, or raven; an implement of war like a spear, sword, or helmet; or a word with a general martial meaning like battle, war, or defender.
For example, another woman’s name is Hrafnhild ‘raven battle’, while a man might bear the name of Ornolf ‘Eagle-wolf’, Hrafnkel ‘Raven-Helmet’, or Sigurth ‘victory-defender’.
Common Questions about Understanding Viking Cultural Values through Norse Mythology
The Old Norse society, in common with many ancient cultures, including ancient Greece, put a premium on hospitality as a virtue.
Firstly, certain superstitions were attached to hospitality; in some Norse sagas, we see evidence that it was considered unlucky for a guest to knock after the sun has set. Secondly, there was as much horror at the notion of killing your own guests as there was at the notion of killing your own family; giving or receiving hospitality was regarded as a kind of distant kinship. These norms applied to the Norse gods as well. Even the gods’ direst and most violent enemies were served as guests to their hearts’ content if they came within the walls of the gods’ enclosure.
Odin had sworn an oath for unknown reasons that when he was served a drink, the murderous Loki would be served as well.