Arm-rings, Ring Graves, and Jewelry in Heathen Saxony
While the Vikings TV show (first season, episode one) seems to have kick-started an "arm-ring" popularity in modern Asatru (and outside of Asatru), few have studied historical arm-rings or tried to understand their significance in historical Heathenry. Studying archaeological finds in Germany itself, I have learned that there were "ring graves" in Old Saxon lands in the time of Arminius (Hermann), and all throughout the Iron Age. Ring graves were moats, built in circles around graves of the dead (both cremated and and non-cremated) where arm-rings have been excavated. The most famous archaeologist in the field of the Saxons in Saxony, is the late Torsten Capelle. Torsten is the author of the books describing the finds showcased in the LWL-Museum fur Archäologie, the Westfälisches Landmuseum south of Münster, Germany. He is also the main archaeologist involved in the excavations in Westphalia, Old Saxony. Torsten says the following about the ring-graves he has excavated: "For the archaeologist the ring grave moats are usually visible as dark discoloration at excavations, since they were naturally completely decayed with erosion. All that is certain is that the moat encircled an area reserved for the dead. The moat permanently marked a symbolic border, albeit not always visible at excavations initially. The Ring-graves magically protected the deceased, it seems, the effects of every kind from the earthly world. In any case, ring ditches were certainly seen as effective symbols with delimiting power." (Translation is mine from: Torsten Capelle, Runde Sachsen. Ringe aus Westfalen. LWL-Museum fur Archaeogie Westfalishes Landesmuseum p. 7)
Ring Graves are a "proto-Saxon" cultural phenomenon (from the Germanic tribes that came to be known as the "Saxons" in Westphalia, Saxony- the Cherusker, Chauci, and Marsi). Water, however, is associated with both death and birth to all Germanic tribes. Boat burials throughout Germanic lands show an association with water. Many boat graves are found inland, such as the Sutton Hoo grave in East Anglia, England.
Norse Heathenry has many colorful words for the parts of a person's spiritual body: hamingja (“luck”); fylgja (fetch); hamr (“hide” or spiritual form) to name just three. The Saxons in Saxony (as well as the Angles in England) had the word "seola" (our modern English word "soul" comes from this word) related to the word "sea." The words "sea" and "soul" are related in the Old Saxon and Old English language. Water is an important part of death and birth. Just take the many examples of water ceremonies by Germanic Heathens of their newborns, just a small amount I will list here: Njal's Saga Chapter 14: So the maiden was sprinkled with water, and had this name given her, and there she grew up, and got like her mother in looks and feature. Eyrbyggja Saga, Chapter 11: Thora bore him a man-child who was called Grim, and sprinkled with water. That lad Thorstein gave to Thor, and said that he should be a gothi, and called him Thorgrim. Saga Skallagrímssonar, chapter 35: Thora bare a child in the summer; it was a girl. She was sprinkled with water, and named Asgerdr. Saga Skallagrímssonar, chapter 31: Skallagrím and Bera had many children but all the older ones died in infancy. Then they had a son. They sprinkled him with water and called him Þórólfr. Eyrbyggja saga 11: Þórsteinn Cod-Biter had a son called Börkr the Stout. Then in the summer when Þórsteinn was twenty-five years old, Þóra gave birth to another son, who was sprinkled with water and given the name Grímr. Þórsteinn dedicated this boy to Þórr, calling him Þórgrímr, and said he should become a temple priest. I can give more examples, but these passages should suffice.
Saxon Graves and Saxon Mjolnir/Thor's Hammers:
Most of the time, the Saxons burnt their dead in the pyres and buried the ashes. The Lex Saxonum, and four Saxon Capitularies outlaws the burning of the dead in pyres. The Lex Saxonum and the Capitularies are dated between 782 and 803 AD. Lex Saxonum law seven: "If anyone, in accordance with Pagan rites, shall have caused the body of a dead man to be burned and shall have reduced his bones to ashes, let him be punished capitally." However, the Saxons also at times buried their dead without burning the body. When this happened, the Saxons buried the dead with the feet pointing north and the head in the south. This makes Saxon graves, and the Thunar Hammer pendants (Thor's Hammers), arm-rings, and jewelry, easy to identify as "Saxon." I have visited the Warendorf site, where one of the oldest Thunar Hammers (Thor Hammers) was ever found, and I have studied there. Another characteristic of Saxon necklaces (including Thor Hammers) is the glass beads and pearls that are also included. This is also recorded in the Old Saxon Heliand poem, where Thunar Hammers have glass beads. Pictured below is the Warendorf Thunar Hammer, and the oldest Thunar Hammer ever found (yes, older than all in Scandinavia) as a necklace, both in Old Saxon lands, as well as my translation of the Old Saxon Heliand passage (dated circa 830 AD) describing Saxon Necklaces.
To quote German archaeologist (and a Saxon Heathen) Sven Ne about these historical finds: "And this context is quite astonishing, because the burial is dated to the 8th or early 9th century and shows without any doubt that the Thor’s hammer was worn around the neck as a pendant. Thus, the Thor’s hammer of Immenstedt is nothing less than the oldest evidence for these pendants worn as a necklace ever found. At the same time, it is also the oldest Thor’s hammer with the “classical” short handle, which is typical for Denmark and Sweden; only that this specimen from Northern Germany is several generations older than comparable pieces from the north. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the deceased could have emigrated from Scandinavia to Immenstedt. On the contrary: the south-north orientation of the burial (with the head in the south and the feet in the north) clearly points to the Old Saxons, for whom this burial practice is virtually a defining part of their identity. The Thor’s hammer of Immenstedt is thus undoubtedly one of the most important key finds for this early period even if there are no other comparable finds with a similar dating so far. The three Thor’s hammers from Nebel, Warendorf and Immenstedt are extraordinary finds in many respects. They clearly prove that the Old Saxons and probably also the Frisians (if the women’s grave from Nebel is of Frisian origin) already knew and used these amulets; long before the custom of wearing a Thor’s hammer can be detected on a large scale in Scandinavia. In fact there is only one find from Scandinavia that is comparable in age: the Thor’s hammer ring of Valsgärde"
Other Saxon Necklaces:
Beads and pearls were very common with necklaces in Westphalia, Saxony. Pearls, Amethyst, glass, and other stones were used to make neclaces.
Arm-rings have been found in Westphalian lands dating back to the Paleolithic period. Beginning with the migration period, arm rings were worn demonstratively by men, and often as status-marking symbols of gold, that is as a sign of their position and dignity. The Saxons, after their forced conversion, continued having arm-rings as a part of their dress culture for several centuries. The Saxon historian of the 10th century, Widukind of Corvey, wrote in his "Deeds of the Saxons" that Konrad the First designated Herzog Heinrich (Henry the Fowler) as his successor with an arm-ring. Heinrich would be the first Saxon King of Charlemagne's former empire. Widukind of Corvey also recorded that Otto the Great wore an arm-ring for his coronation. According to Widukind, the Saxon kings through Otto III wore arm-rings at their coronation. If the Saxon Wars are considered an "end" to their Heathenry, Otto III therefore is attested with arm-rings 200 years after forced conversion. Please note: for the nobility, conversion was the end of the Saxon Wars. The vast majority of the populace revolted against Christianity and fought to re-install Heathenry as Saxony's religion in the Stellinga Revolt in the 9th century. Adam of Bremen complained that the Saxons were still venerating in their Sacred Groves in 1073 in his History of the Bishops of Hamburg.
Many rings for the arm, fingers, neck, and even ankles have been found in areas of Saxon occupation. The Old Saxon language has words like "bag" for "arm-ring" and "baguuini" meaning "arm-ring friend" and "bageba" meaning "arm-ring giver." The Old Saxon Heliand shows arm-ring giving as an activity of drohtins (Chieftains) to their thanes. Arm rings or "bags" / "baegs" have inspired modern authors like JRR Tolkein in Lord of the Rings. "Frodo Baggins" and "Bag End" come from the Old Anglish word for "arm-rings." Clearly, we have MANY archaeological finds showing a vast plethora of arm-rings or "bags" all over Old Saxon lands. I will share a dozen pictures below. Please note, as I learned in Westphalia: If rings are found in tombs, then they are usually addressed as body or costume jewelry. However, in the case of burnt graves, it can be difficult to reliably distinguish, for example, between ear and finger rings or between arm and foot rings. In any case, it can be assumed that the rings were worn by the deceased during their lifetime as personal jewelry. Please keep this in mind when looking at these pictures. Please also note, I am posting pictures of rings from 750 (or BC) up through the Saxon Heathen period (400 AD - 900 AD).
I could have posted dozens of pictures in this article. The arm-rings, neck-rings, toe-rings, finger-rings, and sword-hilt-rings are so numerous, with so many different styles, it reminds me of modern clothing, with so many materials, colors and styles. To pin down styles to one region, is not 100% possible. It is one thing to label a find "Saxon" because it is in a grave in Old Saxony with the very distinct style of Saxon burial found no where else (including England), it is another thing to claim that pottery in England matches that of Frisia, or Eastphalia, etc. Just because I wear blue-jeans doesn't make me American. Yes, I am an American, born and raised in America to the Sass family that moved to America from Germany. BUT, Heathens also lived in a world of great traffic and trade. Items moved around, and through trade items may not have ended up any where near where they originated from. Today, there are 27 million people living in all of Scandinavia (Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, and Norway.) There are 26 million people living in the top third portion of Germany alone. In Heathen times, the number of people in the northern parts of Europe that were outside of Scandinavia, peoples who venerated the Aesir, far outnumbered the Scandinavians. The idea that Thor and Odin are "Scandinavian" is mis-leading people to a degree today. Many people who are not Heathens would probably be shocked to learn that Thor and Odin are "Northern European" Gods, not confined to Scandinavia, and the majority of people who venerated the Aesir, lived in modern Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, western Poland, and England. This was true even in Heathen times. The variety across Germanic lands (including Scandinavia) is great. The findings at Sutton Hoo look nothing like the jewelry we see in Westphalia, Saxony, even with the great variety. Please join us on Facebook in the group "Saxon Heathenry" and in the "Association for Historical Heathenry." Many Asatruar feel that Asatru is Scandinavian only. Maybe this is true. I practice Saxon Heathenry, which the Old Saxons called "Aldsidu" meaning "Old Customs." They also called different practices/faiths in different lands "landuuise" meaning "traditions of the lands." The Aesir were certainly venerated outside of Scandinavia, and the Ways of the Heathens were far more than the ways of just "Vikings."
Pictured below are arm-rings found in Westphalia, Saxony.
Pictured immediately below is a bronze neck-ring. The sign in German reads: "Twisted Bronze. Around 1870 excavators discovered this sharp-edged neck-ring in Hamm. Four long-edge bronze pieces had been hammered together and the ends twisted to form a hook. Then the blacksmith heated the combined stick and bent it around a long axis, whereupon the direction changed several times. In order to wear such an extremely rare neck ring injury-free, the (male) owner or the (female) owner had put fur, leather or fabric underneath it." (Translation mine.)