Examples of Heathen Oaths: Historical Sources & the Sagas
Updated: May 25, 2022
In a recent study on the cult of the god Thor in the Viking Age, Lasse Christian Arboe Sonne (2013) argued that we have no evidence whatsoever that the Vikings used oath-rings. [Lasse Christian Arboe Sonne (2013)]. While I completely disagree with this conclusion, the argument was that the Norse/Icelandic sources are too “recent” and do not reflect the realities of pre-christian Heathen Germanic life, written long after Scandinavia was Christianized. While it is problematic that the earliest surviving manuscripts of the eddaic poems date from the late 13th century, we have other older sources, from outside Scandinavia, that prove the existence of such oaths, and in my view, prove the accuracy of the later Norse/Icelandic sources. Sources like the Old Saxon Heliand (circa 830 AD), the Royal Frankish Annals (8th-9th century), and the Annals of St. Bertin (9th century), and others. While there is archaeological evidence of arm-rings, the ground cannot prove that oaths were sworn on them. I do believe in the end, oaths were sworn on not just arm-rings ("bag" in Old Saxon), but on many other objects as well.
Historical Aldsidu (Old Saxon Heathenry) had "Oath-staffs" Here is a passage taken from the Old Saxon Heliand, written circa 830 AD:
Please see my article on my 2019 trip to Germany, where I studied on location with a Saxon Heathen archaeologist, and took pictures from museums of arm-ring finds from the third through ninth centuries: https://www.aldsidu.com/post/arm-rings-ring-graves-and-jewelry-in-heathen-saxony We have a plethora of bag and ring finds in Old Saxon lands. Also, this archaeologist and friend of mine, Sven Knippschild, has confirmed that "tally sticks" have been found in Old Saxon territory. In modern German these are called "kerbholz." Oath Staffs, like tally sticks, served the function of a memory aid or a reminder of the oath. The difference between a tally stick and an Oath Staff probably would be that the staff would have been carved with Runes. While tally sticks have been found in Old Saxon lands, ones from the Heathen period with runic carvings have not yet been found. Here is a wikipedia article with some English tally sticks pictured however:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tally_stick?fbclid=IwAR0E-ikbW2a9ySQ_2mZi_m45QoRwXrCMgKcNjGMFwuSZeAYeXNoL4t9Utx0 Runes are "permanent." Our modern English word "to write" comes from the Old Saxon word "uuritan" meaning "to carve." Runes were carved. They are permanent. You can white out pen and ink on paper, or click "delete" on a computer, but if you carve runes on a rune-staff, they are permanent, and "binding." In Old Saxon, the loan word from Latin appeared in later writings: "scriban." This became the modern German "schreiben." But this meant in Latin to write with ink and feather on parchment. To "write" in Old Saxon Heathen times was to carve Runes, the Heathen and Germanic/Scandinavian alphabet.
Scandinavian Heathenry: Oaths were done on many objects
Here is a great chart taken from the book: Performing Oaths in Eddic Poetry: Viking Age Fact or Medieval Fiction? Anne Irene Riisoy* 2016. In this chart, Anne shows clearly that we have poetic evidence of oaths being sworn on ships, horses, swords, stones, water as well as rings.
"The most common Old Norse term for oath (eið) and the corresponding verb “to swear” sverja have cognates in all Germanic languages, and these terms are of considerable antiquity." [Green, D.H. 1998. Language and History in the Early Germanic World. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. P.444]
In the Carolingian realm, various sources mention Danes who swore oaths that differed from normal Frankish procedure. For instance, in A.D. 811, The Royal Frankish Annals noted that Danish magnates (primores) corroborated the peace agreement “according to their own rights and customs.” Some 50 years later, in A.D. 863, The Annals of St-Bertin reported that the chieftain Weland came to the emperor Charles and that he “and the men he had with him swore solemn oaths in their own way” When a peace between the Danes and the Saxons was ratified in A.D. 873, the Annals of Fulda reported that the Danes “swore on their weapons, according to the custom of that people” [Reuter, T. 1992. The Annals of Fulda. Manchester University Press, Manchester, UK. P.174]
We have other sources that state that rings were important items for swearing oaths. In the year A.D. 876, the English Chronicle noted that King Alfred managed to force a Viking army under the command of Guthrum into a truce, through an oath. [þa aþas sworon on þam hâlgan beage (“they swore him oaths on the sacred ring”)] (Swanton 2000:75). The chronicler’s comment that this is something they had been unwilling to do before indicates that oaths among the heathen Scandinavians were graded in value, that the ring-oath ranked highest, and that the Anglo-Saxons were well informed on this issue. [Swanton, M. (Ed. and Tr.). 2000. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Phoenix, London, UK. p364]
What happens when a person in a local community, makes an oath during Sumble, and the oath is not kept, despite the thyle approving the oath? I have searched long and hard for an answer to this question. I searched the Eddas and Sagas, and other historical sources. I found no examples of a punishment being handed out at Thing to an oath-breaker. How should a local community handle this today, as we have no source material on how to handle this historically? What do we have evidence for? Breaking oaths was very bad. Keeping oaths was honorable. Beowulf verse 2736 (Beowulf speaking) “At home I waited for what fate might come, and I cared for mine own; feuds I did not seek, nor did I ever swear a false oath.”
The Palgrave Handbook of Masculinity and Political Culture in Europe
edited by Christopher Fletcher, Sean Brady, Rachel E. Moss, Lucy Riall
"A níðingr was the object of hate and scorn. He was an outcast. Typical causes for such disgrace included: cowardice; treachery; shameful acts (such as killing kinsmen or defenseless people); breaking one's oath. When a man betrayed the trust of another man, that man would become known as a níðingr. In chapter 32 of Gísla saga, Eyjólfr ordered his men to kill a woman, a despicable act. Hávarðr stood up to him, telling the men not to do níðingsverk (the work of a níðingr)."
In historical Germanic society, nīþ (Old Norse: níð Old English: nīþ, Old Dutch: nīth); was a term for a social stigma implying the loss of honor and the status of a villain. A person affected with the stigma is a nīðing (Old Norse: níðingr/ᚾᛁᚦᛁᚴᛦ, Old English: nīðing, nīðgæst, or Old High German: nidding), one lower (cf. modern English beneath, modern Dutch beneed/beneden, modern German nieder, and modern Danish and Swedish nedre)
Why Oaths on a Sword? In Old Saxon, the "idis" of Fate is "Uurd" and her "giscapou" (Shapers.) In Old English, the dis of Fate is Wyrd, and in Old Norse, the Dises of Fate is Urthr and the Nornir. Some people argue that something called "animism" is true in historical Heathenry. They would argue, if someone In Old Saxon swears upon their sword, their oaths tie one with one's Uurd. By swearing on an object such as a sword, the oath maker accepts that there is life in that object. An oath is sworn on the sword, because if one does not keep their oath, they may end up falling upon it. While it is hard to prove this animist argument, there is probably merit to it.
When one breaks an oath, should they simply pay skild? (A fine?) Are they a níðingr? Should a community outcast an oath-breaker? These are hard questions to answer from a historical perspective. To be honest, this is the first one to stump me a bit as leader of a local community. What I do know, if an oath is broken, a community should have a Thing to decide the "Uurd" of the oath breaker, as the breaking of oaths does have severe consequences for the oath-breaker, the oath-breaker's family, and the oath-breaker's community. Please join us in the Facebook Group "Aldsidu: Saxon Heathenry."