Historical Heathen Marriage
Updated: Nov 11, 2021
In Germanic Heathen Cultures, sexual conduct had cultural expectations. Women were expected to be faithful to their husbands, and virgins until marriage. There are insults against women in the Poetic Edda, showing accusations of promiscuity and incestuous or illicit liaisons (Lee M. Hollander, trans. The Poetic Edda. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1962. pp. 90-103). An unwed virgin woman was a marketable commodity who could bring wealth to her family via her bride-price, and to form favorable alliances with other families through marriage. Child bearing was important for Heathen peoples. Faithfulness was expected, as illegitimate children did not receive what legitimate children did. An illegitimate child who had been recognized by its father would receive only two-thirds of its support from its father and the father's kin, while unacknowledged bastards were entirely supported by the mother and her family (Grethe Jacobsen, "Sexual Irregularities in Medieval Scandinavia," Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church. eds. Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage. Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1982. p. 74).
Most likely some women engaged in extra-marital sex, it would be unrealistic to think otherwise. Women who avoided pregnancy when unfaithful had no penalty under the law. The Sturlunga Saga indicates that "almost universally, men indulged in extramarital affairs with numbers of women before, during, and after marriage" (Jenny M. Jochens, "The Church and Sexuality in Medieval Iceland," Journal of Medieval History. 6 : pp.383-384). Female slaves were fair game, and a man could purchase a slave woman valued up to twelve ore to have as a bed-slave (Grethe Jacobsen, "The Position of Women in Scandinavia During the Viking Period," thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1978, p. 76). Multiple wives were normal, as Adam of Bremen states: "Only in their sexual relations with women do they know no limits. According to his means a man has two or three or more wives at the same time." (Jacobsen, "Sexual Irregularities," p. 82). --- Please keep in mind though, Tacitus, in his late first century work Germania said that the German (barbarian) people were monogamous (ch 18) and did not tolerate adultery (ch 19). However, it appears that the Saxon Heathens in Saxony, having zero polygamous mentions in the capitulae and the Lex Saxonum, were monogamous, as the Christian Franks never ever accused the Saxons of being anything but monogamous, despite giving long lists of the behaviors of the Saxons that were not Christian.
Concubines (wives with no inheritance rights) were always women of the lowest social class and entering into concubinage with a man of higher social status was advantageous for these women. The concubine was never eligible to become her lover's wife due to the difference in social class, and a concubine could not be a threat to the wife's position (Ruth M. Karras, "Concubinage and Slavery in the Viking Age," Scandinavian Studies. 62 : pp. 141-162. See also Eric Oxenstierna. The Norsemen. Greenwich CT: New York Graphic Society, 1965, p. 211). While this seems to be the rule in Norse Society, Saxon Society it was different. The Lex Saxonum, the Laws of the Saxons, forbid intermarriage between the castes (or classes) with the Death Penalty (Lex Saxonum, #20, year 782 AD).
In Norse society, marriage was a means for forging alliances with other families. A marriage "meant a chance for the bride's family to make an alliance with another important family... and thus be assured of support in its dealings at the local thing and Alþingi" (Jacobsen, Position of Women, p. 40). Marriages were arranged by the families of the bride and groom during Heathen Times. Love between the two partners was insignificant compared to bride-price. (Jochens, Icelandic Heroine, p. 37). The sagas support this view, for they "are not particularly interested in good marriages: post-nuptial remarks like 'their love began to grow' or 'their marriage became good' indicate that love did happen. (Roberta Frank, "Marriage in Twelfth- and Thirteenth-Century Iceland," Viator 4 : p. 478). Heathens did not practice what we would recognize as dating, i.e. (test driving a marriage via “dating.”).
When negotiating began between two families, important men, not members of the family, were brought in as witnesses. (Jesse Byock, Feud in the Icelandic Saga. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. p. 75). When the two families came to agreement, the next step was to negotiate the bruðkaup or bride-price (Foote and Wilson, p. 113). The bride-price consisted of three payments: from the groom would come the mundr and morgengifu, while the bride's family provided the heiman fylgia. The mundr was a "bride-price." (Ibid.). The mundr was calculated to be similar in worth to the girl's dowry or heiman fylgia, but was set at a statutory minimum of eight ounces of silver in Iceland and twelve ounces in Norway. A minimum payment was required due to the Heathens’ concern for the economic support of any children produced by the couple: a man who could not afford the "poor-man's-price" had no hope of supporting his offspring, and should therefore not marry (Jacobsen, Sexual Irregularities, p. 75). The payment of the mundr served also to compensate the bride's family for the loss of her labor at the homestead.
Tacitus records that a Germanic groom brought to the marriage "oxen, a horse with its bridle, or a shield, spear and sword" (Tacitus. The Agricola and the Germania. trans. Harold Mattingly. Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1970. p. 116). In Norway, one mundr was "twelve oras, the worth of four to five cows" (Jacobsen,Position of Women, p.111). The balance of the mundr was usually payable at the time of the wedding ceremony in Germanic cultures, but often an arrha, a pledge or "down-payment" was made as an earnest of good faith during the negotiations (Suzanne Wemple. Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister 500-900. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981. p. 32).
A second sum payable by the groom after the consummation of the wedding was also set at the negotiations: this was the morgen-gifu, the "morning-gift." The morning-gift was given to the woman as compensation for her sexual availability to her husband, or for her virginity if she were a maiden (Foote and Wilson, p. 113). The morning-gift was related to the woman's wergeld, since pregnancy generally represented the most substantial hazard to health and life a woman was likely to face. The morning-gift served to ensure the wife's financial support during the marriage, and thus she always had the use of the morning-gift, and often owned it outright from the time it was given (McNamara and Wemple, p. 106).
The final sum set during the marriage negotiations was the heiman fylgia, the bride's dowry (Foote and Wilson, p. 113). The dowry represented a girl's portion of her father's inheritance: although she did not inherit funds as her brothers did, the dowry allowed her to also share in the family's wealth (Jacobsen, Position of Women, p. 37).
Once the financial negotiations were completed, the arrangement was completedwith the handsal (hand shake with important non-family members as witnesses). The witnesses would number at least six men, "since the oral agreement reached would have validity only as long as the witnesses were alive" (Frank, p. 475-476).
The bride's preparations began with a visit to the bath-house, which featured wooden tubs of water, soap for cleansing, and a steam room. The last preparations of the bride would involve dressing her for the ceremony. The bride apparently did not wear a special outfit as we do today. The bride's hair would be left outspread: the wedding ceremony and the feast would be the last times when she would wear her hair unbound and uncovered. (Williams, pp. 85-87).
To replace the kransen she wore as a maiden, the bride would instead wear the bridal-crown, a heirloom kept by her family and worn only during the wedding festivities (Undset, p. 331). The groom's attendants would be his father and brothers. The groom was required to obtain an ancestral sword belonging to a deceased forebear for use later in the wedding ceremony. There is a string tradition in the sagas of breaking grave-mounds in order to retrieve a sword belonging to a deceased forebear, to be given to a son of the family, and Hilda Ellis-Davidson finds evidence for the importance of such a sword at the wedding (Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson. "The Sword at the Wedding," in Patterns of Folklore. Ipswich UK: D.S. Brewer, 1978. p. 123). This would indeed be a powerful ritual of separation and destruction of the man's identity as a bachelor, with the descent into the grave-mound to recover the sword serving as a symbolic death and rebirth for the groom. I doubt that this was the case in Saxony, as I see no evidence for it. The groom would next pay a visit to the bath house as his bride-to-be had done before him. (Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson, "Thor's Hammer, " in Patterns of Folklore. Ipswich UK: D.S. Brewer. 1978. p. 123).
The wedding began with the exchange of dowry and mundr before witnesses. The ceremony would have been held outdoors, in a Sacred Grove or vé (Old Norse) or “uuih” (in Old Saxon). The first part of the religious ritual was designed to summon the attention of the gods and goddesses via invocation and blot. In a blot, the goði or gyðja (Norse) or weofodthegn (Saxon) performed the ritual by slitting the animal's throat and then catching the blood in a bowl consecrated for that purpose (modern day Ásatrúar generally use mead instead of a live sacrifice). The flesh of the sacrificed animal would later form a part of the wedding feast (Williams, p. 387). The bowl was then placed on a stone altar called a horgr built of heaped stones. A branch, known as the hlaut-teinn, was then used to sprinkle the nuptial couple and assembled guests in order to confer the strength of the Gods and Goddesses upon them. Next, the groom would present his bride with the sword of his ancestors which he had so recently recovered. The bride was to hold this sword in trust for her son, just as was done by earlier Germanic tribes as described by Tacitus: "She is receiving something that she must hand over intact and undepreciated to her children, something for her sons' wives to receive in their turn and pass on to their grandchildren" (Tacitus, p. 117). She then gave her husband the sword which had preceded her to the ceremony. (Ibid., p. 116).
Following the exchange of swords, the bride and groom exchanged arm-rings. The bride's ring was offered to her on the hilt of the groom's new sword, and his tendered to him in the same fashion: this relationship of sword and rings further "emphasizes the sacredness of the compact between man and wife and the binding nature of the oath which they take together, so that the sword is not a threat to the woman only, but to either should the oath be broken" (Ellis-Davidson, Sword at the Wedding, p. 95). With the rings upon their arms, and their hands joined upon the sword-hilt, the couple then spoke their vows.
After the conclusion of the wedding ceremony came the bruð-hlaup or "bride-running," an actual race between the bride and grooms parties. Whichever group arrived last at the hall had to serve the ale that night to the members of the other party. Since the grooms party typically raced on horseback, they won every time. When the bride arrived at the door of the hall, she was met by the groom, who blocked her entrance into the house with his bared sword laid across the entry-way (Ellis-Davidson, Sword at the Wedding, p. 96). This allowed the groom to lead his new bride into the hall, ensuring that she would not stumble over the threshold.
These preliminaries over, the feast began. The most important part of the feast was the ceremonial drinking of the bridal ale, another of the legal requirements set forth by Grágás for the marriage to be considered valid (Frank, pp. 476-477). Here the new wife would first assume the foremost of her official duties as a housewife, the ceremonial serving of drink.
The next requirement of the marriage was that the groom must be put to bed with his wife, after being led there by six witnesses "with light." (Frank, pp. 475-476). After the witnesses left, the marriage was consummated. The following morning, the new wife was escorted into the hall to complete the final legal requirements of the marriage. Before witnesses, the husband paid his wife the morning-gift, signifying that the marriage was now complete, and delivered into her keeping the keys to the various locks of his house, symbolizing her new authority as mistress of the household (Williams, p. 97).
A Heathen Marriage Ceremony from 2017
July 15, 2017:
The Brudcop (Old Saxon for “bride-purchase”). The purpose of the Brudcop was to reimburse the bride’s family for the loss of the mægen (pronounced “may-yen”) or spiritual luck the bride carried within her. Women were seen as very powerful carriers of the family mægen, and more intimately connected to the uurd and idisi (the female ancestral spirits) of the clan than men. They served as head of the household, and did many of the chores that ensured the community would survive. Therefore, when they left to marry, the family suffered a great loss. The Brudcop should not be seen as purchasing a bride. It was an attempt to equalize gift for gift. This gift for a gift scenario is seen throughout the ancient marriage process, and was a way of exchanging mægen between the couple and their families. It was in essence, fusing members of the two clans into one family. The exchange process continued from the start of the proposal throughout the wedding ceremony.
1. XXXXX will make an announcement at the Thing that the Brudcop has been paid, i.e. the diamond ring on XXX's finger.
2. XXXXX will make an announcement that he will provide a ring as the morgengifu to XXXXX, on the morning after the wedding.
3. XXXXX and XXXXX will shake hands agreeing on these gifts before the Thing. XXXXX will state something along the lines of “We make this agreement with you all as witnesses, that we are making a true oath to perform our marriage and that XXXXX will fulfill giving the morgengifu on the morning after the wedding.”
August 26, 2017:
1. Late morning of the wedding, the bride would cleanse herself. Groom would cleanse himself. In Heathen times, each would go separately to the stánbaþ, the bride being attended by her bride’s maids and then they would dress her in her wedding gown and bridal wreathe. (Please note, we must buy a bridal wreathe.) The groom would also go to the stánbaþ separately from his ride, and dress himself afterwards. Please note that the bride and groom apparently did not wear a special costume as is the case in modern weddings.
2. The Bride and her daughters (maids) and the Groom and his sons (attendance) will drive separately to the wedding at the Forrest Preserve site on 135th/Romeo in Romeoville.
3. The Wedding Ceremony:
Items Needed: The wedding bags, wedding rings, the groom’s ancestral sword, a new sword to be given from bride to groom, wolf cup, altar off to the side, blod bowl, incense, offering plate, Thunaer, Uuoden, and Sassnoth weos.
a) The Wedding Trip
The bride with her attendants go to the site of the wedding at the appointed time. She is preceded by her maids bearing the new sword to be given to the groom. The groom likewise, bearing his ancestral blade is accompanied by the groomsmen to the site.
b) Site setup
Only need the two bags, two rings, and two swords. Wéofodþegn needs incense and any item to create sacred space.
c) Hallowing the Site
The wéofodþegn states a brief bede to Thunaer, Uuoden, Sassnoth, and the Saxon Ancestors. He confirms that two have gathered to take oaths to be man and wife. The wéofodþegn uses incense to create sacred space.
d) Exchange of Handgeld and Brýdgifu
Wéofodþegn to groom: “Do you have the handgeld as you oathed to have?”
Groom to father of bride:
“I give you this, the handgeld as I oathed to do.”
A few words may be added describing the handgeld.
Wéofodþegn to father of the bride: “Do you have the brýdgifu as you oathed to have?” Father of the bride: “Yes.” The father of the bride then gives her the brýdgifu with these words: “I give you this brýdgifu to have and hold all of your days.”
The brýdgifu and handgeld have been gifted and given. The holy oaths have thus been held. Now let the bridegroom and bride wed.”
d) The Exchange of Swords
The groom gives the ancestral sword to the bride with some words that it is to be held in trust for their first born when of age. The bride then gives the groom a new blade, so that he never be unarmed and be able to defend the family.
e) The Exchange of Rings, Oaths, and gift of the House Keys
The couple should then exchange vows and rings. These oaths are
best written by the couple and should involve any premarital agreements that were made. Both the groom’s oath and the bride’s should end with something like “With this ring, I thee wed,” with the placement of the ring upon the other’s wedding finger. The bride’s ring must be offered her on the hilt of the new sword symbolizing the groom’s trust in her. Finally, the groom’s house keys are given to her, as she becomes the new head of his household.
f) The Pronouncement The wéofodþegn witnessing the vows then pronounces the couple werman and wife and states whatever else may be needed to meet with the laws of the state or country the wedding is being performed in.
3) The Brýdeala Ideally the brýdeala, or “bride ale,” the marriage feast should take place immediately after the pronouncement with no apparent break in the ceremony. However if this is not possible, it is permissible to break the wedding and brýdeala into separate ceremonies. Regardless, all should be seated at the start of the rite. A brýdeala is little different from a standard blót. The following is an adaptation of the standard Englathod húsel outline for the purpose of a wedding:
Items Needed: A “Loving Cup,” a bowl of kasa (ON) with handles Feast gear Blót bowl Blót tine
a) Hallowing of the Bride-The wéofodþegn hallows the bride by laying the hammer in her lap, and says something like “Þunor bless the bride, hallowed by hammer in sacred hall.” The wéofodþegn then helps the bride to her feet, and proceeds with the blót.
b) The Hallowing-The bride takes the blót bowl, and the “loving cup” and fills them with mead. The wéofodþegn then passes the drink and food over a flame, and sains the hammer over them. He or she may wish to say something like “wassail this food!” The flame and the words are intended to ensure the food and rink brings health by driving away illness causing wights.
c) The Blessing-The bride blesses the groom and the groom her. The bride then assists the wéofodþegn in sprinkling the gathered folks by carrying the blót bowl around as he or she blesses the folk.
d) The Fulls-The bride and groom use the loving cup to make their toasts to the Gods. Fríge and Fréo are the most important to toast as they are the goddesses to ensure a good marriage. When their toasts are made, both drink from the loving cup at once. If not, the other holds the cup as the other drinks.
e) The Housel-The food and drink are then consumed by all gathered. Following the feast, one may hold symbel or dancing or any number of activities. Eventually, however, the brýdhlóp should take place. This was the journey to the new home. In ancient times, this was a race by the separate parties to the new home. The party that lost had to serve the other at the next feast. Regardless of who gets there first, the groom blocks the door, and then carries or leads the bride over the threshold.
The month following the wedding was called the hunigmonaþour or “honeymoon.” For the next month, the couple should drink mead daily. The next morning, the groom should present the bride with the morgengifu. Under Icelandic law, where marriages were often arranged for reasons other than love, witnesses to the consummation of the wedding were required. However, this does not appear in Anglo-Saxon law codes, where most married for love. In today’s law, even those of an Icelandic Heathen bent should probably waive this requirement. Join us on Facebook, in the closed group called "Aldsidu: Saxon Heathenry"