Historical Heathenry: Arm-rings & Oath Swearing
Updated: Sep 8, 2022
The Vikings TV show has caused a lot of Asatruar to buy arm-rings. The show has increased the popularity of arm-ring bracelets in modern Heathenry. The first episode of the Vikings TV show tells a story of boys' coming of age ceremony where they are given arm-rings in return for swearing an oath of loyalty to a chieftain. The TV show portrays these arm-rings as bracelets. How true are these depictions? Many rings for the arm and fingers have been found in areas of Scandinavian and Germanic areas of occupation. All tribes who venerated the Aesir have words for "arm-rings". The Old Saxon language has words like "bag" for "arm-ring" and "baguuini" meaning "arm-ring friend" and "bageba" meaning "arm-ring giver." 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 Germanic lands. The Old Saxon Heliand Poem matches the Sagas and Norse lore. Drohtins (the Old Saxon word for "chieftain") gave arm-rings to their thanes and warriors for performing well in battle and for their loyalty. While Old Saxon prefers the word "thegnos" meaning "thanes" (the "g" is pronounced as a "y" in the Old Saxon word, i.e. thaynos), Old Norse has different words. In Skáldskarpamál 53 Snorri Sturluson says: "Kings and Jarls have in their men called hirðmenn and húskarlar, but lendir menn also have men in their service who in Denmark and Sweden are known as hirðmenn, but in Norway húskarlar, and yet they take oaths just as hirðmenn do to kings."
The concept of Germanic warriors swearing oaths of loyalty to Drohtins or Jarls appears to have been true back into their antiquity, since Tacitus reports in his late first century work Germania: "When they go into battle, it is a disgrace for the chief to be surpassed in valour, a disgrace for his followers not to equal the valour of the chief. And it is an infamy and a reproach for one to have survived the chief, and returned from the field. To defend, to protect him, to ascribe one's own brave deeds to his renown, is the height of loyalty. The chief fights for victory; his vassals fight for their chief."
The first bond is that of the oath between king and his warriors. "All oaths are important in heroic society, but most important and most binding is the oath of loyalty to one's lord. This oath takes precedence over any oath which may conflict with it" (Cherniss, Michael D. Ingeld and Christ: Heroic Concepts and Values in Old English Christian Poetry. The Hague: Mouton. 1972. p. 63.) A second component in the oath sworn by the Germanic king to his new warrior might be that the lord would reward his new liegeman generously, earning the epithets such as the Old English terms beag-gyfa or beaga brytta ("ring-giver"), gold-wine ("gold-friend, prince, king"), or hord-weard ("treasure-hoard warder") to the point that these terms became synonyms for "king, lord, prince, ruler. Snorri Sturluson, in Skáldskarpamál 53, states: ...þeir menn, er hersar heita. Kenna má þá sem konung eða jarl, svá at kalla þá gullbrjóta ok auðmildinga... "...those men, who are called hersar (lords) can be referred to like a king or a jarl, by calling them gold-breakers and wealth-bountiful ones..." By being open-handed with gifts and riches given to the warrior the king fulfilled his side of the contract enacted by the fealty oath: "He beot ne aleh, beagas dælde, sinc æt symle." [King Hrothgar] did not leave unfulfilled his oath: arm-rings he dealt out, and treasure at the ale-feast. (Beowulf verses 80-81) This motif occurs in Old Norse poetry as well, for example Þjóðólfr Arnórsson calling King Haraldr, Lét vingjafa veitir, varghollr ("The dispenser of gifts to friends, benificent to the wolf"), showing both the king's generosity to his followers and using generosity as well in a kenning showing him as a warrior, leaving corpses upon which the wolves will dine or calling him snjóllum hrings, "giver of rings."
Saxo Grammaticus records the theme of vengeance owed by the warrior to his lord's slayer as well. After a young man named Wigg bestows King Hrólfr with his famous nickname, kraki, the king gifts the youth with a pair of arm-rings, and Wigg in turn makes an oath: "Nor was Wigg heedless to repay the kindness; for be promised, uttering a strict vow, that, if it befell Hrolfr to perish by the sword, he would himself take vengeance on his slayers." (Danish History, Book II).
The Germanic Heathen peoples used an oath sworn on a sword hilt since antiquity, as the custom is attested to in the writings of Ammianus Marcellinus (Ellis-Davidson, Sword in A-S England, p. 185). Many early Germanic swords are known to have had special rings set into their pommels, and it is believed that these rings were used as oath-rings (Ellis-Davidson, Sword in A-S England, p. 75), similar to the sacred arm rings made of silver or gold which were kept in the temples of Thórr. These oath-rings were used to swear oaths upon, by having the oath-giver place his hand upon the ring while swearing (Ellis-Davidson,Gods and Myths, pp. 76-77). Later, as ring-swords went out of fashion, the oath was sworn directly upon the sword itself rather than upon a ring associated with the sword.
Sumble, the most attested ritual in Old Germanic Heathen sources, shows much gift giving. Drohtins and Jarls/Kings would dispense to their loyal warriors bags and other precious gifts won in battle to their loyal followers in Sumble. The modern Asatru / Wiccan sabbat style sumble of passing one horn in a celtic circle, one person at a time, three total times, often excludes many important parts of Sumble: Thyles, swearing oaths, everyone having a cup to lift, skalds singing songs, scops singing poetry, and of course, the giving of gifts. One thing historical Heathenry seeks to bring back, is a historical Sumble where everyone has a cup (scalon) and can all (skal) or toast/boast together, as well as having rings for oathing in Sumble. ArmRings or Bags were often used as well at Thing, where cases were tried. Old Icelandic Úlfljót’s Law states: "A ring of two ounces or more [the stallahringr] should lie on the altar of every main temple. Every man who needed to perform legal acts before the court must first swear an oath on this ring and mention two or more witnesses. ‘I name witnesses’ he must say, ‘that I swear the oath on the ring, a lawful oath. So help me Freyr and Njörðr and the Almighty áss [the Aesir]..."
Arm-Rings were also used in Heathen marriages. (Please note, "handfasting" is a Celtic ritual, and a great one, but in this article, we are discussing Heathen Marriage.) From my article on historical Heathen marriage: "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 juxtaposition 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." We can't have a blog article on arm-rings without mentioning the most famous bag in Norse lore: Draupnir. Draupnir is an arm-ring owned by Odin with the ability to multiply itself: Every ninth night, eight new rings 'drip' from Draupnir (meaning "dripper"), each one of the same size as the original. Gylfaginning states: "Odin laid upon the pyre the gold ring called Draupnir; this quality attended it: that every ninth night there fell from it eight gold rings of equal weight. Come join us on the Facebook Group: "Aldsidu: Saxon Heathenry" and visit the YouTube page "Aldsidu." I would be remiss, if I did not answer the question: Where were arm-rings worn, on the wrist or upper arm above the elbow. While my personal belief is above the elbow on the arm, most archaeological finds show rings that seem to only fit a wrist. However, if they were worn on the wrist, they would not be on the shield hand. I own a few shields and when I use them, the arm-ring is clearly in the way, not able to lay your arm flat against the shield in a shield wall. Maybe therefore arm-rings were worn on the wrist of the sword hand. Nonetheless, I still hold the view that most were worn on the arm above the elbow, but opinion is divided here. The answer could be "both." The first picture below is of Arm-rings or Bags from the "Vikings" exhibit at the Chicago Field Museum, 2015. The rest are from Museums in northern Germany.