Historical Concepts of Gifting

Posted in Uncategorized on May 17, 2013 by thebanned

In line with my “post already done articles while I wait to come up with something worth posting that’s original” I give you the gifting paper I have written.

Historical Concepts of Gifting

Gary P Golden Jr.

“From the gods to the earth to us, from us to the earth to the gods, a gift for a gift.”

Most, if not all, modern Heathens use this phrase in one form or another; it is usually used at the end of a ritual while gifts or offerings are being libated, immolated or given to the gods.

But what does gifting, whether to the gods or to one another, actually mean to modern Heathens and what role does it play?  In this paper we will look at some historical examples of gift exchange and the reasoning and methods behind them.
We have examples of gift exchange in the Sagas-gift giving was intertwined with the society and culture of the time. Gift exchange was done by habit as well as by ritual, but while it was a social undertaking, it was also not free from conflict. For example, feasts were often occasions where gifts were exchanged  also could become sources of insult and slighted sensibilities (Eyrb. 37 : 98-99; Hafl. 10: 23-27; Ljós. 13: 17-18, 21: 58-59; Njála 35: 91) among those gathered as well as for the intention of eating, drinking and fostering and renewing the bonds of blood as well as alliance.[1] Invitations to feasts were often exchanged among friends and kin and while the parting gift was commonplace in the Sagas, the writers were aware when it was told of the leavings of especially unfriendly guests and hosts. It says in both Laxdæla saga and Þorgils Saga ok Hafliða that “It was not mentioned that he was sent on his way with gifts.”[2]

In Njáls saga it is said that the friendship between Höskuldr Hvítanessgoði and Njál’s family was so great that they invited each other to a feast every fall and handsome gifts were exchanged between them and “their vinátta was so great that they invited each other to a feast every fall and gave each other handsome gifts.” [3] The ties of contractual political friendship were known by the terms vinfengi and vinátta. While the two terms were used in similar ways the term vinátta was used more to describe genuine affection. The vinfengi and vinátta relationships were used to complement kin or goði-thingman obligations and that put individuals in a position to demand reciprocity, which was underscored as in the example given above in Njáls saga. It was in this context that vinfengi was yet one more way to supplement blood kin relationships and the nonblood kinship bonds formed by marriage, fosterage and sworn brotherhood.[4]


There are examples of gift exchange that runs the gamut from friendship, attempting to win protection for outlaws by presenting chieftains with gifts, for attending a funeral banquet, placating an opposing chieftain as well as trying to maintain peace. In Ljósvetininga saga for example Solmundr returns to Iceland in violation of his sentence. He brings for the two chieftans, Guðmundr and þorgeirr goði, gifts that have been provided by the Norwegian Jarl Hákon  to buy protection for the outlaws.[5] In Landnámabók the tale is told of the sons of the noble Hjalti and how they appeared at the ting so clothed that ‘people thought the Aesir had come’. To the funeral banquet of their father they summoned all the chieftains in Iceland and many others, in all 11,740 persons, ‘and all the distinguished men left the feast with presents.’ [6]


In Laxdæla saga once Höskuldr is in charge of the defense, he seeks to placate the opposing chieftain with handsome gifts; at the same time he tells Thórðr gellir that Vigdís has brought no charges that would legally justify her leaving her husband.[7] And finally another example can be found in Reykdœla saga in which a long feud between Vémundr kogurr Þórisson (Fjorleifarson) and Steingrímr Ornólfsson. In one case, Vémundr talks an idiot, þorgeirr, into throwing a sheep’s head at Steingrímr. þorgeirr is killed by Steingrímr. Áskell Eyvindarson tries to maintain the peace by giving Steingrímr three good gifts to compensate for the insult, but Steingrímr refuses them. Steingrímr waits two years and then kills Vémundrs brother.[8]

While the idea of reciprocal gift exchange was something deeply ingrained and was a societal and cultural norm, it was far from being that simple. One just did not give gifts and expect nothing in return, reciprocity was key. One of the subtle, or not so subtle, nuances of gift exchange was the premise that if a gift was not compensated for by a gift of equal value that it would make the recipient dependent on the donor and in turn this would not only humiliate him but it also could endanger his honor, his freedom and even his life.  The donor could triumph over his rival in this way by asserting his own prestige and this is because the objects (gifts) that were bestowed were not regarded as inanimate and inert objects but were thought to have contained part of the individual who bestowed them and therefore a connection would be established between the donor and the recipient of a gift and that would make the latter put under an obligation to the former.[9]

In the game of gift giving it was the giver who gained prestige and power from the exchange, he was in fact showing how rich and or powerful he was to those either in his retinue or those he wished to make subordinates and the giver exacted deference from the receiver and obliged him to reciprocate. Another nuance of the exchange is that the amount and place of return, but more importantly its timing, was left totally to the discretion of the gift’s recipient; however, that the discretion was guided by normative and contextual restraints. Time was not something that burdened the debtor with any concern about increases in the value of his obligation (there was no accrued interest to speak of) and the gift he was to reciprocate did not increase the longer he waited to repay the original gift. The time to reciprocate was at his discretion and could be manipulated to readjust or redefine the relationship between himself and the gift giver. This absence of a prior formal agreement that regulated both the amount and timing of the return is explicitly mentioned in Grágás as the defining characteristic of gift exchange: a gift could not be the result of a private prearrangement.

He also could choose from a few different options, one of which being he could decide to insult the giver by refusing the gift or by reciprocating too hastily. He could choose to excessively delay the return or make no return whatsoever and depending on the circumstances surrounding the parties, this could signal either utter contempt for him or permanent subordination. Social relations, the definitions and determination of status is much of what motivated gift exchange.[10]

This double-edged effect, a gift being a sign of honor or of dishonor, of subjugation as of submission lies near to the center of human life. It calls forth boldness in the receiver, it flings him back on his defense; a man may fear his neighbor’s gold, or he may make use of it; but he never plays with it. When a man resigns after long service, and the king gives him the sword he himself has long borne, with the words: “I think luck will go with it, and thereto you shall also have my friendship,” then the man has luck added to that he previously possessed, he gains era, honor, as the gift is actually called in early Saxon.[11] . The effects produced by gift exchange will also depend on the relation between the two lucks colliding.

As an alliance with an equal or a superior can give an increase in strength, so also union with luck of an inferior character prove to be a hindrance. The refusal of a gift thus easily takes on a touch of affront; a plain and distinct “my luck is too good,” and at the same time its equivalent “I do not trust in your honor, your will.” This is clearly expressed in Hord’s saga when the hero declares his doubts about the acceptance of a friendly gift by saying: “I do not quite know about this, for it seems to me likely that you will not keep your friendship with me.” The same occurs with Einar Thambarskelfir, the Norwegian magnate, and Thorstein, the son of Siduhall, an Icelander of good standing who had made himself obnoxious to the king of Norway. Thorstein sought refuge with Einar and offered him a stately gift, but Einar was reluctant to bind himself to the outlaw, being loth to involve himself in any conflict with his king.

When Einar gently draws back, Thorstein urges his gift in these words: “You can surely accept a gift from such a man as I.” Einar’s son Eindridi, on the other hand, approves of the gift, and of the man as well. “There is good man’s worth (mannkaup) in him,” he says to his father, meaning: he is a man with whom it is worthwhile to close a bargain (kaup), and when, in opposition to his father’s wish, he has accepted the splendid horse’s, EInar is forced to urge the cause of the outlawed Thorstein before the king, even going to the length of threatening to renounce his allegiance and stand up in arms against his lord.[12]

When you have an inferior man dealing with a greater, and especially one with king’s luck, the effect can only be the greater luck will swallow up the less. The king’s men, whose center of will and devotion must be the king, are his “ring takers”, and their power and good fortune are dependant on his progress. As long as they accept his gifts and eat his bread, they fight only for him and for his honor, and only thereby for their own. The enormous superiority of his luck renders the position one-sided, which amounts to almost submission on their behalf. However between two who would recognize themselves as being equals, the gifts must then be reciprocal for if not one could acquire the advantage. It is altogether different however for a king and his subjects, a king’s gifts are not requited as ordinary gifts were.


The Norwegian Gulathingslov and Icelandic Gragas both set rules regarding the reciprocity of gifts as well as their disposition amongst heirs. The rule of obligatory compensation for gifts was observed in practice and men in fact were extremely wary about accepting the possessions of others without proper compensation for fear of becoming dependent on the donor. In the Icelandic sagas this can be found when important persons moved to Iceland refused to accept portions of land from the original inhabitants without paying for them. An example of this is the islands discoverer Ingolf Arnarson who offered his kinswoman Steinunn the Old one of the estates is his possession. In that instance Steinunn preferred instead to give him an embroidered mantle of English manufacture in exchange for the land and wished the acquisition be treated as a purchase ‘ so it seemed to her less dangerous in the event of a dissolution of their agreement’.[13]


There were also some settlers who thought it preferable to seize land by force rather than receive it from someone as a gift. This was the case with Halkel, a settler who was offered part of the estate of his kinsman Ketilbjorn after spending the first winter in Iceland with him. Ketilbjorn offered him a part of his land but Halkel thought it humiliating to take it from him and challenged Grím to a duel because of it. Grím fell in the subsequent challenge, and afterwards Halkel began living on his land.[14]

It was mentioned earlier about how gift giving was a reciprocal undertaking. If gift giving was reciprocal then how did one ensure the gift was in fact reciprocated? If a country such as Iceland with its population spread out over such distances managed to do it, the question arises of how in fact did they do it?


The answer lies in that it was done in a manner that by individuals constantly transferring items between one another it ensured social contact between them. The act of gifting was heavily invested in ritual and there was a magic, religious and ethical nature behind the concept of the value of these gifts. It represented a means of social contact, along with marriages, mutual favors, sacrificial offerings and other acts of worship. In all of the rituals mentioned there was an exchange of relationship between tribes, families and individuals as well as between humans and the gods. The exchange of gifts achieved regular contact between component groups of a community. Through mutual visits, the attending of celebrations, which naturally were accompanied by gifts and festivities, a form of “give and take” was established.[15]


It did not matter if the gift was an object of worth or if it was a marriageable woman between two groups of people, the groundwork was laid for continued, definite relationships and with this relationship came dramatic and emotional content between the groups. It also seems that the exchange of objects was frequently irrational, if regarded from the point of view of the value of the object being given, but was did matter was not the object itself but that the person who owned it chose to transfer it.[16] The concept of the value of these gifts was deeply affected by various phenomena of a magical, religious and ethical nature. The economic role of gift giving in these archaic cultures was invested in rituals and myths.[17]

In his examination of the principle of gift-compensation among the Scandinavians of the pagan period, Vilhelm Grønbech advanced the theory that, in accordance with the ideals held at that time, any gift laid the recipient open to obligations towards the donor. Underlying the gratitude felt by anyone who accepted the gift was the realization that by so doing he might find himself inseparably linked with the donor. But a connection of this kind was not always desirable; it could involve humiliation for the recipient. For, if a gift was not returned by a compensatory offering, the man accepting it would be subordinated to the man who had conferred it.[18]


Grønbech also goes on to say that the exchange of gifts is the only way to friendship and alliance and found in the sagas are such phrases as “They gave each other gifts, and parted as friends”, “they exchanged gifts and made a pact of friendship together” and “there was between them a warm friendship and exchange of gifts” that would back this claim up.[19]

One of the motifs in the poetry we have is the generosity of the kings and the loyalty of the men who were in their retainer, such favors however also had the effect of preserving the insuperable bond between them and their overlord- up to and including death. What is interesting is that gold and silver did not themselves contain blessings regardless of who owned but actually came to comprise an inherent part of the qualities of their owner. They “absorbed” the prosperity of the person who owned them and retained those qualities. This is one of the reasons why associates and retainers of chieftains were so eager to obtain gifts from them in hopes of acquiring a portion of their success and good luck which had clearly come to their superiors.[20]

In Culture of the Teutons vol. II Grønbech says that

“When Magnus the Good stood forth at the Uplands thing and promised forgiveness and favour to all who had conspired against his father King Olaf if they would turn to him with goodwill and a whole mind, Thrond accepted the offer as a spokesman for the people: “My kinsmen have been unfriends of the king’s race, but I myself had no part in Olaf’s death; if you will exchange cloaks with me, then I will promise and keep good friendship.” The king was willing. “And will you also exchange weapons with me?” Thrond continued. This too the king agreed to do. And afterwards Thrond invited the king home to his house and gave a splendid feast.”

He also goes on to further state that one who has exchanged weapons with a stranger can lie down to sleep by his side; he can do no harm. Once can even leave the other to keep guard against a third party, for the security produced by the gift is not restricted to a passive refraining from action. “As father to son, as son to father, thus the two now reconciled meet in all doings together where need shall arise,” runs the formula. When enemies are encouraged to reconcile in order to help one another is only done when there is a reality  to dictate the conditions. And the reality is this; that the gift comes dripping with memories and honor, and surrenders itself with friends and foes, gods and forefathers, past and future purpose. It is solely by virtue of these regenerating qualities that a gift is able to touch the wells from which feelings arise; it fosters not only unity of will, but also affection, joy and well-being in a relationship.[21]

The poem of allegiance par excellence, Bjarkamál, runs through the entire soul-gamut of the body guard, from the coolest assurance of will to self forgetfulness in another, a king’s man returns again and again to the joy of gold, in order to be certain of himself:

“Gladly we render again to the prince his gifts, gladly we grasp the sword and harden our blade’s edge in honor. The swords, the helms, the rings Hrolf strewed among his men, the byrnies reaching to our heels, these whet our hearts for the fight. Now is the time come, now is the honor, that we with good blows give worth again for what was given us when we stretched our limbs in frith upon the bench…

“Go we forward now as Hrolf taught us. Hroerek he slew, the miser king, the heaper-up of treasures to rust in dishonor, whose hall grew void of honor-loving men. Hrolf slew him; plundered his closets and made his friends to shine in the bright gear of the niding. Never a thing so fair to him but he strewed it abroad, never too costly to clothe a henchman. His years he reckoned by harvest of honor, not by store of gold…

“Shields behind! Let us fight with bared breast. Make heavy the arms with gold, hang rings upon the right, that blows may fall harder. In, under the swords, to avenge our loved lord. Him I name happiest, who with the sword heaps up the slain in payment…

“Honor receives us as we fall before the eyes of the King. The little time left, let us use to spread our death-place with reknown. By my chieftain’s head will I suffer myself to be stricken to earth; at his feet fall thou stumbling to thy death; that they who search among the slain may see how we repaid our lord his gold…Thus it behooves us atheling’s, the war-fain, to fall, close to our king, one in our death and in fame.”

The poem continues in this fashion, verse upon verse. The poem is inspired throughout with the complete fusion of the warrior with his lord. The one thing that is always uppermost whenever enthusiasm gathers to a fresh culmination is this: gold. The need of repaying the king’s generosity is the moral incentive in the appeal. The moment the man feels his master’s ring on his arm, or his weapon in his hand, then the king’s honor, ancestors, aims, pride, flow up through the arm of the receiver; at once he feels and lives the contents of the ring. The union with the giver is completed in conditions of life as well as in thoughts.[22]

The real center of any distinguished man’s house was where the feast was held and the two most important focal points in Scandinavian social life were the feast and the ting. Their subjects, when it was their turn, would invite their leaders and protectors to feasts and give them gifts in hopes that they could count on them for their support and the gifts they expected to receive in return.[23] In fact, in the literature hospitality figures so prominently we can judge the quality of a relationship between people by whether or not the host sent his goes off with “good gifts.”[24] The epithets vinsaell (“happy in his friends”, “beloved by many”) and vingjof (“a gift of friendship”) occur often in the sagas and yet in the kings’ sagas we have evidence of something almost unheard of in that the sons of the Norwegian king Eirik Blood-Axe were so tight fisted that they were compared to simple peasants.

If you look at tradition in the sources, when a successful king ruled and was generous in feasts and entertainment peace reigned, cattle were bred and the land brought forth harvests and fish were caught in the sea and this was not just considered simply a moral duty but it was also a quality possessing certain magical and sacramental properties. It was not only kings but also nobles who were known for having rich feasts and having bestowed gifts upon his guests and the memory of a generous hofdingjar was transferred from one generation to the next.

Now that we discussed some of the occasions when gifts were given and why I would like to point to some examples of gifting as it relates to feuds and how they could be used to resolve them. In his book “Feud in the Icelandic Saga”, Jesse L. Byock gives some examples from the sagas where gifting to resolve conflict has occurred. In Fóstbroeðra saga for example, Ingólfr sviðinn and Thorbrandr, his son, both ójafnaðarmenn steal from farmers around Jokulsfirðir. Their chieftan, Vermundr inn mjóvi, protects them because they have given him good gifts. In Guðmundar saga dýra  Hrafn Brandsson is killed by Hákon Þórðarson, lover of Hrafn’s wife, Guðrún Þórðardóttir. Hakon is the nephew of the chieftain   Guðmundr dýri, who takes the case. Guðmundr sends for Erlendr, Hrafn’s brother, and tries to settle the matter. Erlendr, well disposed toward settlement, sends for Hakon’s father,  Þórðr Þórarinsson but Þórðr will settle only if Guðrún pays half the fine.


Guðmundr and the priest Flosi arbitrate the dispute and make a substantial award, including two pieces of land, to the dead man’s kinsmen. Gifts are exchanged and Guðrún and Hákon marry. And finally we have in Reykdœla saga, Steingrímr Ornólfsson is insulted by having a sheep’s head thrown at him at the instigation of Áskell Eyvindarson’s nephew, Vémundr. Askell tries to placate Steingrímr with generous gifts, but Steingrímr refuses to accept them. Two years later Steingrímr has Herjólfr, brother of Vémundr, killed. The killing is followed by arbitration, but the conflict continues.[25]


Grønbech also speaks about how enemies could settle their differences and form long lasting agreements between themselves and those near to them by entering into a bargain and the exchanging of gifts with one another. One such instance was the settlement of a dispute between Leuvigild, king of the Goths and Theodomer, king of the Suevi where as Grønbech had proclaimed their resolution could almost be matched word for word with phrases found in the sagas dealing with reconciliation, indicating  how that “they exchanged gifts, and returned, each to his home.” He further goes on to show that the giving of gifts to settle matters is not localized to that one matter, but any that arise in the future.


In Eric’s Law of Sealand this idea can be found that “men should be milder towards an enemy when he has paid his fine than towards any other, and even should he later give further cause of offence, one must not set off at once after vengeance, but first endeavour to obtain restitution at law. When Iceland was considering taking on the Christian faith, conflict arose between those wanting to take the new faith and those wishing to keep the old. Thorgeir the law-speaker spent the day “with his cloak over his head pondering on things present and to come, he came forth, the old heathen, with a law that forced all in under the new regime and made Iceland a Christian country. In a speech he told a story in which the kings of Norway and Denmark were at constant feud and the people wearied of the unending war. The people forced the kings to peace against their will by the simple exchanging of gifts given at some years’ interval ensuring their friendship lasted all their life.[26]


The reason that the giving of gifts carried such weight in these instances is that this method of weregild carried with it a real reconciliation. The Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian word bót means nothing more or less than mending or restoring. The bargain produced frith and brought about a relationship between them that made the breaching of that frith impossible in the sternest sense and therefore all of those members in the offended circle of kin must have a share in the payment thereby making all of the minds affected in a like manner. This frith is not only in effect for a short or determined period of time but for all time, as Grønbech states, as long as “wind soughs from the cloud, grass grows, tree puts forth leaves, sun rises up and the world stands.”[27]


We also have examples of gifting in the cases of advocacy, arbitration or in direct resolution. One other example is a fictitious kinship bonds, which was a way to gain protection either before or during a feud, which was the creation of ties between families. Fosterage, a bond of fictitious kinship, was especially common. In Reykdœla saga, Hánef fosters Vémndr Fjorleifarson’s daughter, þorkatla, and gives the father valuable gifts.

In Thorgils saga ok Haflida Haflidi is to settle between himself and Þorgils Oddason, whom  Hafliði has outlawed (ch.18). Trusting in his strength as a goði, Þorgils has refused to leave, although reconciliation has failed. Hafliði finally gets sjalfdoemi with the condition that Þorgils not be outlawed or lose his rights to his godord and farm. All conditions are carried out; after the settlement is specified, many men contribute towards its payment. The settlement is final and both sides hold to it. Þorgils sends Hafliði generous gifts and afterward they side together in legal cases.[28]


In Laxdœla saga farmer þórðr goddi, for protection in a divorce suit, approaches Hoskuldr Dala-Kollson. Hoskuldr however does not intend to support the farmer in his case unless he is compensated. Once he receives compensation, including having the farmer foster his favorite but illegitimate son Óláfr pái, he then deals with the powerful family of the farmers wife. He settles the suit by giving the family generous gifts and convincing them that they have no case.[29]


In the case of a gift being used to insult we have a reference in Ljósvetininga saga where Guðmundr inn ríki who has been greviously insulted by both þórir Helgason and þorkell hákr plans his revenge.He finds his opportunity when þórir  is found to possess some goats that should have been included in a féránsdómr (court of confiscation) that was conducted by Guðmundr . þórir offers Guðmundr a compromise in the case of the goats but the offer is refused because Guðmundr prefers to have þórir outlawed. In that same conflict, Guðmundr’s brother Einarr wants Guðmundr and þórir to compromise, but once again Guðmundr refuses. Einarr later on in the saga again tries to persuade his brother to settle.

Instead of reaching a compromise however, Guðmundr wants all of þórir’s possessions. In a dramatic gesture, Einarr throws a cloak on the ground as an insulting gift and the brother’s part on bad terms.[30]


The art of gift giving was anything but a one way endeavor, or simply the exchanging of gifts between two individuals. It was indeed part of the very fabric of the culture and was used as a political and social tool to cement friendships, settle strife and keep a king’s court loyal. There was always the underlying possibility that the gift could be refused or be given or repaid in insult. It is with these historical examples in mind that we as modern heathens should review and adjust not only our thoughts on the concept of gifting but also in the manner we go about it.


Brown, Ursula. Þorgils Saga ok Hafliða. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952.

Byock, Jesse L. Feud in the Icelandic Saga. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1982.

—. Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas and Power. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1988.

Cook, Robert. Njal’s saga. London: Penguin Group, 1997.

Grönbech, Vilhelm. Culture of the Teutons Vol II. London: Oxford University Press, 1931.

Gurevich, Aaron. Historical Anthropology of the Middle Ages. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.

Miller, William Ian. Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law and Society in Saga Iceland. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1990.

translation, Keneva Kunz. The Sagas of Icelanders ;The Saga of the People of Laxadral. New York: Penguin Books, 1997.


[1] Willian Ian Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland

[2] Laxdæla saga Ch. 85: 243; Þorgils Saga ok Hafliða Ch. 10:27

[3] Njáls saga Ch.17

[4] Jesse L. Byock, Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas and Power


[5] Ljósvetininga saga, Ch. 2-4

[6] Aaron Gurevich ,Historical Anthropology of the Middle Ages, Ch. 9 pg. 186

[7] Jesse L. Byock, Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas and Power Ch. 8: 171-172

[8] Jesse L. Byock ,Feud in the Icelandic Saga, Ch. 11: 273

[9] Aaron Gurevich, Historical Anthropology of the Middle Ages


[10] Willian Ian Miller , Bloodtaking and Peacemaking: Feud, Law, and Society in Saga Iceland

[11] Grønbech, The Culture of the Teutons, vol.II

[12] ibid

[13] Aaron Gurevich, Historical Anthropology of the Middle Ages

[14] ibid

[15] ibid

[16] ibid

[17] ibid

[18] ibid

[19] Vilhelm Grønbech, The Culture of the Teutons, vol.II

[20] Aaron Gurevich, Historical Anthropology of the Middle Ages

[21] Vilhelm Grønbech, The Culture of the Teutons, vol.II

[22] ibid

[23] Aaron Gurevich, Historical Anthropology of the Middle Ages

[24] Jesse L. Byock ,Medieval Iceland,

[25] Jesse L. Byock , Feud in the Icelandic Saga

[26] Vilhelm Grønbech, The Culture of the Teutons, vol.II

[27] ibid

[28] Jesse L. Byock, Feud in the Icelandic Saga

[29] ibid

[30] Jesse L. Byock, Feud in the Icelandic Saga

On blood sacrifice…

Posted in Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 by thebanned
This is the updated and amended article that was going to go into the second issue of Óðrœrir but didn’t make it due to my not being happy with the version I sent in. I am listing it here due to a blog post on Patheos regarding “bringing back sacrifice” and the slew of responses that accompanied it…including some from yours truly.

Blót versus Sacrifice: An Examination of Modern Heathen Terminology

One of the things that will incite passionate debate amongst heathens is the use of the terminology blót and sacrifice. In this paper I wish to take a look at it from a historical viewpoint as opposed to the current modern one  and the use of the term blót to describe a modern heathen ritual whether it includes blood sacrifice or not. I also wish to discuss how we can take what we know and apply it today. As mentioned above, the term blót is used even if no blood sacrifice takes place. I know for me personally after years of doing it in the current common fashion of just mead, words or the occasional votive offering and now most recently having actually conducted a blood sacrifice I can say my opinion has indeed changed. I now look at it as without blood, it is not a blót.


I am by no means saying the term must be thrown away in favor of something “more accurate” if one does not do blood sacrifice, but for us we call it and consider it a blót only if an actual blood sacrifice is made and only the actual act of the sacrifice is called blót with the rest of the festivities simply being called what they are. If we give anything other than blood we simply are giving votive or food offerings and while it is still a sacrifice it is not however blót and call it accordingly. In the surviving literature there are examples of what was believed to have taken place and, while not providing a detailed account of what took place during a blót, it gives us an outline. Some of these examples are found in Hákon inn goði saga, Eyrbyggja saga, and Ulfljótslög and are as follows.


According to Eyrbyggja sag:

 “But he set up for himself a great house at Hofsvógr which he called Hofstaðir. There he let build a temple, and a mighty house it was. There was a door in the side-wall and nearer to one end thereof. Within the door stood the pillars of the high-seat, and nails were therein; they were called the gods’ nails. There within was a great frith-place. But off the inmost house was there another house, of that fashion whereof now is the choir of a church, and there stood a stall in the midst of the floor in the fashion of an altar, and thereon lay a ring without a join that weighed twenty ounces, and on that must men swear all oaths; and that ring must the chief have on his arm at all man-motes.

On the stall should also stand the blood-bowl, and therein the blood-rod was, like unto a sprinkler, and therewith should be sprinkled from the bowl that blood which is called “Hlaut“, which was that kind of blood which flowed when those beasts were smitten who were sacrificed to the Gods. But round about the stall were the Gods arrayed in the Holy Place. To that temple must all men pay toll, and be bound to follow the temple-priest in all farings even as now are the thingmen of chiefs. But the chief must uphold the temple at his own charges, so that it should not go to waste, and hold therein feasts of sacrifice.”[1]


In the example in Hákon the Good’s saga it reads:

“It was an old custom, that when there was to be sacrifice all the bondes should come to the spot where the temple stood and bring with them all that they required while the festival of the sacrifice lasted. To this festival all the men brought ale with them; and all kinds of cattle, as well as horses, were slaughtered, and all the blood that came from them was called “hlaut”, and the vessels in which it was collected were called hlaut-vessels. Hlaut-staves were made, like sprinkling brushes, with which the whole of the altars and the temple walls, both outside and inside, were sprinkled over, and also the people were sprinkled with the blood; but the flesh was boiled into savoury meat for those present.

The fire was in the middle of the floor of the temple, and over it hung the kettles, and the full goblets were handed across the fire; and he who made the feast, and was a chief, blessed the full goblets, and all the meat of the sacrifice. And first Odin’s goblet was emptied for victory and power to his king; thereafter, Niord’s and Freyja’s goblets for peace and a good season. Then it was the custom of many to empty the brage-goblet; and then the guests emptied a goblet to the memory of departed friends, called the remembrance goblet.”[2]


And lastly it is says in Ulfljótslög:

 “A ring of two ounces in weight or more should lie on the platform in each main hof; the priest should have this ring on his arm at all legal assemblies which he himself was responsible for, and he himself should redden it beforehand with the red blood of an ox which he himself had sacrificed there. Every man who needed to perform any legal business at the court should first swear an oath on that ring and name two or more witnesses. He should say, “I name witnesses that I swear an oath on the ring, a lawful oath; so help me Freyr and Njordr and the almighty god insofar as I shall prosecute this case or defend it or bear witness or give verdicts or pass sentences, as I know to be most right and true and closest to the law; and perform all lawful acts that fall upon me while I am at the assembly.”[3]


There are a few other examples which we will discuss later but in the three accounts above there are similarities. Eyrbyggja speaks of the high seat pillars and the holy nails attached to them while both Eyrbyggja saga and Hákon the Good’s saga mention the platform, the idols , the sacrificial twig, the blood, the bowl that collects the blood and finally the armring that the goði wears when officiating. The account in Ulfljótslög however says nothing about any of these with the exception of the arm ring worn by the priest and the oaths. According to Terry Gunnell in “Hof, Halls, Goðar and Dwarves: An Examination of the Ritual Space in the Pagan Icelandic Hall” it seems that the emphasis is placed on the sacrificial feast and the arm ring and how it transforms the goði into something more powerful as part of their religious activities.


In regards to the similarities in the above accounts concerning the aspergillum, Jon Hnefill Aðalsteinsson says  “Holy water was sprinkled as a symbol of purification, but blood was sprinkled to charge the surroundings with power…”[4] and Gabriel Turville-Petre  interpreted Snorri’s idea of the sacrificial feast as follows: “The meaning of the sacrificial feast, as Snorri saw it, is  fairly plain. When blood was sprinkled over altars and men and the toasts were drunk, men were symbolically joined with gods of war and fertility, and with their dead ancestors, sharing their mystical powers. This is a form of communion.”[5]

It would seem then based on the accounts listed above that historically, the emphasis of blót was placed on the sacrifice, the blood from that sacrifice, and the individual officiating the sacrifice. If one were to look at the source material one would deduct that it is in fact blood. According to A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic by Geir T Zoëga blót is a sacrifice, sacrificial feast or banquet.[6] By contrast, it is common practice for most modern heathen groups to hold blót on a monthly basis to a different deity and that is where the emphasis is placed. While no actual blood sacrifice takes place at these the term bIót is used as a catch all phrase to describe the entire event as opposed to the act of what would be sacrificing the animal itself. In most instances words are spoken and food or votive offerings are given. It also has the added benefit of allowing them to get together on a regular basis to share in fellowship.


In contrast the word sacrifice can be used to mean any offerings given be they food or votive, other than blood. It seems that based on these definitions and literary accounts that blót was, in fact, a blood sacrifice, done in a ritualistic setting with the intention of gaining favor of the powers or fulfilling the contract between men and the powers.


However, not all forms of worship were blood sacrifices. Some other sources we have for worship in the form of sacrificial offerings come to us from Ibn Fadlan and his experience with the Rus in 922 in the Volga area:

“When their ships arrive at their anchorage each man goes on shore, taking with him bread, eggs, meat, leeks, milk and beer, and goes to a tall upright wooden post with a face that looks like a man’s. Round it there are smaller figures, and behind these figures high wooden poles planted in the ground. So he goes up to the big figure, flings himself on the ground, and says: “O my lord, I have come from far off with so many slave-girls and so many sable furs.” (here he counts up all the wares he has brought) “and now I come to you with this offering”. (Here he lays what he has brought in front of the wooden post.) “I wish that you would send me a merchant rich in dinars and dirrhems, who will buy from me as I wish, and will not argue with what I say.”[7]


He further explains that the merchant may repeat the offering several times if the trade is slow, but if it brisk he says:

“My lord has seen to my needs; it is my duty to repay him.” Fadlan says: “He goes to fetch a number of sheep and cattle, and slaughters them. Some of the flesh he gives as alms; the rest he takes and throws between the big post and the smaller ones surrounding it; the heads of the cattle and sheep he hangs up on the holes planted in the earth. After dark the dogs come and eat up all this; the man who has done it says: “Clearly my lord is pleased with me and has eaten my offerings.”[8]


In the account above from Ibn Fadlan we have an example of both votive offerings as well as blood sacrifice being given for the same purpose. The votive offerings were given to bring the trader merchants to buy his wares, and if and when he does well he thanks the powers by blood sacrificing to them.


That is another area where blood sacrifice differs. In most cases it seems the sacrifice was part of a larger gathering in which those in attendance while the other part was given to the gods. In some instances, such as Kormák’s saga, the entire animal was given:

 “There’s a certain hillock a short way from here, in which elves live. You are to take the bull that Kormak killed, redden the surface of the hillock with the bull’s blood, and make the elves a feast of the meat; then you’ll recover.”[9]


This idea however of communal feast should not be confused with blood sacrifices that would take place at large gatherings outside of religious festivals such as weddings, funeral feasts or assemblies and while these gatherings may have been religious but they were certainly also political as references found in the Book of Guta and Landnamabok.[10]


We also have accounts from the 950’s where Ibrahaim at-Tartushi was visiting Hedeby, there he noticed:

“They hold a feast at which they all gather to honor their god and to eat and drink. Whoever kills a beast as a sacrifice sets up a pole at the door of his house and fastens the animal to it (whether ox, ram, he-goat or pig); thus the people know he has made an offering in honor of his god.”[11]


An account from around 950 from Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitos tells of a perilous river journey and how after passing the rapids they came to an island in the Dnieper to make thank-offerings:

“Then they succeeded in reaching an island named after St. Gregory, to which they bring their offerings because a gigantic oak tree grows there. They make offerings of live birds; they stick javelins in a circle in the ground around them; others make offerings of bread and meat too, and whatever they each may have, as is the prevailing custom among them. Also they cast lots over the birds, whether they should slaughter them, or eat them themselves, or let them free.”[12]



Now that we have background on some of the ways in which the source material tells us as to how blót took place how can we as modern heathens apply it to today. According to Snorri, there were three principal sacrifices held. These were the time around Winternights, near midwinter (Yule) and at the approach of summer and according to Heimskringla:

 “Towards winter, sacrifice should be made for a good season, and at midwinter for good growth: the third, when summer came, that was a victory blót.” In Gisla saga: “Thorgrimr intended to have an autumn feast at the time of the Winter Nights to welcome winter and to sacrifice to Freyr.” The term Thorrablót is good evidence of a midwinter sacrifice; and in Vatnsdaela saga there is an illusion to sacrifice in the first days of summer: “Now his mother Ljot, will sacrifice towards summer, as she usually does according to their religion.”[13] Sacrifices though were in fact probably far more frequent, but the others would evidently have been minor ceremonies or else sacrifices for a particular purpose as was mentioned earlier.

Does all this information mean we can only hold blót at only these times of year? If one were to mold their practice as close to historical accuracy as possible then one could say that yes, these would be the times one would blót. I know for myself and our group, Yule and Midsummer are the two times of year we will blót, but we are also leaving the possibility of performing one during Winternights.


What we know from both literary and archeological records is that during blót, animals were sacrificed and their blood was smeared on the idols, people in attendance, altar and temple walls. In our grove to date we have performed two blóts, one at Midsummer in 2011 and again at Yule that same year and in both of these instances it was a pig which was the blót animal. The blóts that have taken place so far had the following format taken:

Prior to the blót all those in attendance were gathered and told what was going to take place and what to expect. If any roles were given to the attendants this was the time to do so as I feel it is necessary for all in attendance to be able to participate as opposed to just being present. It is also mentioned to be mindful of any omens witnessed during the blót. After this has been discussed we would wait about thirty minutes to allow everyone to get into the proper mindset and I would find a quiet place and prepare myself for what was about to happen.


It was then that we would make our way to the grove along with the blót swine and other blót tools such as the rifle, knife, hlaut-vessels, hlaut-stave, idols, mead, horn, pitcher of water and bowl and hand towels. At this point the cage would be opened and the swine coaxed out. I would use my grandfathers .22 rifle to make the killing shot at which point the swine would be lifted onto the altar where the neck would be sliced and the blood collected in the hlaut-vessel. The idols and godpoles were then bloodied with the blood collected in one of the hlaut-vessels and the rest poured onto the vé. It was then that the hlaut-stave was dipped into the smaller hlaut-vessel and the attendants sprinkled with blood as the words prepared were said aloud.


Once that was finished the task of bringing everything back to the house and the preparation of the blót swine began. The Midsummer pig was cooked whole with half the food being eaten at the feast and the other half being offered to the gods by placing it in the grove. The skull was also attached to a pillar in the grove. The Yule pig was quartered up with the head being placed on top of the Frey pillar and the skin hung from one of the trees inside the grove. It was in doing this that the gods received their share and saw that blót and feast was held in their honor.


It is with this historical evidence in mind, both literary and archeological, that while sacrifice and blót were both known to have taken place blót seems to have been strictly a blood sacrifice.

As was mentioned earlier, I am by no means saying the term must be thrown away in favor of something “more accurate” if one does not do blood sacrifice, but for us we call it and consider it a blót only if an actual blood sacrifice is made. If we give anything other than blood we simply are giving other sacrificial votive or food offerings and call it accordingly.






Aðalsteinsson, Hnefill Jón (1998): A Piece of Horse Liver, Háskólaútgáfan. Reykjavík


Gunnell, Terry (2001): Hof, Halls, Goðar and Dwarves: An Examination of the Ritual Space in the Pagan Icelandic Hall, Cosmos


Lucas, Gavin and McGovern Thomas (2007): Bloody Slaughter: Ritual Decapitation and Display at the Viking Settlement of Hofstaðir, Iceland, European Journal of Archeology; 10; 7


McTurk, Rory (1997): Sagas of Warrior Poets: Kormak’s saga, Penguin Classics, Great Britain


Pálsson, Herman and Edwards, Paul (1972): Eyrbyggja saga, Penguin Classics, Great Britain.


Simpson, Jacqueline (1967): Folklore, Vol. 78, No. 3, Taylor & Francis Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.


Sturlason, Snorri (1990): Heimskringla, Dover Publications, England.


Wawn, Andrew (1997): The Sagas of Icelanders: Vatnsdaela saga, Penguin books,Great Britain


Zoëga, Geir T, (2004): A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic, Dover Publications, England

[1] Eyrbyggja saga Ch. 4, p.29 1989

[2] Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla Ch.

[3] Terry Gunnell, Hof, Halls, Goðar and Dwarves: An Examination of the Ritual Space in the Pagan  Icelandic Hall

[4] Jon Hnefill Adalsteinsson, A Piece of Horse Liver

[5] ibid

[6] Geir T Zoëga, A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic

[7] Jacqueline Simpson,  Some Scandinavian Sacrifices

[8] ibid

[9] Kormák’s saga

[10] Lucas & McGovern, Bloody Slaughter

[11] Jacqueline Simpson,  Some Scandinavian Sacrifices

[12] ibid

[13] Andrew Wawn translation, Vatnsdaela saga

New beginnings, old news…

Posted in Uncategorized on April 12, 2013 by thebanned

So…what I plan on doing is taking some of my existing blog posts from my other blog that lies as dormant as Godzilla at the bottom of Tokyo Bay and transfer them here until I can get some sort of “order” as to what I want to post about. I usually blog about something that I feel the need to and may even take the occasional suggestion as to what to write about.  The formalities of introducing myself at this point are somewhat moot for anyone who listens to RavenRadio knows full well the exploits of The Angry Typer/The Banned but I will if I must so please do not hesitate to ask.



Posted in Uncategorized on April 11, 2013 by thebanned

ok…let’s see how this goes.