Ritual – Engagements & Weddings

Betrothals, weddings, and family life are topics on which enormous amounts of ink have been spilled. The family is sacred in heathenry (and not a few other philosophies) and has been numerous people’s topic of lifetime research and analysis, and everyone has an opinion. I can only touch on the highlights and make suggestions regarding ways to mark these milestones.

First off, I must point out that there are two very different conceptual approaches to weddings in the modern heathen community.

One is that getting married is essentially a private matter: a commitment to each other made by individuals. From this point of view, the public ceremony is not the “real” wedding, but something to please family and friends, or possibly the government, and hence a non-religious wedding (at City Hall, with a Justice of the Peace, and so on) is probably best; it doesn’t really matter, it is for show or for the pleasure of the members of both families (who are unlikely to be heathen). Thus in A Book of Troth, Edred Thorsson outlined a “private rite” for two people to marry each other with no one else there.1 It involves blóting together (with a shared horn) with oaths and an exchange of rings.

The other is that the essence of marriage is the alliance of two families and therefore that a public ceremony with oaths before kin and kindred is what makes a “real” wedding. Thus in Teutonic Religion, Kveldulf Gundarsson begins his section on weddings: “For the Teutonic peoples, a wedding was more than an affirmation of individual love and commitment; it was an economic and social transaction” and urges that for those in “a non-establishment standard living arrangement which is not expected to produce children,” blood siblinghood is a more appropriate rite since marriage is “specifically aimed at the continuance of the family line.”2


Both of these views of marriage can be justified.

The view that a marriage is a bonding of two families or clans and as such must begin with a ceremony in which they participate is solidly supported by Tacitus, who sets forth in Germania ch. 19 a process by which two families negotiate an alliance; the woman’s parents and other relations approve the man’s gifts, which include such symbolic as well as useful items as a pair of oxen yoked together and a horse caparisoned for war; a betrothal feast takes place before the gifts are formally rendered; and to complete the contract, the bridegroom gives a gift of arms to her husband. Tacitus admits that some men had more than one wife, but blames it on their being sought after for more than one alliance. He emphasizes the rarity and severe punishment of adultery, the husband cutting off his wife’s hair and turning her out of the house naked in front of her kin, whom she has likewise betrayed.3 Medieval lawcodes also show no tolerance of female adultery, but gravitate toward punishing the male lover equally severely: the Salic law of the Franks permitted the wronged husband to kill his wife and to either kill his wife or have her pay compensation; under Lombard law, the lover had a right to trial by combat unless caught in flagrante.4 Contrast this with Völuspá’s version of who goes to the hall on Náströnd: menn meinsvara | ok morðvarga | ok þannz annars glepr | eyrarúno – “men perjured and wolfish murderers and the one who seduces another’s close-trusted wife.”5 Oathbreach, murder, and seducing a married woman are here placed on the same level of perfidy, but it is the seducer whose punishment is mentioned, and the damage to the husband personally. Snorri left this out when he quoted the verse; perhaps he, or the version of Völuspá that he had, considered it subsumed within oathbreach.6 In any case, in this matter particularly, many heathens’ attitudes are guided by Vilhelm Grønbech’s argument in The Culture of the Teutons, which builds on Tacitus and analyzes the payments traditionally made by the bridegroom before and after the wedding to present a marriage as a contract by which “a woman passed from clan to clan” and to explicitly rule out “sentiment” and see married love as developing out of the fulfilment of this contract:

Marriage was founded on love, but according to the Germanic conception, there was no idea of love appearing before the marriage had been solemnised and married life commenced. . . . [W]e know, too, at what time affection grew and became strong between the two, it was on the morning of the second day, when the husband, by his gift [to the bride- the Morgengabe] confirmed, or “fixed” the reality of their first embrace.7

For one detailed and well-referenced exposition of the view that “the basic character of the Viking wedding [was] a formal contract between families,” see the lengthy article on the topic by the Viking Answer Lady (Gunnora Hallakarva).8 Kveldulf’s view that marriage focuses on the intention to produce children (as distinguished from personal relationships without that intent) is presumably based on Tacitus, who states that the bride must pass on the sword her bridegroom gives her to her grandchildren, and “To restrain generation and the increase of children is esteemed an abominable sin.”9 However, marriage as being about having children is of course also the Church’s view; and heirs who are automatically legitimate and qualified to inherit distinguish marriage from concubinage, which was demonstrably practiced by the Icelanders, the Rus traders, and other ancient heathens, Tacitus’ statements about Germanic chastity notwithstanding. Tacitus is merely very clear about it. One of the reasons marriage required payments in both ancient and later Germanic law was to provide for the children.10

For the view that a marriage is a relationship and does not require a public ceremony, one can cite the lack of divine weddings in the lore except for the aborted coerced wedding in Þrymskviða. In Skírnismál Gerðr tells Freyr that she will meet him, and that’s it – no wedding ceremony mentioned; Skaði/Scæðu accepts the gods’ offer of a husband and marries Ullr/Wulþor, but again, no ceremony is mentioned. As for humans, Sigurð and his bride plight their troth entirely privately – Edred stated his own two-person ceremony was based on the accounts in Völsungasaga and Sigrdrífumál; and in Völundarkviða Völund’s revenge against Níðöðr is crowned by his having made his daughter his wife purely through having had sex with her as proved by her now being pregnant.11 Both situations are obviously unusual: Sigurðr was raised in the woods and has still not entered human society when he rouses a valkyrie from enchanted sleep, and Völundr is engineering an extreme revenge. But especially together with the lack of divine weddings, they do not suggest wedding ceremonies were mandatory.12 There is also a tradition in at least some parts of the Germanic world of divorce being much easier than it was in the UK or the US until very recently, or still is in many modern jurisdictions. Skaði/Scæðu and Njörðr/Neorþ called it quits after an honest try. The sagas, with their fascination with law cases and feuds, provide several cases of men casting their wives away for a variety of reasons – in Heiðarvíga Saga, Barði divorces Guðrún simply to hurt his father-in-law, Björn.13 Moreover, an Icelandic wife could divorce her husband with ease, although it is an overstatement that she could simply walk away with half the marital property if he hit her once.14 And it was likely not just Iceland: there is a provision in a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon lawcode for a woman to get a fair share of the property in case of divorce – half “if she wishes to go away with the children,” a child’s share “if the husband wishes to keep them.”15 Some sagas feature women being picked up and put down and traded around like chattel, but the importance of them agreeing to the match is a repeated theme.16 Again, female consent is required under the laws of Æþelbert, and also under those of Cnut in the eleventh century.17 And note that in Skírnismál, whatever the methodology, Gerðr does consent. Finally and perhaps most startlingly, even pious Xians did not insist on a wedding before the sex as regularly as we would expect from our century. Æþelbert’s lawcode says a priest should “by rights” be present to join the couple “with God’s blessing.”18 In Wolfram von Eschenbach’s early thirteenth-century Parzival, the hero’s father was previously married to a pagan queen with no ceremony save consummation; she declares herself his wife the next morning. Lest this be thought mere barbarism, the son proceeds to do the same with a Xian queen, only with less speed: she comes to his room to beg his help, lies down on his bed, and next morning he attends her regular private mass; after he saves her people, “Asked if they wished to share one bed, both he and the queen said yes,” and after the first night she puts on a wife’s headdress, but he only decides to “entwine bodies” on the third night. No wedding ceremony is mentioned, despite the priest on retainer and the habitual private masses right there in the palace.19 And there is theological support at the highest levels for the Church not insisting on a wedding ceremony: in the twelfth century, Pope Alexander III ruled that either a personal commitment by both partners or a promise followed by physical consummation of the union sufficed to make a marriage.20 So it is possible to take an alternate view to Tacitus’ and Grønbech’s, in which in heathen times the arrangement between clans was a concern mainly of the nobility, and the requirement for a ceremony was imposed by Xian clergy more or less gradually – surprisingly late in the Middle Ages and again starting with the nobility, who needed the Church to recognize their heirs as legitimate. In this view Tacitus may or may not be reporting accurately what Germanic nobility did, but is really writing about the failings of Roman morality, emphasizing the chastity of the Germanic wife and implying that all Teutons – or at least the women – marry as virgins; and the unusual attention in the sagas to women’s preferences and rights in marriage indicate a persistence of the idea that marriage was first and foremost a matter for two people. In defiance of Tacitus and to the shock of various commentators, abduction of brides was common in the Germanic tribes of the Migration Era – and not just when raiding rival tribes.21 During the sixth century Frankish law, secular and sacred, shows a progression from ways to regularize abductions by payment of fines to the unconsenting parents to excommunication and then to exile or death for both partners in a stolen marriage;22 abduction must by this argument have remained a way for a couple to marry when the parents refused consent, as in a modern elopement. In fact according to the Prose Edda, we have a goddess of unsanctioned marriages:

Lofn . . . is so gentle and good to invoke that she has permission from Alfather and Frigg to unite people, men and women, for whom it had previously been denied or banned; thus “permission” [lof] is called after her name, and also that which is much “praised” [lofat] by humans.23

Abduction and especially elopement constitute an elephant in the room in the Tacitean, Grønbechian view of Germanic morality. Concubinage constitutes another such elephant. It was a particularly blatant tradition among the ruling class in early medieval Iceland, and not only with foreign concubines brought home from viking forays. Snorri Sturluson’s best-known son was illegitimate; the Icelandic goðar – and the Bishop of the other diocese, Hólar – resisted all Bishop Thorlákr of Skálholt’s efforts to enforce church laws against concubinage and rule-breaking marriages (the church later canonized him for trying) and when he died in 1193, replaced him with one of their own, Páll Jónsson, who was not only married himself, but the illegitimate son of another goði and Thorlákr’s own sister, his concubine.24 The Viking tradition of raiding and seizure is part of heathen tradition alongside the law-bound, patriarchal tradition of oaths made and fulfilled and of payments made for services and as exculpation of wrongs. The concubinage can be seen in two ways: as evidence that marriages contracted for reasons other than affection left people to go outside of marriage when they were in love or otherwise dissatisfied; or as illegal private marriages. But the strength – and openness – of the tradition makes it clear that love mattered and was accommodated. Clearly, both arranged/declared marriage and more or less clandestine marriage are in our heritage. One could argue that the main determinant of whether one would marry by arrangement or marry – or have a liaison – based on love was class – how much wealth and prestige was riding on the marriage. But the Xian evidence, and the sagas, which focus on wealthy and powerful families that had all the more reason to keep control of their inheritance, suggest that practice may simply not have been as hidebound until the era of modern government and record-keeping, or until the church succeeded in imposing its rules about legitimacy on the nobility everywhere, including Iceland.

If you decide to tie the knot in a purely civil ceremony, or to have your “real” wedding completely privately, then clearly you are not looking here for ideas about public rituals. You can oath together on an oath-ring as Edred suggests. There is also the pagan tradition of handfasting, whether for a year and a day as a form of engagement (or trial marriage) or permanently: the couple clasps both hands in the under-over fashion of an infinity sign, with or without someone wrapping their wrists with a ribbon.25

In Skírnismál, Gerðr says she will meet Freyr in nine nights’ time; Grønbech evidently thinks there was usually no delay at all between conclusion of the betrothal and celebrating the wedding in Scandinavia.26 But modern weddings take a long time to arrange, if only because of the logistics of gathering both clans from usually widely separated places and with a large number of attendees having limited ability to get away from their jobs. (The chapter in Our Troth also points out that the mead for the wedding will take at least six months to brew;27 the ancient heathens would have had good quality brew on hand as a matter of course.) So we are probably more likely to have a separate celebration of the engagement – what used to be called the betrothal – than the ancient heathens. Many modern heathens use “handfasting” in this sense, and take the opportunity for a heathen ceremony in the kindred. This will be an oath, with or without a goði or gyðja presiding.

In ancient heathen times a betrothal signified that the two families had reached an agreement, and the family of the groom would immediately pay the “brideprice.” As Tacitus himself remarks, this is the opposite of the Roman tradition (and that of many other cultures), where the bride’s family pays a dowry.28 (Tacitus also rhapsodizes about the practicality of the payment, about its not being meant to appeal to girlish tastes: “oxen and horse accoutred, and a shield, with a javelin and sword.”) This requirement of payment by the man or his family continued in Germanic areas. In the sixth century, Gregory of Tours described a betrothal sealed by the fiancé giving his intended a ring, a kiss, and a pair of slippers – and giving her family an arha, Latin for “payment for goods to be received.”29 A late tenth-century Anglo-Saxon document requires a suitor to show evidence – in the form of pledges from his friends – of his ability to support a wife, and to specify what he would give her if she accepted his suit.30 Norwegian law set a minimum “poor man’s price” of twelve ounces of silver and Icelandic law of eight ounces, without which the marriage did not confer legitimacy.31 In Norse sources the bride-price is called the mundr; the corresponding Old High German is munt; Anglo-Saxon usage refers simply to “striking a bargain” (céapian) and to a sceatt (payment) or wedd (pledge, the origin of our word “wedding”). As previously mentioned, in Tacitus’ account the woman and her family would make a reciprocal gift of weaponry. One later version of this is an exchange of swords: the man gives the woman his ancestral sword in safekeeping for their sons, and she gives him a new sword with which to defend their new family in the interim. More commonly, and perhaps with some influence from Roman tradition, it became a dowry, called the heimanfylgja (“accompaniment from home”) in Norse. In historical times, the bride-price almost always went not to the bride’s kin but to the bride herself – technically to the new family in trust for their children, but if there were none, she inherited it if her husband died before she did, and her family then received it upon her death. It was therefore sometimes called “bride-gift.”32 The heimanfylgja likewise went to the household. Its amount seems to have corresponded to the bride-price, and both were generally agreed upon in monetary terms, but paid in land (among the nobility, at any rate!)33 The heimanfylgja was customary, not required by law; however, it was traditional for the bride’s family to pay one, and moreover to provide a trousseau, which obviously equipped the household: bedding, utensils, among the nobility furniture and clothes.34 A Scandinavian bride whose family could possibly afford it wore a linen veil to her wedding to show she was a woman of means as well as purity: thus in Rígsþula when Jarl marries Erna, gekk hon und líni, “she walked under linen.”35 The wife or her family might reclaim the bride-price and heimanfylgja in case of a divorce based on the husband’s misconduct.36 Finally, on the morning after the wedding – after the marriage had been consummated – the husband would pay an agreed upon sum usually known by the German term Morgengabe, “morning gift.” The Anglo-Saxon is morgengifu, the Norse morgungjöf, but the older Norse custom was for the mundr to be payable to the wife herself the next morning and for the bridegroom to give her a personal bekkjargjöf (bench gift) or línfé (veil payment) at the wedding.37

All these payments, and the fact that getting married could be referred to in Norse as either brullaup (running of the bride) or brúðkaup (bride-purchase), will strike most of us as mercenary. However, in these days when employment outside the home is the norm and housekeeping rarely paid, we tend not to appreciate the work that the daughter being married off would have contributed to her parents’ home and farm. And it should be noted that the bulk of the payments went to the new household, to support the couple and their eventual children, and in whole or part became the wife’s or her family’s in case of death or divorce. Note the utility of the items that Tacitus enumerates in the brideprice and of much of the later dowries. The introduction of a dowry may have been under the influence of foreign custom, but it also meant both families shared the task of establishing the new household. Grønbech emphasizes the importance of gift exchange in making and sustaining friendships, its unique power to smooth over feuds, and also the sharing of megin/mægen involved in a transfer of property, whether a family heirloom imbued with luck or land, a cow, a cookpot, or a bed that would form the basis of prosperity.38 “Paying for” a bride showed respect for her, rather than having its modern connotations of “buying her” like a mail-order bride or something to be picked up cheap. Winifred Hodge Rose has explained these concepts very clearly.39

As to wedding rituals, we have a lot of information from the sagas, other written sources, and more recent folklore.

I have previously mentioned that at some weddings, swords may have been exchanged. Swain Wodening’s Anglo-Saxon heathen wedding ceremony includes such an exchange.40

The wedding ring is definitely Germanic, but Anglo-Saxon tradition speaks only of “a ring for the bride,” whereas in Scandinavian tradition there are exchanges of rings.41 Also according to Cleasby-Vigfusson, wearing a wedding ring is or was a foreign custom in Iceland, and baugr, used for a wedding ring, referred to a spiral finger-ring, unlike hringr. However, baugr is also the term used for the temple ring, or oath ring.42 So Icelanders may simply have used an oath ring rather than finger rings. You can probably defend as traditional any finger ring usage you wish; Hilda Ellis Davidson stated that a couple would exchange both swords and rings, the ring on the point of the sword, and this is a way to incorporate ring exchange into an Anglo-Saxon wedding.43 One different idea that some couples have used and that you may wish to consider is having a special oath-ring made on which you say your vows and that you then hang up in your home as a constant reminder of your commitment to each other, the way Jewish couples traditionally display a ketubah (marriage contract). This would be one way to publicly gift the “poor man’s bride-price” of eight or twelve pounds of silver; I think it is a more romantic idea than the Our Troth writers’ suggestion of making yourselves arm rings out of silver wire,44 but they intend the arm rings as replacements for the engagement ring, so one factor will be whether you wish to have a public token at the engagement stage or for the wedding and afterwards.

Instead of or in addition to the wedding ring, ancient Germanic women changed their headdress when they got married, like the queen in Parzival. Until the start of the twentieth century, Icelandic women wore the fald, a linen headdress.45 As depicted in Sigrid Undset’s novel The Bridal Crown, medieval Scandinavian girls in noble families wore a gold circlet until their wedding, when this krans (the title of the novel in the original Norwegian is Kransen, “The Chaplet”) was put away to be passed on to a daughter and the bride put on a bridal crown (brudekrone in Norwegian). I do not know how widespread the wearing of the circlet was, or when it started; the only citation I can find is in the Viking Answer Lady’s article.46 I suspect that it was a medieval development in very rich families. For one thing, it would obviously be expensive and hard to keep on if the girl did much more than sit around. For another, in the Prose Edda the goddess Fulla is specifically said to wear such a circlet;47 why would it be remarked upon in only her case if it was a tradition for all noble girls to wear them? And finally, it conflicts with the headdress tradition, and with the related tradition of the bridal veil, which as mentioned above is referred to in Old Norse sources. One of them is Þrymskviða: to disguise Thor as Freyja going to marry Þrymr, his head is covered in a bridal veil.48 So the bridal crown itself must be a tradition that started only in the Middle Ages, as the Viking Answer Lady surmises – ancient Roman brides also wore a crown. But you have a choice for your wedding. Scandinavian bridal crowns are family heirlooms that can be made of woven straw like a corn dolly or of precious metal in the fashion of a tiara. They are similar to the Lucia crown (but without the burning candles!)49 A parallel tradition in Germany is a circlet of flowers, traditionally myrtle because they are evergreen but have pretty white flowers.50 Which you use is really up to you and the esthetics and symbolism of your wedding. A crown might look strange to many attendees, unless you are of Scandinavian heritage and your family has one. Also the veil probably originates from customs for warding off ill luck,51 even though dress and veil – whether linen or a modern alternative – also demonstrate wealth; the crown places more emphasis on wealth, and the flower-garland probably has more associations of fertility than anything else. Which do you want your bridal headgear to be about? You probably have less to conceal than Thor did.

The Western “traditional” white wedding dress is Victorian, like the groom’s formal wear; the ancient heathen bride would have made her own dress, as she made all her own clothes, and of course in many places, including Scandinavia and the Alps, a wedding is often an opportunity to wear traditional regional dress. So you have a choice of bride, groom and attendants wearing modern formal dress or wearing medieval garb or national costumes from one or both families’ heritage.

Bride and groom were attended by friends as well as relatives as in a modern wedding; there are words in the old tongues for them, and they apparently sat separately at the feast, the bride with her bridesmaids on either side of her on a “bride’s bench.”52 And recall that in Þrymskviða v. 24, Thor wolfs the sweetmeats set out for the women – as well as an ox and eight salmon.53 Catering arrangements do not seem to have changed much; there may even have been a buffet before the main feast. After all, smörgåsbord is a Swedish tradition!

The feast itself appears from the texts to have been the actual wedding ceremony. In particular the “bridal ale” that the couple drank together from a “loving cup” sealed the marriage. The Anglo-Saxons actually used the word brýdealo to refer to the whole wedding feast and it is the ancestor of our old noun “bridal” for “wedding.”54 Grønbech quotes a Swedish formula that the bridal ale is drunk “to honour and housewife and to half bed, to lock and keys . . . and to all right.”55 Of course, a sacral feast (veizla, husel) is one of our three religious ceremonies.56 But there is no mention that I can find of wedding feast being a blótveizla.57 Perhaps superfluous to mention it, since the wedding would often have happened at the Thing, which was also the assemblage for blóting the gods. But it was apparently at least the Norse tradition for the wedding to be at the groom’s home, or his parents’ home; she traveled there in a “bridal journey” as Thor and Loki do in Þrymskviða, or was fetched by the groom as Alvís is summoning Þrúðr in Alvíssmál v. 1.58 And the situation in Þrymskviða is clear: the disguised Thor and Loki appear, the feast happens, and that is all that happens. There is no other ceremony first, or scheduled to happen later. The same is true, as Eric Wodening points out, in Bósa Saga og Herrauðs: only a feast is mentioned, with toasts to the gods happening at that feast.59 So this must be the biggest difference between modern tradition and ancient heathen tradition, that we have a stand-up ceremony before the feast that is the legal wedding – whether it is a civil ceremony or a blót. But in theory, one could combine the ceremony and the reception and have the ceremony happen at a banquet, following the ancient tradition.

One ancient tradition that many modern heathen couples have embraced is the brullaup (Old Norse/Icelandic) or bryllup (Norwegian/Danish), a race to the reception hall between bride and groom after the (usually outdoor) wedding ceremony. According to the Viking Answer Lady, this is a living tradition in rural Scandinavia – from the church to the reception – and the loser served the ale to the winner, but the Xians had converted it into a formal procession of bridal party and groom’s party in most places.60 However, if in heathen times there was no separate ceremony in a different place before the feast, how would this have worked? If it was after the feast, with the couple racing to their new home, it would seem to conflict logistically with another tradition, this one pan-Indo-European and still familiar to us all: that the groom carries the bride over the threshhold (whether as a demonstration that he has bought, adbucted, or otherwise taken possession of her, to prevent the very bad omen of her stumbling, or in honor to the housewights and the ancestors who would have been buried there in early times, opinions vary).61 Perhaps in the situation of an Icelandic farm compound, where the extended family occupied a group of houses, a brullaup could happen after the feast; and then if the groom always won, he could turn around, grab the bride and carry her into the house. But the foot race may actually be a development of Xian times after a pre-feast church ceremony came to be expected. Texts actually use brullaup (and the similarly sounding brúðkaup, “bride-purchase”) to refer to wedding feasts, i.e. weddings. The same is true for the Anglo-Saxon term derived from the Norse, brýdhlóp or brýdlóp. They mean “nuptials.” (There is also a more common Anglo-Saxon word brýdlác, literally “bridal offerings,” which corresponds to brúðkaup.)62 Cleasby-Vigfusson thinks the term derives from the “bridal journey.” So again, for a modern heathen wedding there is a choice. Many heathens prefer to blót outdoors, and thus it has become traditional to have an outdoor wedding – with bride and groom processing with their parties to the location – and then the footrace between bride and groom to the reception. Or one could follow what I think is the older tradition and have the ceremony be part of the feast, and bride and groom could race to where they will spend the night (which would work well at a resort or hotel wedding and make winter weather less of a problem).

It was traditional in Germany for marriages to happen on Friday: Frigg/Frige/Frija’s day.63 Many modern heathens also particularly honor Freyja/Fréo and Freyr/Fréa/Frô at a wedding.64 Adam of Bremen reported that the Swedes sacrificed to “Fricco” (Freyr) when there was a wedding.65 Snorri says that Freyja “is good to call on for help in love affairs” and my edition of the Prose Edda in Old Norse calls her “love goddess” in the index, but he actually names Sjöfn as patroness of love (and, as previously mentioned, Lofn as patroness of forbidden love).66 And the lore actually highlights two other deities in relation to marriage. Snorri says that Vár “listens to people’s oaths” and to “personal agreements contracted between men and women,” with the specific mention of “men and women” implying it is important to make marriage vows before her.67 And the plot of Þrymskviða hinges on the fact that Mjöllnir is brought out to hallow the bride and laid in the Thunderer’s lap.68 Thus it was apparently Norse tradition – and one may assume heathen tradition in general – to lay a hammer in the bride’s lap to ask Thor/Thunor/Donar to bless the marriage with fertility.69 A modern couple who do not plan to have children – or already have them – may wish to forgo this; in any case laying the hammer in the lap is hard to fit into a stand-up ceremony, so the celebrant (goði/gyðja, wéofodþegn/wéofodþignen) usually holds it over the couple’s heads in benediction, which does not have the same fertility implications. Whatever we think of the use of the hammer to hallow a marriage, Thor/Thunor/Donar should be an important part of a heathen wedding rite. In the wedding feast in Bósa Saga og Herrauðs, the first toast is to him, then to all the gods, then to Óðinn, then finally to Freyja.70

As you see, there are many possibilities for heathen marriage rituals, in particular if there is another ceremony for family consumption or legal purposes. Also it has become modern tradition for couples to write their own vows. And an important part of planning for a wedding is finding the right celebrant (and choices may be limited in jurisdictions where the celebrant has to be licensed in the same county); often that person will be able to help plan an appropriate ritual. Many ideas for wording and for ritual can also be found online and in books. For example, Edred’s oath wording for a private marriage is “I plight my troth in thee’; Kveldulf has the groom finish his oath with “On these rings my oath I swear: love and worship to my wife” and the bride with “On these rings my oath I swear: to my husband, hallowed love”; Swain Wodening suggests that the marriage oaths end with wording similar to “With this ring I thee wed.”71 One way to make a heathen ceremony less jarring to non-heathen family members would be to echo the traditional marriage service of their religion in as many phrases as possible – as Swain echoes Xian traditional wording in that last quote. For all these reasons, I will follow the example of the Our Troth editors and not include a sample ritual for a stand-up wedding here. However, here is an outline with a few options and suggested wording for a feast ceremony.

If, as is likely, the room needs to be hallowed, this can be done either before or after it is set up; one possibility is before the rehearsal if there is one and if no non-heathen group use will be made of the space between then and the wedding. But in any event before guests, including non-heathen family members, enter it on the wedding day. It may be easiest for the celebrant to do this before the caterers come in to set it up. The drink should also be hallowed in advance.

The room is set up with the banquet table forming a U shape. The top of the U, if possible at the south end so that those seated there face north, has a chair for the celebrant in the middle, for the bride on one side, and for the groom on the other. Next to the groom is seated the best man, if any, and then, or instead, his parents or those he prefers to have stand for them as representatives of his kin. Next to the bride is seated the matron of honor or chief bridesmaid if there is a best man, and then or instead, her parents or those she prefers to have stand for them as representatives of her kin. (In a small wedding there may be only three chairs at the head of the table.) Along the long arms of the U, the groom’s and bride’s parties and friends are then seated on the corresponding sides, with either siblings or bridesmaids and groomsmen nearest the head of the table as the couple prefer. Each place setting features a full glass or cup for toasting (filled with a non-alcoholic beverage if the particular guest does not drink and the toasts will be alcoholic). The celebrant has an additional place setting waiting for him or her wherever seems most appropriate; his or her seat at the head of the table otherwise has only the full glass or cup, a hammer if the ceremony will include blessing the bride and/or the couple with it, and an oath ring if one will be used. (The couple may prefer a two-ring ceremony, in which case either they or their attendants will have the rings on their persons.)

Separate from the banquet table, there is a buffet. (Thrymskviða mentions sweetmeats “for the ladies,” so be traditional and have sweet stuff there, but I would not restrict it to the women!) It should be made clear to guests that as they arrive, they should go to the buffet table, mingle, take food, and eat. Ample time should be set aside for this to allow for late arrivals, for cushioning of stomachs against alcohol consumption, and in a formal wedding for bride’s and groom’s attendants and close family to withdraw to prepare for a procession. (Another advantage is this accommodates the bride taking longer than expected to get ready, as often happens.) By modern tradition, the bride and possibly the groom will not participate; food should be supplied to her/them and anyone helping them get ready, and it would be possible to make this ceremonial and/or fun. It would also be natural to combine this with the collection of gifts on a separate table if many gifts are being brought to the wedding, as is usual.

It might be a good idea to have the buffet space separated from the banqueting space by a drawn curtain or a door screen, so that guests would know to take their seats at the table when it was opened. It could then be closed again during the banquet for the caterers to clear the buffet, and reopened for dancing. In any event, the guests should be seated at the table before the entrance of the bride, and rise for her arrival. This can be done in the style of the sagas as a grand procession of bride’s and bridegroom’s parties, possibly from different directions, or in a smaller wedding with the bride entering alone or with her father after the groom and celebrant have arrived.

The celebrant seats the bride and remains standing between and behind bride and groom; all others sit.

We are gathered here today to join these two [names and indicates bridegroom and bride in turn] as husband and wife. To join two families and make a new family that will continue (* if the couple wants children, add* down through the generations forevermore). To celebrate love and to witness the sealing of a compact that will make two one, and greater than two. Before you, their friends, and you, the [last name of bridegroom] family and the [last name of bride] family, and your ancestors, the dísir of your clans, and our most holy gods, we will witness their sealing their bond together as a married couple.

Celebrant or Bride’s Father/Family Spokesperson:
[Bridegroom], have you fulfilled the conditions laid upon you when you were betrothed to [bride]?
[Bridegroom], why should you marry [bride]?

*gives an accounting of bride-price paid or a personal statement of love and devotion* (*If there is to be a sword exchange, his statement finishes with his producing his ancestral sword and stating* In token of this, here is the ancestral sword of my fathers, with which I am prepared to endow this woman in trust for our future sons.)

Celebrant or Bridegroom’s Father/Family Spokesperson:
That is very satisfactory.
[Bride], have you fulfilled the conditions laid upon you when you were betrothed to [bridegroom]?
[Bride], why should you marry [bridegroom]?

*gives an accounting of heimanfylgja paid or a personal statement of love and devotion* (*If there is to be a sword exchange, her statement finishes with her producing the new sword and stating* In token of this and in exchange for the gift in trust of your ancestral sword, here is a new sword, true and keen of blade, yours as a gift from me, a gift for a gift, with which to defend me, our children, and our home until our children are grown.)

Celebrant or Bridegroom’s Father/Family Spokesperson:
That is very satisfactory.

And so I must ask all of you present here today: are you willing to witness these two people’s oaths before our holy gods?

Those present other than the couple:
Aye *or non-verbal assent*

*hands the oath ring to the bride if one is being used*
[Bride], before our holy gods, and especially before Vör, she who witnesses the oaths of men and of women, do you oath to plight your troth to [bridegroom]; to honor and cherish him as your husband, your helpmeet, your beloved?

*looks at bridegroom, holds oathring if one is being used*
I do.
*or self-composed oath*

(*if an oath ring is being used, takes it from the bride and hands it to the bridegroom or, if it is sufficiently large, has the bridegroom place his hand on it so that they are both holding it*)

[Bridegroom], before our holy gods, and especially before Vör, she who witnesses the oaths of men and of women, do you oath to plight your troth to [bride]; to honor and cherish her as your wife, your helpmeet, your beloved?

*looks at bride, holds oathring if one is being used*
I do.
*or self-composed oath*

(*If there is to be a ring exchange, it can be integrated with the oaths or happen now, following the second oath*)

1 Note that this is a formal oath before the gods and with family and closest friends as witnesses. Celebrant and the couple should discuss and carefully plan the wording: whether the possibility of divorce is to be left open, whether the survivor may remarry in the event one partner dies, whether or not it is important there be children, and whether it is to be an exclusive marriage, an open one, or the legal part of an effective poly relationship are issues that should not be misrepresented in the wording the celebrant uses in her/his question or in the oath either partner swears. It is a very bad idea to swear to something not strictly intended for the sake of appearances. Far better not to say “as long as you both shall live” or “ever and only” or “and the father/mother of my children.” The oaths should be to what the couple intend, and should not exclude the options they intend to exercise if things go wrong. The traditional Xian formulæ that most of us are familiar with are from an era when people were not allowed to divorce or even to remarry after being widowed, let alone to have a boyfriend/girlfriend on the side or a poly marriage. And the habit of swearing to things with fingers metaphorically crossed behind the back or saying “I changed my mind” or “Life happened” that has resulted from social retention of that wording sorts ill with heathenry, where oaths cannot be broken with impunity and all who witness an oath share in the impact on their wyrd if it is broken.

(*if an oath ring is being used, takes it and holds it up; if the oath ring is a special one for the couple*: Let this ring forever symbolize and be a reminder to all of the bond you have sealed here today.)

I speak for all present: we hear and have witnessed your oaths.

*takes up the hammer, raises it before herself/himself*
Thor (or Thunor or Donar), bless this bride! May she bear one child or many children, hale, hearty, brave, and wise! * lays the hammer briefly in the bride’s lap then replaces it on the table*
*takes up the hammer, raises it before herself/himself and steps back so that the hammer is above the couple’s heads*
Thor (or Thunor or Donar), bless these two! May they have long and happy days together! *steps forward again and replaces the hammer on the table*

To seal this marriage, you will drink the bridal ale.
*has the couple drink each from the other’s toast glass held to the other’s lips, with arms crossed in the middle.

I now pronounce you husband and wife.

To the couple!
*all drink*

To Freyja (or Fréo)!
*all drink*

To Frigg (or Frige or Frija)!
*all drink*

To Vör and to all the gods and goddesses!
*all drink*

And now I will take my place with the company and leave you all to feast and drink.

*The celebrant picks up his toast glass and offers quiet personal congratulations to the couple, explaining that he will leave the hammer there for the remainder of the ceremony, then goes quietly to his seat lower down the table. The best man, if there is one, rises and begins his speech. Otherwise someone should act as master of ceremonies. The glasses should be refilled, and the servers should serve the first course and the meal begin after the best man’s toast or after the first one or two following toasts.*

1. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1989, pp. 155-56.

2. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn, 1993, pp. 246, 247-48. His emphasis.

3. Text and Thomas Gordon’s translation. See also the summary and comparison with Roman marriage in Frances and Joseph Gies, Marriage and the Family in the Middle Ages (New York: Harper, 1987), pp. 33-34.

4. Gies, p. 34.

5. Stanza 38; translation from Ursula Dronke, The Poetic Edda, vol. 2 Mythological Poems, Oxford: Clarendon, 1997, repr. 2001, p. 17. Also online with a different translation at http://www.voluspa.org/voluspa.htm ; stanza 39.

6. Ch. 40; text online in modernized Icelandic at http://www.snerpa.is/net/snorri/gylf.htm (ch. 52).

7. Vilhelm Grønbech, The Culture of the Teutons, rev. version of Vor Folkeæt I Oldtiden (1909-12), tr. William Worster, London: Oxford UP, 1931, vol. 2, pp. 54, 61.

8. http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/wedding.shtml./


9. Gies, pp. 34-35.

10. See the Viking Answer Lady , “Part IV: Negotiating the Marriage,” citing Grethe Jacobsen, “Sexual Irregularities in Medieval Scandinavia” in Sexual Practices and the Medieval Church, ed. Vern L. Bullough and James Brundage, Buffalo: Prometheus, 1982: 72-85, p. 75.

11. A Book of Troth, p. 156; Völundarkviða 33, 36.

12. Some would cite the wedding feasts in the sagas as counter examples. There are certainly several, but as noted by Rolf Heller, Die Literarische Darstellung der Frau in den Isländersagas, Halle: Niemeyer, 1958, p. 119 and note 4, we do not always even know the name of the couple: they function in the plots as get-togethers at which encounters happen.

13. See M.C. van den Toorn, Ethics and Moral in Icelandic Saga Literature, Assen: Van Gorcum, 1955, p. 71 for this and other examples of women being treated as mere objects.

14. Heller, pp. 74-75 cites Laxdæla Saga ch. 34. He fails to make clear that Guðrún has to find a pretext for divorce after Thorvald slaps her (she is advised to make him a low-cut shirt, which will imply that he is gay). But in p. 75, note 1 he points out that the oldest extant Icelandic legal code, Grágas, requires that she be seriously injured, and the corresponding Norwegian code, the Older Gulaþing Law, repeatedly mistreated. In Gísla Saga ch. 37 and Eyrbyggja Saga ch. 13, Thordis declares herself divorced from Börk not so much over a blow as because he sided with her brother’s killer against her – preventing her from finishing him off and letting him claim what compensation he desired for the blow she did land. And Heller (p. 78) sees these as purely fictional stories and suggests that Njál’s Saga ch. 11 and 77, where Hallgerð’s two husbands both meet their ends because they slapped her, constitute literary one-upmanship that proves the point. (She tells a known killer that Thorvald made her face bleed, and helps him get away; she denies Gunnar two locks of her hair to restring his bow in an attack and so seals his fate.)

15. The laws of Æþelbert, cited in Gies, pp. 108-09.

16. Hallgerð was married against her will; contrast this with Laxdæla Saga ch. 23, where Egill Skallagrímsson requires that his daughter Þorgerð’s consent be obtained before he will allow Óláfr the Peacock to marry her. See van den Toorn, p. 107 and note 1 for further examples and summary of an analysis by O. Klose: in 36 instances in the sagas, the woman’s consent was obtained; the marriage was forced in only 6. Fair dealing with women in love and marriage is one of the great themes of the family sagas: in Færeyingar Saga ch. 16, a guest tells his host on parting that he has made his daughter pregnant and promises to marry her, and does. Contrast this with how Óðinn treats Gunnlöð, and recall that in Hávamál 106-110 he expresses remorse over it. There is also the case of Thorgils and Helga in Flóamanna Saga: their marriage is unsatisfactory (and possibly unconsummated) because she does not love him; he persuades her into a happier relationship by pointing out how the hens are enjoying being mounted by the rooster (ch. 31, cited in van den Toorn 71). Clearly the saga author’s interest is in how the two people interacted, and contrast it with the use of the curse on Gerðr in Skírnismál – or with Óðinn’s deceitful and forcible tactics with Rind.

17. Gies, p. 106.

18. Gies, p. 106.

19. Tr. Helen M. Mustard and Charles E. Passage, New York: Vintage/Random, 1961: Book I, p. 26; Book IV, pp. 106, 110.

20. Gies, pp. 137-40. Gratian’s Decretum (approximately 1140) required mutual consent and consummation; Petrus Lombardus’ Books of Sentences (approximately 1150) did not require consummation but did require “words of the present,” i.e. a declaration of being married rather than engaged, no matter how privately made. The Pope made two rulings, first accepting Petrus Lombardus’ requirement of a declaration (both partners being of the age of consent), then affirming Gratian’s position that “words of the future” (a promise of future marriage made as young as seven) followed by consummation constituted a marriage.

21. The Gieses say on p. 33 that “[Germanic] marriage was even more family-governed . . . than was Roman,” but by the end of the same paragraph are referring to “the prevalence of abduction” among the Germanic tribes. Jan de Vries starts his discussion of marriage in Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, vol. 1 (2nd ed. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1956, repr. 1970), p. 185 by referring to a theory that the brullaup indicates that abduction was the original Germanic tradition – then rejects it as unlikely given the patriarchalism of Germanic society and the respect accorded to women. Abduction – especially where the woman colluded and it therefore amounted to elopement – is clearly the elephant in the room, violating Tacitean and Victorian notions of Germanic morality. However, concubinage is another such elephant, so we should probably not dismiss it so lightly.

22. Gies, pp. 54-55.

23. Gylfaginning ch. 22; text online in modernized Icelandic at http://www.snerpa.is/net/snorri/gylf.htm (ch. 35; lofað). In the latter, the last clause has been changed to ok svá þat, at hon er lofuð mjök af mönnum, “and thus also she is much ‘loved’ of men.”

24. Jesse L. Byock, Medieval Iceland: Society, Sagas, and Power, Berkeley: U of California P, 1988, repr. 1990, pp. 74, 158-59; see also p. 114 on the close relationships created by goðar having concubines from non-goðar’s families.

25. There are many online resources about handfasting: http://www.handfasting.info/ has sections on historical traditions and rituals.

26. op. cit. vol. 2, p. 61, “the day when their union was finally decided upon, most commonly perhaps, as in Sweden, on the day of the wedding”; vol. 3, p. 53, “Lombard laws and Norwegian-Icelandic customs imply an interval of time; but this delay was hardly necessary in principle.”

27. KveldúlfR Gundarsson, Diana L. Paxson, and Ben Waggoner, “Marriage,” Our Troth vol. 2 Living the Troth, 2nd ed. Berkeley, The Troth; North Charleston, SC: Booksurge, 2007, pp. 265-84, p. 272.

28. Gies, p. 33.

29. Gies, p. 55; in Visigothic Spain the same payment was called an arras, p. 153.

30. Gies, p. 107.

31. Peter Foote and David M. Wilson, The Viking Achievement, London: Sidgwick, 1970, p. 113, also cited by the Viking Answer Lady, “Part IV: Negotiating the Marriage.”

32. Gies, p. 55; Foote and Wilson, p. 113. The Swedes were apparently conservative in these matters as in others; Grønbech, vol. 3, p. 53 cites laws distinguishing between a tilgæf (wooing-gift) paid at the betrothal and a vingæf (kinsman’s gift) paid at the wedding, both of which went to the bride’s kinsmen.

33. Foote and Wilson, p. 113; Gies, pp. 55, 106. See also the Viking Answer Lady, “Part IV: Negotiating the Marriage.”

34. See Gies, pp. 56, 153, 107 for mentions of trousseaux in Frankish, Visigothic, and (presumed) Anglo-Saxon contexts.

35. v. 40; text and translation available online at http://www.voluspa.org/rigspula.htm . de Vries sees the linen veil in purely apotropaic terms, vol. 1, pp. 186-87.

36. Foote and Wilson, p. 113 envisage only recovery of the brideprice; under “mundr” in the Oxford Icelandic-English Dictionary, Clarendon 1874, rev. ed. 1957, commonly referred to as Cleasby-Vigfusson, it is tellingly stated that the heimanfylgja would also be in the husband’s charge and was also thus to be claimed from him.

37. Foote and Wilson, p. 113; Cleasby-Vigfusson, “bekkjar-gjöf.”

38. Op. cit. p. 55-59; 63; 108.

39. “The Purchase of a Bride: Bargain, Gift, Hamingja” is online at http://www.friggasweb.org/bride.html ; her other article on the topic appears to no longer be available. de Vries, vol. 1, p. 185, note 3 also says, “[I]n this connection one must keep in mind the original meaning of the term ‘buy’ as an exchange of gifts, and not think in our modern terms of a transaction.”

40. “An Anglo-Saxon Heathen Wedding,” online at http://www.ealdriht.org/wedding.html ; the exchange of swords at his and Tee Wyatt’s wedding can be seen in images 27 and 28 (the groom’s ancestral sword) and 29, 30, and 31 (the new sword gifted by the bride to the groom) at http://wodening.ealdriht.org/swain/wedding/thumbnails.html.

41. See the Viking Answer Lady, “C. The Wedding Ceremony.” Her source, Mary W. Williams, Social Scandinavia in the Viking Age, New York: Macmillan, 1920, p. 98, does say “finger rings were exchanged at weddings in early times,” but is rather old, and footnotes the statement to an 1882 German study. Kveldulf requires two rings, “the traditional unbroken circle of gold,” in Teutonic Religion, p. 248, and he and the other authors repeat the same requirement in Our Troth, vol. 2 p. 271.

42. “baugr.” In her section “C. The Wedding Ceremony,” the Viking Answer Lady has a picture captioned “Sacred Oath-ring of Thórr” depicting a spiral ring that appears to be an arm-ring (as most oathrings are, given the amount of silver that one source says went into one). Oathrings vary, but it is conventional to interpret the word mótlauss as indicating that it should be a seamlessly closed ring – although it is ambiguous, and Cleasby-Vigfusson also take it to mean an open ring. I have never seen a spiral one; also there is a Thor’s hammer affixed to one end, and I have never seen that either.

43. Hilda R. Ellis-Davidson, “The Sword at the Wedding,” Folklore 71 (1960) p. 95, cited by the Viking Answer Lady at http://www.vikinganswerlady.com/wedding.shtml in “C. The Wedding Ceremony.”

44. vol. 1, p. 270.

45. Cleasby-Vigfusson, “Faldr.”

46. “1. The Bride,” with picture of a bridal crown. Gunnora has failed to note that the –en is “the.”

47. laushár ok gullband um höfuð, “with loose hair and a gold band around her head,” Gylfaginning ch. 22; ch. 35 in the version online at http://www.snerpa.is/net/snorri/gylf.htm.

48. In v. 17 Heimdallr proposes putting a “topping” on his head – um höfuð typpum – and Cleasby-Vigfusson in their “Faldr” entry take this for the fald, thus confirming that unmarried women also wore them. It is, however, a special bridal veil; in v. 18, 20 it’s called a brúðar líni, and líni again in v. 28.

49. Viking Answer Lady, “1. The Bride,” and picture at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Braut_ausBergen.jpg.

50. See for example http://heirateninsachsen.de/30_infos/01_accessoires/index.php.

51. As previously mentioned, this is how de Vries interprets it, vol. 1, pp. 186-7, completely ignoring the economic connotations.

52. See Cleasby-Vigfusson, “brúð-bekkr.” The wedding feast in Bósa Saga og Herrauðs, ch. 12 provides an example of the bridal procession and of bride and groom sitting on separate benches with attendants of the same sex; text in modernized Icelandic online at http://www.snerpa.is/net/forn/bosa.htm.

53. v. 24; v. 25 Thrymskvida.

54. See the Oxford Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, 1898, repr. 1973, commonly known as Bosworth-Toller, under “brýd-ealo, -eala” and “brýd-ealoþ.”

55. Op. cit. vol. 2, p. 169. On the loving cup and the Swedish kåsa, see the Viking Answer Lady, “D. The Wedding Feast.”

56. If support for this point is needed, Grønbech refers to the feast as “act of worship,” for example vol. 2, p. 158.

57. The Viking Answer Lady does suppose there would have been a blót, or possibly a dedication of an animal to the gods: “C. The Wedding Ceremony.” So does Eric Wodening, Bride Prices “Bride Prices and Bridals: Heathen Weddings,” in The Rites of Heathendom: Blót, Symbel, and Other Rites (n.p.: Café Press, 2003), 55-71, p. 66.

58. See Cleasby-Vigfusson, “brúð-ferð and brúð-för.”

59. ch. 12, “Frá Brullaupsveizlu,” text available online in modernized Icelandic at http://www.snerpa.is/net/forn/bosa.htm , excerpt from the chapter in translation at http://www.friggasweb.org/dancetxt.html ; Eric Wodening pp. 61-63.

60. “D. The Wedding Feast.” She refers to it as bruð-hlaup; the original Old Norse form was actually brúðhlaup, but according to Cleasby-Vigfusson is very rare. See “brúð-kaup and brul-laup.”

61. Viking Answer Lady, “D. The Wedding Feast”; de Vries, v. 1, p. 177.

62. Cleasby-Vigfusson, “brúð-kaup and brul-laup”; Bosworth-Toller, “brýd-hlóp, -lóp” and “brýd-lác” in the 1921 supplemental volume. The Old High German term corresponding to brullaup is brûtlouft, modern German Brautlauf; there are also Old Saxon and Medieval Dutch forms. de Vries v. 1, p. 185, n. 2.

63. Hilda Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964; repr. as Gods and Myths of the Viking Age, New York: Bell-Crown, n.d., p. 112. The Viking Answer Lady generalizes the statement to “the North”: “A. Setting a Wedding Date.”

64. For example, Our Troth, p. 272, speaks of “calling . . . Frigg and her band of goddesses and the Vanic powers.”

65. History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, ch. 27; Latin text online at http://hbar.phys.msu.su/gorm/chrons/bremen.htm.

66. Gylfaginning ch. 13, 22; 24 and ch. 35.

67. Gylfaginning ch. 22; however with a typo: “contacts” for “contracts.”

68. verse 31, brúði at vígja; Thrymskvida.

69. de Vries vol. 2 (2nd ed. Berlin: deGruyter, 1957, repr. 1970) , pp. 126-27 has a footnote reference to folk customs that may be continuations of this use of the hammer, and points out that it is possible to argue that when the Thunderer consecrated the pyre of Baldr and Nanna, it was a marriage blessing. Ellis Davidson, p. 80, suggests that a detail of the rock-carving at Hvitlycke (Vitlycke in modern spelling), Tanum, Bohuslän, Sweden in which a figure raises a hammer before an embracing man and woman may represent such a blessing. The detail can be seen online at http://www.vitlyckemuseum.se/o/bilder/vitlyckehallen.jpg.

70. ch. 12, text online in modernized Icelandic at http://www.snerpa.is/net/forn/bosa.htm , translation of the relevant passage at http://www.friggasweb.org/dancetxt.html.

71. A Book of Troth, p. 156; Teutonic Religion, pp. 250-51;