Kinship was extremely important to the ancient heathens. The sagas of the Icelanders are family sagas, and again and again in them we do not see so much individuals pursuing happiness as families and family members interacting and people trying to deal with conflicts and problems caused by kin or by obligations to kin – the family member who kills a man, or who eggs on kinsfolk to take revenge for a slight or not to let an old feud die. In the heroic sphere, the material on Sigurð/Siegfried, Helgi, Gunnar, and Guðrún is about a snarl of kinship obligations.
When a story is not about kin, it is often about friendship and fellowship. Solitary berserks were the exception; warriors usually fought with friends in a more or less organized war-band, and followed a trusted leader. Memorial rune-stones record who the dead man’s father was, what kinsman raised the stone, and/or who he followed or fought with. The Jómsvikings were a legendary brotherhood of warriors (only those of proven mettle were allowed to join) who lived together in a fortress, forbidden to be absent more than three nights or to bring in a woman; they were required to share spoils equally and to avenge each other’s deaths and forbidden to denigrate or fight with each other, although there was a mechanism for the resolution of blood feuds between members.1 This was one of the texts on which Otto Höfler based his theory of an underlying Germanic tradition of more or less mysterious warrior and sacral brotherhoods.2 Both Helgis have dear friends, brothers in arms, as their steersmen: Helgi Hjörvarðsson has Atli and Helgi Hundingsbana, Sigurð’s son Sinfjötli.3
So it should not be surprising that the sagas frequently mention men swearing blood brotherhood: fóstbræðralág or more accurately eiðbræðralág (“foster-brotherhood,” which technically refers to being raised together, fostered, or brotherhood in arms – “oath-brotherhood”), or simply félag or félagskapr (“fellowship”).4 (There is also one famous non-saga example: Sigurðr/Siegfried with Gunnar/Gunther and Högni/Hagen.) However, before being tempted to emulate this, one should note how seriously brotherhood – by birth or oath – was taken in the sagas. Brothers – all kinsmen, in fact, and here is where the conflict arises when kinship by marriage or other obligations conflict – are required to help and support each other and in particular to avenge each other. There is no mention of a way to dissolve such bonds, even if a kinsman is outlawed, and in fact the most extreme example of blood brotherhood is the other way: in Saxo Grammaticus’ Historia Danorum, Asmund and Aswid oath that whichever of them dies first, the other will be buried alive with him.5
It is called blood brotherhood because it replicates blood kinship, with all its obligations. In contrast, adoption is mentioned relatively rarely in the texts, and the most common forms of it are undergone by kings and nobles and can be interpreted as an early form of subjugating oneself to someone in exchange for protection, i.e., vassalage: the adoptee (perhaps better, honorary son) had his hair cut and his beard shaved, or knelt before his adoptive father (perhaps better, sponsor).6 De Vries points out that such procedures involved no obligation on the kin. However, in the Norwegian Elder Gulaþing Law, we find provision for someone to be adopted into an entire clan or extended family. The process is significantly different: a shoe was to be made out of the hide of a three-year-old bull, and first the adoptive father, then the adoptee, then all other kinsmen were to put it on and stand in it in turn.7 This was called ættleiðing – “drawing into the kin,” and we should note how carefully the ritual obligates each member of the clan to treat the adoptee as one of their own; and draw the conclusion that blood brotherhood is not an impetuous arrangement between friends to be cast aside when circumstances change, but an equally binding commitment.
That warning given, and recognizing that avenging a brother’s death is relatively rarely necessary these days, if you wish to undertake the responsibilities of blood brotherhood – or sisterhood – there are two ritual models to consider.
The first involves the two participants mingling their blood. One way is for both to cut their arms and press the cuts together while clasping hands. This is dangerous – it is a good way to get HIV, Hepatitis C, or if you are lucky a curable disease. It is also not authentically Scandinavian: the tradition is ascribed to Native Americans but seems to derive most of its authority from cowboy fiction, in particular from Karl May, whose Apache chief Winnetou and German emigré Old Shatterhand were blood and soul brothers, and whose books have had a heavy influence on German popular culture since the end of the nineteenth century.8 A slightly safer way (you can get Hepatitis C, but the risk of HIV is relatively low) is to mix the blood with a drink that both participants share. This is how Herodotus describes the Scythians sealing their alliances:
The Scythians make oaths in this manner. They pour wine into a great bowl of earthenware, and after mingle with the wine the blood of them that swear the oath, making a scratch on their bodies with an awl or cutting them with a knife. Then they dip into the bowl a scimitar and arrows and a battle-axe and a javelin, and they say many prayers over it; and after this they that make the covenant drink of the bowls, and their chief followers also.9
The ethnic identity of the Scythians is uncertain, but the Goths were said to have come from Scythia, and compare how the gods sealed the truce at the end of the Æsir-Vanir war by spitting into a pot, thus creating Kvasir – whose blood mixed with honey became the mead of poetry, that is, a sacred alcoholic drink with blood mixed into it.10 So we know that blood could be mixed into alcohol in Scandinavian tradition, and that a compact can be sealed with mixed body fluids – but we do not have to drink spittle itself, we could instead follow the Scythian procedure. However, until there are cures – as opposed to lifelong treatments and transplants – for Hepatitis C and for AIDS, I cannot advocate either of these methods. You have to trust someone comprehensively to become his/her blood sibling, but HIV and especially Hepatitis C can be asymptomatic, she/he may honestly not know she/he is infected with a life-changing and ultimately fatal disease, which you might also give to several others, including your children, before you discover you have it. The risk isn’t worth it.
In any case, neither of these rituals is actually in Scandinavian texts. The one that is involves the earth.
First, Saxo refers to walking on ground sprinkled with the other’s blood, which notably parallels with blood the ættleiðing ritual of standing in turn in one shoe.11 But two sagas give a more complex ritual. First, in Fostbrœðra Saga:
Thorgeir and Thormod . . . took a solemn oath that whoever survived the other would avenge his death. Though people called themselves Christians in those days, Christianity was a new and very undeveloped religion and many of the sparks of heathendom still flickered, manifesting themselves as undesirable customs. It had been a tradition among men of renown to become bound to each other by a legal agreement stating that whoever outlived the other would avenge his death. For this they had to walk underneath a triple arch of raised turf, and this signified their oath. The arch was made by scoring out three lengths of turf. The ends must be left attached to the ground at both ends, then raised them to such height that it was possible to walk underneath them. Thormod and Thorgeir undertook this rite as part of their sworn agreement.12
Similarly in Gísla Saga:
They walked out to Eyrarhvolsoddi and scored out a long strip of turf, making sure that both ends were still attached to the ground. Then they propped it up with a damascened spear so that a man could stretch out his arm and touch the rivets. The four of them had to go under it, Thorgrim, Gisli, Thorkel and Vestein. Then they drew blood and let it drip down onto the soil beneath the arch of turf and stirred it together – the soil and the blood. Then they all fell to their knees and swore an oath that each would avenge the other like his brother, and they called on all the gods as their witnesses.
But as they all clasped hands, Thorgrim said, “I will have enough trouble to deal with if I so bind myself to Thorkel and Gisli, my brothers-in-law, but I do not owe anything to Vestein” – and quickly withdrew his hand.13
Fostbrœðra Saga has left out the blood. But notice that in Gísla Saga the agreement falls apart despite the solemn oaths and ritual when someone refuses to clasp hands, the point being that blood brotherhood binds one to all the other person’s blood brothers, more unequivocally, in fact, than marriage does to a brother-in-law.14 Saxo left out the arch of turf. One of the reasons for going under a turf strip – or three – is clearly to be in contact with bare soil; as in Saxo, where the two walk on each other’s blood dripped on the ground. But it also functions as a symbolic rebirth. This is made clearer when one realizes that the Icelandic term for the “arch of turf” is jarðarmen and that a men is actually a ring, as in Brísingamen; older translations call it an “earth-chain.” The raised sod and the ground beneath form a symbolic earth vulva, which is why the strip(s) must be long enough to be left attached at both ends. Also, walking under the turf in this way occurs with other uses. In Njál’s Saga, Skarphéðinn mocks Skapti for paying thralls to cut sod so he could “creep under it at night” – presumably to get a fresh start after killing a man.15 It is presented as simply and solely self-humiliation in Vatnsdœla Saga:
Berg said that he would not accept monetary compensation and would only settle the case if Jokul were to crawl under three arches of raised turf, as was then the custom after serious offences, “and by so doing show humility towards me.”
Jokul responded that the trolls would take him before he would bow the knee to him in that manner.
Thorstein said that the idea was worth considering, however, “and I myself will go under the turf arch.”
. . . The first arch reached up to the shoulder; the second up to the belt on a pair of breeches and the third up to the mid-thigh. Thorstein went under the first.
Then Berg said, “I have now made he who was top man amongst the Vatnsdal people wallow like a swine.”
Thorstein replied, “You had no need to say that, and the first result of those words is that I will not go under any more arches.”16
And in Laxdœla Saga, it is used as the ordeal (skírsla) to validate a sworn statement:
Thorkel . . . offered to undergo an ordeal to prove it, according to the custom of the time.
The ordeal of this period was to walk under took an earth arch, which was a long piece of sod cut from a grassy field. The ends were to be left attached to the ground and the person undergoing the ordeal had to pass under it. . . . Heathen men were no less conscious of their responsibility when they underwent ordeals than are Christian men who perform them nowadays. A person managing to go under the arch of turf without it collapsing on him had passed the ordeal.17
There seem to be two things happening in these passages. One is creeping under the raised sod, which is a self-abasement although it is still related to the notion of a rebirth, because we are all born helpless and naked. In the Vatnsdœla Saga passage, even the highest arch is only shoulder height. The other is standing under it, on the earth. Note that in the blood-brotherhood rites, a spear is used to hold the arch up high enough to stand – in Gísla Saga, to reach over one’s head. And in all but one of the blood brotherhood rites, we have the added element of the blood; having the blood underfoot on the bare earth, or mixed with it, is part of having the agreement validated by the earth’s witness. It is the earth’s witness that makes the ordeal as reported in Laxdœla Saga.
So to seal a compact of blood brotherhood, you could both cut your arms, let the blood drip into a cup or bowl of wine, and drink from it in turn. I suggest you make it a blót, since you will want to call the gods to witness, especially Vár, who witnesses oaths people make to each other.18 I strongly recommend for safety’s sake that you each use your own blade and sterilize it first; you could use the same fire you use to hallow the drink. The tradition from our main use of blood, to redden runes, is that the blood must be specially obtained – using an existing cut is not enough of an offering.
Or alternatively, cut a strip in a patch of grass without severing the two ends, loosen it from the ground and prop it up high enough that you can both stand underneath. Ideally you will follow the saga examples and use a spear, but it will be easier and almost as ritually effective to use something wider and steadier, such as a bookshelf. What is important is that it be long enough for you both to stand under it without stooping, not that you are able to balance it on a single point. The connotations of crawling underneath are completely different. You then swear your oaths to each other while standing together under the turf on the bare ground. The earth – Jörð/Eorþe/Erda – is your witness, although you may choose to call on other gods, particularly Vár, as well. If you wish, you can also each cut yourselves and let the blood drip on the ground under your feet so that you both stand on soil mixed with both your blood. But again, be safe with the cutting and use separate and sterilized blades. In either case, the compact is not complete without a handclasp, so be sure to clasp hands to seal it.
“I take you to be my blood brother/sister” or “___, you are now my brother/sister, as if you had been born my brother/sister” are sufficient words for the oath. It does not need to be witnessed by any other human, except that if you already have one or more blood brothers/sisters, they should participate, and if you are in a kindred, you should have the kindred witness the ritual if you can. There is no way to break this link, as there is no way to dissolve your ties to your birth siblings, so any mention of “until death” is unnecessary, and in fact the oath gives you obligations after the other person’s death. It is with good reason that this ritual is rare in modern heathenry, and I recommend the turf rite rather than the drink since the time and effort it takes to perform it will give you both a chance to reconsider, as Thorgrim did in Gísla Saga.
1. Jómsvíkinga Saga ch. 14, text online in modernized Icelandic at Snerpa .
2. Kultische Geheimbünde der Germanen, Frankfurt: Diesterweg, 1934; v.1 only published. Höfler also saw the Wild Hunt and the frenzied masked processions and dances of, for example, the Perchtenlaufen as evidence of such a tradition.
3. Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar ch. 18.
4. One of the most literarily influential examples is Örvar-Oddr (Arrow Odd) and Hjálmarr in Örvar-Odds Saga, text online in modernized Icelandic at Snerpa .
5. book 5, Saxo Grammaticus.
6. See Jan de Vries, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte, v. 1, 2nd ed. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1956, repr. 1970, p. 184.
7. ch. 58; de Vries p. 292.
8. See the Wikipedia article on blood brotherhood at Wikipedia ; academics are also increasingly questioning whether blood brotherhood was as common, particularly among the Turks and in aboriginal tribes, as it has been depicted in literary tradition in the Western world. See for example Klaus Oschema, “Blood-brothers: A Ritual of Friendship and the Construction of the Imagined Barbarian in the Middle Ages,” Journal of Medieval History 32.3 (Sept. 2006), 275-301; abstract accessed online.
9. Alfred J. Church, Stories of the East from Herodotus, London: Seeley, 1891, p. 285, online at Mainlesson.com .
10. Prose Edda, Skáldskáparmál ch. 4 (5).
11. book 1, in connection with Lysir and Hadding; Saxo Grammaticus.
12. ch. 2, text online in modernized Icelandic at Snerpa . Translation based on that by Martin S. Regal, “The Saga of the Sworn Brothers,” in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, ed. Viðar Hreinsson et al., Reykjavík: Leifur Eiríksson, 1997, 5 vols., v. 2 p. 331.
13. Gísla Saga Súrssonar ch. 6, text online in modernized Icelandic at Snerpa . Translation based on that by Martin S. Regal, “Gisli Sursson’s Saga,” in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders v.2 p. 7.
14. In Örvar-Odds Saga ch. 19, much is made of the need to get all one’s prior sworn brothers on the same page.
15. ch. 119: Síðan keyptir þú að þrælum að rísta upp jarðarmen og skreiðst þú þar undir um nóttina. Text online at Snerpa. For this and the following examples I rely on de Vries v. 1, p. 294, n. 4 and the Oxford Icelandic-English Dictionary, commonly known as Cleasby-Vigfusson, 2nd ed. Clarendon, 1957, repr. 1975, “jarðar-men” under “jörð A.3,” which have the same list.
16. ch. 33 (34), text online in modernized Icelandic at Snerpa . Translation based on that by Andrew Wawn, “The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal,” in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders v. 4 pp. 43-44.
17. ch. 18, text online in modernized Icelandic at Snerpa . Translation based on that by Keneva Kunz, “The Saga of the People of Laxardal,” in The Complete Sagas of Icelanders v. 5 pp. 20-21. As usual in the sagas, the honor-based heathen custom is introduced only to have someone take unfair advantage of it: Thorkel has two associates tussle near the arch and cause it to fall prematurely so that he can get away with his dubious statement, much as Víga-Glúmr swore in ambiguous words in hofs up and down the district.
18. Prose Edda, “Gylfaginning” ch, 22 (35).