Vikings: More Than Just Horned Hats

Perhaps one of the most partially famous quotes, by the writer Mark Twain, (presented here in full) is “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence in society”. The idea that “Clothes make the man…” is especially true for Njal’s Saga as jewelry, weaponry, how one’s hair is worn and clothing help to define characters and foreshadow events, working as a medium for the narrator. In Njal’s Saga clothing has significance in reviling elements of the wearer, society and the on going events.

In Njal’s Saga the importance of gift giving can have many purposes; a show of generosity, fraternity or love, as well as to maintain one’s honor, to show that one has wealth, and (especially in marriage dealings) that one can be a good provider. In the instance of when Queen Gunnhild gives Hrut a robe to wear before the king she may be insuring that at his meeting, Hrut will meet the King on an equal standing. Thus giving the King no opportunity to dismiss Hrut based on his apparels appearance. Gunnhild can be sure to set Hrut on an equal standing, at least at the beginning of their first meeting. It is also important to note that Hrut would latter give the Queen 100 ells of fine cloth and 12 furs upon his leaving, the importance of this is that it is clearly a lavish gift. It also may have been meant to carry the message to the Queen that Hrut was of the upper class. His and in his being able to bestow such a gift he was both repaying her hospitality and showing that he could fit himself with clothing fine enough to be presented to the king, or that he was able to stand before the king as an equal on his own, not needing to be dressed up by others to be presentable, all of this in a polite manor.

Njal initiated his first meeting with the Hoskuld, the child of Thrain Sigfusson (a man that was killed by Skarp-Hedin), by showing him a gold ring that he then give to him as a gift. After this presentation of the ring Njal asked him to become his foster-son and he accepted. This presentation of a gift works in all the ways originally attributed to gift giving as well as an “ice breaker” or an object Njal was able to use to start a conversation with the son of the man his own son had killed.

Njal again acts as gift giver in what he placing on top of the money pile that was to be paid as compensation for Hoskuld to Flosi. He places a silk cloak (probably lavishly embroidered and suitable for a man or woman) and a pair of boots on the money pile. In what is apparently a grave affront, Flosi places the question as to who had given this extra gift to the compensation and, when learns it was Njal, went on to make fun of him using the slanderous name “Old Beardless”. At this Skarp-Hedin snatched the cloak away and put a pair of blue trousers remarking that Flosi would make better use of them so as to help him act like a man and not be used by Svinafell Troll in the manor that a man uses a woman . Here clothing is being used to define or force definition of a character gender on specific people. Flosi comments that the cloak and Njal were united in their unisex appearance, and Skarp-Hedin offers the trousers so as to insult Flosi’s masculinity in acting as if he must be forced into men’s clothing to shop his liaisons with the Svinafell Troll.

Earl Hakon and later Olaf each gave Gunnar a gold bracelet, and Olaf a cloak that once belonged to King Myrkjartan of Ireland along with the supernatural dog named Sam. The gold bracelets are an obvious sign of wealth and generosity on the be half of Earl Hakon and Olaf, but the cloak carries with it a special meaning. The cloak was the cloak of Olaf’s noble ancestor and in giving it to Gunnar the strong fraternity between them is displayed. One of the gold bracelets from Olaf or Earl Hakon was probably the same one noted by Gizur at Gunnar’s death scene. Gunnar is described at one Althing as wearing robes of King Harald Gormsson and a gold bracelet clearly. These items show his situation of favor with royalty and that he is in a position of some wealth, which would make him a figure that would stand as being a man of wealth and class. King Harald Gormsson gave Gunnar his own robes, a pair of gold embroidered gloves, a head-band studded with gold and a Russian fur-cap. The Russian fur-cap particularly shows, along with the many notations through out the saga of silk, the Vikings travels and trading (or raiding) with Russia (for the cap) and as well with at least London (for the silk).

Gifts do not always bring good luck, no matter how lavish they might be, to the recipient. Such was the case with Eyjol Bolverksson. Eyjol Bolverksson takes the job as Flosi’s lawyer after Flosi gives him the “gift” (or rather bribe) of a very fine gold bracelet. This Bracelet was so well made that it would be worth twelve hundred yards of best homespun cloth, which was worth more then staple woolen cloth. This shows the worth of cloths for the total worth of the bracelet was about 19 cows. The bracelet was seen by others, who assumed, when he did not answer questions of how it had been obtained and that he had been covering it under his sleeve, that he must have gotten it as an ill earned gift. This fact is shown in Snorri’s comment “It is obvious… that you must have got it as a gift. I only hope that it does not cost you your life”, and Eyjolf leaving for his desire not to talk about it (293). At the battle at the Althing, Kari kills Eyjolf (as Thorgeir Skorar-Geir says) to “Reward him for that bracelet”, showing that gifts that set a person in league with another’s enemy could make the individual a target.

Clothing clearly worked as an indicator of class, examples are seen in Hurt’s dealings with the Queen and Gunnar at the Althing, in gift giving and also in the descriptions of Unn. Unn is first described as being among the group of “well dressed women” at a booth at the Althing (40). This clearly denoting these woman as upper class and separating them from other, ordinarily dressed, women who might have been about the booth. At an Althing Hallgerd is said to be wearing in red and scarlet clothing adorned with “lace”. These articles all of which indicate her standing of wealth to either be in a position to buy or have the leisure to make such garments. Later in the saga Hallgerd’s clothing is again described, she is wearing a blue woven cloak, scarlet tunic and silver belt, again indications of wealth. Her hair is always described as hanging loose or tucked under her belt, always worn down, never in braids or tied back. Even as a child, she is denoted for her long hair (as a child down to her waist and loose) which may have worked to foreshadow her future position. For a woman a full head of loose hair ment that she did not work, for hair had to be worn up to work in the fields or do housework and cooking. This style of wearing ones hair was latter largely abandoned for it’s impracticality. Hallgerd’s hair would come to define her character latter when Gunnar asks for two locks of Hallgerd’s hair to make into a bow string to defend himself. She refuses to give it to him citing the refusal as pay-back for the slap he had given her years ago. In that scene Hallgerd’s hair empowered her for with it she may have had the ability to arm her husband thus saving his life. It was also her power to deny him it, empowering her to wreak her revenge for a long-standing offense.

Men’s hair also seems to have carried a connotation of potency, power or prestige to the people of Njal’s saga. Several examples of this is seen as good or strong characters, such as Hoskuld, are noted as having a “fine head of hair”. Thorhall is described as a tall, powerful dark-haired man he was a very effective and knowledge able lawyer, perhaps having a connection with his hair. When first Kari appears to help defend Helgi, Njal’s youngest son, he is described as “a man with a magnificent head of hair, who wore a silk tunic and a gilded helmet and carried a spear inlaid with gold” showing both this masculinity in his head of hair but also his high standing in his fine clothing (180). When Skarp-Hedin, with others, went to several booths at the Althing in an attempt to get support, he dressed so as to appear worthy of their support while rebuffing any who denied it. He’s described as wearing a blue tunic with a silver belt, blue-striped trousers, black top-boots, and carrying the small round shield and ax (called ‘Battle-Troll’). His hair was combed back and held with a silk head-band his head of finely kept hair again showing his potency. He is described in his overall look “every inch a warrior” (248).

This concept of hair in connection to a man’s potency or masculinity works also when a man has little or no hair or had it shaved off. It is apparent that calling Njal “Old Beardless” and his son’s “little dungbeards” is a great insult and an attack on their honor. It is also and insult when Skapti Thoroddsson is reminded in what appears to be an attack on his manhood, of the time his head was shaved and smeared with tar, when Skarp-Hedin calls him “Bristle-Head”.

In the way a persons appearance works to define their character it can also work to hide the wearer’s identity. One of the first examples of how a person hide’s their identity is seen when Gunnar went to retrieve Unn’s dowry. To achieve this he wore, at Njal’s instructions, a coarse overcoat (course clothing was usually worn only by the under class) on top of a striped tunic so to help him assume the disguise of the nasty merchant. It is also notable that Njal specifically dictated that underneath his disguise he must wear his good clothing. It would be his good clothing that would latter betray who he truly is for it was spotted by others, poking out at the sleeves and neck. This accidental exposing of his fine clothing is a seeping out of his true identity and class seeping through his disguise. Why he had to wear his fine clothing under his disguise may be a precaution against the danger of totally relinquishing all ties to one’s true station, even if these ties are unseen.

The ability of clothing to mask ones identity is displayed for the second time when Thorgeir wears a cloak over his head and so no one talked to him all day, which enabled him to walk about the Althing undisturbed. His reason for doing this was probably so he could make his observations about what religion the country should become without the distractions or solicitations of those that knew him and might want to sway his decision. The most ambitious of all disguises is when dressed as a woman, with scarf around his head and a cloak over his shoulders, Astrid is attempted to be sunk from the burning house. Clothing can disguise only so much in Njal’s Saga, apparently not gender, and who he truly is discovered almost immediately and is quickly beheaded as an enemy of Njal’s burners.

In the saga clothing is used not only to display or hid one’s identity and standing but to change it entirely. The changing of one’s identity by clothing is displayed in their old belief that by wearing and animal’s skin you would take on qualities of that animal. An example of this is seen in the word berserker which came from ‘bear-shirted’, the belief that putting on a shirt made from a bear’s skin would endow the wearer with a bear’s qualities (222).

Clothing also has the use to remind people of their loyalties and obligations. Hildigunn uses her husband’s (Hosfuld) cloak, after his murder, to wipe up his blood and blood-clots which she would later take out and wrap Flosi in. She did this so as to goat him into avenging Hosfuld’s death. The cloak had originally been a gift to Hosfuld from Flosi, which shows their past bond further reminding him of his obligation to avenge his murder. Hrodney also uses a blood stained garment, a tattered, linen cap worn by Hoskuld when he was killed, to remind Ingjald of his bonds to the Njalsson family so that he cannot join in the attack against Njal even though he had sworn he would.

In a sense clothing becomes linked to characters beings and their fates. Thrain is described as a very showy man and that when he rode he displays his showy attitude with his wearing a blue cloak a gilded helmet, and carried the spear, shield and a sword at his belt. However it was when Throne took off his cloak and helmet (for no apparent reason) before the battle with Kari and the Njalsons, in a way relinquishing a part of him thus making himself vulnerable. He was and was in the action of putting his helmet back on when Skarp-Hedin came along and split his head open “spilling the back-teeth on to the ice “(203). Perhaps in his taking off of his armor and clothing he shed more then his protection, he shed a little of himself and so was even more vulnerable to attack.

Clothing in two dreams are linked to the characters fates and work to foreshadow upcoming events as well. In a dream of Flosi’s there is a figure, which apparently is death or a death figure, the figure is wearing a goat skin and has a iron staff may have been the figure Odin, father and ruler of the Norse gods, god of war, and an association with goats. Odin always carried a magic spear named Gungnir, perhaps the iron staff of the dream. It was this figure that called out a long list of names of men, all of which died in battle. The second foreshadowed event can be seen in the clothing worn by Thorvald in his mother’s dream. It was before Thorvald, along with others left home, and in it he was wearing a tight red tunic, and red hose bound with shabby tapes. These red cloths could be connected to the bloody death he soon afterwards died in battle.

Perhaps the most obvious cloth in the entire saga is that woven by the Valkyrie on their grotesque loom. It is a morbid reflection, seen in the cloth, how it was made and how it is torn to shreds by the Valkyrie of the battles events. In a way it shows how fate, in the form of the Valkyrie can destroy lives in the making of their cloth destiny only to tare it apart and ruin what they made, similar to how the battle was won (the cloth made), yet King Brian was killed (the cloth destroyed) showing the futility of both the Valkyrie’s and warriors efforts.

In conclusion clothing does more then enhances the appearance of the wearer, it defines the wearer, his or her society and the events going on around them. The clothing also works to link individuals to though around them, especially when it’s used in gift giving.

Exchange of gifts before parting

Thorgeir gave Hall a gold bracelet and a scarlet cloak

Kari gave Hall a silver necklace with three gold crosses on it

Mord gave -Skarp-Hedin a large gold brooch

-Kari a silver belt

-Grim & Helgi fine gifts

Earl Sigurd held a feast and gave Kari a fine sword and a spear inlaid with gold, Helgi a gold bracelet and a cloak and Grim a shield and sword.

Eyjol Bolverksson Had been described as one of the three greatest lawyers in all of Iceland, as very handsome, tall, very strong and fond of money, is seen at the Althing wearing a scarlet cloak, gold head-band and carries a silver-wrought ax. Skarp-Hedin is dressed in a blue jacket and carries a round shield and ax Kari wears a silk jacket and a gilded helmet and a lion painted on his shield Helgi wears a red tunic and a helmet, carries a red shield decorated with a hart they all wore colored clothing and were fully armed (this is when they were riding out to ambush Thrian

Later payment to Flosi for his selling Eyjolf Nose land and using his influence to finalize arrangements for a marriage Eyjolf Nose is paid in both ownership of a vessel and twenty hundreds of cloth, which helps to illustrate the value, or buying power of cloth. Flosi gave Hosfuld a scarlet cloak bordered with “lace” work down the front a garment that worked to show Flosi’s generosity as well as wealth.

Hrapp the Killer stole from the statue of Thorgerd Holgi’s-Bride a huge gold bracelet and a linen hood and from the statue of Thor he stole another gold bracelet and took a third bracelet from Irpa, he would them take all the statues out side where he would then strip them of the rest of their vestments and then set fir to the temple.

while inside the burning house from his purse Skarp-Hedin drew a tooth he had long ago hacked out of Thrain’s head, hurled it at Gunnar Lambason and it gouged out his eye.

Skarp-Hedin’s shoe-thong broke as he and his comrades were making their retreat and after he went to fix it is when he slew Thrain

A coarse striped cloak worn by Thorhall (Njal’s foster-son) yet he said he will have discarded it by the time it was time to seeks redress for the death of Njal, it was these cloths that the other Njalssons mocked him for wearing

This being the worst possible insult anyone could make against another man.

It should be noted that corser cloths, like wool, were worn by the lower class, whill finer ones, like linen, were worn by the upper class.

Some dyes used in these times were madder as a red dye and indigo as a blue dye, and all were expensive. The noting of color in Njal’s Saga is always important for color was important in Viking culture, but lower class did not have clothes that were dyed (though patterns using the natural colors of wool were often made). Clothing that was dyed would have almost exclusively belonged to the wealthy and would have been a clear and obvious class distinction. Through out history red dyes, and variations on red, have been expensive.

“lace”-real lace did not even exist until the second half of the 16th century. -thus it has been misnamed lace, pocibly it is some kind of thinly or loosely woven fabric, netting, lacis, open-work, drawn thread work, or cut-work, all of which can be traced back to the ancient Egyptians.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *