The Sword at the Wedding by H.R. Ellis Davidson (1960)

FROM the close of the Roman period in North-western Europe, the long two-edged sword was the weapon of princes and adventurers, the warrior’s most cherished possession which must always be ready to hand. The sword was carried by kings and leaders and given out by them to their followers in return for service in battle, and consequently it became a powerful emotive symbol in prose and poetry, the pledge of loyalty between the warrior and his lord. This aspect of the sword I have dealt with in detail elsewhere,1 and I propose here to discuss the importance of the sword as a symbol of a different kind, that of the continuity of the family.



RuodliebIn a paper published in 1932,2 Meyer discussed the use of a sword at marriage ceremonies in medieval Germany. A Latin poem Ruodlieb, probably written by a German monk about 1023, describes how at a wedding the ring was handed to the bride on the hilt of a sword. The poem implies that this is a threat, warning her that death will be the penalty for infidelity, but Meyer shows that this is unlikely to be the whole meaning. He believes that this juxtaposition of sword and ring emphasizes the sacredness of the compact between man and wife and the binding nature of the oath which they take together, so that the sword is not a threat to the woman only, but to either should the oath be broken. He quotes in confirmation a story from a Latin source, not later than the fourteenth century (Catherina de Gebeswiler vitae sororum sub Tilia  in Colombaria)3 telling how a rich man tried to marry his favourite daughter to the husband he had chosen for her. When as the custom was they brought a sword so that the thumbs of bride and groom should be laid on the hilt, she shut up her hand and refused to touch it. Some said it would suffice if the whole hand were laid on the hilt, whereupon she thrust her hand into her bodice, and neither threats nor persuasion could bring her to complete the ceremony.

The use of a sword hilt for the swearing of an oath is of great interest, and I have shown elsewhere4 that this connection, certainly pre-Christian in origin, is linked with the swearing of the oath of loyalty to the overlord while laying a hand on the hilt of his sword, and that the ring which was fastened to many splendid Anglo-Saxon, Frankish and Scandinavian hilts may be explained by such a custom. But the presence of a sword at a wedding may have an additional significance. In Ruodlieb XV, 63 we are told that before the ring is placed on the sword the bridegroom draws it and rubs (or whets?) it on something described as a ‘pyramid’ (ensem piramide tersit). Meyer suggests that this is a place which has special connections with the family, perhaps the step of a stone cross or the tomb of an ancestor. In this way the sword would be brought into contact with the sacredness of earth and a link made with the family to which the bridegroom belongs. We shall see that evidence from the early literature of North-western Europe appears to confirm such a suggestion.


There are other references to the presence of a sword at a marriage ceremony. In Grimm’s collection of ancient laws (I, 167-8), there is a reference to a Frisian wedding custom of extending the sword across the doorway to block the entrance of the bride into her husband’s house. This sword seems to have been important, and is called the  æftswird,5 on which the comment is:

id est gladium nuptialem vocabant. Again the interpretation given is that it is to remind the wife of the penalty for unfaithfulness. Grimm records also a reference to another Frisian custom, that of letting a young man with a naked sword walk before the bride. A possible explanation of this is that it is a phallic symbol, a token of fertility so that the marriage may be a fruitful one. Pipping, in a study of the god Heimdall,6 emphasized the importance of a sword in this connection, and suggested that it was thrust into a tree or post in early wedding ceremonies in Scandinavia, though he gives no detailed Norse evidence for this. There are however records of various ceremonies and games connected with a tree or ‘stock’ at weddings in country districts in Sweden as late as the seventeenth century, while in Norway there was a custom surviving into recent times for the bridegroom to plunge his sword into the roof beam, to test the ‘luck’ of the marriage by the depth of the scar he made.7

VolsungsIn earlier literature moreover we have one undoubted example of a sword plunged into a tree at a wedding ceremony. This is in Völsunga saga,8 and the tree in question is called the barnstokkr and stood in the centre of the hall of King Volsung. Earlier it is said to be an apaldr or apple-tree,9 and this is of interest in view of the tradition that the birth of King Volsung came about after his father Rerir had sat on a mound and entreated Frigg for a son, and in reply to his prayer received an apple which he shared with his wife. The mound on which he sat was presumably the family burial mound,10 and the link between tree, fruit, mound and the birth of children may be noted here. When Volsung’s daughter Signy married King Siggeir, a feast was held in the hall, and during the feast Odin entered, appearing as was his wont as a huge old man with one eye, clad in a mantle. He went up to the trunk of the tree and plunged a sword into it:

The man had a sword in his hand, and he went to the barnstokkr; he drew the sword and plunged it into the trunk, so that the sword went in up to the hilt. No one there ventured to offer this man greeting. Then he began to speak, saying: ‘Whoever draws out this sword from the stock shall receive it from me as a gift, and he shall prove that it is the best sword he has ever carried.’ After that the old man went out of the hall.

All were eager to possess this sword, but none could pull it out of the tree. When many had tried, King Volsung’s eldest son Sigmund, the brother of the bride, took hold of it, and immediately ‘it was as if it lay loose before him’. The bridegroom, Siggeir, was so eager to possess the sword that he offered to buy it, but Sigmund refused, saying that had it been his lot to bear it he would have been able to pull it out for himself. This made Siggeir very angry, and in consequence he later took a terrible vengeance on the king and his sons, and only Sigmund got away with his life. His anger at first sight appears excessive, and it is perhaps worth while to speculate why he so passionately desired the sword.

Sigmund's Sword by Johannes Gehrts (1889)
Sigmund’s Sword by Johannes Gehrts (1889)

In discussing this story, De Vrie11 stresses the significance of the sword which only one man can pull out (as in the case of Arthur’s sword in the stone) as a sign of the right to rule, the proof of the divinely ordained king. But in this case no principle of rule seems to be involved. If we remember however that the gift of the sword was made at a wedding feast and that it was connected with the tree which was bound up with the fortunes of the family, the picture becomes clearer. There seems little doubt that here we have an example of the ‘guardian tree’, such as used to stand beside many a house in Sweden and Denmark, and which was associated with the ‘luck’ of the family.12 It had also a connection with the birth of children, and De Vries points out that the word barnstokkr used in this story was the name given to the trunk of such a tree because it used to be invoked and even clasped by the women of the family at the time of childbirth.13 The guardian tree usually stood beside the house, but there are some cases from the British Isles where the tree was inside and even formed part of the house itself.

At Cawdor Castle the trunk of a hawthorn tree rose through the floor of one of the dungeons, and according to tradition the house had been originally built around this tree and its preservation was believed to be bound up with the family fortunes. Other examples are the Old Manor House at Knaresborough, where an oak passed up through the kitchen into a bedroom and there was cut short and used as a table, and the Hall at Huntingfield in Suffolk, which was built round six great oaks.14 An ancient example of such a tree is found in Book XXIII of the Odyssey, where it is said that the marriage bed of Odysseus and Penelope was made of a huge olive tree which had been built into the foundation of the house itself.

The ‘luck’ of a family must largely depend on the successful bearing and rearing of sons, and there is a general belief that when the guardian tree is destroyed, the family will die out. In view of all this, it seems reasonable to suppose that at the bridal it should have been Siggeir, the bridegroom, who drew the sword from the tree, and that its possession would symbolize the ‘luck’ which would come to him with his bride, and also the successful continuation of his own line in the sons to be born of the marriage. But the sword was refused him, and this may well have seemed a deadly insult. Moreover we know that it later came about that Signy’s only surviving son was Sinfjotli, born of an incestuous union with her brother Sigmund, the owner of the sword, while no son survived to carry on the inheritance of King Siggeir. This gives a new and tragic significance to the scene in the hall, and helps to explain the intensity of Siggeir’s anger. Much later, after Sinfjotli had died as a young man, Sigmund himself married; he was killed in battle, but after his death a son was born to his wife and grew up to be the great hero Sigurd. Sigurd inherited his father’s sword, but it came to him in fragments and had to be welded again into a new weapon, the splendid sword Gram with which he slew the dragon.


It seems as if we may regard the sword at the wedding as more than something on which an oath may be sworn or as a phallic symbol of fertility. It appears to have symbolized also the continuation of the family. This is hardly surprising in view of the evidence from heroic poetry and saga and also from historical sources for the handing down of a good sword in one family over a long period.

One example of the long life of a sword is found in the early eleventh century will of the Atheling Æthelstan, son of King Æthelred of Wessex, who as befitted a royal prince left a number of swords to his kinsmen and followers. Among these is ‘the sword which belonged to King Offa’, the king of Mercia who died in 796, and this sword, which he leaves to his brother Edmund, must have been circulating among the royal families of Anglo-Saxon England for over 200 years.15 In heroic poetry there are many examples of swords passing down through several generations of one family. Beowulf, presented with a sword and other treasures in return for his services to King Hrothgar of Denmark, brought them to his lord and kinsman King Hygelac of the Geats, in accordance with custom. In recognition of this, Hygelac gave Beowulf another sword, a family heirloom which had belonged to Beowulf’s grand father Hrethel, and which was said to be the best sword known among the Geats.16 It appears that the gift marked an important turning point in the young hero’s life, for it was accompanied by a gift of land, and seems to have meant his recognition as a grown man and a ruler.17

Woodcut vignette of Alboin in the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicles f 147 v 1
Woodcut vignette of Alboin in the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicles f 147 v 1.

We may compare this episode with the story of young Alboin, in the eighth-century History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon.18 Here it is definitely stated that a king’s son was not allowed to eat with his father until he first received arms from the king of a foreign nation. Alboin therefore journeyed to the kingdom of the Gepidae, to demand of the king the arms of his son, whom Alboin had slain in battle. The king recognized his right to them, protected him from the hostility of his warriors, and sent him home with the arms of the slain prince. Alboin was then accepted as his father’s table-companion, that is, as a grown man and warrior. There are two separate principles involved here, first the winning of a sword and other arms through valour, and secondly the recognition of the winning of arms by the family, which may be marked by the gift of a family sword. In the cases of Beowulf and Alboin, the  king was kinsman as well as lord, so that the position was somewhat complicated. But the same principle may be seen among a people who lived without a king, the proud and independent farmers of Iceland.

The young Icelandic hero Grettir the Strong who lived in the tenth century is said to have received from his mother the sword Ættartangi, which had been treasured in her family since the time of her great-grandfather Ingimund, and whose name means Tang of Generations (the tang being the part of the sword which is grasped in the hand). The giving is thus described19:

Ættartangi (Grettir's Sword)Grettir asked (his father) to let him have a weapon of some kind. Asmund replied: ‘You have not been dutiful towards me … and I don’t intend to give you any.’ … His mother went to see him off, and before they parted she spoke thus: ‘You are not being sent from home, my son, in the way that I would have wished for a man so well-born as you are. The worst lack, it seems to me, is that of a weapon fit to use, and my mind tells me that you will want one.’ Then she took from under her cloak an ornamented sword, a very fine treasure, and she said: ‘This sword belonged to my grandfather Jokull, and to the men of Vatnsdale in former days, and it brought them fortune and victory. This sword I am going to give to you, and you must make good use of it.’

The name Ættartangi is not used in this saga, but the sword is referred to as Jokulsnautr, the gift or heirloom of Jokull (with which we may compare the expression ‘Heirloom of Hrethel’ used of the sword presented to Beowulf). But it is clear that it must be the same sword as that which plays a considerable part in Vatnsdoela Saga. Here we are told how Ingimund obtained the sword from a Norwegian sea-captain by a trick, and treasured it greatly. When he died he left his estate to his eldest son Thorstein, his ship to Hogni, the office of priest at the temple of Freyr to Thorir, and his sword to Jokull. Jokull wore the sword at games and horse-fights, but he insisted that his eldest brother Thorstein should carry it at law-meetings, presumably because there he appeared as head of the family and should wear the family sword.20 Jokull left it to his son Bardi, and from Bardi it went to his daughter Asdis. She was the mother of Grettir, and passed it on, as we have seen, to her second son. Grettir at first used this sword and did well with it, but  after he won a sax (a short or one-edged sword) from a burial mound in Norway he preferred to use that, and it seems that he handed over Ættartangi to his brother Atli.21 Grettir’s mother emphasized the fact that Ættartangi had brought luck to the men of Vatnsdale, and certainly after Grettir ceased to use it, increasingly bad luck came upon him.

Another gift of weapons to a young man from the mother’s side of the family is recorded in Víga-Glúms Saga. Glum’s father was a worshipper of the god Freyr, but when he died early his widow and young son met with bad luck and harsh treatment from other members of the family, and Glum went out to Norway to visit his mother’s father, Vigfuss. There like Beowulf he proved himself by brave deeds, and though at first he had rather a cold welcome, when he left for home his grandfather gave him a special gift in parting.22 He spoke thus:

My mind tells me that we shall not see one another again, but I am going to give you some special treasures, a cloak, a spear and a sword in which we kinsmen have always put great trust, and as long as you keep these treasures I believe that you will not lack honour; but I fear for what may happen should you part with them.

When Glum returned to Iceland he was outstandingly successful, killed his troublesome kinsman and established himself as the most powerful member of the family. But he gave away the family heirlooms, and later in life luck turned against him, so that finally in old age he had to leave his land. In a most illuminating study of the cult of Freyr in this saga,23 Anne Holtsmark has suggested that in accepting the spear and other gifts, Glum may have been accepting the worship of Odin instead of Freyr, his father’s god. Certainly Freyr’s anger towards Glum is one reason given in the saga for his fall, but in view of the words of Vigfuss the fact that he did not retain the ‘lucky’ family weapons is not without significance.

Gisli about to slay Thorgrim
Gisli about to slay Thorgrim.

A third weapon which remained in one family but which was associated with bad luck rather than good is the spear Grasíða (Grey-sides) in Gísla Saga.24 This was originally owned by a thrall,  Kol, and the elder Gisli, grandfather of the hero, borrowed it for a duel. It was so good a weapon that it was said of it that ‘he who bears it to battle must have the victory’, and after he won the duel, Gisli was unwilling to give it back. There was a struggle in which both men were killed and the sword broken. The pieces remained in the family, and in due course came into the hands of the eldest grandson, Thorkell. Thorkell had a friend who was a good smith, and he forged a spear out of the broken pieces, which bore the same name, Greysides. It was to prove an ominous possession for the family, since the hero, Gisli the younger, was forced into a position in which he killed his foster-brother with the same spear, and this brought about his outlawry, his elder brother’s death by the sword, and finally his own also. The spear long survived Gisli, for it is mentioned in Sturlunga Saga as having been used in the Battle of Breidabolsted in 1221 and at Orlygstad in 1238.25

There seems little doubt that the history of a good sword was carefully preserved within the family which owned it. The sword of Olaf the Holy is a case in point. When he fell at Stiklestad in 1030, he dropped it on the battlefield, and it was found by a Swede who had broken his own sword. He survived the battle, and took the sword Hneitir home with him:26

He kept the sword all his life, and his son after him, and so one after another of his kinsmen took it, and always it followed that as each in turn possessed the sword, he told the next the sword’s name and also whence it came.

Thus it came about that the history of the sword was told to the Emperor of Byzantium by a descendant of the finder.


In Hallfreðar Saga27 the ‘luck’ of the hero’s family is personified by a supernatural being, who is described as a huge woman in armour, and she is associated with a sword which is passed from  from one generation to another. Hallfred the poet had become a Christian, but it is told of him that as he lay dying on board ship this woman was seen coming towards him over the waves. She wore a mailcoat, and is called his fygjukona, that is the following or protective spirit attached to a family.28 Hallfred addressed her, declaring that their association was at an end, since he was dying. She asked whether his brother Thorvald would receive her, but Thorvald, who was present, refused. Then the younger Hallfred, the poet’s son, said that he would receive her, and at once she vanished:

… Then said Hallfred: ‘To thee, my son, will I give the sword “King’s Gift”, but other precious possessions shall be laid in the coffin with me, should I die here in the ship.’

The bequest of the precious sword given to him by King Olaf immediately after the young man has made his pledge with the fylgjukona is significant, and implies that the family luck and the gift go together. Another instance may be noticed in Laxdæla Saga,29 although here no woman appears: Hoskuld at the point of death gives a ring and a sword which had been gifts from Olaf Tryggvason to his favourite son Olaf the Peacock (whose mother had been a bondmaid). His words as he does so are worth noting:

… he gave them to his son Olaf, and with them his luck (gipta) and that of his kinsmen; he said that he had not spoken of this before, because he was not sure whether it (lit. ‘she’) had taken up its abode with him.

In neither case is the sword an ancient heirloom, but both were gifts from a Christian king of Norway in whose luck men put great trust, and the luck is evidently thought to be associated with the weapon which he gave. It would presumably augment the family luck, and be passed on from father to son in token of this. Incidentally it may be noticed that two other families in which a sword was passed down, the Volsungs and the family of Ingimund of Vatnsdale, each claimed a woman fylgja who protected them and warned them of danger.30

The story of Hallfred’s sword may throw some light on a motif which occurs more than once in Old Norse literature, that of the  gift of a sword to a young hero by a Valkyrie.. In the Edda poem Helgakviða31 the young son of Hjorvard sits on a mound and sees nine Valkyries ride past him. One of them gives him his name, Helgi, for the first time, and presents him with a sword as a name gift. It is a leader’s sword with a ring on the hilt, which will, she tells him, bring terror to his foes and courage to him as he wields it. In a similar way the hero Ragnar in Saxo’s Danish History32 receives a sword from a maiden called Svanhvita, who rides with her sisters on horseback. Here the presentation of the sword is described as a kind of vision or mystical experience:

Svanhvita … cast off the cloud of mist which overshadowed her, dispelling the darkness which shrouded her face, till it was clear and cloudless. Then promising that she would give him a sword fitted for divers kinds of battles, she revealed the marvellous maiden beauty of her lustrous limbs.

Ragnar is said to betroth himself to the mysterious maiden, and as she hands him the sword she speaks words which recall those of the other Valkyrie in the poem, exhorting him to courage and the winning of glory:

King, in this sword which shall expose the monsters to thy blows, take the first gift of thy betrothed. Show thyself duly deserving hereof; let hand rival sword and aspire to add lustre to its weapon. Let the might of steel strengthen the defenceless point of thy wit, and let spirit know how to work with hand. Let the bearer match the burden; and that thy deed may sort with thy blade, let equal weight in each be thine ….

Other echoes of what seems to be the same tradition are found in a series of stories of giantesses who foster young heroes, are betrothed to them (often bearing them a child) and afterwards remain faithful protectors in time of need, coming to help when called upon, although in the meantime the heroes have married normal human brides.33 Such supernatural helpers sometimes obtain armour and a sword for their charges, as does the giantess in Sorla Saga Sterka.34 In another of these legendary sagas, Hjalmpés Saga ok Qlvis, there is a strange account of the presentation of a sword by a creature called a finngálkn35 (later, like some of the Valkyries, appearing as a human princess). She is an odd figure indeed, for she has a horse’s head and tail, a huge mane and a large mouth, yet she is described as ‘great and impressive’ (gildligt), and in her hand ‘she held a sword so fine that he had never seen one to equal it’. When she offered this to the hero, she spoke verses which have certain resemblances to the speeches of the Valkyries in the other accounts. She declared that she would be in his company ‘though I do not travel with you’, and when he asked her for the sword, she told him that he might have it if he would kiss her:


Thou must seek Snarvendill,

victory will go with it,

and if thou wilt, wise prince,

bear it in thy hand.

I must receive

a little kiss from thee,

then shalt thou take

Mimming from my hand.


Hjalmther at first objected to this, not, as might be expected, because of her alarming aspect, but because he said that it would mean that he was then bound to her. However at last he agreed, and he had to embrace the finngálkn as she threw the sword up into the air, after warning him that should the weapon fall on him it would mean his death:

Now she threw up the sword, and at that instant he leaped forward, embraced her and kissed her, and she caught the sword behind his back. Then she handed the sword to him, and spoke:

I give thee Snarvendill,

victory shall go with it,

greathearted prince,

all thy life through.

Thy life shall ever turn to luck and victory;

in passing through the world,

the king’s son shall be stout-hearted.

Apart from the fantastic description of the creature, it will be  seen that the situation and the verses have an impressive, even an heroic ring, and that there is a marked resemblance to the dialogue in the Helgi poem. There is a parallel too to the receiving of the fylgjukona by young Hallfred; he also was free to accept or refuse, and once the pact was made, she was bound to him and he to her, though she would not be seen in his company, while with the agreement came the gift of a sword to bring luck and victory. There seems little doubt that one aspect of the Valkyrie, seen as a supernatural woman in armour who protects the hero and gives him a weapon, is based on the idea of a protective spirit of the family, the personified ‘luck’ of his ancestors.

In confirmation of this it may be noted that in Víga-Glúms saga, where as we have seen the young hero accepted gifts of sword, spear and cloak from his grandfather, they were followed by a significant dream at the time of the grandfather’s death.36 Glum thought he saw a huge woman in armour striding over the hills towards his farm in Iceland, and on waking he declared that she must be the hamingja, the ‘luck’ or protective spirit of his grand father, ‘who must be seeking a resting-place with me.’ Although this vision did not appear at the same time as the gift of weapons, there is a clear connection between the two.

Broken-back seax from Sittingbourne, Kent, inscribed with “☩ BIORHTELM ME ÞORTE” (“Biorhtelm made me”) and “☩ S[I]GEBEREHT ME AH” (“S[i]gebereht owns me”)


When Helgi saw the Valkyries and received his sword, he was sitting on a mound. A connection with the burial mound of the family has already been noticed in Volsunga Saga, and recurs in Flateyjarbók in a story of a family sword.37 Before the boy who became Olaf the Holy of Norway was born, an earlier Olaf, his ancestor, appeared in a dream to his father’s foster-brother, and told him that he was to break into his burial mound and take out the treasures buried with him. The wealth in the mound could be given to Jarl Hakon’s son in return for help, but the ring, the belt and the sword belonging to the dead king were to be taken to the house of his foster-brother, King Harald. Hrani carried out all the instructions; he entered the mound, fought and overcame the dead man (who in spite of the dream tried to prevent him carrying off his treasures), cut off his head, and took away the ring, the belt and the  sword. When he reached the house of King Harald, he found all anxiously awaiting the birth of the king’s child, which was long delayed. Hrani put the belt round the mother and declared that the child was to take the name Olaf, and that the ring and the sword were to be his. Not long afterwards, a healthy boy child was born, and he grew up to be King Olaf the Holy. The inference that the first Olaf was reborn in the second is unmistakeable, although the king himself is said to have angrily denied it, because it was not in accordance with Christian teaching.38 Here then the sword acts once more as an important link between the dead man in the grave and the new-born child, and is once more associated with the name giving. It is said of Viking settlers on the Volga in the tenth century that they had the custom of presenting a sword to a newborn child, saying: ‘All shall be yours which you can win with your sword.’39 Again in the Battle of the Goths and Huns, a poem which is believed to contain early heroic material,40 it is said of the hero that he was born


with sax and with sword and broad mailcoat,

with treasure-decked helmet and keen sword.


The comment on this made in the prose saga is that any weapons forged at the time of the birth of a high-born boy were given to him. It seems likely however that it may be a description of family weapons inherited by the child at birth.

The idea of swords being taken from graves is indeed so persistent in Old Norse literature that one wonders whether a practice ever existed of removing a sword from a family grave, not as a wanton act of tomb robbery but to present solemnly to a newborn child who took the dead man’s name, or to a youth who had proved himself worthy of it. Interesting in this connection is the story of the intrepid girl Hervor in Hervarar Saga,41 who visited her father’s burial mound to seek the sword Tyrfing, a family treasure, and was finally granted it by the mound’s occupant. The verses of dialogue spoken by the girl and the dead man have great imaginative power. At first he will not give up the sword, warning her that it  will bring ill fortune on her descendants. But she threatens him with a terrible curse, the curse of annihilation, if he keeps the sword: he and his brothers, she says, shall waste away as in an anthill

… unless you give up the sword that Dvalinn forged. It is not fitting that the dead should hold a precious weapon.

Finally he gives way and grants her the sword without hostility; and the last words he utters are a desire that valour and luck, such as the family possessed in the past, shall come to her with the sword:

Fare you well, daughter. Readily would I give you the life of twelve men, if you would believe me, strength and endurance and all good things which the sons of Arngrim possessed in themselves.

In the story of Offa, which was known to the Anglo-Saxons but has only survived in detail in the Latin chroniclers Saxo Grammaticus and Sweyn Aageson, it would seem that Offa’s sword Skrep, with which he proved his valour against his father’s enemies, came from a burial mound. Saxo42 tells us that the old blind king Wermund went searching for the place where he had hidden a great sword which, thinking his son unworthy of it he ‘had been loath to leave for the benefit of posterity’. He drew it out of a hole ‘frail with age and rusted away’, and gave it to his son for the duel which saved the kingdom. In Sweyn Aageson’s account however it is clearly stated that this hiding place was a burial mound:43

Accordingly he asked to be led to a tumulus, in which formerly he had hidden a sword of tried renown. And soon, led by signs as he made his way among the rocks, he ordered a sword of great excellence to be dug out.

Gokstad Ship Burial Mound
Gokstad Ship Burial Mound.

There is archaeological evidence for the deliberate entrance of some of the great burial mounds of Norway, including the Gokstad mound which may have been the burial place of Olaf Geirstaðarálfr, whose sword was inherited by King Olaf the Holy. Brogger44 has given good reasons to believe that the entry into another famous burial mound, the ship grave at Oseberg, was on so grand a scale  that it could hardly have been the secret work of robbers, and moreover that the deliberate destruction in the tomb was such as to suggest that belief in magic or some kind of cult inspired the howe breakers rather than desire for plunder. Clearly it was worth while to rob a tomb, if it contained a good sword which had been well preserved, as many swords were during their period in the earth, so that both possibilities may lie behind the many tales in the sagas of swords taken from graves and put to use again. But in any case, the idea of the family sword passed on to a newborn child or to a young man attaining manhood is such a powerful symbol in itself that it may well have inspired legends of the dead man in his mound yielding up the weapon which had brought him glory in the past.


It will be seen from the evidence collected here that the mother of the family plays an important part where the sword is concerned. Both Grettir and Glum received weapons which had been treasured in their mothers’ families. Olaf the Holy later in life – at eight years of age, according to Flateyjarbók45 – received the sword of the earlier Olaf which had been promised to him at birth. It was round his mother that the belt had been fastened, and it was to his mother that the sword had been entrusted; she kept it in her chest until the lad one day demanded what the bright thing was which he could see shining at the bottom:

‘That is the hilt of a sword’, said Asta. ‘Whose is it?’ asked Olaf. ‘It is yours, my son’, said she; ‘it is the sword called Basing which belonged to Olaf Geirstaðarálfr.’ ‘I want to have it’, said Olaf, ‘and to wear it.’ Asta gave him the sword.

The presence of a sword at the wedding and the summoning of the bride to lay her hand upon it is in keeping with this part played by the mother. The significance of the wife and mother in the guarding and passing down of family weapons appears to be a tradition of considerable antiquity among the Germanic peoples. Tacitus states in Germania XVIII46 that the most important part of  the wedding ceremony among the Germans was the exchange of arms between bridegroom and bride, and that among these arms a sword was included. The bride received her gift as a treasure to be carefully preserved and passed down to later generations:

The dowry is brought by husband to wife, not by wife to husband. Parents and kinsmen attend and approve of the gifts, gifts not chosen to please a woman’s whim or gaily deck a young bride, but oxen, horse with reins, shield, spear and sword. For such gifts a man gets his wife, and she in turn brings some present of arms to her husband.., she is receiving something which she must hand over unspoilt and treasured to her children, for her sons’ wives to receive in their turn and pass on to the grandchildren.

Tacitus GermaniaCommentators have generally assumed that Tacitus is mistaken here, and that he has misunderstood the dowry given by the bride’s father to the bride.47 Yet the statements made are quite definite, and Meyer believes that we should accept them. In these reciprocal gifts of weapons, possessed for a while and then passed on to the next generation, there is a striking similarity to the gifts of a horse and arms which made up the heriot, the gifts received by a warrior from his lord to be given back to him at death.48 The woman according to Tacitus receives weapons and passes them on to her son when he is ready to use them, as Grettir’s mother gave him her father’s sword and as Hjordis in Volsunga Saga passed on the shattered pieces of the sword of Sigmund the Volsung to her son Sigurd. It would seem that in the time of Tacitus the practice was that at marriage family weapons should be given to the wife, to keep in trust for the first-born son.

Linked with this, we find the practice by which the father’s weapons were entrusted to the daughter (as part of the marriage dowry, it may be) to hand on to whichever son she chose. There is also the further idea that the young man must prove himself to be worthy to own the family weapons, perhaps by some deed of bravery or by winning arms for himself away from home, as Alboin and Beowulf had to do. In the many stories of giving and receiving of swords and other arms, it is clear that more than one concept  may be traced. But what stands out clearly is the belief in the significance of the family as a continuing force, and of the tremendous importance of the family store of ‘luck’ and valour, embodied in its greatest men of the past, and passing down with the family treasures to each new generation in turn. The idea of a mighty woman in armour, riding through the air or striding over the hills, is one way of picturing this ‘luck’, and the man who received such a being as his protector was held to concentrate in himself during his lifetime the power and greatness of the family to which he belonged. The tree which sheltered or perhaps supported the house, on whose well-being that of the family depended and to which women turned at the difficult hour of childbirth, was another symbol. The sword which passed down from father to son became also a memorable token of the continuing power of the family. We see that it was not viewed as a purely masculine treasure, although it was the men of the family who wielded it in battle. The women who became the mothers of sons and on whom the continuance of the family depended were entrusted with the keeping of the family sword in the period when it lay at rest between one generation and another. It was therefore fitting that a woman’s hand should be laid on a sword at the wedding ceremony, and far from being a sign of her subjection, the evidence from early literature goes to show that this was perhaps the greatest honour which a heroic society could pay to her.

Abingdon Sword
The Abingdon Sword, found near Abingdon, Oxfordshire; the hilt decoration is typical of ninth-century English metalwork



  1. Davidson, ‘The Ring on the Sword’, Journal Arms and Armour Soc. 2, 1958, p. 21 z f.
  2. H. Meyer, ‘Die Eheschliessung im “Ruodlieb” und das Eheschwert’, Zeitschrift d. Savigny-Stiftungf. Rechtsgeschichte (Germ. Abt.) 52, 1932, P. 27.
  3. J. Grimm, Deutsche Rechtsalterthiimer, 4th ed., Leipzig, 1899, I, 431, pp. 595-6.
  4. Davidson, op. cit.
  5. The sword of marriage. See J. Halbertsma, Lexicon Frisicum, 1876, col. 12, ‘ÆFT cg. matrimonium’, with variant forms. Similarly Richthofen, Altfries. W.t.buch, 184o, p. 589, sub. aft, oft, eft. The fact that this term was in use for the sword in the marriage ceremony is of considerable interest and significance.
  6. H. Pipping, Studier i nordisk Filologi, i6, Eddastudier I, p. 25.
  7. N.E. Hammarstedt, ‘Kvarlevor av an Frös-ritual i en svensk brollopslek’, Festkrift til H. F. Feilberg, 1911, p. 489 f.; V. Grönbech, The Culture of the Teutons, London and Copenhagen, 1931, II, p. zzo; III, p. 112z.
  8. Völsunga saga, Fornaldarsdgur Nordurlanda, ed. Jonsson and Vilhalmsson, Reykjavik, 1944, i, III, p. 6.
  9. It is interesting to notice that apple-trees growing near or in the hall and connected with the Other World are found in Celtic tradition. See A. B. Cook, ‘The European Sky-God’, Folklore 17, I906, pp. 169-71.
  10. For the custom of sitting on a mound, see Ellis, The Road to Hel, Cambridge, 1943, P. 105 f.
  11. J. De Vries, ‘Baum und Schwert in der Sage von Sigmundr’, Zeitschrift f. deutsches Alterum, 85, 1954, p. 95 f.
  12. W. Mannhardt, ‘Der Baumkultus’, Wald-und Feldkulte, Berlin, 1875, P. 46 f.
  13. It may be noted that in Sweden in the eighteenth century twigs from the tree used at the wedding ceremony were thrown into the water used for christenings: Hammerstedt, op cit p. 493.
  14. 14 A. B. Cook, ‘The European Sky-God’, Folklore, 17, pp. 172-3. Cf. M. F. Johnston, ‘Some Famous Family “Lucks”‘, Wide World Magazine, 15, 1905, p. 244, where a number of instances of family treasures in the British Isles are given, including two trees.
  15. D. Whitelock, Anglo-Saxon Wills, Cambridge, 1930, pp. 158, 171.
  16. Beowulf, 21 90-6.
  17. D. Whitelock, The Audience of Beowulf, Oxford, I951I, pp. 89-91.
  18. Historia Langobardorum, XXIII, XXIV.
  19. Grettis Saga Asmundarsonar, Islenzk Fornrit 7, 1936, XVII, p. 49 f.
  20. Vatnsdaela Saga, Islenzk Fornrit 8, 1939, XVII, XXVII. Cf. G. Jones, The Vatnsdalers’ Saga, Princeton, 1944, p. 135.
  21. Grettis Saga, XVIII, XX, XLIII.
  22. Viga-Glums Saga, ed. G. Turville-Petre, Oxford, 1940, VI, p. 11.
  23. A. Holtsmark, ‘Vitazgjafi’, Maal og Minne, 1933, p. 132. Cf. G. Turville Petre, ‘The Cult of Freyr in the evening of Paganism’, Proc. Leeds Phil. and Lit. Soc. 3, 1932-5, p. 331 f.
  24. Gisla Saga Surssonar, Islenzk Fornrit 6, 1943, I, XI, XVI.
  25. Sturlunga Saga, Kongelige Nordiske Oldskrift Selskab, Copenhagen and
    Christiania, I906-Ii, V, 44 and VII, I43.
  26. Heimskringla, Hákonar Saga Herðibreiðs, XX, Islenzk Fornrit 28, III,
    p. 370o. The story is briefly told in Einar Skulason’s poem Geisli, recited in Trondheim Cathedral in 1153. The poem is given in F. Jónsson’s Norsk
    Islandske Skjaldedigtning, B I, p. 438.
  27. Hallfreðar Saga, Islenzk Fornrit 8, 1939, XI, p. 198.
  28. For the woman fylgja, see De Vries, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte,
    2nd ed., Berlin, 1956, I, 163, p. 226.
  29. Laxdæla Saga, Islenzk Fornrit 5, 1934, XXVI, p. 72.
  30. Volsunga Saga, IV, Vatnsdæla Saga, XXX.
  31. Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar, v. 6-9, and prose passage preceding these.
  32. Saxo Grammaticus, History of the Danes, II, 42-45; P. 53 in Elton’s translation, which is used here.
  33. I have discussed these in detail in ‘Fostering by Giants in Old Norse Sagas’, Medium Ævum, 1o, 1941, p. 70 f.
  34. In Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda, ed. Jónsson and Vilhálmsson, Reykjavik, 1944, 3, VI, p. 202.
  35. Ibid. 3, X, p. 247.
  36. Víga-Glúms saga, IX.
  37. Flateyjarbók, ed. Vigfusson and Unger, Christiania, 1862, II, 7, p. 7 f.
  38. Flateyjarbók, II, 106, p. 135.
  39. C. M. Frihn, Ibn Foszlans und anderer Araber Berichte fiber die Russen alteren Zeit, 1823, p. 3.
  40. Ed. Kershaw, Anglo-Saxon and Norse Poems, Cambridge, 1922, p. 142 f.
  41. Hervarar saga ok Heiðreks, Fornaldarsögur Norðurlanda, ed. Jónsson and Vilhálmsson, Reykjavik, 1943, I, IV, p. 199 f. For introduction and notes, see Kershaw, Stories and Ballads of the Far Past, Cambridge, 1921, pp. 79 f., 234 f.
  42. Saxo Grammaticus, IV, I 15; p. 141 in Elton’s translation.
  43. Script. Rev. Dan. II. Quoted in full, R. W. Chambers, Beowulf, an Introduction, Cambridge, 1932, p. 213.
  44. ‘Oseberggraven Haugbrottet’, Viking, 1945, p. I f.
  45. Flateyjarbók, , II, 12, p. 12.
  46. Tacitus, De Origine et Situ Germanorum, ed. J. G. C. Anderson, Oxford, 1938, XVIII, I have here used the translation of H. Mattingly, Penguin Classics, 1948.
  47. E.g. R. Much, Die Germania des Tacitus, Heidelburg, 1937, p. 192 f. and Anderson, op. cit., p. 110.
  48. See H. Brunner, Forschungen z. Geschichte des deutschen und franzusischen Rechtes, Stuttgart, 1894, p. 22 f. Also Whitelock, Anglo-Saxon Wills, p. 100.

Source: Folklore, Vol. 71, No. 1 (Mar., 1960), pp. 1-18

Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of Folklore Enterprises, Ltd.

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Sword with Anglo-Saxon silver inlay found in a grave in Heggestrøa, Norway
Sword with Anglo-Saxon silver inlay found in a grave in Heggestrøa, Norway.

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