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A Note on Viking Age Inaugurations

Elisabeth Vestergaard

Very few details are known about rulership in the Viking Age, but there has been much speculation. In this brief note I shall try to summarize what can be gained about inauguration rites from the written sources, however scarce they may be. An analysis of rituals and social relations connected with the royal office may still provide some insights into early medieval rulership, which I should like to present as preface to and commentary on the much better-documented medieval history of Scandinavian coronations. Laws, chronicles, Snorri's Norwegian kings' sagas as well as scaldic, heroic, and mythological poetry offer some evidence on relations between king, royal office, society, and gods. It is from these aspects of the Viking Age that an inquiry into rituals of rulership should begin. In this project it is important not to assume identy of meaning or function when a cultural feature (object, institution) in one historical context resembles a cultural feature in another.

Three main approaches can be distinguished in the study of Scandinavian kingship: some focus on war kingship (Heerkönigtum), others on folk kingship, yet others on sacred kingship. The description of the war kings by Tacitus is strikingly similar to the image of kings contained in scaldic verse. Taking their cue from Tacitus, many historians aim to understand state formation in Scandinavia and other Germanic societies as based primarily on war.[1] Others concentrate on "democratic" features, emphasizing the folk king who is "taken" to the throne by all free men.[2] The third approach stresses the sacred character of the divinely descended king who bestowed fertility upon the land, who was the priest at the major sacrifices,[3] and whose relation to the gods (especially Odin) brought victory in battle.[4] I believe that, in order to gain proper understanding of Scandinavian rulership, these three characteristics should not be regarded as different types of monarchy but rather as interdependent; together they constituted the institution of


kingship. The ritual surrounding the accession of kings reflects this complex character of Viking Age rulership.

The inauguration of rulers is rarely mentioned in any detail in early Scandinavian sources. The most important references are in the Swedish laws, especially in Västgöta Law and Uppland Law and in the Norwegian Hirdskrá; most informative among the sagas is Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla . From the laws we know that the kings had to be "taken" at the popular gatherings at the major courts of the country. Following the taking the king was either deemed (döma) to be king or rejected (vraka).[5] This laconic description accords with the references in the Nowegian royal histories (Heimskringla) and with the narrative accounts in the Danish chronicles.[6] In order to be accepted as a candidate for the royal office, a man had to be a patrilineal member of the royal lineage whose divine origin marked him off from the rest of the population; he also had to be without physical or mental blemish. However, royal descent alone was not sufficient. It needed to be reinforced by the acclamation of free men from whom it also received its limitation for peacetime. Political power of the royal office was further limited because laws had to originate from the popular court (thing) rather than the king. In war and in relation with his hirdmen , the king enjoyed a position that was much less limited by the society of freemen: there he was more than first among equals, though less than fully superior to them.

The typical inauguration of a Scandinavian king proceeded as follows: fire was carried around the borders of the court site and a lawman blessed the public court as a sacred place and sacred institution where profane activities of daily life (such as fighting) were forbidden, thereby accentuating the inviolability of the court. This consecration marked off the events at the court site from the time and space of normal activity. The ritual of blessing and consecration took place whenever meetings were held at the  image. Therefore events superior to social life could take place here. One may call the events in the court, in analogy to the dichotomy "communication–meta-communication," meta-events, for they were actions about actions (events) in society in order to create authority an institution above society is needed.

The next inaugural step in Sweden and Denmark was the candidate king's being led to a stone and placed upon it. The person who led him was a lawman or another high-ranking member of society. In Norway the stone was replaced by a highseat erected on top of a constructed mound,[7] and during the first part of the ritual the candidate may have been sitting on the lowest step of the mound.[8] In each Scandinavian kingdom the placing or seating of the candidate would then be followed by "the people" expressing their approval through clashing arms or raising hands.

In some instances the candidate might have been unacceptable. In such a case, he was probably removed from the stone as an act of rejection. This act implied that the person did not possess the required qualifications and facul-


ties necessary for kingship. In the same way an already reigning ruler could be rejected, if he were found to be unsuitable for office.[9] In such cases the deposition might be followed by the sacrificial killing of the rejected king.[10]

The "taking" of a king was followed by the lawmen's judgment (döma), whereupon the king would swear oaths to guard peace and law. According to most of the early sources the king had to go through this ritual in all the major thing -courts in the realm. Swedish sources record that, before entering a province, the new king had to be granted safe conduct and given hostages lest he be regarded an intruder.[11]

Since the surviving Scandinavian sources say so much less about royal accession than the coronation records of other countries, it has been common to assume that what we know is merely the tip of an iceberg. Consequently, it has been suggested that other rites were also performed and that the king may have received insignia, at least a helmet, a sword, or a shield, even if we have no evidence on these. However, this assumption cannot be validated from any available source. In contrast, I do not consider our knowledge of Viking Age inaugurations deficient, but rather I believe that we do know most of what transpired. One of my reasons for this belief is that in the oldest literature, in the laws, and in the chronicles the only expression used is that "then he was taken king." This is particularly significant, because the same sources describe other rituals quite extensively.[12] Hence, I propose that the placing of the future ruler, with the consent of the people, upon the stone or in the highseat endowed him with regal qualities and royal power. No other ritual was necessary for granting the qualities that belonged to the seated person.

Two examples from literature supply so explicit analogies that I risk to adduce them for the understanding of Scandinavian royal inauguration. The first is in the mythological poem Fór Scírnis from the Poetic Edda , the second from Snorri's Haraldz saga ins Hárfagra . In the eddic poem it is recounted that the god Frey once sat down on the mighty Odin's chair,  image, and was immediately able to look into all the worlds. In the world of giants,  image, he saw a beautiful girl with whom he fell in love.[13] The mere act of placing himself on the chair of Odin made Frey acquire the faculties of Odin; no further ritual was required. The act itself endowed the one seated on the mighty god's seat with magic power and divine qualities. In the saga we read of King Harald Fairhair fighting minor kings in order to become the supreme ruler of Norway. King Hrollaug of Naumdælafylki had built a mound with a highseat on its summit. Upon hearing that King Harald was approaching with an army, Hrollaug sat down on the highseat on the mound. He then tumbled to the foot of the mound and named himself "earl." Thereafter he went to King Harald and handed over his realm to him.[14] By tumbling down the mound and by assuming the non-royal title of earl, Hrollaug imitated the rejection rite and thus was able to hand over his land to the king. By this act


he avoided a defeat, for his land had no longer a king, and Hrollaug could become a retainer of King Harald. Just as placing on the highseat makes a king, so leaving it puts an end of kingship, without any further ritual.

Historians have assumed the existence of more elaborate Scandinavian accession rituals because they started out from the rites introduced to Scandinavia after its conversion to Christianity. Erich Hoffmann, for example, believes that "before their conversion Norwegian Kings did not have crowns, but golden helmets."[15] True, a saga relates that King Hákon the Good was easily recognized by his golden helmet,[16] but this statement does not imply that the king's helmet of gold had a symbolic significance comparable to that of medieval crowns. In the saga episode referred to here, the golden helmet has an epic function. His helmet, glittering in the sunshine, together with his unusual height, made the king highly visible on the battlefield; to reduce his vulnerability as a target to the enemy, Hákon's men covered the king's helmet. The golden helmet cannot be interpreted as a distinct object belonging to Norse kings as rulers, that is, a precursor of crowns. Rather the splendid headgear is a reference to the heroic qualities of the king. When mentioned in eddic or epic poetry, the golden helmet is a symbolic statement: kings, and heroes, are portrayed with golden armor—helmet, sword, shield, or chainmail. Norse descriptions of hoards contain usually such items, in contrast to continental ones, for example, that in the Nibelungenlied , where treasures of gold and gems are listed in general, rather than specific pieces.[17] When a person is said to wear golden equipment, we know that he is a great hero, or a mighty king, or, most likely, both.

Although medieval kings received crowns, we ought not project their existence back into the Viking Age; there is no evidence for their presence in scaldic, heroic, and mythological poetry, nor in sagas and chronicles. Crowns, helmets, scepters, and rods cannot be investigated without taking into account the political and symbolic system to which they belong and without considering the transformations that such systems may undergo. Insignia that belong to the royal office are not mentioned in any source from the Viking Age. Nor do the gods, prototypes of the ruler, wear insignia. Insignia symbolize an authority derived from outside society, whereas the "taking" signifies an authority granted by society itself. Hence, insignia belong to the Christian Middle Ages and not to Viking times.

To summarize, with regard to leadership and power, Scandinavian societies were in a way "primitive" until the eleventh or twelfth century; only in a subsequent period was the "primitive" political order transformed into a state in which the king came to be separated from the society of free men. The rulers of the Viking Age were persons of royal descent who were "taken" kings by popular courts and placed upon a stone or highseat. They were both the embodiment of society and agents who stood outside society. The kings were given authority to fulfill a number of functions: they were mediators of


relationships with external forces whether human or divine (enemies, bad harvest, chaos) and they were guarantors of peace and social order. However, they did not have power over their seats. Kings could be removed, killed, or sacrificed, should they fail. The king was simultaneously placed above society and kept as its hostage. To put it in terms of social interaction: insiders placed an outsider outside society as a protection against threats from without. The person and the office were distinct entities since, despite the taking, it was yet undecided whether the person would fit the office. Society elevated one of its members to a position, but would deprive him of this authority if he did not suit the office or if he should transgress the limits of his authority by using it to further his private interests as a member of society. Society was the end, the king was its means. With civilization and statehood, the source of royal authority and legitimacy shifted from the inside to the outside; the king became rex Dei gratia and society lost control over the king and his office. The state became the end, the society the means.[18]

Although the institution of kingship existed both in prefedual and semifeudal Scandinavian societies, as well as in the feudal states of Europe, there is a great difference between the meaning of kingship in pagan Scandinavia and Christian societies. Therefore, attempts to trace the rituals and insignia of medieval coronation back to pre-Christian Scandinavia are unwarranted. The traditions that constituted the inaugural ceremonies of medieval Scandinavia were almost entirely of foreign origin, introduced mainly by the Church.[19] Viking Age inauguration—the taking, the seating, and the adjudgment of the king—was, in spite of its simplicity, a ritual as adequate to its social context as was the Christian coronation to its own milieu.

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