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OATH AND ORDEAL

from

"The Viking Age," by Paul B. Du Chaillu, vol. 1, p. 299-319

.

 

Sanctity of the oath—Manner of taking the oath
—Oath upon the Bible adopted with
Christianity
—Oaths sworn by objects—The oath of truce—Oath by witnesses—Purifying
oath—Its various forms—Perjury
—Different forms of ordeal—Passing under sods
—Ordeal
of boiling water—Walking on red-hot irons.

THE law of the people was much influenced by their religion. Great stress was laid upon the sanctity of the oath, which, like a vow, was considered most binding. No other literature points out so clearly and so often the sacredness of an oath and the loathing in which oath-breakers were held. Let the youth of every land learn this noble trait of the character of the Norsemen. No one could absolve a man for breaking his oath, no matter how great might have been the splendour of his achievements. The higher born the man was, the more did he consider himself bound to keep his oath.

History teaches us that the avenging fates have never been slow to smite low to the dust oath-breakers, as well as nations which, in a moment of hallucination showing the moral disease of the mind of their people, have absolved the men who had committed this crime.

The proofs used to clear a man were "witnesses," "oath," and "ordeal." The taking of an oath was looked upon as a very sacred and holy ceremony. He who violated it sooner or later incurred the enmity of the gods. Many examples were remembered by the people showing how an oath was kept, in spite of the greatest provocation or temptation. What any one had sworn was considered sacred, and could not be broken with impunity.

The oath was taken at the Thing, or Temple, by placing the hand on a ring which had been consecrated by having beén dipped in the blood of the sacrificial ox. This ring, which was of silver, lay on the altar of each head temple, and was therefore called altar-ring, or "stalla-hring." The godi was required to have it on his arm at every Thing, so that it was always at hand if needed. The man who took the oath held his hand upon the ring, (1) and in the presence of witnesses called upon the Asar and begged their help. Three Asar, Frey, Njörd, and Odin, were always called upon. . .

 

**1. Baug-eid, or "ring-oath," is mentioned in Havamál, stanza 110.

 

The oath upon the Bible, a practice found to exist to this day among people chiefly descended from the North, is but a form of the ancient laws, and, like many others, was adopted with Christianity.

"A ring, weighing two aurar or more, was to lie in every head temple on the altar, and every godi was to wear it on his arm at all Law-things which he should hold himself, and to redden it in the blood of the cattle which he himself sacrificed there. Every man who had to perform legal duties there had first to take an oath on this ring and name two or more witnesses, and say: ‘I call to witness that I take oath on the ring, a lawful oath, so help me Frey and Njörd, and the Almighty As (Odin), to defend or prosecute this case, or give the evidence, verdict, or judgment which I know to be most true and right and lawful, and to perform everything as prescribed by law which I may have to. perform while I am at this Thing’" (Landnáma, iv. c. 7). (2)

 

**2 Cf. also Eyrbyggja, c. 4, 16, 44.

 

In a fight against Glum, Thorvald Krok was slain; the people were in doubt if the slaying had been done by Glum or one of his men. At the Althing it was decided that Glum should take an oath the following autumn that he had not slain Thorvald, and he was to take the oath in three temples in Eyjafjord.

"The man who was to take a temple oath held in his hand a silver ring which had been reddened in the blood of the bull which had been sacrificed, and it must weigh not less than three aurar. Then Glum said these words: ‘I call Asgrim and Gizor as witnesses that I take a temple oath on the ring, and I tell the Asar that I was not there, and I fought not there, and I did not redden point and edge where Thorvald Krok was slain; now let those who are wise and are present here look to my oath.’ The others could not find fault, and said they had not heard this wording before. The same oath was taken by him at Gnupafell and at Thverá" (Viga Glum’s Saga, c. 25).

Oaths were sometimes sworn by objects. Völund says to Nidud, his father-in-law :—

First thou shalt to me
Swear all oaths
At the ship’s side
And at the shield’s edge,
At the horse’s foot
And at the sword’s edge
That thou killest not
The wife of Völund
Nor puttest to death
My bride.

(Völundarkvida, 33.)

Gudrun thus curses Atli, for having broken his solemn oath to her brothers, before she slays him in his bed and burns him and his men in his own hail :---

Go it thus with thee, Atli,
As thou to Gunnar
Often didst swear oaths
And name them of yore.
By the south-slanting sun,
By the rock of Sigty,
By the horse of the bed of rest, (1)
By the ring of Ull. (2)

(Atlakvida, 30.) (3)

 

**1. The sleeping room.

**2. The stepson of Thor.

**3. See also Kjalnesinga, 2.

 

The oath of truce or peace was sealed by hand-shaking, and had to be repeated with a great deal of care.

Snorri Godi, the famous Icelandic chief, when on his way from a feast with Thorgils Arason, stopped overnight at a farm called Breidabólstad. After they had entered and sat down, Snorri said :—

"‘ I have been told, Thorgils, that no man can cite the oath of truce so well as thee’" (Heidarviga, c. 33).

The following saga shows how an oath of peace was sometimes kept under .the greatest temptations to break it. Gretti was an outlaw, and had come in disguise under the name of Gest to see some games, of idróttir in which he was invited to take part; but knowing that, if he was recognised his life would not be safe, he insisted that those present should take the oath of peace towards him.

"‘Here I establish peace among all men, especially with regard to this man, named Gest, who sits here; and I include all godords menn (district chiefs) and good bœndr, and the whole mass of young men able to fight, and all other heradsmen of the Hegranesthing district, or wherefrom any may have come with or without name; we give by handshaking safety and full peace to the unknown stranger who is called Gest, for games, wrestling, and all kind of merriment, for remaining here or returning home, whether he need go by sea or land or by other conveyance; he shall have peace in every named or unnamed place as long as he needs for a safe return, with observance of the plighted faith. I establish this peace for us, our kinsmen, friends and kindred, men as well as women, thralls and bondwomen, boys and independent men. He who violates the peace or breaks the plighted faith shall be a peace-nithing, and shall be outcast and driven from God and good men in heaven, and from all saints; and shall be received nowhere among men, but be driven away by every man as far as wolves are driven, or wherever Christians go to church, heathens sacrifice in temples, fire burns, earth produces, a speaking child calls its mother, mother bears son, people kindle fires, ships glide, shields glitter, sun shines, snow falls, a Finn runs on snow-shoes, fir grows, a hawk flies all the long spring day with a straight fair wind blowing under both wings, heaven encircles, world is settled and wind blows water towards sea, men sow corn; he shall shun churches and Christians, heathen bœndr, houses and caves, every home except hell. Now let us agree and be at peace one with the other in goodwill, whether we meet on mountain or beach, on ship or snowshoes, on earth or jökul (glacier), on the high sea or on horseback, as if one find his friend on water or his brother on the way; agreeing as well one with another as son with father, or father with son, in all dealings. Now we join our hands together all of us, and keep this truce, and all words spoken in this plight of faith witnessed by God and good men, and all who hear my words or are here present.’ Many said that much . was in this, and Gest said: ‘Well hast thou declared the truce, if thou and thy people do not break it afterwards, and I shall no longer delay showing myself.’ He then threw off his hooded cloak and. outer garments. Each looked at the other, very startled at recognizing Grettir Asmundsson, whom they knew by his size and strong frame, which were uncommon. They became silent, and Hafr perceived that his speech had been unwise. As the men from the herad walked two by two, each blamed the other, but most him who had pronounced the oath of peace. Then said Grettir: ‘Make it plain to me what you have in your mind, for I do not wish to sit long without clothing (they removed their outer garments when they wrestled); you have much more at stake than I in the keeping of the truce.’ They made little answer, and sat down. The sons of Thord and Halldor, their brother-in-law, began to talk together. Some were in favour of keeping the truce, and others not, and they nodded their heads one to another. Tungustein said: ‘Is that your thought, Grettir, but what will the chiefs do? Thou art in truth a great and brave man, but seest thou not how they put their noses together in deliberation what to do.’"

After a taunting song from Grettir, in which he ridiculed their indecision, Hjalti Thordarson said :---

"‘ It shall not be so; let us keep our oath of peace, though we have been outwitted; let us not ourselves set the example of violating the truce we have declared and given. Grettir shall go free wherever he likes, and the truce shall last until he has returned. Then this plighted faith will be no longer in force, whatever may happen between us.’ All thanked him, and thought his opinion chief-like, considering the guilt of the person interested. Thorbjörn Ongul, Hjalti’s brother at this became silent" (Gretti’s Saga, c. 73, 74).

Oaths by witnesses.—If there were witnesses, including at least two freemen who were of age, to testify under oath for or against, then the one who had the most witnesses won his case.

If a witness’s appearance was hindered, then two men could take his evidence and give it under oath on his behalf.

If people heard a bad report about a man, evidence was given by ten men, two of whom had to swear to it, and the others verified their words that they bad heard such report without knowing if it was true or not. Such evidence forced the accused to free himself from the accusation either by oath or ordeal.

The purifying oath, skirsl (1) or dulareid, (2) varied according to the accusation. It was taken either by the defendant alone, or by him and a certain number of co-swearers, the number of whom varied according to the nature of the cases. The greatest number was twelve, and the oath, which was considered the most solemn and important, was in such a case called tylftareid (twelve-men oath).

 

**1. Skirsl, to pass under jardarmen. See page 559.

**2. Dulareid, an oath of denial.

 

Geirrid was accused at the Thing of being a kveldrida, (1) by which she had caused some wounds on Gunnlaug.

"At the Thing a godi named Arnkel, Thorarin, and ten others took oath upon the altarring that she had not been the cause of Gunnlaug’s injury" (Eyrbyggja).

The tylftareid was divided into two kinds, namely, a milder oath with the so-called fangavitni, (2) and a stronger one called nefndarvitni, (3) when each side chose six men from the haullds in the herad, neither related to nor enemies of either party. Of these twelve men defendant had to take two, and to add to them two of his nearest kinsmen, making with himself five, and the other seven were fangavitni chosen freely among the free men, the rest having nothing to do with the case. If one of the twelve men did not take the oath, then what is called eidfall (the one who fails in an oath) took place, and the whole affair was considered to be at an end, and the defendant lost the case.

 

**1 Evening rider, night hag, witch, riding on wolves in the twilight.

**2 Witnesses fetched at random when defendant could choose his co-swearers.

**3 Witnesses called by a body of named men.

 

"Wherever a tylftareíd shall be and witnesses are named, then the plaintiff names one half of the witnesses, and the defendant the other; and each shall name as their witnesses when the oath is taken twelve of the best haullds in the fylki, or the . best bœndr if haullds are not there. Neither foes nor friends shall be named. He shall take two of the twelve as witnesses, then two of his nearest kinsmen; then they are five with himself, and the other seven shall be free men and full-grown, who will be responsible for his words and oaths" (Frostath., iv. 8).

"Tylftareid (oath of twelve men) has to take place in order to free one from the accusation of murder" (Landnáma, 89).

Next came the oath given by six men, which was called. séttareid, (4) which was taken when the five co-swearers were fangavitni. If the oath was given with nefndarvitni the proceedings were the same as in the case of the strong tyiftareid. Each side chose three haullds; of these six the defendant chose one, to whom he added one of his nearest kinsmen, then they were three with himself, and the remaining three were fangavitmi.

 

**4. Séttareid, an oath of six; i.e., six compurgators.

 

A still stronger séttareid is mentioned in Gulathing’s Law under the name of grimueid. (1) In this six men of equal rétt with the defendant were chosen, and were coswearers with him.

 

**1. Grima, a hood covering the face; grimueid, a kind of oath taken by six compurgators. The origin of the word is obscure; perhaps the compurgators had to appear in court with cowls or hoods on.

 

"Then there is grimueid. Three men shall be named on each side of equal rétt as him who is to be the seventh" (Gulath., 134).

In the lýritareid (a kind, of oath of justification given by three men), the defendant himself was one of the swearers; the man of equal rétt not related to him was his coswearer, and the third was any chosen freeman.

"The lýritareid shall be taken thus. He (plaintiff) shall take it himself, and another man of equal rétt who must neither be a kinsman on male or female side, nor a near relative. The third shall be a free and full-grown man who will be responsible for his word and oath" (Gulath., 135).

In the oath by two men, "tveggja manna eid," the defendant seems to have himself chosen his co-swearers without restriction. Like the oath of twelve, if one refused to swear to the case the procedure was not valid.

Perjury was punished by fine, and inability thereafter to give evidence, and loss of rétt.

"The men who become false witnesses are liable to pay three marks to the king, and are never able to give evidence after, or use any evidence (on their own behalf), and lose their rétt" (Frostath., xiii. 25).

The Ordeal.—The ordeal was a ceremony performed under different forms in order to prove the innocence or the truth of an accusation, and was preceded by an oath. Among the various kinds of ordeal was tha.t of going under an arch or hoop of sods, a ceremony sometimes connected with an oath. (2)

 

**2 See chapter on Foster-brotherhood. Vol. ii. p. 61.

 

If the plaintiff succeeded in passing under these sods without breaking them, or without their falling down, he was considered to have proved his case. The strips of sod seem to have generally been three.

"Ordeal then consisted in a man going under a strip of sod which was cut from the field; the ends of it were to be fast in the ground, and the man who was to perform the ordeal must go under it. He who went under the sod was considered not guilty if it did not fall down upon him. Thorkel made an agreement with two men that they should dispute about something, and be present when the ordeal was taking place and touch the turf, so that all should see that they threw it down. After this the ordeal was to be performed, and as soon as the man had come beneath the sod the men who were to rush against one another with weapons did so, and met close to the turf-loop and fell there; it fell down, as was likely, then men rushed between them and separated them, which was easy, for they fought with no anger. Thorkel Trefil asked for judgment on the ordeal. All his men said that it would have been satisfactory if nobody had spoiled it. Then Thorkel took all the movable property, while the lands were given to Hrappsstadir" (Laxdæla, c. 18).

Berg summoned Jökul to the Hunavatns Thing on account of a blow received from him during a wedding feast, and prepared the case.

"At the Thing they tried to reconcile them, but Berg said he would take no fine and not be reconciled unless Jökul went under three sod-slices, as was there the custom after great offences, and thus show his humility. Jökul said that sooner should the Troll take him than he would lower himself thus. Thorstein said: ‘This is a matter for consideration, and I will go under the sod-slice.’ Berg said that would do. The first sod-slice reached to the shoulder, the second to the waist-belt, the third to the middle of the thigh. When Thorstein went under the first, Berg said: ‘Now I will make the foremost of the Vatnsdalmen stoop like a pig.’ Thorstein answered:

‘There was no need for thee to say this, but the first result of these words will be that I will not go under any more sod-slices’" (Vatnsdæla, c. 33).

The ordeal of boiling water was sometimes resorted to.

A bondwoman, Herkja, told Atli that she had seen Kin Thjodrek and Atli’s wife, Gudrun, together. Gudrun asked Atli why he was no longer merry. He told her the cause of his jealousy, and that she was unfaithful to him. She answers :—

" ‘I will take oaths
Before thee about all this
Upon the white (1)
Holy stone,
That I acted not,
With Thjodrek
As husband and wife
Might do.

She dipped to the bottom (4)
Her white hand,
And took up
The costly stones;
‘Look now, men,
I am guiltless
According to holy custom;
See how the cauldron boils.

* * * *

‘Send to Saxi,
The king of the southern men,
He can consecrate
The boiling cauldron.’
Seven hundred men (2)
Went into the hail
Before the king’s wife
Touched the cauldron.

‘Now Gunnar will not come,
I call not on Högni, (3)
I will never see
My kind brothers;
Högni would have avenged
Such a charge with the sword;
Now I must myself
Clear me of this.’

Merry was the heart
In the breast of Atli
When he saw the hand
Of Gudrun unharmed.
Now shall Herkja
Go to the cauldron,
She who to Gudrun
Attributed treachery.

The man saw not a pitiful sight
Who beheld not
How the hands of Herkja
Were scalded there;
They led the maid
Into a foul mire ; (5)
Thus were the wrongs
Of Gudrun redressed."

(3rd Song of Gudrun.)

 

**1. In the second song of Helgi, stanza 31, an oath upon a stone is mentioned; these holy stones may have meant hörgs.

**2. This shows the large size of some of the halls.

**3. Her brothers.

**4. From stanza 2 we see that the kettle was consecrated. Stanza 5 shows the accuser had to go through the ordeal also.

**5. They drowned her in a mire.

 

The severest ordeal resorted to seems to have been that of walking on red-hot irons.

"Hallkel Huk, a lend-man in Norway, went westward to the Hebrides; there Gilli-Krist came to him from Ireland, and said that he was the son of King Magnus Berfœtti (bare-foot). His mother was with him, and said that he was also called Harald. Hallkel received them, took them with him to Norway, and at once went to King Sigurd with Harald and his mother. They told the king their errand. Sigurd talked of this matter with the chiefs, and said that every one might advise what he liked, but all asked him to have his own way. Then Sigurd let Harald be called, and told him that he would allow him to undergo the ordeal to prove who was his father. Sigurd said that Harald should walk on iron bars to prove his fathership; but that ordeal was thought to be rather hard, for he had to suffer it for the sake of his fathership and not for his kingship, which he had before renounced by oath. Harald assented to this. He fasted before he walked on the irons and suffered the ordeal, the severest in Norway, that nine ‘red-hot’ ploughshares were to be laid down, and Harald to walk over them with bare feet, and two bishops to lead him. Three days afterwards the ordeal was tried, and the result was that his feet were not burnt. Thereafter Sigurd acknowledged the kinsmanship of Harald; but his son Magnus disliked him much, as did many chiefs. Sigurd trusted so much to his popularity with the people that he asked all to swear that Magnus, the son of Sigurd, should be king after him, and he got that oath from all the people of the land" (Sigurd Jórsalafari’s Saga, c. 34).

 

   

 
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