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FOSTER-BROTHERHOOD

from

"The Viking Age," by Paul B. Du Chaillu, vol. 1, p. 61-64

.

 

Sacred character of foster-brotherhood——Ceremony of becoming foster-brothers —The oath—Joint ownership of property—Dissolution of the tie rare— Love between fosterchildren and foster-parents—Obligations.

PERHAPS the most beautiful, touching, and unselfish trait in the character of man of which we have any record is the ancient custom of foster-brotherhood, which prevailed among . the earlier Norse tribes. This relation between two men was of a most sacred and binding character, and was not even severed by the death of one.

Foster-brothers were those who in their youth had been brought up together—the sons of the fosterer and he who was fostered by him—-or men who had fought against each other. Many examples are given of valiant men who fought against each other admiring each other's bravery and becoming foster-brothers, pledging themselves by an Oath, attended with the ceremony of letting their blood flow together on the earth.

After this impressive ceremony the men considered them-selves bound to each other for life—to be unselfish and true to share the same danger, and avenge each other's death; in fact their motto was, "One and the . same fate may come over us."

"In old times it had been the custom of valiant men, who made the agreement between themselves, that the one who lived the longest should avenge the other; that they should walk under three jardarmen, (1) and that was their oath (equivalent to an oath). It was done thus: Three long slices of turf were to be cut up; their ends were to be fastened in the ground,  and the loops raised so high that a man could go under them. This Thorgeir (Hávarsson) and Thormód (Bersason) did" (Fostbrćdra Saga, 1). (2) .

 

**1. Jardar = 'of earth', men = 'necklace'. The name of jardarmen (a neck ring, necklace of earth (turf)) probably meant a loop, the turf being cut in a semi-circular shape, for any other form of strip could not well have been raised from the ground without breaking.

**2. The Saga is called Fostbrćdra Saga (Foster-brothers' Saga) after them.

 

Gisli was at a Thing with his brother-in-law Vestein. There were also a Godi named Thorgrim, and Gisli's brother Thorkel. Gisli said:

" ' I think it right that we should bind our friendship still closer than before, and we four swear one another foster-brotherhood.' To this they consented, and went on Eyrarhvolsoddi (point or tongue of land), and there cut from the ground a loop of turf, both ends being attached to the ground, and under this placed a spear inlaid with ornaments, so long that a man could reach with his hand to the spear-nail (i.e., the nail fastening the spear-point to the handle). Under this were to go the four, Tnorgrim, Gisli, Thorkel, and Véstein. They then drew blood from themselves, and let it run together into the mould, which had been cut under the loop of turf, and mixed together the earth and the blood; thereupon they all fell on their knees and swore an oath that each should avenge the other like a brother, and called all the gods as witnesses. They all shook hands" (Gisli Súrsson's Saga, p. 11). (1)

 

**1. Cf. also Sturlaug Starfsami, a. 13, and Hord's Saga, c. 12.

 

When Angantýr and Beli were fighting, the latter became exhausted, and would have been killed by the former but for Thorstein, who came forward, and said:

" 'I think it right, Angantýr, that you should stop fighting, for I see that Beli is exhausted, and I will not be so mean as to help him against thee, but if thou becomest his slayer I will challenge thee to a hólmganga, and I think we are not less unequal than thou and Beli; I would kill thee in that hólmganga, and it would be a great loss if both of you were to die. Now will I offer thee this condition, if thou givest Beli his life, that we swear each other foster-brotherhood.' Angantýr said:'It seems to me a fair offer, that I become the foster-brother of Beli, but it is a great boon for me to become thy foster-brother.' This was then agreed upon. They let blood flow from the hollow of their hands, and went under a sod, and swore oaths that each one should avenge the other, if any one of them was slain with weapons" (Thorstein Vikingsson, c. 21).

It was usual to swear a.n oath that whoever survived his foster-brother should avenge him by weapons if he died, not sparing even his own relatives.

Orm Storólfsson, an Icelander, went to Norway, and there met Ásbjörn Prudi, from Vendilskagi in Jutland.

"They soon became friends, and tried many idróttir; they swore each other fostbrśdralag (foster-brotherhood) according to ancient custom, that the one who lived the longest should avenge t.he other, if he was slain in battle" (Thatt of Orm Storólfsson, Fornrnanna Sögur 111).

In order that there should not be anything that might awaken the temptation of illfeeling or jealousy, foster-brothers owned jointly and equally all their property, or any which might come into their possession during their Viking expeditions, so that all either of them owned or acquired was considered as belonging in equal shares to the other.

"The two kings Högni and Hédin vied with one another in all idróttir; they tried

swimming and shooting, tournaments and skill with weapons, and were equal in all.

"After this they swore themselves into foster-brotherhood, and to own everything by

halves" (Sörla Thátt, c. 6). /

In very rare instances we see that foster-brotherhood could be dissolved.

"Thorgeir and Thormod, after having performed many a deed of valour, one day had a talk, and the former said to the latter: 'Knowest thou anywhere two foster-brothers who are our equals in courage and manliness?' Thormod replied: 'They might perhaps be found, if we were to look for them far and wide.' 'Nowhere in Iceland, I think; but which of us two, dost thou think, would be the winner, if we were to try each other?' Thorgeir inquired. 'That I do not know,' Thormod answered; 'but this I know, that thy question puts an end to our fellowship and foster-brotherhood' " (1) (Fostbrćdra Saga).

 

**1. Another text adds: "Thorgeir said, his was not seriously meant that We should try each other.' Thormod answered: 'It came across thy mind while thou saidst it, and we will part.'"

 

This shows the proud spirit of the men of that period. Thormod felt deeply wounded that such a thought should have entered the heart of one with whom he had shared so many dangers.

The love which existed between foster-children and foster-parents is seen in many instances. . When Olaf, son of Höskuld and Melkorka, daughter of king Mýrkjartan, came to Ireland—

"The foster-mother of Melkorka, who was bedridden from sickness and old age, was most moved by this news; she walked without a stick to see Olaf. The king (Mýrkjartan) said to Olaf: 'Here is the foster-mother of Melkorka, who would like to hear from thee about her condition.' Olaf took the old woman in his arms and seated her on his knee, and told her that her foster-daughter was well-off in Iceland. He handed to her the knife and the belt, and she recognized them and wept with joy. She said the son of Melkorka was imposing in appearance, as was likely, he being her son. The old woman was in good health all that winter" (Laxdćla, c. 21).

To carry a foster-brother's last request and greetings to his relatives or friends, to bury him in a suitable manner, and to bring to the funeral pile or to the mound his property with all the love that could be shown, were considered obligatory by the surviving one. 

"Asmund being one day in the forest met a man, who called himself Aran, and after a while proposed that they should try each other in some idróttir. Asmund saying he was ready, they proceeded with such idróttir as were customary among young men in those times, and no one could have determined who was the better man. They then began to wrestle hard, and neither could excel the other, and after it both were tired. Aran said to Asmund: 'We will not try our skill with weapons, for that would be to the injury of us both. I should like to swear to each other foster-brotherhood, that each shall avenge the other, and possess in common property gotten and ungotten.' They also took oaths that whoever lived the longest should have a mound thrown up over the other, and place therein as much property as seemed to him befitting, and the survivor had to sit with the dead one in the mound for three nights, and then depart, if he liked. Then both drew their blood and let it flow together; this was then regarded as an oath" (Egil and Asmund's Saga, c. 6).

   

 
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