Hospitality and Graciousness as Valued by the Vikings
While the Vikings are most often portrayed as a brutal and lawless people who gained wealth and power by looting and pillaging without any apparent consequence, the Icelandic Sagas depict a much more sophisticated culture. As described in many of the sagas, not only were these Scandinavians very organized in their social structuring, but they also had a firm set of values and cultural traditions. Of the many important values in this culture, one of the most prominent in all the sagas and tales is that of the importance of hospitality and being a gracious guest. The significance of this idea in Icelandic society is especially evident in Havamal, The Tale of Audun from the West Fjords, and The Saga of the Confederates.
These customary mannerisms were expected of everyone as a way of showing courtesy and respect. While hosts were expected to generously welcome and provide food and shelter for passing travelers, despite their financial status, guests were likewise expected to be polite and appreciative towards their hosts and sometimes even reimburse them in the form of goods, services, or labor. Given the structure of Icelandic society, where the majority of people had to rely upon the yields of their own farm and occasionally trading to simply survive the winter, being welcoming and supportive to all would be a fundamental strategy for the survival of their population. For trading, traveling, and relaying news, it was essential to value hospitality when receiving guests and respectfulness when being received.
Havamal touches upon the importance of this cultural value several times and in many ways. The advice given to hosts has mainly to do with always being generous with guests, though never foolhardy, so that your generosity might come back to you one day. This is seen in stanzas three and four which state, “Fire he needs | who with frozen knees/ Has come from the cold without;/ Food and clothes | must the farer have,/ The man from the mountains come./ 4. Water and towels | and welcoming speech/ Should he find who comes, to the feast…” (Bellows 30). These stanzas relay the sense of responsibility that seemed to be expected of landowners to provide amenities and provisions to any traveler who might appear on the doorstep. Similarly, Havamal also indicates, at the end of stanza four, the approved behavior of a guest as it says, “If renown he would get, | and again be greeted,/ Wisely and well must he act” (Bellows 30). This teaches that if one would like to be well received and potentially invited back to another’s home, one should behave respectfully and slightly reserved. Also, stanza thirty-five discusses the easy to relate to topic of a guest who overstays his welcome. This is shown when the stanza warns would-be guests, “Forth shall one go, | nor stay as a guest/ In a single spot forever;/ Love becomes loathing | if long one sits/ By the hearth in another's home” (Bellows 36). This advice is understandable and practical because of the limited resources farmers possessed in that time and as such, it would undoubtedly be selfish to diminish all the resources of one’s generous host. Thus, Havamal, through its poetic lines, defines the proper etiquette for host and guest and accentuates the importance of hospitality.
In The Tale of Audun of the West Fjords, the main character, Audun, enjoys the benefits of being hosted by kings. In the beginning, Audun works for his provisions and passage as he stays with his host Thorstein. However, he is next hosted by King Harald of Norway, who is intrigued by the bear he travels with from Greenland and has Audun summoned. King Harald exercises his hospitality by sparing Audun his life and his treasure and allowing him free passage to Denmark, very generous gifts for a man in his position. However, none could be depicted as a more generous host than King Svein of Denmark, to whom Audun gives his bear. In exchange for his great offering, Audun is treated like a very valued guest, given many tokens of gratitude and honors from the King. To Svein, it was highly important that he be seen as a very charitable host by others around Scandinavia to maintain a proper image and demonstrate his good values. In their last exchange before Audun returns to Iceland, King Svein gives him a ship with goods, a purse full of silver, and finally a gold arm band from his own arm. His reasoning for this last favor being that “Even if things turn out so badly that you are shipwrecked and you lose this money, you will not be penniless if you make it ashore….And it will be evident that you have met King Svein, if you hold onto the arm-ring” (Thorsson 721). Svein wants to ensure that evidence of his goodwill as a host will be spread and certainly, Audun is one of the most fortunate guests. While generosity to this extent was definitely not expected from every host, there was a standard for kings in that they were expected to reward their guests kindly for either their talents or the gifts they bear.
One of the best examples, however, of the way in which being a benevolent host is valued is in The Saga of the Confederates. Throughout this saga, people are noted for their generosity and hospitality towards others; but at no other time is this a more significant judgment of character as when Odd’s father, Ofeig plots with some of the confederates to save his son’s honor and wealth. Ofeig, himself, is described in the beginning as being a “man of distinction in every respect, but was not well off financially”; despite this, it is stated that “he denied no one hospitality” (Thorsson 465). It is apparent here that Ofeig’s distinction and popularity is directly related to his hospitable values. Thus, when he approaches Egil Skulasson to gather his support, Ofeig appeals to his good nature by flattering him slightly by saying, “I’ve been told good and agreeable things about you; they say that you begrudge food to nobody and live in lavish style” (Thorsson 480). It is obvious that hospitality is valued such here that even alluding to Egil’s generosity towards others is an courteous compliment. When it comes time for Ofeig to select two guarantors, he bases much of his eliminations on the pride or greediness of the individual. When speaking to Styrmir, his godi, Ofeig discredits him by saying that he has “accepted plenty of gifts from me too—and all of them ill rewarded” (Thorsson 487). This charge implies that Styrmir’s stinginess makes him a poor host and godi, which is a rather dishonorable accusation since it implies his lack of good values. Thus, one can see that generosity and hospitality were valued far above simply wealth and power when it came to determining the integrity of a man.
While each of these texts is more than sufficient evidence of the importance of these values of hospitality and gracious appreciation in Viking culture, further proof could be found in their prevalence in all the sagas and tales. Virtually every text discussed thus far in this course has included this element of welcoming and generosity in one form or another. Thus, the degree to which this conduct was valued is reflected through the frequency in which it is addressed in the contemporary literature. There is no doubt that hospitality was valued just as highly as bravery and wisdom in Viking society, which would surely seem to contradict the popular stereotypes regarding the Vikings.
Ruth C. “The Saga of the Confederates”. The Sagas of Icelanders.
Ed. Ornolfur Thorsson. Penguin Books: London, England, 2001.
Maxwell, Anthony. “The Tale of Audun from the West Fjords”. The Sagas of Icelanders. Ed. Ornolfur Thorsson. Penguin Books: London, England, 2001.
by Piper Marshall
Major: Civil & Environmental Engineering
Expected Graduation date: 6/10
Hometown: Honolulu, HI
I had observed, while reading these sagas, the great importance of hospitality
in Icelandic culture as well as the universality of these values in every household
of every realm of Scandinavia during the Vikings' time. It seemed interesting
to me that a culture so often depicted as barbaric conquerers would be portrayed
as having a set of values which focused on politeness and hospitality. Thus
I chose these sagas, as well as the Havamal, to delve deeper into Icelandic
society in order to analyze these customs more in depth.