Laws of Killing in Viking Times

If the name Odin brings any image to mind for most people, it is that of a scowling warrior with a cold spear and accompanied by wolves and ravens, death’s familiars. But within that image and stature there is also the character that is purported to have given one eye for greater wisdom, and whose mature taste for poetry is often compared to the other god’s reckless revelry. Odin obviously kills—without qualm or hesitation—but he does so from a place of great wisdom, and for good reason.

Two of the greatest heroes we have met, Beowulf and Halfdan, show a distinct distaste for feuds and vengeance killings. The first mention of war in the poem of Beowulf is a note of Hrothgar’s glory in battle, but it is followed closely by the narrator’s somewhat wistful description of Heorot in it’s glory, saying “The time was not yet/ when the blood-feud should bring out again/ sword-hatred in sworn kindred” (6). Besides immediately damping the images of glorious battle, this illustrates a persisting device in the poem. Often, states of war or violence are accorded their own set of emotions. The narrator mentions “sword-hatred,” as though the emotion had more to do with the physical reality of swords than with the men and brothers who drink and form friendships together. It is not an emotion coming from inside a person, from where they are most themselves, but it something like a weapon, to be taken up and used when appropriate.

Beowulf, as always, proves to be more powerful than his weapons, and keeps a firm hand on his rage. The clearest example of this is presented in the character of Unferth, who “could not allow that another man/ should hold under heaven a higher care/ for wonders in the world than went with his own name” (20). Beowulf reacts serenely to Unferth’s taunts in Heorot, and even compliments him (perhaps backhandedly, giving credit to the beer) on his eloquence. Beowulf doesn’t need to prove his military prowess with Unferth, and instead chooses to display his coolness of mind, and mead-hall manners. Beowulf personifies the hero's restraint, while Unferth demonstrates the villain's unjust violence.

Halfdan Eynsteinsson also earns praise for avoiding unnecessary fights. He holds “every quality that deserves praise,” which all pertain to his avoidance of angry brawls. He made friends easily, but chose those close to him carefully. He was dangerous enough to scare off some prospective challengers, and “had a long memory rather than a quick temper” (171). Throughout his saga, he weighs the demands of his loyalty and heroism (a heavy burden indeed, in his time) against a general distaste for thoughtless violence. A prime example of this is his not killing Skuli, the murderer of his father Based on a slow-motion-replay revision of the ins and outs of their mutual life debts, he decides he and Skuli are square, and earns the praise of "good breeding" from the mystic healer woman.

Of course, Halfdan does kill a lot of people, and even goes on plundering raids for lack of any better entertainment. This, though, is “good” violence, perpetrated in a reasonable state of mind with definite goals and causes that overrule his opponent's goals of continued survival and economic stability. Violence is a part of Viking life, as evidenced by Thvari's response to Purse's complaints that Bosi hurt too many others while playing. Thvari says, "anyone who played in a game had to look out for himself, and that he wasn't going to throw away his money on that account" (202).

It’s not always clear what causes are worthy, though, as evidenced by the first description of the monstrous priestess in Bosi and Herraud’s saga. Bosi’s bedmate says, “she’s…carried off King Godmund’s sister, Hleid,...But that would be a loss indeed—Hleid’s one of the most beautiful and well-bred of women—…” (211). The kidnapping of Hleid isn’t inherently evil. The brief interjection to explain why "it would be all for the best if it could be prevented" reveals the vague nature of the Viking's justified violence. Bosi wouldn't be much of a hero if he rushed off to slay a kidnapping priestess without at least making sure she didn't have a good reason for the kidnapping. This balance of justifications must have depended heavily on cultural values, which the readers of these sagas are assumed to also posses, so they often aren't explained
Killing is more acceptable the farther it is from home. Halfdan raided and stole, and probably killed, but it was “somewhere else,” against people neither he nor the storyteller knew by name and lineage. Fratricide, though, is the archetypal “bad killing.” Because your brother could physically never do something to you that would create a blood-debt, and he's definitely known to you and your family, there is never a justified reason to kill him. Grendel is said to suffer from Cain's fratricidal sin, and Ulfkel is "universally hated" for killing his brother in Halfdan's saga (181).

The Viking concept of worthy violence was a calm and thought-out as their poetry. A poem composed in haste and anger is hardly comparable to a ballad carefully composed with pride and dignity; they are almost different things. Loki and his evil brood of Giants kill for spite and the heat of the moment, while Odin kills with the cool wisdom gained from surveying the wreckage of countless battlefields.

Quotes from the poem of Beowulf taken from Michael Alexander's translation, Penguin Classics, New York, 2001.
Quotes from the sagas of "Halfdan Eysteinsson" and "Bosi and Hearraud" taken from Seven Viking Romances.

"Laws of Killing in Viking Society"
Written in February 2004
by Devlin Montfort
Major: Civil Engineering
Graduation Date: Later
Hometown: Birch Bay, WA

Talking or writing about things I've read is one of my favorite things to
do, so most of my experience is from outside the classroom. I'm currently
trying to be more concise in everything I write, because most engineers
frown on the frivolity of adjectives or adverbs.

Great student papers