Manners and Courtesy in the Viking Age

Where to find the information

The best source for finding out about Viking manners and customs are the sagas. Following is a list of many of the sagas with the approximate dates that the events occurred:
Name of Saga
Century with which they deal
The Elder Edda (Poetic) Mythical
The Later Edda (Prose) Mythical
Fornaldarsogur contains: Volsunga


Thorstein Vikingsson’s

Ketil Haeng’s Sons’

Grim Lodinkinnis’


Hrolf Kraki’s



Ragnar Lodbrok’s

Ragnar Lodbrok’s Sons’

Norna Gest’s


Orvar Odd’s

Herraud Bosi’s

Egil and Asmund’s

Hjalmter and Olver’s

Gongu Hrolf’s

An Bosveigi’s






Partly Mythical

Partly Mythical

Partly Mythical

Partly Mythical

Partly Mythical

Partly Mythical

VI (?)

VI (?)

VI – VII (?)

VIII (?)

VIII (?)

No date can be assigned.

No date can be assigned.

No date can be assigned.

No date can be assigned.

No date can be assigned.

No date can be assigned.

No date can be assigned.

No date can be assigned.

Middle IX to end of X

End of X to beginning of XI



Islandinga Sogur contains:
  1. Hord’s Saga
  2. Hoensa Thoris’ Saga
  3. Gunnlaug Ormstunga Saga
  4. Viga Styr’s Saga
  5. Kjalnesinga Saga
  6. Gisli Sursson


X – XI

X – XI



Droplaugarsona Saga X
Hrafnkel Freysgodi X
Bjorn Hitdaela Kappi First half of XI
Kormak’s X
Fornsogur contains:
  • Vatnsdaela Saga
  • Floamanna Saga
  • Hallfred’s Saga
  • c. 870-1000

    c. 985-990

    End of X

    Gretti’s Saga Grettir died in 1031
    Viga Glum X
    Vallaljot’s Beginning of XI
    Vapnfirdinga IX – X
    Thorskfirdinga, or Gullthori’s c. 900-930
    Heidar Viga (continuation of Viga Styr’s) First half of XI
    Foereyinga c. 960-1040
    Finnbogi Rami’s X
    Eirek the Red X
    Thatt of Styrbjorn (nephew of Eirek the Victorious who fell at the Battle of Fyrisvellir, 983) X
    Landnama Bok(colonization of Iceland) IX - X
    Islendinga Bok


    Vemund’s Saga


    c. 874-1118


    End of X

    First half of X

    Biskupa Sogur contains:

    Kristni Saga


    c. 980-1120

    c. 1120-1284

    Fornmanna Sogur contains:
  • Sagas of the King of Norway
  • Jomsviking Saga
  • Knytlinga Saga
  • Fagrskinna (short history of the Kings of Norway from Halfdan the Black to Sverrir)
  • X

    XI – XII

    IX – XII

    Heimskringla Saga (contains the Ynglinga Saga, the great 

    work of Snorri Sturluson)

    Written in the first half of the XIII cent., giving the history of the Kings of Norway and Sweden from Odin down to 1177.
    Flateyjarbok (contains lives of the Kings of Norway)  
    Fostbraedra Saga c. 1015-1030
    Konung’s Skuggsja XIII
    Rimbegla XIV
    Oryneyinga c. 870-1206


    Guiding moral principles

    The sagas are a great source of information about Viking manners and customs and they can provide a view of the people of the time that is unparalleled. We are additionally fortunate to have had a document specifically addressing behavior come down to us called the Havamal or the "Song of the Most High." It is attributed to Odin and appears as a lengthy poem in the Elder Edda. Stylistically the work can be dated to about the ninth century in Norway. It reflects an upper class worldview that is one of wariness and distrust, the attributes of Odin himself. The complete Havamal is included at the end of this paper.

    In the first stanza men are admonished that:

    All door-ways
    Before one goes forth
    Should be looked over,
    Should be searched out,
    For 'tis hard to know
    Where foes sit
    On the benches before one.


    The wary guest
    Who comes to a meal
    Is silent and talks little,
    Listens with (his) ears,
    Looks on with (his) eyes;
    Thus every wise man looks about him.

    Fame and a good name are all-important, as is praise from one’s peers.

    Cattle die,
    Kinsmen die,
    One's self dies too;
    But the fame
    Never dies
    Of him who gets a good name.

    He is happy
    Who gets for himself
    Praise and good-will;
    That which a man must own
    In the mind of another
    Is less easy to deal with.

    Men should strive to be wise:

    At home shall a man be merry
    And cheerful to his guests,
    Cautious about himself,
    Of good memory and ready speech,
    If he wants to be very wise;
    A good man is often talked of;
    A great fool is he called
    Who little can tell;
    That is the mark of a fool.

    Ask and answer
    Should every sage man
    Who wants to be called wise;
    One may know
    But not another;
    All know if three know.

    Men are warned not to pick fights but if they do need to fight to do it well:

    The unwise man
    Thinks he will live for everIf he shuns fight,
    But old age give him
    No peace
    Though spears may spare him.

    Many men
    Are kind to one another,
    et quarrel at the meal;
    This will always be
    The cause of men's strife;
    Guest gets angry with guest.

    Death is generally despised. The feeling was that it was better to be alive than dead and in the Havamal at least there is no mention of an afterlife.

    The lame may ride a horse,
    The handless may drive a herd,
    The deaf may fight and do well;
    A blind man is better
    Than a burnt one;
    The dead are of no use.


    In the Havamal women are often regarded as fickle and viewed with suspicion.

    The words of a maiden
    Of the talk of a woman
    Should no man trust;
    For their hearts were shaped
    On a whirling wheel,
    And fickleness laid in their breasts.

    Thus is the love of women
    Whose hearts are false
    As riding on slippery ice,
    With an unshod,
    Wild, two year old,
    Badly broken horse,
    Or like cruising
    Rudderless in a strong gale,
    Or like the lame reindeer
    On thawing mountain sides.

    I saw the words
    Of a wicked woman
    Wound a man deeply;
    Her false tongue
    Became his death,
    Though he had no guilt.

    Although it is acknowledged that men’s minds can be fickle as well:

    Now I speak openly
    For I know both;
    Fickle is the mind of men to women;
    We speak most fair
    When we think most false;
    That beguiles wise minds.

    Good wives are worthy of praise (but only after they are dead, when they are burnt on the funeral pyre):

    A day should be praised at night,
    A woman when she is burnt,
    A sword when it is tried,
    A maiden when she is married,
    Ice when crossed,
    Ale when drunk.

    There is some specific advice on wooing as well:

    Finely must talk

    And offer gifts

    He who would win woman's love,
    Praise the shape
    Of the bright maiden;
    He wins who woos.
    Wouldst thou get a good woman
    To talk pleasantly,
    And get delight from her,
    Promise thou fair things
    And firmly keep it;
    No man dislikes the good if he can get it.

    And there is also a warning to would be adulterers:

    The wife of another man
    Tempt thou never
    To be thy ear-whisperer.*[*i.e. mistress]

    Welcome and hospitality

    Hospitality to guests is an attribute that is highly praised in Viking society. This is unsurprising considering the difficulty of travel and the harshness of the northern climate. The Havamal talks about the ways a good host should provide for his guests:

    Fire is needed
    By him who has come in
    And is benumbed in his knees;
    Food and clothes
    Are needed by one
    Who has traveled over the mountain.
    Water is needed
    By the one who comes to the meal,
    A towel and a hearty welcome,
    If he can get it,
    Talk and answer.

    Here and there
    Might I be invited home
    If I needed not food for a meal
    Or if two hams hung
    At my trusty friends
    Where I had eaten one.

    Thou must never
    Mock or laugh at
    A guest or wayfarer.

    Scoff not at the guest
    Nor drive him to the door;
    Be kind to the poor.

    It was a great honor for a person to be considered generous and welcoming to all:

    Geirrid settled in Borgardal, inside Alpta fjord. She caused her house to be built across the high road so that all were obliged to ride through it. A table set with food, which was given to every one who wanted it, always stood ready. Owing to this she was looked on as a high-minded woman. (Eyrbygga)

    Guests were warned not to over stay their welcomes. Three days seems to be the usual stay of most visitors:

    Einar waited three nights for him; a it was not customary to make a visit longer than three nights, he prepared to go away. (Egil’s Saga)

    At table

    If the sagas are to be believed upper class Norsemen spent a good deal of their time feasting. The reality is probably less glamorous but we are left with some good descriptions of table customs because of it.

    A Jarl’s table is described in the Voluspa:

    The mother took
    A broidered cloth,
    A white one of flax,
    Covered the table;
    Then she took
    Thin loaves,
    White loaves of wheat,
    And laid them on the cloth.

    Forth she set
    Full trenchers,
    Silver covered,
    On the table,
    Shining pork
    And roasted birds;
    Wine was in the jug;
    They drank and talked;
    The day passed away.

    This is interesting because embroidered white linen tablecloths are being used at this early date in upper class households.

    The impending arrival of an important guest would stir the household into a beehive of activity:

    When King Olaf approached, the farm servants ran ahead to the farm and into the house, where Asta, his mother, sat with her women. They told her of the king’s journey and that he would soon be there. Atsa rose at once and bade men and women prepare for him in the best manner. She set four women to take the fittings of the Stofa, and quickly arrange the hangings and the benches. Two menspread straw on the floor, two brought in the trapiza [a table at the entrance to the hall] and the skap-ker [a vat from which ale was put in cups]; two placed the tables, two the food, two she sent away form the house and two carried in the ale; all the others, both men and women, went into the yard…Four men Asta sent in four different directions throughout the district, inviting the high-born men to the feast, in order to welcome her son. All who were there were dressed in their best clothes, and to those who had none suitable she lent clothes. (St. Olaf’s Saga)

    Precedence was very important in the seating arrangements and sometimes lots were drawn to choose the person to sit in the place of honor:

    Twelve guests were to sit together, and lots were drawn about who should sit next to Astrid, the daughter of Vigfus hersir. (Vigaglum’s Saga)

    Women did sometimes feast with the menfolk:

    Egil and his brother Thorolf were on a Viking expedition…Arnfid jarl invited them to a feast and they went with thirty men from their ships. Before the tables were put up, the jarl said that the seats would be allotted there; that men and women should drink together as many as could, but those who were without companions should drink by themselves. (Egil’s Saga)

    Drinking could get pretty heavy at these feasts. The Havamal warns against getting too drunk and shooting off your mouth too much:

    I got drunk,
    I got too drunk
    At the wise Fjalar's;
    The ale is best when
    Every man
    Gets his reason back.

    A man shall not send away the cup
    But drink mead moderately,
    Speak usefully or be silent;
    No man will blame thee
    For ill-breeding
    Though thou goest early to sleep.

    At the end of a feast, gifts were often given by the host to his guests:

    After the feast Thorgeir gave large gifts. He gave his kinsman Finnbogi five stud horses, dandelion yellow in color. It was said that they were the best horses in Nordlendingafjordung. (Finnborga Saga)

    Oath taking

    Oath taking was a highly important activity in Norse culture. The oath was considered most sacred and oath-breakers were often held in contempt. Oaths were sworn while holding a sacred ring, the stalla-hring. This ring was usually kept at the temple but might be worn on the arm of the Godi at the Thing so that it might be on hand.

    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 Njord and the Almightly As (Odin) , to defend or prosecute this case or give the evidence, verdict or judgement 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." (Landnama)


    du Chaillu, Paul. The Viking age: The early history, manners, and customs of the

    ancestors of the English speaking nations. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1889. Graham-Campbell, James. The Vikings: the British Museum, London, the

    Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

    Graham-Campbell, James, Dafydd Kidd. The Vikings

    Magnusson, Magnus. Viking: Hammer of the north. New York: Galahad

    Books, 1976.

    The sagas are available in a number of editions. The easiest to find are probably the paperback versions published by Viking and Penguin. The translators for many of those editions are Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson and their versions are very good and readable.