Feasts as an integral part of any Heiđni gathering, religious or otherwise

Copyright © 1999 Úlfgrim Vílmeiđson

The lore is replete with descriptions of various feasts and banquets. While many of them are in the context of religious observances (a feast almost invariably accompanied a blót; see Blót and Sumbel), they were often held for secular occasions as well; weddings, political events, to celebrate the coming of an important visitor, or merely as a display of hospitality. A reputation for hospitality was one of the highest-regarded traits in the Víking era:

"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 everyone who wanted it, always stood ready. Owing to this, she was looked upon as a high-minded woman." (Erybyggja Saga 8)1

"Illugi the Red, from Hólm, came to the ship, and invited him [Hörd] and all his men to stay with him, and did everything most honorable to them. Hörd took this well, and thought it a good invitation; he went to him with twenty-five men, and they were treated with ale all the winter, with the greatest liberality." (Hörd's Saga 19)1

The setting for such feasts was usually as fancy and well-appointed as possible, often in buildings designed for that very purpose:

"Áki owned a large and old feast-hall; he had a new hall made;   it was as large as the other, and very well made; he had it covered all over with new hangings, and the old hall with old ones. When the kings came to the feast, Eirik with his hird was seated in the old hall, and Harald with his men in the new hall. All the table service was arranged so that Eirik and his men had old vessels and horns, though they were gilded and well ornamented. Harald and his men had only new vessels and horns; they were all ornamented with gold, painted with images, and bright like glass. The drink on both sides was very good." (Harald Fairhair's Saga 15)1

We also have descriptions of the layout of the feast-hall itself and the preparations that were made for the feast:

"Ásta rose at once, and bade men and women prepare for him [King Olaf] in the best manner. She set four women to take the fittings of the stofa, and quickly arrange the hangings and the benches. Two men spread straw on the floor, two brought in the trapiza [the table at the entrance to the hall], and the skapker [the vat that held the ale from which the cups were filled]; two placed the tables, two the food, two she sent away from the house, and two carried in the ale; all the others, both men and women, went out into the yard. Messengers went to King Sigurd, to take him his tigmarklćdi (royal garments) and his horse, which had on a gilt saddle and the bit was gilt all over and enamelled. Four men Ásta sent in four different directions throughout the district, inviting the high-born men to a 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 30)1

"The king [Harald Fairhair] had nearly three hundred men when he came to the feast, but Thórólf had five hundred men already there. Thórólf had prepared a large corn-barn, and set benches in it; there they drank, for no other room was large enough for them all to be in it together. Shields were hung all 'round the room. The king sat down in a high-seat. When the room was full from one end to the other, he looked 'round and got red in the face, but said nothing, and they felt that he was angry. The feast was splendid, and all the provisions were of the very best." (Egil's Saga, 11)1

Feasts were also ways of displaying rank and importance. Not only could a reputation for generosity and wealth be gained through the hosting of a feast, but the seating at the feast itself is of primary importance, as the relative ranking of the guests is determined by their place at the table:

"The Icelandic chiefs Olaf Höskuldsson and Usvifr continued their friendship, though there was some rivalry between the younger men. That summer Olaf held a feast half a month before winter; Usvifr had also prepared one on the first winternights. Each invited the other, with as many men as he thought proper. Usvifr went first to the feast of Olaf, and at the appointed time came to Hjardarholt; his daughter Gudrun with her husband Bolli and his sons were with him. The next morning, as they walked along the hall, a woman stated how the women should be seated; at this time Gudrun stood opposite to the bed where Kjartan Olafsson slept. Kjartan was dressing, and put on a scarlet kirtle; he said to the woman who had spoken about the seats, for no one was quicker to answer than he, 'Hrefna shall sit in the high-seat, and be most honored in every respect while I am alive.' Gudrun had always before sat in the high-seat at Hjadarholt and elsewhere. She heard this, and looked at Kjartan and turned pale, but said nothing." (Laxdćla Saga 46)1

It was not unknown for lots to be drawn to determine the seating among the guests at the feast, sometimes with match-making as a result (the pairing of feasting partners of the opposite sex seems to have been a common custom):

"Twelve guests were to sit together, and lots were drawn about who should sit next to Astrid, the daughter of Vigfus hersir; Eyjolf, an Icelander who was on a visit, always draw the lot to sit at her side; no one noticed that they talked more to each other than other people; but many said it would end in her becoming his wife." (Vigaglum's Saga 4)1

"Egil and his brother Thórólf were on a Víking expedition, and went to Halland. As they did not ravage there, 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. They placed the lots in a cloth, and the Jarl picked them out. He had a very handsome daughter, then well full-grown. The lots fell out so that Egil should sit at her side that evening." (Egil's Saga 48)1

In addition to the (usually rather plain) food that was served, the great drinking at a feast was a usual occurrance:

"His [Thórólf Skjálg's] foster-son Rögnvald said to the cup-bearers, that if men got very drunk in the beginning the feast would be considered a great feast, and told them to carry as much drink in as they could." (Olaf Tryggvason's Saga 145)1

Indeed, there were laws and customs that governed drinking at the feast, but this varied from place to place. Here, the custom of men on Víking expeditions to drink together is contrasted with the practice of drinking in mixed pairs (as mentioned above):

"In the evening, when the toasts were to be drunk, it was the custom for kings who ruled in the land and for their guests to drink in pairs at feasts in the evening, each man and woman together, as far as possible, the old ones keeping by themselves. It was the law of Víkings, even if they were at feasts, to drink in parties [together]. King Hjörvard's high-seat was prepared opposite King Granmar's, and all his men sat on that bench. King Granmar told his daughter Hildigunn to make herself ready and carry ale to the Víkings. She was the most beautiful of women. She took a silver cup, filled it, and went before King Hjörvard and said, 'Hail, all Ylfingar, to Hrolf Kraki's memory;' she drank half of it and handed it to Hjörvard. He took the cup and her hand with it, and said she must come and sit at his side. She answered that it was not Víking custom to drink in pairs with women. Hjörvard said that he would rather make a change in the Víking laws in order to drink in pairs with her." (Ynglinga Saga 41)1

The guests were served by skenkjarar (cup-fillers), who would fill the ale-horns from a large vat known as a skapker. On special occasions, high-ranking women would also bring around the horns for the guests. In addition to the food and drink (as well as the recitation of Skaldic and Eddaic poetry and Sagas), musicians were sometimes brought to the feast:

"When King Olaf of Sweden came to the table he asked where lawman Emund was. On hearing that he was at home at his lodgings, he said, 'Go after him; he shall be my guest today.' Thereupon the dishes were brought in, and afterwards players with harps and gigjar [fiddles] entered." (St. Olaf's Saga 96)1

It is also the custom for the host to send his guests off with parting gifts, as a further example of his generosity:

"The feast was magnificent, and the people were sent away with gifts." (Vigaglum's Saga 4)1

"Then the Víkings went to their ships, and they separated from the Jarl in friendship and exchanged gifts." (Egil's Saga 48)1

"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." (Finnboga Saga 23)1

"On the day the king was about to leave, Thórólf went to him and asked him to go down with him to the beach. The king went. There the dragon which which Thórólf had made was floating, with tents and all outfittings. Thórólf gave it to the king, and asked him to consider that so many guests had been invited to do him honor, and not to compete with him. The king took this well." (Egil's Saga 11)1

It should also be noted that such feasts were not normally single-evening affairs. They were combined with giving hospitality to the guests, who would typically spend as many as three days with the host:

"The king was not very merry, and stayed there [at Thórólf's feast] for three nights, as he intended." (Egil's Saga 11)1

"Einar waited three nights for him [Egil]; as it was not customary to make a visit longer than three nights, he prepared to go away." (Egil's Saga 82)1


1) Translation from The Viking Age, Volume II by Paul du Chaillu, chapter 16, Carles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1890

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