Heini weddings and wedding traditions

Copyright 1999 lfgrim Vlmeison

Descriptions of several weddings and wedding-feasts (and the preparations therefor) are handed down to us from the Sagas and the Poetic Edda, as well as details of the laws concerning marriage. Marriage in general was not considered so much a religious as a civil institution, although certain parts of the process were definitely religious in nature. Much attention was paid to the division and control of the property of the couple, on both sides of the marriage compact, and laws regarding the division of such property were specific and complex.

In general, the wedding follows the following steps:

  1. Br-kaup. Permission is sought for the groom to take the hand of the bride, and the economic contributions that each party is making to the marriage is agreed upon.
  2. Festar. The man and the woman are engaged to one another. This may last up to one year.
  3. Brhlaup. The bride and groom are actually wedded to one another, accompanied by a feast.
  4. Hjn. The bride and groom are now husband and wife.

A marriage that does not go through the full procedure is called skyndibrhlaup ("hasty wedding") or lausa-brhlaup ("loose wedding") and is not legal. The children of such a marriage are considered illegitimate and thus can not receive any inheritance.


The negotiations leading up to the wedding itself are often the most interesting and complex aspect of the entire wedding process.

It is possible for the couple to choose each other (out of love or for mutual economic or social benefit), or for the marriage to be arranged by the parents (of course, in modern times, such arranged marriages are rarely, if ever, done). Once the groom has selected his intended bride, the suitor visits her father or guardian on what is called a bonordsfr (wooing-journey). He is accompanied by his father, his best friends, and a retinue of his followers (assuming he has a retinue, that is). Njl's Saga describes the bargaining process:

"Njl once said to his son Helgi, 'I have thought of a match for thee, kinsman, if thou wilt follow my advice.' 'Certainly I will,' he said, 'for I know both that thou meanest it well and knowest well how to act; but what is it?' 'We will ask in marriage the daughter of Asgrim Ellidagrimsson, for she is the best match.' Shortly afterwards they rode out across the [river] Thjrs, until they came to Tunga. Asgrim was at home, and received them well, and they stayed there over night. The next day they proceeded to talk the matter over. Njl opened the subject, and asked for the hand of Thorhalla for his son Helgi. Asgrim received this well, and said that with no man was he more desirous to bargain than with them. They then talked about the matter, and at last Asgrim betrothed his daughter to Helgi, and the wedding feast was agreed upon." (Njl's Saga 26, 27)1

Although matches wherein the feelings of the bride were paramount were also known:

"They [Bjrn, who wants the hand of Oddny, and Skli his kinsman] came to Hjrsey, and saw Thorkel and hs daughter Oddny. Bjrn then told him the state of his feelings, and asked Oddny in marriage. Thorkel took it well, and referred it altogether to his daughter's decision. As Bjrn was known to her before, and they had loved each other very fondly, she consented." (Bjrn Hitdlakappi's Saga)1

It is customary that some spokesman present the case for the groom, rather than the groom himself, and witnesses are called to make fast the conditions of the marriage:

"Rut [who sought the hand of Mrd's daughter Unn] then said to Mrd, 'You may think, bondi, that my brother has spoken so highly of me because he loves me, but if you will take the matter into consideration, I want you to state your conditions.' Mrd answered, 'I have thought of the conditions. She shall have 60 hundreds, and it shall be increased with one-third from they farm, but if you have an heir each of you shall have the half.' Rut said, 'These conditions I accept; and now let us have witnesses." (Njl's Saga 2)1

It is not unknown for the groom to speak for himself, however:

"Grimkel, a goi, said, 'I am told for certain, Valbrand, that thou hast a faughter called Signy, who is very accomplished; I want to ask her in marriage, if thoiugh wilt marry her to me.' Valbrand answered, 'It is known to us that though art of good kin and art wealthy, and a great champion; I will give a favorable answer to this.'" (Hrd's Saga 3)1

The key to the marriage being regarded as legitimate (as well as the children of the couple!) is the mund. Mund is a term that refers both to the collective terms agreed to by the families of the bride and the groom, as well as specifically referring to the property paid by the groom:

"The man whose mother is not bought with mund, with a mark or still more property, or not wedded, or not betrothed, is not inheritance-born [i.e., legitimate and able to inherit the property of his family]. A woman is bought with mund when a mark consisting of aurar, of the value of 12 feet of vadmal [cloth], or more property, is paid or stipulated by hand-shaking." (Grgas i. 75)1

Both the bride and the groom are expected to contribute to the financial success of the new couple. The bride's contribution is called the heimanfylgja, which means home-following, and is most often contributed by her family or guardians. The groom is then expected to contribute the tilgjf, or "counter-gift". As a rule, the tilgjf is one-third of the heimanfylgja. The husband is also expected to give his wife a linf ("linen-fee") during the wedding itself.

Once the preliminary negotiations are concluded, the betrothal ceremony itself can take place.


Once all of these preliminaries are concluded, the man and woman are considered to be festarmadr and festarkona (betrothed-man and betrothed-woman), respectively. The legal formula for the festar is handed down to us:

"A woman is betrothed according to law if a man recites the agreemen about the mund; then the giptingar-man [the person who is giving away the bride; usually the father or guardian] and the man to whom the woman is betrothed shall name witnesses to it. The man who is betrothed shall say: 'We name witnesses that thou _____ betroth thyself to me _____ with a lawful betrothal, and givest me the heimanfylgja with handsal [hand-shaking], as the fulfilment and performance of the whole agreement which was a while ago recited between us without fraud and tricks. This is a complete and lawful match.'" (Grgas i. 316)1

It is necessary for there to be witnesses at the ceremony:

"A wedding is lawfully made if the lawful man betrothes the woman, and six men at least are present." (Grgas i. 75)1

At this stage, the betrothal cannot be lightly broken:

"If a man will not take his betrothed, he shall be summoned home to take her, and a day be fixed. Thereupon he shall be summoned to the ing because he flees from his betrothed. The the ingmen shall make him an outlaw, and he is called fudflogi [a "runaway"]." (Earlier Gulathing's Law 51)1

"If the father will not give his daughter to the man to whom she has been betrothed, he shall be summoned home and a day be fixed on which he shall have his betrothed. If the betrother will not let him have her, he shall demand the dowry of his betrothed, and summon him to the ing for robbery; then the ingmen have to outlaw him." (Earlier Gulathing's Law 51)1

If, however, the value of the bride was inflated wrongly (for example, if she were ill or deformed, and this was hidden from the groom), the groom can demand recompense or break the agreement:

"But if these faults [illness or deformities] are found in the woman, the man who knowing it betrothed her [that is, betrothed her to the groom] is liable to lesser outlawry for it, and the wedding may be prevented if the man betrothed wishes it, provided he had before pronounced the words, 'a complete and lawful match'-- but not otherwise. Now if the betrothed man wants to demand the mund he shall summon the guardian, because he has betrothed the woman knowing such faults in her that she would cost less if she were a bondmaid. He shall summon him to lesser outlawry, and summon nine of his neighbors to the ing. If the witnesses are against him, he is to be outlawed, and the mund cannot be claimed [by the bride's family]. If the witnesses say that the guardian knew not the faults of the woman, he can defend himself, but he cannot claim the mund unless he can get five dwellers at the farm of the woman as witnesses that she has not these faults; then the mund is to be paid back." (Grgas i. 316)1

The woman, too, could break the betrothal, but only with serious consequences:

"If she [the festarkona] wants to break the betrothal within twelve months, and says she has been betrothed against her will, he [the festarmadr] can use his witnesses against her words and get her. If he lacks witnesses, then she and also her father and mother, or their nearest kinsmen if they do not exist, shall asure it is against her will with an oath, and pay the festarmadr as much as was promised. If this takes place after the wedding, she loses her third [a reference to the law stating that the wife receives 1/3 of the husband's property on his death]." (Frostath iii. 22)1

The length of the festar could be delayed by the bride's guardian up to one year:

"The man who has charge of the betrothed woman may keep her from the betrothed man for a twelvemonth." (Earlier Gulathing's Law 51)1

However, it is possible for the length of the festar to be much longer in unusual circimstances, which must be agreed upon during the brd-kaup:

"Then the betrothal was performed at once, and she [Oddny] was to sit betrothed for three winters. And even if Bjrn, while staying in the same country [Iceland], was prevented from marrying her, she was to wait for him nevertheless during a fourth winter. If he should not come back from Norway in three winters, Thorkel [Oddny's father] was to give her in marriage if he liked. Also Bjrn was to send men toi Iceland to renew the betrothal if he could not come himself." (Bjrn Hitdlakappi's Saga)1


The wedding itself is usually held at the bride's home, and only rarely at the home of the groom.

The bride wears a special white linen dress (brar-lni) for the ceremony; in the literature the bride was described as hvit-fldud (white-folded) and linbundin (linen-bound, or garbed in linen). There is a long head-dress (called a fald) that is worn like a veil, and precious stones worn as brooches. Thrymskvida describes this wedding garb (bear in mind that the Brsing necklace was worn by rr in order to carry off the deception that He was, in fact, Freyja; and not necessarily as a token worn by all brides):

kva at rr rigr ss: Then said rr, the mighty God:
Mik munno sir argan kalla "The sir will call me effeminate
ef ek bindask lt brar-lni. if I let myself be tied in bridal linen."



Bundo eir rr brar-lni They then tied rr in the bridal linen,
ok eno mikla meni Brsinga; and the great Brsing necklace;
lto umb hnom hrynja luka let keys hang from his belt,
ok kvenn-vir um kn falla, and woman's clothes hang 'round his knees,
enn bristi breia steina, and broad stones be on his breast,
ok hagliga um hfu typo. and fastened the cloth on his head with skill.1

The Goddess Vr hears the wedding vows themselves, and enforces them, as we learn in Gylfaginning:

"[The] Ninth [Goddess is named] Vr: she listens to people's oaths and private agreements that women and men make between each other. Thus these contracts are called vrar. She also punishes those who break them."2

In addition to Vr, rr seems to have been invoked as a protector, and his hammer Mjllnir used as a tool of consecration, placed in the lap of the bride. Once again, Thrymskvida provides an example:

kva at rymr ursa drttinn: Then said Thrym, the chief of the Thurses:
Beri inn hamar bri at vgja! "Carry in the hammer to consecrate the bride!
Leggit Miollni meyjar kn! Lay Mjllnir in the maiden's lap!.
Vgit okr saman Vrar hendi! Wed us together with the hand of Vr!."1

The ceremony is performed with at least the bridal party seated for the feast. The groom and his party are seated on one bench, opposite whom are the father of the bride and his guests. Between them, a cross-bench perpendicular to both, is the brubekk, or "bride-bench" (it is possible that such benches were family heirlooms saved through generations especially for such wedding-feasts):

"The women sat on the cross-bench; Helga the fair sat next to the bride, and her eyes often glanced at Gunnlaug, and there the saying was proved that 'the eyes do not hide it if a woman loves a man.'" (Gunnlaug Omstunga's Saga ii)1

"The chief Gudmund Riki was present at the wedding-feast of his overseer Thorstein; he sat in the high-seat, Thorir Helgason opposite to him, and the women on the cross-bench; bright lights were burning, and tables were placed in front. The bride sat in the middle of the cross-bench, with Thorlaug [wife of Gudmund] on the one side, and Geirlaug [wife of Thorir Helgason] on the other." (Ljosvetninga Saga 13)1

"The famous champion Gunnar of Hlidarendi was to have his wedding, and had invited to the feast many people. He placed his guests as follows. He sat himself in the middle of the bench... Hskuld was in the middle of the other bench, and his sons inside to the left of him... The bride, Hallgerd, sat in the middle of the cross-bench with her daughter Thorgerd on one side, and on the other Thrhalla, daughter of Asgrm Ellidagrmsson." (Njl's Saga 34)

The ceremony itself is a relatively simple affair, more like a preliminary leading up to the feast. The bride and groom are seated. Vr is invoked and the wedding vows are exchanged under Her watchful eye. While in the above example the actual hammer of rr is used to bless the marriage, no such ceremonial hammers have been discovered in the archaeological record. It is much more reasonable to assume that the sign of rr's hammer is made to bless the union (much as is done over the food and drinking-horns at sacrificial feasts in order to sanctify them and for which there is written evidence); this is a motion made with the hand resembling an inverted T. No rings are exchanged, but the bride is given a bunch of keys on her belt to symbolize her position as mistress of the new household.

The feast itself is the centerpoint of the celebration, and gifts are often given to the guests:

"Sigmund rode to Orradal, and visited Thorkel, and was well received. He now began his wooing, and asked Thurid in marriage. Thorkel took this well, and thought it a great honor for his daughter and them all. Sigmund made his wedding-feast at Hladir with Hakon jarl, and the jarl made it last for seven nights." (Freyinga Saga 26)1

"Heidrek married Herborg, the daughter of King Hrollaug in Gardariki. Their wedding-feast was made, and no man had heard of a greater feast in these lands; it lasted a month; when it ended the chiefs were led away with gifts." (Hervara Saga 14)1

"Olaf had made preparations, with the best of all kinds of drink and provisions that could be got. He had invited many high-born men from the districts. When Rgnvald jarl arrived with his men, the king received him well, and large, good, and well-furnished rooms were given to him; the servants took care that there should be lack of nothing which might be proper for a feast. When the feast had lasted some days, the king and the jarl and the king's daughter spoke together; it was agreed that Rgnvald of Western Gautland should betroth Astrid the daughter of Olaf, King of Sweden, to Olaf, King of Norway... Then the feast was made larger, and the wedding of Olaf and Astrid was celebrated with great splendor." (St. Olaf's Saga 94)1

Even a family of modest means was expected to extend hospitality to the wedding party:

"A bondi [farmer] shall feed at least five of them [the groomsmen and bridesmaids]. He is an outlaw if he refuses to lodge them. This is if the bride or bridegroom is with them; otherwise he must feed three men." (Kristinrett Thorlks og Ketils biskupa p. 94)1

While the bride is seated on the brubekk, the husband presents her with the linf, or linen-fee, which is agreed upon as part of the negotiations leading up to the betrothal:

"Then he [the bridegroom] shall sit between the groomsmen and she between the bridesmaids. He shall walk across the floor and give her linf. That is lawful whether the gift is small or great." (King Magnus' Laws)1

During the wedding feast, it is customary to present bekkjar-gjf, or bench-gifts, to the bride:

"At this moment [as Kjartan Olafsson was leaving for Iceland] Ingibjrg opened a mead-cask standing at her side, and took out of it a white and gold woven woman's head-gear, which she gave to Kjartan, saying it would be only too good for Gudrn svifr's daughter to wrap around her head; 'and thou wilt give it to her as a bench-gift. I want the Icelandic woman to see that she who has been talking with thee in Norway is not of thrall-kin. It was in a bag of gudvef and was most costly." (Laxdla Saga 43)1

More information on feasts in general may be found here.


After the wedding, the bride and groom were considered hjn; husband and wife. The bride was also considered eiginkona (which means "own woman") as well as hsfreyja ("lady of the house" or "housewife"). Even though the husband, in his role as guardian of the wife, managed the family's property, the distinction of who owned what was still keenly noted. That way, in case of divorce or other events that necessitated the division of their property (such as inheritance) the property of the wife could be distinguished from that of the husband. The husband's role as guardian of his wife was even legally enforced:

"Every man has claim on behalf of his wife. A hauld [married woman] owns three marks if she is struck, but a widow shall have the same rtt [right to seek redress] as her last husband, and the one she wishes shall prosecute. But if a maiden is struck, her nearest kinsman shall claim her rtt as if it were his own. But if she is to have it herself, the right plaintiff shall summon a ing." )1


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

2) Translation from Edda, by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Anthony Faulkes, Everyman, London, 1987

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