Donning the Garb: Heathen Clothing and Accessories
As a highly traditionalist heathen tribe, our theod is in the habit of having our members dress as our ancestors did for blots, sumbels, and other formal gatherings. The world may not yet be ready for the return of this kind of garb as everyday dress, but making it part of our private gatherings is a good place to start. Since the Viking Age was the last era in which our ancestors were practicing Heathens prior to the here and now, we feel that wearing garb from this latest period is a good way to help connect us to the Heathen past and establish psychodramatic and spiritual continuity with this era and with our ancestors. No, our Viking Age ancestors didn’t dress in stone age or bronze age garb simply because it was old and “traditional”, but they weren’t facing the abrupt severance from their folkways that us modern folk have to deal with, either, so we feel that dressing in traditional period garb it is more than justified given our mission to bring our folkways back to the fullness of their glory.
Our ancestors valued honor more than anything else, and for that reason they took every aspect of their culture seriously, including physical appearance. The physical aspects of culture, according to Edred Thorson, comprises one of the “four pillars” of the integral culture of any civilization. As far as clothing, accessories, and jewelry go, this was no less important than any other category of the material culture.
The Rigsthula, a poem from the Poetic Edda, gives us a good indication of how each caste (social class) within ancient Heathen societies were expected to look:
The Jarls (the ruling class of noble lords and ladies):
“The Lady sat, at her arms she looked
She smoothed the cloth and fitted the sleeves
Gay was her cap; on her breast were clasps.
Broad was her train; of blue was her gown.”
In distinction to this we are given a description of the Karlar (the free class of folk that made up the majority of the population. Many were farmers, artisans, craftsmen, merchants, and part-time warriors:
“His beard was trimmed; o’er his brow a curl.
His clothes fitted close; in the corner a chest.
The woman sat and the distaff wielded.
At the weaving with arms outstretched she worked
On her head was a band; on her breast a smock
On her shoulders a kerchief with clasps there was.”
Except for thralls, Heathens were well dressed and took great pride in their personal appearance. They began each morning with a personal hygiene regimen , and even had a whole day (Laethingdag-Saturday) to wash and comb their hair and bodies! They washed much more often than the rest of Europe, in fact! Both the Havamal and Regismal advise beginning the day “combed and washed” as the fatalist emphasis of the culture stated that one did not know where thy would find themselves by evening. They may no longer even be counted among the living.
Every man should Keep himself well-kempt and clean, And eat up in the morning. You never know Where you’ll be in the evening, So it’s bad to leave home hungry.
(Reginsmál, 25; Crawford 240)
You should always go out With your hair combed And a meal in your belly, Even if you can’t afford good clothes. You should not be ashamed Of your shoes and pants Nor of your horse, Even if it’s not a good one.
(Hávamál, 61; Crawford 28)
The Vikings were often accused of vanity by their Christian neighbors, and a number of letters by Chriatian kings, monks, and abbots are extant denouncing the adoption by Christians of the vain grooming standards of the pagans. Vanity and pride, being of the “deadly sins,” were to be avoided in the medieval Chrisitian mind, and excessive washing and flashy dressing were considered to fall under the “pride” rubric. The saying “cleanliness is next to godliness” could very well have been of Heathen origin rather than Christian, as most people would commonly suppose!
Shaving off one’s beard and cutting one’s hair short may have been taboo and shameful to our ancestors, but the trimming of finger and toenails was considered sound advice: it was believed that those who died with long nails would add to the strength of the hull of Naglfar, the ship carrying the evil dead at the Ragnarok, which is built entirely of the nails of dead folk!
To the Vikings, however, the Christians were the savages who clearly failed to grasp the importance of bathing, laundering clothing, and looking one’s best. Reports on finds in Viking tombs often emphasize the weaponry, but it is far more common to find implements in graves associated with grooming such as tweezers, combs, toothpicks, and washing bowls. The Vikings epitomized the concept of "dress for success" and wore it well even though this aspect of the culture has been largely ignored in modern-day representations.
Clothing for Men:
Rather than showy war garb (as seen in the movies and on tv), heathen men dressed for the occasion. While pride was a factor, a good deal of pragmatism went into clothing choices as well. This was because much of the heathen man’s time was not spent going to feasts and social gatherings and showing off but rather engaging in their occupation, whether that was working on their farmstead, tending to the livestock, hunting and fishing for sustenance or to get game to use in commerce and trade, etc.
This meant that it was important for the clothing they wore to be warm (since much of Northern Europe was cold for much of the year), water resistant (we were a sea-faring people, and many dwellings were coastal settlements, to say nothing of the common rain and snow), and pliable (you had to be able to work, run, and fight in these clothes without them ripping or hindering you.) It was not easy to make the clothing or even to buy it for most people, so durability was a big factor in clothing choices. Delicate clothing that would have been ruined in combat or during hard labor would be reserved for blots, things, and feasts and other social events.
Main elements of an ancient Heathen Man’s wardrobe:
Tunics- These were the main upper over-garments, and typically extended from the shoulders to the knees. These would be dyed using whatever source was available (typically plant based) and finer tunics may have embroidered edges.
Trousers- Unlike modern pants, heathen pants had no buttons, zippers, or pockets. They would have a drawstring to keep them on, though some more elaborate trousers would have had belt loops. They were typically made of wool (winter) or linen (summer.)
Cloaks- these were draped around the shoulders and secured with a brooch or clasp. They would often hang down past the knees. They provided additional warmth and protection from the elements, and would have been handy at concealing weapons or one’s identity. They could also be used as blankets or even material for a lean-to in an emergency.
Undergarments- Often a light linen undertunic was worn beneath the outer one, to provide additional warmth and to offset the scratchiness of some materials.
Leg coverings- These garters would be simple strips of fabric wrapped around the calves from the knees down to the feet.
Belts- While some looped through the pant line to hold pants out, others could be suspended over a tunic and tied to hold the lower part in place around the waist, and could hold pouches and other carry items. Heavier belts could be used to support the wearing of weapons.
Clothing for Women:
Strap dresses (harness dresses)- This was a simple garment featuring a strap over each shoulder. The dress extended down to the ankles. They were typically made of course fabrics and may have been dyed in various colors. Sometimes they were embellished with brooches to attach the shoulder straps.
Smocks and undergarments- these served the same function as the “undertunics” that men wore, adding an additional layer of insulation and preventing the course materials from irritating the skin.
Cloaks- Both men and women wore cloaks in ancient heathen societies, and for precisely the same reasons. Well to do karlar and jarls (or the wives of such) may have been able to afford fur and animal skin components in the form of embroidery, stitching, or accents to make their cloaks more effective and stylish.
Belts- Like the men, women also wore belts for utilitarian reasons, often hanging weapons or leather satchels from them, as well as the householder essentials like needles and iron pieces for stating fires using the “flint and steel” method.
Accessories- from their brooches, textile implements such as awls, scissors, and tweezers might hang from leather straps, and between their brooches beads may be arrayed alongside amber (in honor of Freyja) or silver pendants. Women who were the head of the household might also were keys to the pantry or the treasury. Married women might also have worn scarves or headdresses.
Ancient Heathen footwear-
Shoes that were remarkably similar to mocassins (ankle-length) were worn, but so were boots. In either case, these were stitched by hand using the “turnshoe” technique, whereby the boots or shoes in question were sewn while turned inside-put and then turned rightside-out upon completion. It was not uncommon, given the immense walking distances and active lifestyle of ancient heathens for footwear to wear out in the span of just a few months, necessitating regular repairs and/or replacements. Shoes were made of animal hides and unlike modern footwear did not have heels!
Colors- One of the most prized colors was red, which was made with the highly sought after madder root. This had to be imported from abroad and was therefore expensive. Other colors included black, blue (made from woad), yellow (probably derived from onion skins), green (a mixture of woad and the aforementioned yellow compound), purple (composed of woad and lichen). Brown (made from walnut shells and various other ingredients),and white.
Accessories- Jarls might sometimes wear a jacket made of wool over the outer tunic, and both classes often sported jewelry, such as necklaces, armband, and headpieces to help keep their long hair in place (yet another indication that our ancestors did in fact wear and value long hair.) While obviously any traces of it have likely long since evaporated, it is also not unlikely that our ancestors used some kind of pomade like compound for the styling of hair.
Jewelry- Both sexes were known to wear neck rings (torques), arm rings, necklaces, bracelets, finger and toe rings, earrings, amulets, and pendants, beads, and brooches. Brooches were considered “obligatory jewelry” because they had the important function of fastening the cloak around the tunic or dress. Neck rings were most often worn by men and were made with metal rods twisted together. They sometimes featured gems, shaped amulets, or pendants. Pendants were intended to honor the gods by bearing symbols particular to a certain god or goddess. During the Christian era, they came to serve the function of distinguishing Christians from Heathens at a glance. Thor’s Hammer, otherwise known as Mjollnir, was the most common expression of the Heathen faith worn as a pendant in this era, and it is no less true today, during what I like to call the Reclamation Era.
Women’s jewelry was most often more elaborate, as were those belonging to the upper classes. Finger rings differed b/w the sexes only in size, as did armrings (give nby lords to thanes ) but both armrings and armbands (thicker arm rings) also seem to have held ceremonial and social significance “ring giver” common in poetry.) In addition to identification as a full freeman/woman of the tribe and a gift from jarl to thane, armrings could also function as wallets. They were made to be bent and broken off piece by piece. Each piece could be offered in trade in exchange for trade goods or various types of service. Mjollnir also was worn to invoke Thor’s protection and to impart strength in facing the challenges of life in situations where one’s own might and main may not suffice on its own.