Material Culture 3: Ring Givers and Ring Bearers
Updated: Jul 9, 2022
If you have perused other articles on this site, or otherwise done the requisite research, you will know that the oath ring of a tribe, kept in the local hof or sacred grove in the keeping of a gothi, embodied the collective luck and wyrd of the tribe. Within this sacred artifact, wrought of blacksmith’s holy art and blessed by the divine, the soul of the tribe resides. It was also common, however, for individual thanes who served a jarl to wear these as golden arm-bands, that they might be recognized to belong to the same company of warriors, bound to a common purpose and driven by a collective will. These ring-oaths, or baugeidhr, bound the members of society together in what our ancestors considered to be the highest and holiest of oaths. In the minds of our forebears, the oaths so sworn, when truly meant, could be as strong as if not stronger than blood bonds. In addition to the individual armbands worn by the thanes, hersir, jarls, and kings, there was a communal oath-ring kept by the gothi or gythja (priest or priestess) of the tribe that embodied the soul-might and luck of the whole tribe. Tradition states that the oath-ring must be made of at least an ounce or some type of precious metal, and should be placed on the harrow (altar) in the hof (temple). It did not always remain here, however: the gothi wore it on his arm at the Thing (tribal assembly or law-meeting) to remind the folk, despite any differences they may bring out during proceedings, to observe and keep the frith among the assembled company and that ultimately all gathered there were brethren. Disputes at the Thing were meant to be resolved and made right, not exacerbated further. Additionally, there were times when the gothi sought the counsel, company, and might of the gods and would wear the oath-ring in symbolic and metaphysical furtherance of this purpose, for the gods, too, were a vital part of the community, residing at the very apex of the caste system, above the reigning jarl or king. Their desires and input also had to be considered. In modern society, people assume that “god” (if they even believe in a god at all) is on their side and are doing “his” work. They have forgotten how to LISTEN, how to be humble, still their thoughts, and open their hearts to the divine. Societies who forget or neglect to do this were doomed to fail in our ancestors’ line of thought. Much of this we know from sagas such as the Eyrbyggja Saga, which is very explicit about the use and function of the oath rings. We also know that sometimes the oath ring was placed on the arm of one of the god or goddess statues residing in the hofs. There was a jarl named Hacon, for instance, who trusted in an idis (female ancestor spirit) of his named Thorgerd Horgabrudr. This woman, open death, was elevated to godhood and as a sign of his trust in her he placed his individual arm-ring embodying his own luck on the arm of the statue representing her.
These, along with weapons, were among the first gifts a jarl would give to their professional warriors. When a karlar (a freeman) was elevated to the rank of thane, they took up not just the way of the warrior in all aspects but greater loyalty to and responsibility for the welfare and success of the tribe as a whole. They truly became “pillars of the community” and a personal armband worn on the arm symbolized this connection to the band of brothers and sisters that they joined. The hersir, jarls, and kings wore torques, which were highly ornamental “half rings” worn about the neck that symbolized their capacity to speak for the folk and, and to place greater emphasize the true nature of leadership, to bear the “yoke” of leadership with all the stressors, responsibilities, and hardships pertaining thereto. They bore the weight of the tribe’s problems and struggles upon their shoulders. Whatever any of the folk suffered and faced, the leadership were bound to face along with them. For it is the nature of wyrd that what affects one member of the tribe affects the destiny of all, and those who served “at the helm” were all the more so affected (if the gods had truly chosen them and they were not usurpers to such a positions. None come to or remain as leaders of men but by their grace and goodwill.) This was often accompanied by a crown, meant to place emphasis upon the third eye (true/clear seeing power point of the energy body) and the crown chakra (that place of numinous energy which rests at the top of the head of an individual and connects them to the divine. In this way, the leader’s deference and loyalty to the gods was given material and symbolic emphasis. The material culture of our forebears, you will find, drew inspiration from the realm of spirit. So it should be today.
The exchange of gifts from one kinsman to another, whether it be weapons, gold, food, mead, etc. entails not just an exchange of wealth and goodwill, but an exchange and mixing of wyrd, a further binding together of the souls who participated in such actions. A part of oneself, in a manner of speaking, was rendered along with the gift, and the giver always got something in return. Often without knowing it, the givers and recievers were on a metaphysical level receiving wisdom, insight, or soul might from their kinsman, which they might later find to serve them well on a trial or challenge in life that they are later destined to face as decreed by their orlog. Kinsfolk in a tribe are sworn to bear one another up and support one another in times of difficulty; through the giving and sharing of gifts and wealth, we benefit one another not just materially, but spiritually. We deepen the bonds, we drink from the same horn, and we embark upon a collective destiny. The paths we tread may not be exactly the same, but once sworn to the same tribe, the various wending ways of individuals will complement and sustain one another, and the various souls that make up the tribe will drive it forward to accomplish that which has been ordained for it by the gods and fated by the norns.
The gods heard and blessed the oaths made by members of heathen tribes, particularly Freyjr, Njordh, and Ullr/Wuldor. The latter god had his name attributed to oath rings, which were sometimes referred to in kennings (poetic references to a thing by describing it as completely different thing and drawing an allusion between the two) as the “ring of Ullr.” This indicates that he had much to do with process of oath-swearing. The trials by duel and judicial combats, called einvigi by our ancestors, was often overseen by Tyr, the god of cosmic order and justice. A rune charm calls for a combatant in the sacred contest to inscribe the rune of Tyr (Tiwaz) on the blade of their weapon and to invoke Tyr twice for victory. These contests were the heathen forerunners to the duels by medieval knights, were it was believed that no man could prevail in the judicial combat but by the grace of god. The truth-teller and the righteous would be discerned from the villain by the fact they won the duel, showing that our ancestors believed that the gods would sometimes play a definitive role in the unfolding of justice.
Although the communal oath rings were generally kept in the hofs, to remove them to another place was to make the new site holy. The might of an oath ring was not bound by location. When Vikings in England decided to swear oaths to King Alfred the Great of Wessex, they had no heathen holy place to go to in order to make the oaths (as England had been Christian for nearly two centuries at this point) but found the ring taken from their holy sites back home to be more than adequate for the purpose. The ring, while faring in other lands, served as a focal point for worship and connection to the gods, owing to the great stores of luck residing within them. In contemporary heathen practice, this is fine, but care should be taken to make sure the ring is not lost or stolen when away from the hof or other holy site in which it usually resides, as great tragedy could befall the tribe as a result. At all blots and fainings, the rings should be worn by the gothi or one of the leading participants (if the gothi is not present) and sprinkled with the sacred draught of sacrificial ale or mead kept in the ritual drinking horn. It is traditional to swear Yule oaths on a holy boar made sacred to the god Ingvi-Freyr, but if a boar cannot be had (as will probably be the case in many modern kindreds) the tribal oath ring can be used instead. Couples getting married can swear marriage oaths of fealty to one another upon it, and binding agreements between two parties within the tribe of almost any nature or purpose can also be sworn upon it in like fashion.