History of Viking Arm Rings / Oath Rings

By Viking Zon on Dec 31, 2021

Vikings were fascinated by ring shaped jewelry. Men and women wore them on their fingers, wrists, forearms, upper arms, and even around their necks (known as torcs/torques). Some rings were simple circlets. Others were ornate works of art. They were made of iron, silver, copper, bronze, or gold, according to the means of the wearer. This display of wealth served to reinforce the value of the individual in the Viking's honor culture and served as a form of wearable currency.

Neil Price (Chair of Archaeology at Sweden’s Uppsala University) describes these neck rings (torques) as "heavy, dramatic, and very expensive” (2020, p. 133). His professional appraisal is echoed in the historical record. Early-tenth-century Abbasid diplomat Ahmed ibn Fadlan describes

“Around their neck they each wear torques of gold and silver, for every man, as soon as he accumulates 10,000 dirhams (Arabian silver coins) has a torque made for his wife. When he has 20,000 he has two torques made, and so on. Every time he increases his wealth by 10,000, he adds another torque to what his wife already possesses, so that one woman may have many torques around her neck.” (Lunde & Stone, 2012, p. 46)

But rings were not just about wealth and display. Rings also served as a symbol of oaths and promises. While some see eternity in the circular ring shape, perhaps the Vikings saw it as a symbol of reciprocity and commitment.

Oaths and Oath Rings

It is no exaggeration to say that life in the Viking Age was held together by oaths. In fact, in the East, Vikings were known as “Varangians,” which meant “Sworn Companions.” A man or woman’s word was binding, and any person of merit would far rather die than violate their word. There was literally a special place in Hel for oath breakers in the Viking belief system (at least as described by the 13th-century bard, Snorri Sturluson). Ramifications of a broken vow came much quicker in this world, though, where those who were proven untrustworthy were considered not worth the attention or benefit of society. To break your word was to betray your own honor, and therefore nullify your own worth. Norse Sagas brim with stories about men and women who held to their oaths even when it cost them everything (even their lives). Viking history is full of accounts of Vikings choosing to keep their promises even when it meant dying to the last man.

While a verbal oath was considered binding enough in most cases, an oath could be strengthened by attaching it to items of sacred importance. So, Vikings may swear by their gods. More commonly, a Viking would swear by their weapons, implying that their weapons would fail if their word failed. Sometimes, Vikings also swore on their rings – or other rings that were of special importance.

For example, the 12th-century Russian Primary Chronicle describes one event in 941. The Vikings swore by their gods and their weapons and their arm rings to ratify a treaty with the powerful Byzantines.

[The Vikings] “lay down their shields, their naked swords, their armlets [arm rings], and their other weapons, and shall swear to all that is inscribed upon this parchment, to be faithfully observed forever by Igor and his boyars [nobles], and all the people from the land of Rus.”

Another overt mention of an oath ring in history is found in the Úlfljót’s Law (preserved in the Landnámabók describing the early days of Iceland):

“A ring of two ounces or more should lie on the altar of every main temple. Every man who needed to perform legal acts before the court must first swear an oath on this ring and mention two or more witnesses. 'I name witnesses,' he must say, 'that I swear the oath on the ring, a lawful oath. So help me Freyr and Njörðr and the Almighty Aesir.”

Perhaps one of the most notorious mentions of a Viking oath ring can be found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In 876-877, the Vikings under King Guthrum entered a treaty with King Alfred. Alfred (then a struggling king of a cornered kingdom, and long before becoming “Alfred the Great") sealed the pact by paying money (danegeld) and giving hostages, while the Vikings offered an oath on a “sacred ring” or “holy bracelet” (i.e., a special arm ring). In this case, Guthrum broke his promise and attacked. Guthrum lost 120 ships in a storm (with perhaps about 5000 Vikings drowned) and was then defeated in battle. So, both the Anglo-Saxons and Guthrum’s own Vikings probably considered this the just reward of disrespecting an oath ring.

Ring-hilted Swords

For thousands of years, Germanic and Nordic warriors swore oaths of allegiance to their leaders and rulers according to set customs. These oaths were often performed with the lord seated on a raised platform (as on a throne). The warrior knelt before him with one or both hands on the lord’s sword. In the Migration Era (circa 300-700 A.D.), culminating in Scandinavia with the Vendel Period (circa 540-790), finely made swords sometimes featured a ring on the hilt. While these rings could have served a practical function (i.e., a place to tie a leather thong for weapon retention), they are thought to be associated with the oath of allegiance.

Thus, these “oath rings” of so-called ring-hilted swords strengthened or focused the power of the oath itself. Ring-hilted swords were celebrated in sagas (especially the legendary sagas of gods and heroes). However, very few ring-hilted swords have been recovered from the Viking Age (793-1066). So, the term “oath ring” can apply either to the ring of a ring-hilted sword or to a ring one would wear on the body (or perhaps made expressly for an altar or an idol).

A Non-Linear Relationship between Oaths and Rings

So, oath rings are well-attested in the literary and historical record and supported by archaeology. However, this does not mean that all arm rings are oath rings. In fact, most arm rings archaeologists find are not even Viking. Arm rings and neck torques have been used across northwestern Europe for THOUSANDS of years. They were even more popular and plentiful in the Bronze Age (circa 3100 – 300 B.C.) than they would be in the Viking Age a thousand years later. Thus, Viking attitudes and beliefs about rings were built on cultural foundations that were already very well established.

The association between oaths and rings was fluid. It was not that a Viking would wear rings so that he would have things to swear on. Instead, the Viking wore rings because he had sworn oaths. The warrior gave his commitment to his lord (the jarl, sea king, chieftain, or king). But the lord then had the implied obligation of rewarding loyalty with success and wealth.

A lord was expected to be a “gold giver.” In Old English (the language related to Old Norse with many cultural parallels), a term used is beaga brytta, or “ring-giver.” This meant the lord would lead his warriors to victory on the battlefield and in raids on rich targets. However, a good lord would not horde that treasure for himself but engage in what we would now call “profit sharing.” He would dispense the treasures won by his strategy to reward his warriors for their courage and sacrifice. If a lord was not a gold giver, he was either incompetent in war or stingy with his gains. This might give a reason for warriors to doubt the validity of their oaths and consider transferring their allegiance to another.

There are numerous references to this relationship between loyalty to the lord and reward in wealth (often in the form of rings). For example, in Beowulf, we see:

[King Hrothgar] did not leave unfulfilled his oath:
rings he dealt out, and treasure at the ale-feast.
(Beowulf ll. 80-81).

The link between generosity and rulers was not just something for the gods or the heroes of the legendary sagas. It is born out in the historical record and in the more realistic Icelandic sagas, too. For example, Ivar the Boneless is described as "giving with both hands” as evidence to his skill and worth as a leader.

Rings in Viking Lore

Odin, the chief of the Aesir gods, had a magic ring called Draupnir (“Dripper”). Draupnir is usually imagined as an arm ring, though the sources are not explicit on this. This gold ring had the property of generating eight new rings every ninth night. Though the Prose Edda never spells it out, the Vikings would have understood that Odin would give these rings to his warriors in Valhalla. Thus, Odin was a warlord of endless resources, and his warriors would be well looked after until it was time for them to make good on their oaths at Ragnarök.

An infamous ring in Viking lore is the Andvaranaut of the Volsung Saga. The Andvaranaut was a finger ring. It was the last piece of the treasure Loki stole from the shape-shifter Andvari to pay compensation for someone the gods had killed by mistake. The treasure was henceforth cursed and led to the corruption and death of anyone who possessed it.

After the hero Sigurd claimed this treasure from the dragon Fafnir, he gave the Andvaranaut to the Valkyrie/Shield Maiden, Brynhild. When Sigurd broke his oath to Brynhild (because of sorcery) and took back the Andvaranaut, he caused Brynhild to violate the promises she had made as well. This led to a chain of events that ultimately resulted in the death of almost everyone in the saga. The Andvaranaut may have inspired the Ring of Doom in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

Conclusion

Arm rings, neck torques, and finger rings are common features in Viking burials and treasure hordes. Some of these rings were fantastic works of art. Others were elegant in their simplicity. Those made of common metals served for ornamentation or as keepsakes for their owners. Those made of iron may have served to ward off trolls and other malevolent spirits (as iron is shunned by evil in most northern European belief systems). Rings of silver and gold were portable wealth and wearable currency and could be worth a fortune. Rings boasted of the value of the wearer. They were also a constant reminder of obligation and oaths taken or rewarded.

Many of these beliefs and attitudes are still with us. After all, the most ubiquitous type of ring today is the wedding ring and the engagement ring – both indicators of oaths. The wedding ring may trace its origins back to ancient Egypt. But it is partly due to our cultural heritage from northern European ancestors that we still use it. This continuity helps us appreciate the past more. It is still easy to see why the Vikings valued rings and how this simple object came to symbolize so much.

View our collection of over 70 Viking and Norse inspired arm rings.

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