We tend to think of Vikings as warriors and brutal raiders. However, they had rich family ties and developed love lives just like any other culture.
If one was to say ‘I love you’ in Old Norse, you would say ‘ek elska pik’. Romantic love played an important role in Viking society and was greatly encouraged.
Viking marriages were normally arranged by the parents according to the station and political or economic needs. However, once the partner was selected, mutual romance and sexual passion were expected to develop.
The importance of Marriage
Marriages were often used to bring feuding clans together or increase cooperation between them. The prospective bride and groom were advised on the matter, but they did not have the final say on the matter.
Every upstanding Viking, whether male or female, was expected to get married and produce a male heir. If they refused to do so, they would be considered impaired and treated as social outcasts.
The Mighty Passion
We tend to think of arranged marriages as loveless and unromantic. However, the Vikings viewed it differently.
Once the families had agreed to a marriage, the customs and rituals that followed aimed to stir up romantic love and sexual passion between the two prospective partners.
The cultivation of what the Vikings called “the Mighty Passion”, included meeting and getting to know each other. But it could include the man picking flowers for his prospective bride. Meanwhile, the female was expected to demonstrate her homemaking capabilities by making clothing for her future husband.
The courtship period was very delicate and had to last a reasonable amount of time. If either side tried to delay the marriage it was considered to be an insulting rejection, while shortening it significantly was seen as disrespectful.
Hygiene and Courting
Hygiene was not particularly well developed in the medieval era. However, the Vikings were an exception to this rule. When courting a member of the opposite sex, attention to hygiene was considered crucial.
To attract a mate in Norse culture, one had to maintain a relatively high level of hygiene.
Vikings washed their face and combed their hair daily. They would also bathe weekly, a practice which shocked their Saxon and Frankish enemies.
Viking women paid a great deal of attention to their hair, which was considered central to the power of feminine allure. Long and fair hair was the ideal of beauty and obtaining it was essential to attracting a mate and maintaining social status.
Norse culture also emphasized the importance of clothing. Colorful and extravagant patterns were considered signs of social status. Men of means also wore a great deal of jewelry on their person. When courting, one was expected to wear the most extravagant clothing possible.
Romance in Marriage
On the night of marriage, the bride and groom would toast the Gods with a special bridal ale sweetened through the addition of a prodigious amount of honey. They were then provided with enough of the sweet brew to last an entire month. This custom is the origin of the term honeymoon.
Indeed, we carry over many of the marriage traditions of the Vikings. Couples would exchange rings, and the husband would carry his wife over the threshold.
Husbands and wives would often share the same drinking horn at dinner as a show of affection. It was considered perfectly acceptable for the wife to sit in her husband’s lap, or for the wife to stroke her man’s hair as he reclined in her lap.
Monogamy, or lack thereof
Sex before marriage was not encouraged, but it did not suffer the same taboo it did in other cultures. A woman who was not a virgin would not suffer from lower stature as a potential mate, as long as she had been relatively discreet and had not borne children.
Viking males were not required to be monogamous to their wives. It was their duty to have children with their wives, but they could and often had children with other women as well. It was quite common for a man to live with his mistress or regularly have intercourse with his slaves (male or female), while married.
The one major taboo was that a Viking male should never sleep with another man’s wife, on penalty of death.
However, women were not powerless in marriage. They had a right to obtain a divorce from their husbands if they were abused, neglected, or not satisfied sexually.
Viking culture was rich and included so much more than just violence and drinking. Their notions of romance and love were powerful. Every couple that goes on ‘honeymoon’ pays tribute to the ancient Norse peoples.