Gift Giving in Oath Bound

Oath Bound Art (4)One of the things that has fascinated me and plays a large role in Oath Bound is the Viking traditions surrounding gift giving. Great lords and homeless wanderers were could be bound by a twisted ring of silver, and even the most mundane gifts and feasts were symbols of the promises and contracts that held together Viking culture.

Imagine for a moment that you are alone in the cold windswept wilderness of northern Scandinavia. Alone, with only your immediate family, you have great difficulty caring for your crops and hunting for food at the same time. With no police or army, you have no protection from the raiders and renegades who roam the land, and with no welfare or insurance system you have no way to guarantee that your family will be cared for if you are injured or killed.

A jarl or lord can solve many of these problems for you. He commands his household warriors, who can keep his lands and the lands of his people safe thus guaranteeing them farmland safe from attack, and with the wealth that comes from stability he can promise to care for the weak and less fortunate of his village or settlement.

For his part, the jarl needs followers. The wealth and prowess he accumulates in his youth does little for him when he is older if he cannot attract warriors to stand in his shield wall, farmers to tend his fields, and families to raise children to grow the settlement.

All of this formed the backbone of Viking culture; the individual’s need for community and the security it provided, and the ruler’s need for followers to solidify his power and enable him to provide the security required by his followers.

The Vikings did not use paper contracts to signify and encode all of this, rather they used formal oaths and ritualized gift giving that not only signified their commitment to each other, but also reinforced their status.

In giving a silver ring to one of his warriors a jarl not only imparted material wealth, but signified his promise to care for that warrior and his family. By giving the ring he showed he possessed the wealth to carry out his side of the bargain. By accepting the ring, the warrior acknowledged and reaffirmed his previously given oath to serve the jarl in battle and in peace.

Silver imparted to another jarl carried a different meaning however. It symbolized good will and friendship rather than protection and service. Whereas a gift given to a sworn man was repaid in loyalty, gifts between equals were repaid with equal gifts, the richer or more powerful lord often giving a gift the other could not (or should not) repay equally.

When a king gave gifts to his jarls, the tables were turned. Now it was the Jarls who received gifts in return for loyalty. By giving rich gifts, wealth that was meaningful to the jarls, a king could demonstrate his power to ensure peace and prosperity among his friends.

In a world where life was hard and violence was common, people desperately sought out communities to provide security and stability. By systems such as gift giving, they bound themselves to each other in order to soften a little what was a hard life.

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