Social order in the Viking Age
Viking society was divided into clear social strata. At the top were the great landowners or magnates, in the middle were the farmers and at the bottom the slaves. The great divisions in society were between the free and unfree, rich and poor, as well as between men and women.
In the Viking period honour, family and lineage were crucially important, and society was bound together by traditions and norms. If these norms were broken, then an individual’s honour and society’s approval could be lost. Personal honour was achieved through particular attributes, such as courage, cleverness, generosity and fellowship. In the Christian period church and bridge building were also regarded as important skills.
The Vikings attached great significance to the reputation that they left behind after death. If a person’s honour and reputation were intact, then his or her name would never be forgotten:
You yourself die,
gods and gold die;
an honourable name will never die,
one which was won
by your own work
(Hávamál stanza 77).
Rules of conduct
The great Eddic poem Hávamál, in contrast to the many heroic poems about exploits in war, contains a large number of practical rules of conduct for everyday life. There are verses about wisdom, friendship, how to act as a guest and how to behave at assemblies (“things”).
The poem Rígsthula provides us with a vivid portrayal of class divisions in Viking society. Ríg, who is the god Heimdall, goes on a journey in the human world.
Ríg arrives at a miserable hovel, where he meets a couple dressed in ragged clothes, Ái (Great-grandfather) and Edda (Great-grandmother). They offer him some pitiful food. At night he lies between the couple in a bed. Nine months later Great-grandmother gives birth to an ugly son with a crooked back, who is named Thrall. Thrall has children together with Thír, who is described as filthy, and from these children slaves originate.
Next Ríg visits Afi (Grandfather) and Amma (Grandmother). They are portrayed as a typical farming couple. He also lies in the middle of their bed, and nine months later Grandmother gives birth to a boy, who is given the name Karl. Karl grows up and marries Snør, who is presented with the keys to the house. Karl’s children are the ancestors of farmers.
Lastly Ríg comes to a wealthy farmer’s residence, where he lies between Fadir (Father) and Módir (Mother). Mother gives birth to a son, who is named Jarl. Ríg teaches Jarl the art of using runes. As a result of his successes in war, Jarl ends up owning 18 farms. He marries Erna and she gives birth to a son Konr (perhaps meaning “king”) the Young. Konr later marries and gains a kingdom.
Ríg’s travels amongst humans resulted in three sons: Thrall, Karl and Jarl, who became the ancestors of respectively slaves, farmers and magnates.