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Thread: The Icelandic 'Foster-Brotherhood' (Fstbrralag)

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    The Icelandic 'Foster-Brotherhood' (Fstbrralag)

    from "The Viking Age," by Paul B. Du Chaillu

    PERHAPS the most beautiful, touching, and unselfish trait in the character of man of which we have any record is the ancient custom of foster-brotherhood, which prevailed among . the earlier Norse tribes. This relation between two men was of a most sacred and binding character, and was not even severed by the death of one.

    Foster-brothers were those who in their youth had been brought up togetherthe sons of the fosterer and he who was fostered by him-or men who had fought against each other. Many examples are given of valiant men who fought against each other admiring each other's bravery and becoming foster-brothers, pledging themselves by an Oath, attended with the ceremony of letting their blood flow together on the earth.

    After this impressive ceremony the men considered them-selves bound to each other for lifeto be unselfish and true to share the same danger, and avenge each other's death; in fact their motto was, "One and the . same fate may come over us."

    "In old times it had been the custom of valiant men, who made the agreement between themselves, that the one who lived the longest should avenge the other; that they should walk under three jardarmen, (1) and that was their oath (equivalent to an oath). It was done thus: Three long slices of turf were to be cut up; their ends were to be fastened in the ground, and the loops raised so high that a man could go under them. This Thorburngeir (Hvarsson) and Thorburnmd (Bersason) did" (Fostbrdra Saga, 1). (2) .

    **1. Jardar = 'of earth', men = 'necklace'. The name of jardarmen (a neck ring, necklace of earth (turf)) probably meant a loop, the turf being cut in a semi-circular shape, for any other form of strip could not well have been raised from the ground without breaking.

    **2. The Saga is called Fostbrdra Saga (Foster-brothers' Saga) after them.

    Gisli was at a Thing with his brother-in-law Vestein. There were also a Godi named Thorburngrim, and Gisli's brother Thorburnkel. Gisli said:

    " ' I think it right that we should bind our friendship still closer than before, and we four swear one another foster-brotherhood.' To this they consented, and went on Eyrarhvolsoddi (point or tongue of land), and there cut from the ground a loop of turf, both ends being attached to the ground, and under this placed a spear inlaid with ornaments, so long that a man could reach with his hand to the spear-nail (i.e., the nail fastening the spear-point to the handle). Under this were to go the four, Tnorgrim, Gisli, Thorburnkel, and Vstein. They then drew blood from themselves, and let it run together into the mould, which had been cut under the loop of turf, and mixed together the earth and the blood; thereupon they all fell on their knees and swore an oath that each should avenge the other like a brother, and called all the gods as witnesses. They all shook hands" (Gisli Srsson's Saga, p. 11). (1)

    **1. Cf. also Sturlaug Starfsami, a. 13, and Hord's Saga, c. 12.

    When Angantr and Beli were fighting, the latter became exhausted, and would have been killed by the former but for Thorstein, who came forward, and said:

    " 'I think it right, Angantr, that you should stop fighting, for I see that Beli is exhausted, and I will not be so mean as to help him against thee, but if thou becomest his slayer I will challenge thee to a hlmganga, and I think we are not less unequal than thou and Beli; I would kill thee in that hlmganga, and it would be a great loss if both of you were to die. Now will I offer thee this condition, if thou givest Beli his life, that we swear each other foster-brotherhood.' Angantr said:'It seems to me a fair offer, that I become the foster-brother of Beli, but it is a great boon for me to become thy foster-brother.' This was then agreed upon. They let blood flow from the hollow of their hands, and went under a sod, and swore oaths that each one should avenge the other, if any one of them was slain with weapons" (Thorstein Vikingsson, c. 21).

    It was usual to swear a.n oath that whoever survived his foster-brother should avenge him by weapons if he died, not sparing even his own relatives.

    Orm Storlfsson, an Icelander, went to Norway, and there met sbjrn Prudi, from Vendilskagi in Jutland.

    "They soon became friends, and tried many idrttir; they swore each other fostbrdralag (foster-brotherhood) according to ancient custom, that the one who lived the longest should avenge t.he other, if he was slain in battle" (Thatt of Orm Storlfsson, Fornrnanna Sgur 111).

    In order that there should not be anything that might awaken the temptation of illfeeling or jealousy, foster-brothers owned jointly and equally all their property, or any which might come into their possession during their Viking expeditions, so that all either of them owned or acquired was considered as belonging in equal shares to the other.

    "The two kings Hgni and Hdin vied with one another in all idrttir; they tried

    swimming and shooting, tournaments and skill with weapons, and were equal in all.

    "After this they swore themselves into foster-brotherhood, and to own everything by

    halves" (Srla Thtt, c. 6). /

    In very rare instances we see that foster-brotherhood could be dissolved.

    "Thorburngeir and Thorburnmod, after having performed many a deed of valour, one day had a talk, and the former said to the latter: 'Knowest thou anywhere two foster-brothers who are our equals in courage and manliness?' Thorburnmod replied: 'They might perhaps be found, if we were to look for them far and wide.' 'Nowhere in Iceland, I think; but which of us two, dost thou think, would be the winner, if we were to try each other?' Thorburngeir inquired. 'That I do not know,' Thorburnmod answered; 'but this I know, that thy question puts an end to our fellowship and foster-brotherhood' " (1) (Fostbrdra Saga).

    **1. Another text adds: "Thorburngeir said, his was not seriously meant that We should try each other.' Thorburnmod answered: 'It came across thy mind while thou saidst it, and we will part.'"

    This shows the proud spirit of the men of that period. Thorburnmod felt deeply wounded that such a thought should have entered the heart of one with whom he had shared so many dangers.

    The love which existed between foster-children and foster-parents is seen in many instances. . When Olaf, son of Hskuld and Melkorka, daughter of king Mrkjartan, came to Ireland

    "The foster-mother of Melkorka, who was bedridden from sickness and old age, was most moved by this news; she walked without a stick to see Olaf. The king (Mrkjartan) said to Olaf: 'Here is the foster-mother of Melkorka, who would like to hear from thee about her condition.' Olaf took the old woman in his arms and seated her on his knee, and told her that her foster-daughter was well-off in Iceland. He handed to her the knife and the belt, and she recognized them and wept with joy. She said the son of Melkorka was imposing in appearance, as was likely, he being her son. The old woman was in good health all that winter" (Laxdla, c. 21).

    To carry a foster-brother's last request and greetings to his relatives or friends, to bury him in a suitable manner, and to bring to the funeral pile or to the mound his property with all the love that could be shown, were considered obligatory by the surviving one.

    "Asmund being one day in the forest met a man, who called himself Aran, and after a while proposed that they should try each other in some idrttir. Asmund saying he was ready, they proceeded with such idrttir as were customary among young men in those times, and no one could have determined who was the better man. They then began to wrestle hard, and neither could excel the other, and after it both were tired. Aran said to Asmund: 'We will not try our skill with weapons, for that would be to the injury of us both. I should like to swear to each other foster-brotherhood, that each shall avenge the other, and possess in common property gotten and ungotten.' They also took oaths that whoever lived the longest should have a mound thrown up over the other, and place therein as much property as seemed to him befitting, and the survivor had to sit with the dead one in the mound for three nights, and then depart, if he liked. Then both drew their blood and let it flow together; this was then regarded as an oath" (Egil and Asmund's Saga, c. 6).
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    The Icelandic 'Foster-Brotherhood' (Fstbrralag)

    Fostering appears to have been fairly common in early Icelandic society and was intended to create social bonds equivalent to kinship ties between people who were otherwise unrelated. The commonest form was, as nowadays, the bringing up of children in the home of someone who offered this service; in such cases the fosterer was viewed as showing deference to the family of the child fostered. But grown men of equal status could also enter voluntarily into similar relationships with each other and become foster-brothers or blood-brothers.

    Several sagas speak of men swearing oaths of foster-brotherhood. From the accounts it appears that this was a pre-Christian custom and no longer practised at the time when the sagas themselves were written.

    An account in Gsla saga Srssonar (The Saga of Gsli) shows how people of the 13th century conceived of the way this kind of ceremony was conducted in heathen times:

    [They] now go out onto the spit of land at Eyrarhvlsoddi and cut up a strip of turf from the ground, leaving the two ends fixed in the earth, and prop it up with an ornamented spear long enough for a man to just reach up to the nails that fastened the blade. It was intended that the four of them should go under it, Thorgrmr, Gsli, Thorkell and Vsteinn. And now they open veins and let their blood run together with soil taken up from under the band of turf, and they mix it all together, the soil and the blood. And then they all fell to their knees and swear an oath in the name of all the gods that each shall avenge the other as he would a brother.

    A similar description occurs in Fstbrra saga (The Saga of the Foster-Brothers), also presumably put together some time in the 13th century:

    So they made a pact with solemn oaths that whichever of them lived the longer would avenge the other. For though people were called Christian at the time, the Christianity was still young and left much to be desired, and many sparks of heathendom lingered on and were put to wicked use. They followed the custom of illustrious men who set up a rule between themselves of the one who lived longer avenging the other, that they should walk under three strips of earth and this was their pledge. This practice of theirs took the form of cutting three long turfs from the ground; their ends should all be fixed in the group and the loops pulled upwards so that men could walk underneath. This practice Thormr and Thorgeirr performed in confirmation of their vow.

    These accounts, as can be seen, do not concur in all respects, since there is no mention in Fstbrra saga of the mixing of blood. However, both sagas mention the practice of cutting turfs and walking under them.

    At the heart of the foster-brotherhood appears to lie the vow that each should avenge the other, and this is often the only aspect that sagas mention. In 'The Tale of Ormr Strlfsson' in Flateyjarbk the oaths are described thus:

    In the end the swore a pact of foster-brotherhood in accordance with ancient custom that the one of them that lived longer should avenge the other if he suffered death by violence.

    We may imagine that in Christian times these kinds of oaths took the place of the mingling of blood.

    In the laws there are several references to 'oath brothers'. According to the Gulathingslaw, a man had the right to seek compensation from someone who killed his 'oath brother'.

    In early medieval European sources there are occasional references to foster-brotherhoods that appear to have been similar to those described in the later Icelandic. However, these kinds of alliances also show signs of being influenced by the Roman concept of amicitia, that is, political friendship or support.

    Translated by Nicholas Jones.

    For more information on the institution of foster-brotherhoods in the sagas and Viking culture, see:

    • Valtr Gumundsson, Fstbrralag, in rjr ritgjrir sendar Pli Melste (1892), 29-55.
    • Reinhard Schneider, Brdergemeine und Schwurfreundschaft (1964).
    • Olav B, Fostbrorskap, Kulturhistorisk leksikon for nordisk middelalder 4. Epistolarium-Frlsebonde (2nd ed. 1981), 540-1.

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