Northern Way Ethics: Abortion

By Alfta Svanni Lothursdottir


This issue is probably one of the most polar issues of the modern day. Various Christian groups spend large amounts of money in their goal of making abortion illegal. Other groups spend perhaps just as much money in their goal to keep it legal. Does the Northern Way have something to say of this most divisive of issues? The answer is yes. But, before we go any further we should first take a look at whether or not our ancestors would have done anything like an abortion.

We know that pre-Christian Northfolk did perform what could be termed a “post-birth” abortion. This was called “carrying out” or “exposing” the infant. Before the coming of Christianity it was the father who made the decision as to whether or not an infant would be carried out. If the father was unkown or she refused or could not identify him it was the closest male relative of the mother that made the decision. (Jochens, 1995, p. 85) The infant that was not claimed by its father was called úborin börn which meant “unborn or not accepted.”

The exposure itself was called utburd (= carrying out, i.e., out of the house). (DuChaillu, v.2, p.39-40) This was done if the child was judged be deformed or some how unhealthy which would be a drain on the family and the infant's chances of survival would be low. These, however, where not the only reasons that an infant could be carried out. Reasons could range from an infant being born to a mistress or the sex of the infant, its health or how the infant's birth would affect the father's present offspring or even his feelings toward the mother. (Jochens, 1995, p.85) The reasons could also be and sometimes were financial in nature. The Arab at-Tartushi, reported that men in the trading center of Hedeby were driven by poverty to carry out their new born infants. Likewise slaves might be ordered to carry out their children in order to limit the size of the household. (Simpson, p.142)

The father or the closest male relative would usually make the decision as to whether or not the infant was carried out. Some times this decision was made for no other reason than that the father refused to take the child.

“There was a chief in Iceland named Asbjorn Gunnbjarnarson; his wife was Thorburngerd, a fine and accomplished woman. They had a daughter, Thorny, whom Thorburngerd gave in marriage to Skidi without Asbjorn's consent.”

“Some years after Asbjorn rode to the Thing and said to Thorburngerd: 'Now I ride to the Thing as I am wont, and I know that thou art far gone with a child; now whatever it is, boy or girl, it shall not be raised, but exposed.' She said he should not do that, so wise and powerful a man as he was ; 'for it would be an unheard-of wickedness even if a poor man did it, but especially as you do not lack goods.' Asbjorn replied: 'I thought when thou gavest our daughter Thorny to Skidi, the eastman, without my knowing it, that I should not raise more children for thee to give away against my will, but if thou dost not do as I tell thee, thou wilt feel it, as will all who break my orders, or do not do what I want.'

He rode to the Thing. A little after Thorburngerd gave birth to a boy; it was large, fat, and very fine; all who saw it, both men and women, praised it. Though Thorburngerd thought the child was fine and loved it much, nevertheless she wanted it to be exposed, for she knew the temper of her husband, Asbjorn, that he must have his will. Then she got men to expose the child, and prepare him, as was the custom. They took it out of the house, laid it down between two stones, and put a large slab over it; they left a piece of pork in the child's mouth, and went away.

Gest, a bondi, heard the child crying, and took it home to his wife; she was the foster-mother of Thorburngerd, and recognised the boy. They agreed to raise the child as their own” (Finnbogi Rammi's Saga). (DuChaillu, v.2, p.39-40)

In another instance a father wanted to carry out the child because his wife had died while giving birth to it.

“Signý bore a girl, both large and handsome; her brother Torfi would not let it be water-sprinkled until he knew how it would go with her life. She died, and he became so angry (Torfi had been vexed at Signy's marriage, because he was away when the betrothal took place, and had not been consulted about the match.) that he wanted to have the child exposed.

He asked his foster-father Sigurd to take the child and go with it to the Reykjardals river and there drown it. Sigurd said this was very wicked, but could not refuse; so he took the child, and went with it. It seemed to him so handsome that he had not the heart to throw it into the river; he turned up to Signýjarstadir, and laid the child down at the yard gate, thinking it likely that it would soon be found. Grim bondi Signýjarson was standing outside at the house gable, and saw this.

He went and took it up and brought it in, and gave out that his wife Helga was sick and had borne, a child.... Torfi became angry at this; he took the girl, but did not dare to kill her, for it was called murder to kill children after they were water-sprinkled” -Hord's Saga, c. 8. (DuChaillu, v.2, p.40-41)

In all 8 accounts in the lore that speak of exposing an infant, they infant was saved by a passer by or some other person who happened to come across the infant. (Jochens, 1995, p. 85)

“Thorstein (son of Egil Skallagrimsson) one summer prepared to go to the Thing, and said to his wife Jófrid: ' Thou art with child; if it is a girl thou shalt have it exposed, but raise it if it is a boy.' It was the custom, while the country was all over heathen, for those who had little property to have their children exposed, although it was always considered very wicked. And, when Thorstein had said this, Jófrid answered:

'This is unworthy of a man like thee, and thou who art so rich, oughtest not to do this.' Thorstein added: 'Thou knowest well my temper, and that it will not be well with thee if my order is not obeyed.' Then he rode to the Thing, and Jófrid gave birth to a girl which was exceedingly handsome.

The women wanted to take it, but she said they needed not, and called her shepherd Thorburnvard, and said: 'Take my horse and lay a saddle on it, and bring this child to Thorburngerd, daughter of Egil (Skallagrimsson) in Hjardarholt, and ask her to raise it secretly so that Thorstein may not know it; I look on this child with such eyes of love that I have not the heart to exposeit. Here are three marks of silver as reward; Thorburngerd will send thee abroad.'

Thorburnvard did as she said. He rode to Hjardarholt with the child and handed it to Thorburngerd; she had it raised with her tenant at Leysingjastadir in Hvammsfjord. . . When Thorstein came home from the Thing Jófrid told him that the child had been exposed be had ordered, but her shepherd had run away and stolen her horse. Thorstein said this was good, and got another shepherd. For six winters this was not discovered.

A few years after, when Thorstein was on a visit to his brother-in-law, Thorburngerd told him that the beautiful girl before him was his own daughter, and how she had come thither. Thorstein said: 'I cannot blame you for this; most things that are fated take place, and you have remedied my foolishness. I like this girl so much that it seems to me great luck to have so fair a child; but what is her name?' 'Helga she is called,' answered Thorburngerd. 'Helga the fair,' added Thorstein. 'Now thou shalt make her ready to go home with me'” -Gunnlaug Ormstunga, c. 3. (DuChaillu, v.2, p.41)

Even though a child was carried out, violence was never done to it. Many times the child was placed in an out of the way place so that animals could not get to it and as in one case above a piece of pork was given to it to suck on. This was done in some cases so that its life was prolonged and someone who might better be able to care for it might have more of a chance to find it. (DuChaillu, v.2, p. 41-42)

Girls were more often exposed than boys in most cases. (Jochens, 1995, p.85-86) The carrying out or exposure of a child continued into the Christian age though, as modern Christians today, the Christians of that age were very much opposed to the practice.

“Thórkatla, Asgrim's wife, bore a boy, and he ordered it to be exposed. The thrall who was to dig the grave whetted a hoe, and laid the boy on the floor. Then they heard the boy sing-

Let me get to my mother, You need not whet the iron,
It is cold for me on the floor, Nor cut the turf,
What is fitter for a boy Leave this hideous work,
Than his father's arms. I shall live yet with men.
(Landnáma V. c. 6.)

Thereupon the boy was water-sprinkled, and named Thorstein.” The custom of exposing children was so deeply routed in the minds of the people that Christianity itself could not at first prevent it from taking place. (DuChaillu, v.2, p.42)

In Íslendingabók the feelings of Christianity toward exposure of infants is made very clear.

“It was then made law, that all men of the country should become Christians, and such as were not baptized should be so. But in regard to child exposure and the eating of horeseflesh the old law was to stand ; men would be allowed to sacrifice in secret, if they wished to, but became outlaws if witnesses saw it” (Islendingabók, c. 7).

In the Saga of Olaf Haraldson we find the same stated.

“The king asked particularly how Christianity was observed in Iceland, and it appeared to him to be very far from where it ought to be; for, as to observing Christian practices, it was told the king that it was permitted there to eat horse-flesh, to expose infants as heathens do, besides many other things contrary to Christianity. (Saga of Olaf Haraldson, c. 56).

So we see that Christians were opposed to the leaving out of infants just as they are opposed to abortion today. The reasons for this were political in nature. In Íslendingabók the reasons are made perfectly clear. Every infant was to be baptised and not exposed so that the whole of the population would be converted completely to Christianity in one generation.

“It became established by law that everybody should be Christian and undergo baptism, those in the country who were still unbaptized; but concerning child exposure (barnaútburđr) and the eating of horse meat (horssakjötsát) the old law should remain valid. People could sacrifice (blóta) in secret if they wished, but they would incur the lesser outlawry if witnesses were present. But after a few years this heathenism was abolished like the rest [Íslendingabók 1.7:17]” (Jochens, 1995, p.87)

The so-called St. Óláfr made it law in Iceland that every child was to be raised no matter what its condition. Norwegian kings decided to introduce the prohibition gradually be allowing the exposing of infants in certain cases. (Jochens, 1995, p.91) After the Christian conversion of Norway it was allowed to expose an infant only if there was some kind of deformity. The infant had to be taken to the church and converted to Christianity and baptized and only then left out to die. (Jochens, 1995, p.90)

“Every child which is born into this world shall be raised, baptized, and carried to the church, except that only which is born so deformed that the mother cannot give strength to it, whose heels are in the place of the toes, whose chin is between his shoulders, the neck on his breast, with the calves on his legs turning forward, his eyes on the back of his head, and seal's fins or a dog's head. It shall be carried to a beach and buried where neither men nor cattle go; that is the beach of the evil one. Next is the child which is born with a skin-bag on its face; it can be seen by every one that it cannot get its food, though it might grow up; it shall be taken and carried to the church, be prime-signed, laid at the church door; the nearest kinsman shall watch it till breath is out of it; it shall be buried in the churchyard, and its soul shall be prayed for as well as is possible “ (Cf. also Earlier Gulathing's Law. 21.) ' - Earlier Frostathilig's Law, i. 1. (DuChaillu, v.2, p.40)

As time went by the punishment for the exposing of infants became more harsh. The Gulsthing Law stated that Magnús demanded that outlawry be the punishment for exposing a child instead of the a fine of three marks which was the earlier punishment. The law stated:

“If a man exposes his child, whether it has been baptized or is pagan, and it perishes and he is accused and convicted of this, he has forfeited peace and property, for we call that the greatest murder” (morđ et mikla;” NgL 1:13). (Jochens, 1995, p.91)

In England the punishment was 15 years of imprisonment and by the 13th century no infant could be exposed, even if deformed, “as long as it had a human head.” (Jochens, 1995, p.87, p. 97) At the same time the jurisdiction for this crime went from the kings to the church. (Jochens, 1995, p.91) Under the church's influence, the exposing of infants “went from being a male right to being a female crime.” (Jochens, 1995, p.92-93) Churchmen were the first to accuse women of killing infants. It was never the father, who in Pagan times, would have made the decision, who was persecuted for exposing an infant but the mother when Christian law was imposed.

“The late twelfth-century Bjarkö Law contains a paragraph instructing the bishop's official what to do if he learned that a woman had exposed (sleget utt) her child. Only an oath from the parturient woman's helper that the child was stillborn would save the mother from a fine (NgL 1:303). After stipulating that women who assisted the birth must remain until the child had been placed at the mother's breast, the Borgarthing Law continued:

“If the child has died when people return to her or suffocated, and if she is conscious, then she is the murderer of her child. She is to forfeit her property and peace in the country as well as her chattel. She must go to a pagan country and never live where Christian people are. The murder of a pagan is worse than the murder of a Christian because the soul of the person who dies a pagan is lost (NgL 1:340).” (Jochens, 1995, p.92-93)

Then there was also the wise women, called witches by the Church, who, through their knowledge of herbal remedies, could induce an abortion for those women who desired one. Their persecution by the Church is well documented so I won't go into detail here.

It is easy to see how even 1000 years ago Christianity, as it still does today, was working to control reproductive rights. It is interesting to note that the reason that, in Norway, it took longer to completely outlaw the exposing of infants was because “men” did not like their right taken away. But as the church gained more control, its will reigned.

Our pre-Christian fore-fathers considered that an infant did not have the right to live simply by being born. The infant had to be named and water sprinkled before it became a member of the family and the community. Once named and water sprinkled the infant could not longer be exposed because it was now part of the family and by extension, the community. (Jochens, 1995, p.88-89) In the perfect society the birth rate would be a little higher than the death rate and every infant would be born into a family that would be both mentally and financially ready to raise it properly. Unfortunately, then, as now, that perfect set of circumstances has never existed for every person in our society.

Our ancestors made careful consideration as to not only whether or not the new infant could be cared for properly but also how it would affect the rest of the family. As noted in the description given of the town of Hedeby earlier, poverty could force the exposing of an infant. It is easy to see what choice our pre-Christian ancestors would have made if they would have had the choice of having an abortion in this modern day of so many unwanted children who grow up to become residents of state penal facilities because their parents either didn't care or weren't able to raise them properly.

We must also realize that if an infant were aborted it was its wyrd to have been. Every infant has its wyrd given to it by the Norns which is then modified by its hamingja and řrlög. If we truly believe that there is life after death, and that we will fare to another place upon death, then we must accept any death as that persons wyrd. It is well documented in the lore that our ancestors believed one could not escape their wyrd. It's also obvious that our ancestors did not believe in bringing a new life into the family if they were not able to care for it properly or if it had the deck stacked against it. It is obvious from the accounts presented that our pre-Christian ancestors would not have considered abortion wrong.

It is not something they would have entered into without much consideration and in most cases only when circumstances made it something that had to be done. It is also obvious that Christianity's prohibition was political, another way in which they advanced their campaign of destroying the freedom of the people; something they continue today with their opposition to abortion. If our ancestors would have had modern abortion techniques available to them they would have used them if they felt there was need for it. For our ancestors it was a right, not a crime.

Source: Northvegr