Fate and Honor

One difficulty when studying a people and culture separated from one’s own by the passage of over a thousand years is understanding the sometimes subtly different ways the peoples of that distant society viewed life and their world, compared with how we do today. Historians and archeologists tend to focus more on concrete facts: what events occurred, how did the buildings, farms and towns look and function, what did the people wear and eat, etc. Writers of historical fiction, by contrast — those, at least, who hope to bring the past alive in an accurate way for their readers — must go beyond the observable facts. They must try to understand how those distant peoples would have thought, and portray that in their stories. If successful, the readers will gain, through the fictional stories, a degree of appreciation and understanding of another people, another culture, and another time which history alone cannot convey. If the writer gets it wrong, though — if he merely spins a tale that is little more than a costume drama, with modern characters acting out roles in period dress and setting, the readers may be entertained, but an opportunity for learning has been lost.

How did the Vikings view their world? In what ways did they approach life differently than we do? Two areas which played a major role in defining the Vikings’ culture were their beliefs concerning fate and honor.

Fate, to the Viking Age Scandinavian peoples, was the highest power in the universe. Men’s lives were shaped by fate, the gods were subject to fate, even the world itself had a fate which it could not escape.

Some aspects of the Vikings’ concept of fate clearly represent a belief that certain events were predetermined. For example, the Vikings believed the world would be destroyed at an unknown time in the future by a cataclysm called Ragnarok, during which most of the gods and mankind would perish, although a few would survive to rebuild a new world. And a common folklore belief in Viking Age Scandinavia was that when a child was born, it was visited by one of the Norns, the female figures who created fate, who decided at the time of the child’s birth how long its lifespan would be.

Yet the Vikings’ strong belief in fate in no way suggests that they believed men possessed no free will, or could not in some ways affect their own destinies. The very imagery most often used in Viking myth and literature to depict fate — three Norns, often characterized as sisters, sitting at the base of the World Tree where they weave the fates of all men and gods on their looms [1] — suggests that the Vikings believed fate was an evolving, ever changing pattern that was constantly in the process of creation. Each person’s life was a thread or threads being woven into the overall pattern of fate. Just as a weaver shapes and varies the design in the cloth she weaves, so the Norns might choose to shape or vary the pattern of fate — and thereby alter the destinies of individual men — by crossing the threads of different lives, or by cutting them when one’s allotted lifespan was reached. Additionally, each individual’s place in the overall pattern of fate was determined by the placement in the evolving pattern of the threads of the lives of his parents and ancestors who preceded him.

This concept of history as being shaped by the weaving of fate may explain why so many Viking sagas begin not with the story of the central character of the saga, but with a sometimes lengthy telling of the lives and exploits of his ancestors. Within the Vikings’ view of the world, what occurred before was appreciated as being not only part of the cause, but also part of the meaning of events that transpired.

The Vikings recognized that no man — no matter how rich, how strong, how wise, or how powerful — could escape his own death, once the Norns chose to cut the threads of his life. This acceptance of death as being not only inevitable, but also something which would come to every person at a time and place chosen by an outside and intelligent power, also shaped the Vikings’ view of what constituted courage — a major element of the concept of honor within their society. Because no man could escape his fate, the Vikings viewed how bravely he met his doom, once he realized it was upon him, to be a measure of an individual’s honor and character. For example, the runic inscription on a Viking Age stone monument found in Sweden, erected to honor a comrade who died in a battle gone bad, praised the fallen warrior because:

He fled not at Uppsala
But kept fighting while he could hold weapon [2].

Courage was but one aspect of honor in the Vikings’ culture. Equally important was personal integrity. Oaths were sacred, and frequently were sworn to the god Thor on a holy ring of gold or iron, kept on the altar in Viking temples, or sometimes worn by their priests [3]. Oathbreakers were despised, especially those who broke an oath of loyalty to their own comrades. The term felag referred to a fellowship, often a ship’s crew, who swore an oath of loyalty and mutual support to each other and to their leader. Within the Vikings’ code of honor, one of the most heinous offenses one could commit was betraying a member of one’s own felag — such a person was deemed a Nithing, one who was not even considered a man because he so lacked honor.

So despised were Nithings and their acts that stone monuments were sometimes erected to record their shamefulness for ages to come. A rune-inscribed stone found near Uppsala in Sweden commemorating the death of a fallen warrior named Helgi also memorializes the treachery of one Sassur, who killed the fallen man, a member of Sassur’s felag, in an act ofniddindsverk, the contemptible behavior of a Nithing. Another rune stone found on the Isle of Man records that:

Rosketil betrayed under trust
A man bound to him by oaths. [4]

Similarly, a rune stone found on the Jutland peninsula in Demark states that:

Thorgaut set up this stone
In memory of his father Asvid.
Woefully he met cowardly treachery
With Ildi’s sons. [5]

Their beliefs concerning fate and honor were a large part of what made the Vikings distinct as a culture, and of what propelled them to so fearlessly wander across vast and uncharted distances. Acceptance of whatever unexpected twists and turns of fate might bring to one’s life, courage in the face of adversity and even death, and conducting oneself with loyalty and integrity — among the Vikings, these were virtues to be taught and respected.


Chronicles of the Vikings, R.I. Page (University of Toronto Press, Toronto and Buffalo 1995)

Encylopaedia of the Viking Age, John Haywood (Thames & Hudson, NY & London 2000)

Medieval Scandinavia: an Encyclopedia, Philip Pulsiano, editor (Garland Publishing, Inc., London 1993)


[1] In some descriptions of the Norns, they are depicted as creating fate by carving runes on wood, rather than weaving a fabric.

[2] Chronicles of the Vikings, R.I. Page (University of Toronto Press, Toronto and Buffalo 1995), page 105.

[3] The importance the Vikings placed on integrity and honesty did not necessarily carry over to their dealings with outsiders, and particularly with enemies. Indeed, clever stratagems and deceptions were highly valued as means of defeating enemies, and examples are extolled in the tales contained in many Viking sagas.

[4] Chronicles of the Vikings, R.I. Page (University of Toronto Press, Toronto and Buffalo 1995), page 145.

[5] Chronicles of the Vikings, R.I. Page (University of Toronto Press, Toronto and Buffalo 1995), page 146.