Monday, 29 December 2014

Random Viking loot and gifts

Some time ago, I reviewed both The Sagas of the Icelanders and Mythic Iceland for this blog. One thing that I thought that was missing from both was a set of examples of items for gift-giving or Viking loot. Sagas understands the importance of gift-giving, but doesn't give you much of an idea what sort of things you might expect to give or get as gifts, while Mythic Iceland just gives you the amount of wealth you can expect to get plundering such-and-such a type of place.

So I had a bit of a trawl through my saga library and compiled a list of different gifts and loot items. I've also chosen some archaeological items that seem likely to be loot or trade goods. Obviously, these are typically high-end items (well, most of them), but they should give you some idea. I've compiled them into a series of random tables for your convenience.


  1. A cloak that once belonged to King Myrkjartan. 
  2. A white headdress embroidered with gold thread. 
  3. A shawl decorated with black stitches and a fringe. 
  4. A cloak lined with white fur. 
  5. A pile of beaver, sable and marten skins. 
  6. A silk robe with gold embroidery and clasps. 
  7. A full set of coloured garments made from English cloth. 
  8. A fur jacket. 
  9. A fine cloak from abroad. 
  10. A pair of gloves with gold embroidery. 
  11. A headband studded with gold. 
  12. A Russian fur cap. 
Note that the history of clothing is important -- "a cloak worn by a king" came up so many times that I just stopped writing it down. Giving someone your old clothes isn't seen as a sign of cheapness, it's a sign of how close you are, so close that you would wear the same clothes. 

Clothing is also a good way to insult people -- in Njal's Saga, Skarp-Hedin insults someone so badly that a peace settlement collapses by offering him an inappropriate cloak as a gift. (It's probably to do with the idea that the cloak is unisex?)

  1. A necklace of glass beads.
  2. A gold bracelet. 
  3. A gold arm-ring, "a big and good one."
  4. A gold finger-ring. 
  5. A gold brooch. 
  6. A set of oval brooches. 

Not a lot of variety here -- gold arm-rings and bracelets turn up about a million times; arm-rings in particular are a very traditional gift from leaders to their followers. Interestingly, one of them has a spell on it; a queen gives it to her lover as a parting gift, but the spell prevents him from having sex with the woman he's leaving her for. Although we know silver jewellery was common, it doesn't turn up as a gift in the sagas much. Snobbery. 

Jewellery could be looted, too, so you get brooches or ornaments from Ireland or Britain or France or wherever in Scandinavian settlements or graves all the time, like this Frankish trefoil brooch: 


Weapons and armour
  1. A fine sword and a gold-inlaid spear.
  2. A gold-plated helmet.
  3. An axe inlaid with gold.
  4. A sword with a walrus-ivory hilt.
  5. A gold-inlaid atgeir
  6. A spear with a gold-inlaid socket. 
  7. A knife with a walrus-tusk handle. 
  8. An axe decorated with gold on the blade and silver mounts. 
  9. A winged spear. 
  10. "That sword which is called Dragvandil."
  11. A shield depicting scenes from the old sagas, with strips of gold framing the pictures, set with gemstones. 
  12. A spear that rings whenever someone is about to die. 

Again, object history is important here -- a lot of these swords have names, and the ones that don't begin that way wind up being called things like "King's Gift." They aren't necessarily good weapons -- at one point, someone -- I think it's Egil -- discovers that although the gold-inlaid axe a king gave his son is very beautiful, the blade is weak (although he also used it very carelessly). 

Cash money, capital, livestock, real estate, weird stuff. 
  1. A wooden bowl with a silver handle, filled with silver coins. 
  2. A ship, together with its sails, rigging and equipment. 
  3. A twelve-oared ship. 
  4. A trained fighting-horse. 
  5. "A good big treasure-chest."
  6. A hundred ells of fine-quality cloth and twelve furs. 
  7. A jet-black ox, nine years old. 
  8. An Irish dog. 
  9. A black horse. 
  10. A farm. 
  11. An island with 80 oxen on it. 
  12. A share in a trading ship. 
  13. Timber to build a church. 
  14. A stallion and three mares. 
  15. A carved ship ornament. 
  16. A set of walrus ivory chessmen. 
  17. A banner with a raven on it. 
  18. Three sea-snail shells and a duck's egg. 
  19. A cheese. 
  20. A magician's staff. 

There's also the category of monastic or religious loot, which doesn't turn up much in the sagas, but does turn up in the archaeological record. 

Religious paraphernalia
  1. A bible or prayer book. 
  2. A reliquary. 
  3. A bishop's crozier. 
  4. A pectoral cross. 
  5. An episcopal ring. 
  6. An exotic foreign religious object. 

Anyway, I hope that's handy. The important thing is that if you're going to give a gift it should have a history. A big bowl of silver coins, OK, that's just money, but in the sagas objects tend to be unique, to have a history to them. They're often the cause of strife or envy, or they can form a continuity between different parts of a saga -- Gunnar's halberd (which may be an atgeir, who knows) spends more time in Njal's Saga than Gunnar does. 

And of course this applies to every similar culture in fantasy settings. I spent a long time coming up with unique gift and trade items in my Orlanthi HeroQuest game, for instance. 

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