Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Völva's Costume

For HSF Challenge #6, I have decided to attempt to construct the costume of the völva in the Saga of Erik the Red.  Though it's not a fairytale, it is a story with supernatural components whose historicity is debated. That makes it enough of a "fairytale" for my purposes.

In an earlier post, I discussed my ideas about the "touchwood" belt she is described as wearing in the saga, but there are many other components to her costume.  To get a better idea of what would be involved in making a complete völva costume, let's take another look at the relevant passage from the saga:
The völva from the Saga
...then she was dressed like this, so that she had a blue mantle fastened with straps, and stones were set all in the flap above; on her neck she had glass beads, a black lambskin hood on her head with white catskin inside; and she had a staff in her hand with a knob on it; it was made with brass and stones were set above in the knob; she had a belt of touch-wood, and on it was a large skin pouch, and there she kept safe her talismans (taufr) which she needed to get knowledge. She had on her feet shaggy calfskin shoes with long thongs and large knobs on the ends of those. She had on her hands catskin gloves, and they were white inside and shaggy.
To actually make the costume, I will need to think about each item the völva is described as wearing, and make decisions about what the description is trying to get the reader to visualize.  Only then will I be able to consider how to make a costume that will evoke that visualization, or how to make components for this costume that are not grossly inconsistent in appearance with what I know of women's costume during the Viking age and immediately after.  The image to the right is a sketch that shows the result of my reasoning process about what the saga is describing.  Since it's very unlikely that I will be able to finish the costume by April 1 (the HSF # 6 deadline) I can at least discuss the reasons for my design choices now, and perhaps get further ideas from my readers before I begin making anything.

The saga description gives us most of the direct information available to answer that question, but before examining the saga description in detail, there is one question that has to be answered first, namely...

What was worn underneath? All of the items of the völva's attire that are described in the saga are what a modern costumer would call outerwear and accessories; except for the belt, we have no idea what she is wearing beneath her mantle. 

On one of my Pinterest boards, I have collected images of different people's ideas of what the völva in the Saga of Erik the Red wore (or at least what a völva generally should look like).  Many of these images show the völva wearing the tortoise brooches associated with the smokkr or apron dress.  The symbolism of the smokkr with brooches, however, seems inappropriate to me.  Whether or not the smokkr was associated with a woman's marital status or her socio-economic status, neither set of symbolic implications is a good match with the idea of völvas and other seidr workers as being outside of (though respected by) the rest of Viking society.  Lyonel Perabo's recent article about seiðr-practitioner in Viking society concludes, with regard to völvas:
All in all, [sic] would rather emphasize the fact that in virtually all of the accounts or references to völva, she appears to be an outsider figure. She either has no apparent or permanent place in the society she evolves in (Örvar-Odds saga, Eiríks saga Rauða) or is clearly associated with liminal and distant areas (like the grave in Baldrs Draumar and Laxdæla saga). Such a vision of the völva is very much in line with the idea of seiðr (and seiðr-practitioner) coming from outside the civilized society of men that we discovered in Chapter I (B). (p. 9).
If our völva is not wearing a smokkr, she must at least be wearing a long tunic, as the artwork indicates almost all women in Viking society who were not thralls wore.  Thor Ewing has observed that clothing descriptions in the sagas refer to most Viking attire, even that of high-ranking people, as being undyed. Dyed clothing in the sagas is usually blue, though a high-ranking chieftain might wear red.  These observations have, so far, been borne out by the few scraps of fabric that survive from the graves of wealthy Vikings.  So if our Viking shamaness is wearing a dyed tunic beneath her cloak, it is probably also blue.

However, I have decided that the white wool shift I am making for my Vendel costume will serve as  the garment the völva wears beneath her mantle.  This choice seems fitting to me for several reasons.  One reason is personal economy--I have white wool in sufficient quantity, and was planning to make a long tunic from it anyway. But this choice is also consistent with the symbolism and with color references in other sagas to clothing.  A white wool dress would most likely have been made in period with undyed wool.  Since it would have had to have been made from the fleece of a white sheep, it would have been relatively rare--appropriate for a shaman of high rank. Persons with special connections with the world of the gods and the supernatural throughout antiquity--druids, Vestal Virgins--wore white.  The catskin linings of the völva's hood and "gloves" (more on the "gloves" below) are also white. Granted this is all speculation, not proof, but it's at least speculation based upon some facts.

...a blue mantle fastened with straps, and stones were set all in the flap above...  In the Viking world, dyed clothing was much more prestigious than undyed clothing.  As I alluded to above, most references in the sagas to dyed clothing that have a color ascribed to them are described as blue. Penelope Walton Rogers's study of Norwegian and Danish wool fragments found that most of the fragments that tested positive for dye substances contained indigotin--the substance that makes blue.  This makes practical sense as well; Ewing points out that dyed clothing, especially if dyed in dark hues, is easily discernible from a distance; this is a useful characteristic for clothing worn by people who travel widely through wild country located in cold climates, as the völvas did.

Cnut holding his "mantle with straps"* 
I had a revelation about the "straps" while I was planning this project. For years, whenever I re-read the phrase "a blue mantle fastened with straps," I would wonder what the saga author could have meant.  I once saw a reconstruction sketch by a reenactor suggesting that there might be three straps, fastened with knobs or buttons to each edge of a semicircular cloak.  That image has a pleasing symbolism about it (there are three Norns, for example), and I was prepared to adopt it for this costume.

Then I thought about artwork from the late Viking era, and it occurred to me the saga could well be referring to a type of closure that is much, much simpler.

The image to the right shows King Cnut, a Viking who became King of England late in the Viking age.  He is partly wearing, partly holding what appears to be a long cloak with long wide ribbons--or straps--with triangular ends.  It has been suggested that the gold and silver ornamented silk strips found in the Mammen chieftain's grave were straps that fastened the chieftain's marmot-fur-lined wool cape. During the 10th through 12th centuries, a number of semicircular mantles or capes survive that are associated with monarchs or other high-ranking people.  Is the saga's author trying to tell us that the völva wore a similar cloak, with long ties or straps, that was a symbol of her high rank? Certainly the manner in which the chieftain defers to her in the saga is consistent with the idea that she was viewed as a very high-ranking person.

So to make this cloak I will need dark blue wool, preferably in a coating or other heavy weight, and some kind of fabric for long tie-strings or straps.  The last batch of dark blue wool coating I had I used for my Byzantine mantion.  I chose to use light blue wool to trim the mantion, and that cloak was made to be fastened with a brooch, not straps--both factors that make it unsuitable for re-purposing for the völva costume.  But now that I have a regular income again, I can look for and buy some dark blue heavy wool for a special cloak for this project.  My idea is to make a semicircular cloak, no shorter than mid-calf-length (as shown in my sketch), and more likely ankle or ground length.  As for the straps, I have some light blue silk purchased for another project that I could turn into long ties for the cloak, possibly in conjunction with a second fabric to give the straps a bit more body.  I have some dark blue suit-weight wool that is too fine for anything else Viking--perhaps I can make the straps from it and cover them with the light blue silk.  The saga does not say that the "straps" themselves were ornamented, so I see no need to ornament them though perhaps a bit of simple embroidery would not be out of place.

The final element of the mantle description, however, continues to baffle me.  What is the "flap above" to which this translation of the saga refers? Does this phrase refer to the edge of the hood?  Could the mantle have had a collar that was so adorned?  Is the reference to adornment on part of the mantle straps themselves?  Possibly this reference is a mere artifact of the translator's struggle; the translation of the saga that appears in the Icelandic Saga Database, for example, says simply "she had a blue mantle over her, with strings for the neck, and it was inlaid with gems quite down to the skirt," without mentioning any flap at all. I can't think of any basis to prefer any one of these interpretations over the others.   I would be grateful for any insights or ideas any of my readers might have on this issue.
My Princess of Zweeloo beads

In light of the uncertainty of the translations, what I would like to  do is to ornament the edges of the mantle with glass stones, but I can't figure out how to fasten them in place without resorting to fabric glue, which seems very inappropriate for this project. Suggestions would be appreciated, but until I come up with a way to solidly affix red stones (my preference, as shown in the sketch) along the cloak's edges, I prefer to leave the cloak undecorated.

...on her neck she had glass beads...   I originally made the glass-bead necklace shown to the left to wear with a Princess of Zweeloo costume, long ago (that is one reason that it has so many "flower" shaped beads on it).  However, a number of the beads on the strand are consistent with Viking era designs, so this necklace will do.  Perhaps when I feel more motivated, I will assemble a new necklace, just for this costume.

My hood
... a black lambskin hood on her head with white catskin inside...  So far as I am aware, the Vikings did not wear hooded cloaks; thus, it seems most likely that the hood referred to in the saga is a separate garment that covered only the head and shoulders, like the hoods of the early Middle Ages, or the Orkney Hood (but without the long fringe that is such a striking feature of the Orkney Hood).  The photograph to the right is a black wool hood that I made long ago and, unlike most of my early efforts, I continue to be pleased with it. It is completely reversible; the fabric on the other side is a red silk-wool twill. Although it is not made from "lambskin" as required by the saga, it has the correct early medieval shape--nearly square, with a small point near the crown of the head--though it would be better if the hood fit a bit more closely to my head.  What I originally thought of doing was to sew a broad band of high-quality fake fur (tissavel) onto the red side of the hood, near the edges, in order to give the impression that the hood has a white, fur lining. Now that more money is coming in, I may simply buy enough black lambskin and some white tissavel (high-quality fake fur) and make a new hood in the same shape--assuming I can recall or reconstruct how I made the hood in the first place.
My staff

...a staff in her hand with a knob on it; it was made with brass and stones were set above in the knob... I own a plain, wooden staff, made for me by a friend from a piece of maple.  A proper staff, either made entirely from brass with a knob set with stones (the most logical way to construe the language above) or from wood but topped with a brass knob set with stones, would cost much more than I am willing to invest in this project (possibly several hundred US dollars), and I am reluctant to alter my friend's gift by fastening a knob to it, even if I could find a suitable one.  So I will use my wooden staff as-is, reluctantly disregarding the saga text in this respect.

a belt of touch-wood...  I discussed the nature and possible construction of the völva's belt in a post a few months ago.  My conclusion is that the belt was made of a substance that today is called "tinder fungus" or amadou, which is a type of fungus that when dried is excellent for starting controlled fires and which can be treated to be sufficiently durable for clothing.  It has been pointed out that strips of the fungus may merely have hung from an ordinary belt, but it seems to me that that might not have been unusual enough to merit mention by the saga author.  Moreover, amadou could have been fashioned into an actual belt, and small pieces of such a belt could be cut, from time to time, for tinder.  Such economy of use seems very characteristic of the Vikings to me.  Thus, I am still inclined to fashion a belt from a strip of heavy felt.

Drawstring pouch
...a large skin pouch...  I have a large suede drawstring pouch not unlike the Oseberg pouch in shape.  Because of where I stood to take the picture (see left), it looks smaller than it is.  It is approximately 5.5 inches (14 cm) by 8 inches (24 cm) long, which judging from what I know of surviving finds would be "large" in a Viking era context.  Note too that the Viking age pouches that fasten with a flap tend to be associated with men.  Although the evidence I've seen is very tenuous, drawstring pouches seem to have an association with women's magic-making equipment (see Fugelsang, p. 22, and the Oseberg pouch itself).

...shaggy calfskin shoes with long thongs and large knobs on the ends of those...  The pictured shoes are actually Minnetonka brand moccasins; they were the first shoes I bought to wear with my Viking garb.  Minnetonka is an American shoe manufacturer that sells many styles of shoes based more or less on traditional American Indian footwear. With the tell-tale metal "conchos" removed from each shoe, this pair of mocassins look somewhat like a certain style of Viking era low boot or high shoe. (I say "somewhat", because they are obviously not made with turnshoe-style construction; the stitching that fastens the upper to the part containing the sole is external and plainly visible as this photograph shows.) However, my planned costume is more of a "costume" than a historical recreation, so I plan to engage in a costume-style trick to address the shoe issue.  I plan to sew a high cuff from shaggy fake fur, replace the tie thongs with much longer ones, slide the cuffs onto my legs over the tops of the shoes as though they were leg-warmers, and secure the cuffs in place by wrapping the tie-thongs of the shoes around them, adding large brass beads to the ends of the thongs to give the moccasins a plausible resemblance to the saga description.
My "Viking" moccasins 

Probably the völva wore her shoes with some kind of stockings.  I can use modern wool stockings or my hand-sewn linen stockings for the purpose, since they will not show when the costume is worn.

...on her hands catskin gloves, and they were white inside and shaggy...  As I discussed in an earlier blog post, existing finds of winter handwear from Viking age Scandinavia all consist of mittens, not the multi-finger-compartment hand garments we now call "gloves." The fact that these hand coverings were lined with "shaggy" fur tends to confirm that they were mittens, since it would be much less difficult to line a mitten with shaggy fur than to line a glove with shaggy fur.  If I can obtain suitable some lambskin or other thin leather cheaply enough, I will make a pair of mittens from it and line, or at least partially line, them with tissavel.  Alternatively, if I can find a suitable pair of leather mittens as a thrift store or EBay find, I will use those, possibly adding a partial lining (i.e. at the wrist) of tissavel to stand in for "shaggy" fur.

If I am lucky, I can assemble the components of this costume that I don't already have in time for HSF #10--Art! Wish me luck.

EDIT:  (4/3/2014)  It occurs to me that I could sew beads (possibly even gemstone beads) along the front edges of the cloak.  This may not be what the saga composer had in mind when talking about "stones set all in the flap above" but it would contribute to the exotic effect, if nothing more.  Semiprecious stones (carnelian or rock crystal) would be period and impressive but expensive; red glass would be as showy, and cheaper.  I'll need to think about this idea some more.


Image of King Cnut and Queen Emma presenting a cross to Hyde Abbey, from an illuminated manuscript, Liber Vitae, 1031, Stowe Ms 944, folio 6, The British Library.  This version scanned in from Williamson, David, The National Portrait Gallery History of the Kings and Queens of England, William S. Konecky Assoc. (2000), and made available on Wikimedia Commons.

Ewing, Thor.  "‘í litklæðum’ – Coloured Clothes in Medieval Scandinavian Literature and Archaeology."  Published on the author's eponymous website at    Last accessed on March 22, 2014.
Fugelsang, Signe Horn.  "Viking and Medieval Amulets in Scandinavia."  Fornvannen, vol. 84, pp. 15-27 (1989).

Lucas, Rebecca.  "Three Icelandic Mittens."  Published on the author's website at . Last accessed on January 21, 2014.

Mould, Quita, Carlisle, Ian & Cameron, Esther.  Leather and Leather-Working in Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York. pp. Council for British Archaeology (May 2004).

National Museum of Denmark.  "The Grave from Mammen--The Costume."  Published on the museum's website at . Last accessed on January 21, 2014.

Perabo, Lyonel D. "The Image of Seiðr in Old Icelandic Literature: Consistency or Variation?"  Available on and last accessed on March 21, 2014.

Raymond, Catherine.  Loose Threads:  Yet Another Costuming Blog.
    "The 'Touchwood' Belt," published December 25, 2013 at

    "Viking Pouches?",  published September 4, 2013 at

     "A Little Detour into Glove History,"  published March 23, 2013 at

      "More Semicircular Cloaks," published November 24, 2009 at

     "In search of semicircular cloaks, published October 24, 2009 at

Walton, Penelope. Dyes and Wools in Iron Age Textiles from Norway and Denmark. Journal of Danish Archaeology, vol. 7, pp. 144-158 (1988).

Ward, Christie.  "Women and Magic in the Sagas: Seiðr and Spá." Published on the author's website, The Viking Answer Lady, at  . Last accessed on January 22, 2014.

Ward, Christie, "Viking Age Fire-Steels and Strike-A-Lights."  Published on the author's website, The Viking Answer Lady, at . Last accessed on January 21, 2014.

Wikipedia.  Article on Fomes fomentarius. . Last accessed on January 21, 2014.

Wood, Jacqui.  "The Orkney Hood:  An Ancient Re-Cycled Textile."  Published on Saveock Water Archaeology at and available as of January 21, 2014.

*  Uncredited photographs shown with this post were taken by me.  Single-starred images are from Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Could you attach the stones with a kind of shishi stitch?

    1. Tried that, with a few specimen stones. They are too thick for that to work.

  2. I'm a völva. A volcano dress is bright colors. Most often blue as you describe. Think woad add the most readily available dye followed by indigo. Greens were used. One burial the volvas dress was blue with red. And had red sleeves. Caps were cat skin. Shoes were usually made from scraps of fabric but völvas used to travel to different communities but she was a highly valued member to societies. Harald Bluetooth kept a Völva in his household. The pouch is caused by the apron. It was baggy and when work with a belt the overhang in the front created a pouch where she could store things. She would wear another pouch made of animal skin on the belt. The beads were hung from brooch to brooch. Her wand was made of brass. One end was bulbous. There is some variation between things and over each century. Völvas had or were provided a high stool or chair. The burial i mentioned before the völva had ornate boxes that were most likely gifts for services. There contained white lead, henbane and other healing herbs. She was a healer not just a seer. We still are. She was respected and feared. Völvas traveled with warriors. She was kind of like a cheer leader. She would chant and work up the soldiers courage usually fully nude when she did this. She had younger girls with her. It's not known if only she used hehehe or if it or other herbs were given to men before battle. Capes were wool or animal skin. Cat fur was used because of its connection to Freya. Freya is the goddess who taught Odin seider. Men seids wore the same clothing as female völvas! It was a great insult for men to be called a völva.

    1. I recognize some of the sources you are referring to but not most. I am especially interested in the burial you mention where the volva's dress was "blue with red." Do you have a name or URL for that?

  3. Is take a guess the small stones resembled small stone loon weights. The Norns are weavers and known to foretell the fates of men. Women would weave pieces while men were gone as a door of spell to ensure a safe and prosperous return of her mate. Völvas are the fortune tellers so I'm guessing the stone decorations may have shown her connection to the Norns and ability to communicate with them and tell people their fortune.

    1. Interesting thought, Noreene. It's possible, but hard to prove without more evidence of what volvas actually wore.