Saturday, May 30, 2015

Two Epiphanies About The Völva's Outfit

Between work, taxes, and illness, I've spent more time thinking about historic costume than making, researching, or blogging about it so far this year.   Unfortunately, with summer (and summer events) starting here, I don't expect that to change dramatically.  However, in the last few days I experienced two epiphanies--two sudden revelations--that relate to my proposed völva outfit, and I'd like to share them here, because I think they may be interesting, and because my readers may have additional insights that would improve upon them.

Posement from Birka grave 832*
The first epiphany relates to this part of the saga description of the völva's cloak:  "...she had a blue mantle fastened with straps, and stones were set all in the flap above...."   The "flap above" is still a mystery to me, but I recently found a photograph of a Viking age artifact that shows how the "stones" on the völva's cloak might have been "set." That photograph, which appears to the left, is a textile fragment bearing a piece of a posement, i.e., an  ornament worked from precious metal wire.  The fragment came from grave no. 832 at Birka ("Bj. 832), and it now resides in the Historiska Museet in Stockholm. (Many thanks to Alicja Jaczewska, because I found the photograph on her Pinterest board.)

What makes this artifact relevant to the völva's cloak is the fact that the posement includes a stone, probably made of glass, in a mount made from wire like the rest of the posement.  (The stone is the bluish lump on the right edge of the fragment.) 

The effect of this "mount" looks very much like modern shisha embroidery, which uses thread to mount bits of mirrors or metal onto clothing.  The difference is that thread alone won't suffice to mount a glass stone onto fabric--but a mount woven of wire would be sturdy enough, and like the rest of the posement, it could simply be sewn onto the fabric.  For all we know, the fragment from Bj. 832 could have ornamented a cloak, with the knotwork section decorating the edge, and the stones sewn onto the fabric beside it. 

The second epiphany relates to the völva's "touchwood belt."   I'm not sure what inspired this idea, but it makes better sense of my theory of how the touchwood belt was worn and used than any suggestion I have discussed so far.  My concern about the belt was how a substance as soft and shreddable as touchwood could be made into a belt that was strong enough to support the völva's large pouch but still remain potentially usable as tinder.

I was mentally reviewing the Bj. 832 fragment when this idea for the belt came to me.  What if the belt were made from pieces of touchwood, rolled into longer strands and braided?  The use of multiple strands would make the belt more attractive and better suited to cinching clothing, but each strand could still be soft enough that bits could be teased out for use as tinder if required.

The change in theory suggests a new idea for replicating the belt--raffia!  Raffia is cheap, comes in brown (giving it the look of touchwood) and could be twisted into strands for braiding.

For the first time in months, I am getting excited about the völva outfit again, even though the idea of fashioning enough wire mounts to trim the edges of a long cloak feels as impossible to me as flying to the moon by flapping my arms.  Although I may not have the skill to pull that idea off, the Bj. 832 fragment provides tangible support for the idea that important people may have worn cloaks decorated in that manner.  I will have to keep my eyes open for other finds that may provide further support.

*  The photograph appears in the searchable online database of the Historiska Museet, a/k/a the Swedish Historical Museum in Stockholm, Sweden.


  1. That artifact is St 26 from Geijer's catalogue. It's made of drawn silver wire in the schlingenstich technique, and the glittery thing is a slab of mica. The pieces stitched onto silk tabby.

    There is at least one other example from Birka of a mica and wire ornament like that -- St 30 from Grave 524. Those "Turk's head" knots wrought in silver wire are also found on a few pieces of silk that are thought to be the ends of silk belts from men's graves. All those finds seem to denote some kind of an Eastern tradition, possibly Rus.

    1. Thanks for the extra information. I need to learn how to do that "sclingenstich" technique!

    2. Unlike a lot of the Birka techniques, it looks like something that can be replicated fairly simply with inexpensive materials. It's basically just twisting wires around one another in a specified pattern, kind of like simplified bobbin lace. It seems particularly well suited to making frames and bezels for found objects like coins or sparklies. :-)

    3. I'm sure I could do it cheaply enough--I'd go for white brass wire--but learning the technique is what intimidates me.

    4. A note of caution, white brass wire would be very hard to work and require a lot of annealing, as would many other alloys. Even buying the right hardness (i.e a soft wire won't help much as the constant threading required by posaments makes it harden fast, and anything plated is no use if you need to anneal it. You will find it will go stiff (work hardening: which copper-alloys normally do) very easy, and perhaps brittle and snap too. The best thing to try, that is relatively cost effective is Sami bracelet wire, which is a pewter in effect: a tin and silver alloy. If I'm right in assuming you are in the US then you can get Sami wire here: for a few dollars a metre. In fine wirework like this, the material really is key, I suggest if you want to practice, try some leather cord, but when it comes to metal, its best to get the right stuff as anything else won't behave properly. Copper wire would also be a decent practice material as it is soft, but you might find price wise, that the sami wire is no real difference.

      As for the posaments, it is something that I have a little hobby horse about, they are so rarely known, and often fragmentary, but there is a surprising amount of examples, indeed some context to me suggest the Birka assumptions of a Rus (Eveeerything always has to be rus) might be to narrow. There is an examples of a wireworkstrand ending in a wirework knot in gold from a grave at Carlisel Cathedral, dating to the 10th century, almost certainly christian and perhaps eclesiastical but there none the less. On the Isle of Man at Peel, as well as the famous tenth century 'pagan lady' grave (also tenously interpreted as a volva by some scholars) there are other simpler burials, one of which has several of these wirework 'balls' or 'knots' arranged in a fashion which led the excavator to suggest they may be from a cloak. In addition, there are also examples of thee balls and knows, and posament fragments from Viking-age Dublin... how many more rarely know pieces who knows? I have pictures of these I can send you if you are interested.

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    6. eblueaxe: Thanks for your advice about the proper wire to use; I have little experience with wire work, so your advice is timely and helpful to me. Yes, I would appreciate having photos of the Dublin fragments and the Isle of Man find (and the Carlisle Cathedral piece too, if you have it?). My email is cathy at thyrsus dot com.

    7. eblueaxe: As you deduced, I do live in the U.S. I looked up the Saami Supplies site, but their 96% tin and 4% silver thread sells for $2.50 USD per foot, which is about $7.50 per meter (and that doesn't count shipping). That's a bit pricey for me because I'm job hunting, but I'll keep it in mind for the future.

  2. The good thing about cheap wire is, it's cheap. You can blow through a whole spool of it learning the technique and still be able to afford to eat!

    It helps to have access to the schematics in Birka III.

  3. This is just fascinating! I wondered how the stones might be "set" onto fabric.

  4. It's interesting that the blue stone is mica, because shisha embroidery has been done with thin pieces of mica (not a thick piece as this one seems to be).

    However, the saga description of the volva calls for "stones", so I'll be using glass stones, once I get around to this project.