Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Viking Pouches?

Periodically, the question arises as to whether Viking Age Scandinavian women carried items from pouches suspended from a belt at the waist. This question naturally arises in the context of whether Viking women wore belts. My friend pearl wrote an article, summarizing some of the sparse evidence suggesting that at least some Viking women were buried with belts. From my recollection of that evidence, I thought the wearing of pouches by Viking women was rare.

So I was surprised to find, in an article about later-period Norse pouches by Mary B. Kelly that appears in the current (Sept./Oct. 2013) issue of Piecework magazine, the following claim about Viking era pouches:
In Norway, it's believed that waist purses evolved from the soft leather bags worn on the belts of both men and women in the Viking period (A.D. 700-900). Similarly, the Sami also used small leather purses embroidered with silver or pewter thread. Excavations of early burials throughout Scandinavia have discovered small metal, ceramic, or horn objects just below or next to the waist of women's remains. These may have hung from a belt or may have been contained in a textile or leather bag that had decomposed along with the rest of the clothing. (emphasis supplied) (page 24).
The waist purses Kelly writes about are associated with purses, of types now worn with folk costume, that date from the 18th century.   What surprised me was not her claim that such purses "evolved" from older uses (because many scholars draw similar inferences from folk costume), but her insinuation that evidence shows that the use of waist pouches, particularly leather waist pouches, was common among Viking era women.  So I re-read pearl's article and did a more little digging.  What I found suggests that although there is some evidence for the use of pouches, such pouches were used only to carry items used for magical practices.

Pearl's article discusses some of the evidence for Viking women's pouches. The "queen" found on the Oseberg ship was found with a leather pouch containing cannabis seeds, and the royal woman buried at Fyrkat, Denmark was found with a similar clump of henbane seeds. Women who used such substances arguably practiced magic and/or shamanism; pearl also notes a reference in Eiríks saga rauða (Saga of Erik the Red) to a seer or prophetess who wears a large belt pouch.

Kelly's reference to "metal, ceramic, or horn objects" appears, from her bibliography, to come from an article by Signe Fugelsang that appeared in Fornvannen.* The Fugelsang article notes that such objects "often occur together in large numbers" (page 19).  More interestingly, it says that "amulet bags" appear in some women's graves. The "amulet bag" finds Fugelsang describes, which include the Fyrkat grave, do not contain practical items but only objects likely to have been associated with magic, or perhaps religion:
Possible amulets of natural origin are rarely recorded from Viking graves, but one at Ramme, Jutland, contained an echinite [fossil] and two small stones together with an amber ring and eight beads of glass and amber (Bröndsted, 1936, p. 111), while a more definitely amuletic purpose may be ascribed to the assemblage of owl pellets, henbane seeds and fragmentary pig's jaw found in a woman's grave at Fyrkat, Jutland (Roesdahl, 1977, pp. 143, 150 and 1982, p. 162). An amulet bag occurs in Birka grave 97 (Arbman, 1940, p. 64), and further amulet bags with inter alia human hair and "snake stones" have occasionally come to light in Finnish graves of the Viking period (Kivikoski, 1965, p. 31). (page 22)
In short, unlike early Anglo-Saxon women, whose graves have turned up a number of collections of odd objects that mostly consisted of sewing implements that may well have come from a work pouch used on a daily basis, the pouch evidence associated with Viking women is characteristic of magical practices. Since the Vikings considered magic to be the natural province of women, it might not be inappropriate for a latter-day woman reenacting Viking life to wear one, though it might be inappropriate for her to keep her sewing in it.**

* Fuglesang, Signe Horn. Viking and medieval amulets in Scandinavia. Fornvannen 84, 15-27 (1989).
** Or perhaps it would not be so inappropriate to keep textile tools in a pouch that included magical paraphernalia. Christie Ward has noted that some Viking practitioners of magic used the processes of spinning and weaving to cast spells. See C. Ward, Women and Magic in the Sagas: Seiðr and Spá, published on The Viking Answer Lady website at (last accessed Sept. 4, 2013).

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