Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The "Touchwood" Belt

Amadou cap (Wikimedia Commons)
One of the more confusing elements about the costume of the völva in the Saga of Eric the Red is the reference to the "touchwood" belt she is wearing.  When I first read the description of the völva's costume, I thought "what kind of wood do you use to make a 'touchwood' belt and how would it be made?"  At the time, that question was simply an idle thought.  Now that I plan to try to recreate the völva's costume, I have to come up with an answer that is both technically reasonable and at least historically plausible.

The Viking Answer Lady's research provides a key to this puzzle.  She reports that "touchwood" is the English word used in translations  from Old Norse for a fungus that grows on birch trees.  This fungus, when dried, is excellent tinder for use in starting fires.  In discussing Viking age fire-starting techniques, the Viking Answer Lady observed:
Touchwood has a wide variety of names, but is technically a fungus of the Polyporus or Boletus family, especially Fomes fomentarius, Polyporus fomentarius or Boletus chirurgorum. ...

Touchwood was collected in Europe in August and September, chiefly from oak and beech, the best being from oak. The substance was then prepared for use by removing the exterior rind and cutting the inner part into thin slices, which were washed first in weak alkali, then in water and then beaten with a hammer and worked until they become a soft, pliable felt-like material that could be easily torn by the fingers.   (emphasis mine)
Fomes fomentarius (Wikimedia Commons)
These properties of Fomes fomentarius are well known and continue to be used by people venturing into wild country; its use by wilderness travelers is described on this website. It is often referred to as "tinder fungus", and the felt-like substance that can be processed from it is known as amadou. Although amadou is not the most physically durable substance, it is sufficiently durable that objects such as caps (see the photograph above) can be made from it.  Such caps are made in Romania and sold over the Internet; anyone who is interested can purchase one here.

The idea that the völva wore a practical resource on her person is this manner is not really a strange idea in a Viking context.  It's well known that the Vikings would, at need, cut pieces from their silver bracelets to make purchases; similarly, the völva probably cut small pieces off her belt from time to time, possibly without even removing the belt, to start fires, which she may have had to do for ritual reasons as well as practical ones (i.e., for warmth or cooking purposes as she traveled between homesteads).

I do not plan to purchase actual amadou, which might not be sold in the shape that I need and would probably cost just a bit more than I'm willing to pay for a costume item right now.  However, knowing the general appearance and physical properties of amadou makes it easy to create a plausible touchwood belt for my costume.  All I need is a narrow strip of brown felt, long enough to go around my waist with a bit left over.   This site sells two-yard pieces of 1/2 inch (1 cm) 100% wool felt ribbon for $1.75 USD; that quantity is more than enough for my purposes and within my limited price range.

There is no reason to suppose that such a touchwood "belt" would be decorated, let alone decorated as elaborately as the amadou cap shown above, and I plan to wear a simple, unadorned strip of the felt ribbon as a belt.

Assuming that the völva's amadou belt is unadorned is not the most important question that needs to be resolved.  A more serious question is this:  How would the belt fasten around the waist?  Actual amadou would probably not be robust enough to be repeatedly knotted and unknotted for that purpose.

I originally thought that I could simply to cut a slit at one end of a strip of felt and narrow about 6 inches of the other end and carefully feed the narrow end through the slit to keep the strip around my waist; such a minimal form of handling seems consistent with a semi-durable material one would need to wear on one's person.

Then I remembered that the saga also states that the völva wears a large pouch of magical paraphernalia on her belt.  Would an amadou belt fastened only with a tongue-and-slit closing support a large pouch, even if the contents of such a pouch were very light? For that matter, would a belt made of felt with such a clothing support the weight of a pouch? This is a troubling question, since there's no indication that the touchwood belt fastened with a buckle or clasp of any kind. So how did it fasten around the waist?

Fortunately, the Romanian site that sells amadou caps provided me with some additional clues.  The same site also sells amadou handbags, which have straps made from amadou; a picture of such a bag may be found here.

The site reports that their bags "have a soft outer texture, the amadou stiffened in the front and back, but softer on the sides to allow them to expand. They are lined with a pale lavender linen print, so the amadou is not directly exposed on the interior.  The 'clasp' is held naturally by tucking the tail of the flap into a slot on the front. It's actually pretty secure. The straps are also made of tinder fungus, and securely attached to the bag. They should not be submerged, but can stand a little water.  Approximate dimensions: 7.5" w x 4" h x 5.5" h You can fit a one quart sized mason jar inside and still close the flap, barely."

This description indicates that amadou can be made stiff enough to withstand some moisture and to be used as straps.  The reference to stuffing the mason jar in the bag shows that amadou can be made tough enough to take some mechanical stress.  Those facts together suggest that an amadou belt should be strong enough withstand the weight of a belt pouch, even if knotting such a belt or installing metal fittings on it wouldn't be a good idea.  (The amadou handbag probably would have had a metal closure if installing one wouldn't affect its durability.)  Besides, metal fittings would make no sense for a period use of amadou.  Metal fittings would have made it more difficult for the völva to cut pieces from the belt for use as tinder when necessary.

A Google search for amadou belts did not turn up any examples, but did direct me to a page with a picture of the belt worn by Ötzi the Iceman, and that picture suggested an idea for how to solve the fastening problem.  Ötzi's belt was a strip of calfskin with thongs fastened to the ends that tied together.

Fastening a thong to each end of the amadou belt might not be necessary, though.  It would be simpler, and better allow for the cutting of tinder from such a belt if both ends of the strip were turned over and sewed onto the belt, with an oversized flap, worn next to the body, that could be trimmed off as needed.  A thong or string could be threaded through both loops, and then tied to itself, closing the belt securely without putting excessive stress on either end of the belt. 

I will find out soon whether my proposed belt concept works in practice.  After I complete it, I'll write about the process of creating it, and will provide pictures of the belt and pouch in use.

In the meantime, Happy Holidays to all who read this post!  I was going to try to do a follow-up on my Santa Claus post of two years ago but ran out of time and brain power. Perhaps I can return to this subject before the New Year; I received an interesting book as a Christmas present that should be relevant to this topic.

EDIT:  (1/1/2014)  It occurs to me that there is a much simpler way to make the belt that would better allow for its consumption (if it were made from amadou) as tinder.  That would be to sew down one end onto itself, making a loop, and to punch a small hole in the other end at an appropriate place.  Then you need only run a thong through the loop.  Thread at least one end of the thong through the hole in the other end and tie the ends of the thong together and your belt is fastened.  I will try that method first and see how it looks before ruling out the double-loop version described above.


  1. Hello,
    it might be interesting to consider the possible other uses for touchwood before you decide onthe shape/form of the belt - as far as I know, touchwood has also been used in Scandinavia for medicine, as a basis for incense and as a kind of "needlepillow" o keep small and/or sharp pieces motionless whilst working on them, as well as for tinder. It might be easier to just hang the pieces of fungus on the belt.

    Greetings, Kauna

    1. I learned about this doing research for herbal remedies for a healer character. My notes (brief enough to just copy and paste the whole thing):

      Amadou (Horse's Hoof fungus, Fomes fomentarius)

      Used as an anti-inflammatory, for dysmenorrhea, hemorrhoids, and bladder disorders, and as a styptic. Has been shown to contain iodine, fomentariol and other substances that really are active against bacteria and against tumors.
      Also, the pith is excellent tinder, and the and inner layer can be pressed into a tough, durable, felt-like material, which is popular for making hats in Transylvania.

      Diuretic, laxative and nerve tonic in Indic folk medicine.

      Used in smoking rituals in western Siberia and Hokkaido, burning the fruiting bodies overnight to banish evil spirits

      Making clothing such as caps and chest protectors (after pounding)

    2. Hi, Kauna! Thanks for stopping by; Happy Holidays!

      It's an interesting question whether it was called a "touchwood" belt because it was made from touchwood or because touchwood hung from it, and I'm not sure a definitive answer will ever be forthcoming. I'll think about what you said.

  2. I actually mention that specific fungus as tinder in a fantasy novel I'm working on. :-)

    I knew about making caps from it, but not other clothing uses, or the "touchwood" name. Thanky.

    Good luck with the belt.

  3. The saga, when it mentions the belt says "...hon hafði um sik hnióskulinda...", and is touchwood, but Cleasby and Vigfusson ( also associate it with soft things, which makes sense since it is soft and velvety when young. It might just be that the author was trying to describe a tawny, velvet-like texture to his readers?

    On the other hand, he can be accurate enough to specify her gloves made of catskin, so it's more likely that it did involve pieces of amadou somehow.

    1. Well, judging by the photograph of the amadou hat I found, touchwood can be velvety--it all depends on how it was processed. I gather it can be formed into sheets, and if it can be formed into sheets it can also be formed into strips like a belt.

  4. Something went a little strange there hnjóskr does mean touchwood. The other part of the compound, lindi means girdle or belt.