Blue Ribbon

This document specifically addresses the needs of Viking personae in the Society for Creative Anachronism. However, members of other re-enactment groups can also make use of the information. This work was redrafted in September 2000. The first draft was written for the An Tir Heraldic Symposium of 8 April 2000, incorporating information from three original sources: an private e-mail I wrote in response to a query in February 1994, a response I posted on the Usenet group ("The Rialto") in April 1994, and my response to a query from the St. Gabriel folks in November 1997. Internal URLs were updated on 12 February 2003.

This document is provided as is without any express or implied warranties. While every effort has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information contained, the author assumes no responsibility for errors or omissions, or for damages resulting from the use of the information contained herein.

Permission is granted to make and distribute verbatim copies of this document for non-commercial private research purposes provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are preserved on all copies.

Personal Display for Viking Age Personae: A Primer for Use in the SCA

© 1994, 1997, 2000 Carolyn Priest-Dorman

Melding the desire for SCA-style heraldry with the aesthetics of a pre-heraldic persona can be a real challenge. Heraldry is at the core of many of our most meaningful activities, and it's no fun to be left out of the game! So what can a culturally secure Viking do to get in on the game?

The short answer is, "not much." Let's face it: there simply is not a great deal of heraldic-style activity evident in Viking history. Heraldic historians say that this is because the concept and usages of Western heraldry, properly defined, are creations of the eleventh and succeeding centuries. So someone who wants to participate in heraldic activities while retaining a Viking Age persona will simply have to adjust his or her expectations to the historic realities of the Viking Age. However, some aspects of Viking Age culture can be adapted to SCA-style heraldry: the use of color schemes, the use of appropriate art styles for specific personas, and certain aspects of display styles. This article serves as an introduction to those usages.

This article will not address the feasibility of registering any particular style of arms through the College of Arms. I cannot comment on that issue, since I am not now, nor have I ever been, a warranted herald!

The Concept of the Personal Signifier

Insofar as we understand it, the personal identifying symbol was not employed during the Viking expansion. Indeed, except perhaps for the use of runes, one can scarcely find a hint of it. Rather, the culture relied on oral cues rather than visual ones, and on a horizontal hierarchy of personal alliances rather than on a vertical hierarchy of overlordship or a system of totems. Who you were depended most on your own deeds and actions, your "wordfame," or personal myth. Personal status was further enhanced by richness of display through chattels such as jewelry, textiles, furs, and imported goods, as well as through elaborate carving on everyday objects. This Viking Age fondness for surrounding oneself with rich display is the hook upon which we can hang our SCA heraldic observances, while never quite toppling over into those Frenchified excesses to which our heirs will eventually become susceptible.

Some of the post-Viking period Icelandic sagas mention Viking Age personalities carrying shields with attributed "arms"--really just sketchy descriptions of a figured shield (Heimskringla, Laxdaela Saga, Njal's Saga, and the Olaf Sagas; see Radford, pp. 24f). Additionally, from time to time mentions are made of variously colored shields. However, available archaeological information seems to belie some of the saga evidence. For example, shields in the sagas are sometimes said to incorporate points (Gisli's Saga, Laxdaela Saga; see Radford, p. 23), whereas all the archaeological examples of Viking Age shields are round. Further, many of the individuals chronicled in the sagas actually lived well after the Viking Age, such as King Magnus Barelegs, to whom is attributed a figured shield. Accordingly, if you don't discount the sagas as suspect history, you might want to consult them in order to locate these literary references. But always be careful to contextualize.

According to saga literature, there was at least one exception to this rule: Sigurdr Hlodvisson the Stout, Jarl of the Orkneys. His story is in sections 11-12 of the Orkneyinga Saga as well as in Njal's Saga (section 157). He possessed a personal standard that he had borne before him in battles, a magical banner embroidered by his mother, a sorceress:

"[I]t will bring victory to the man it's carried before, but death to the one who carries it."
It was a finely made banner, very cleverly embroidered with the figure of a raven, and when the banner fluttered in the breeze, the raven seemed to be flying ahead. (Orkneyinga Saga, 11, page 37)
Sigurdr lived in the late tenth and early eleventh centuries; he met his death at the Battle of Clontarf (1014), after he was forced to carry his own banner because no one else was willing to die for him. There is, of course, no way of knowing how true this story is, but it makes a rattling good song!

Colors and Color Usage

Here we are on firmer ground. There does seem to be some indication that color preferences were sometimes used as personal identifiers. The Gokstad burial ship was fitted with 64 shields painted solid black and solid yellow, displayed alternately (Brøgger and Shetelig, pp. 88- 89); there is corroborating saga evidence to support the idea of displaying shields in this fashion while in port. Accordingly, some version of the concept of "household colors" may have existed.

Very little is known of the actual extent of Viking Age painting. Black, red, yellow, and brown comprise the majority of colors employed in extant Viking painted artifacts. Most known Viking painting was executed on carved woodwork; the Gokstad ship tiller and the Oseberg sledges are some standout examples of carved painted woodwork. Usually the objects were painted a light color (white, yellowish white or plain yellow) and highlights were picked out in black, brown, and/or red. (Yes, even Vikings knew that the heraldic color system works!) Rows of dots or billets, sometimes paired with parallel lines, are found on some extant pieces.

Most of the extant painted shields (for instance, those from Gokstad and Valsgärde) are of a single color--red, yellow, or black. The leather-covered one from the tenth-century warrior grave at Ballateare on the Isle of Man is more complex. It was apparently painted in two colors--red and black--over white gesso with a repeating motif of dots between narrow parallel stripes, somewhat like the painted board from Jelling. The gesso was allowed to show through in some areas, making it a three-color design (Bersu and Wilson, p. 60). Whether this was a functional or a ceremonial shield is unknown. There are references to other studies from the first half of this century on Viking Age weaponry, but it's in Swedish (Gotland) and Norwegian. Bersu and Wilson even say "comparative material of this sort is scanty and meaningless." (p. 61)

However, there are a find or two indicating that painting on a flat, permanent surface might also have been more common than we think. On that subject, Brøgger, Falk, and Schetelig say:

Only one object in the Oseberg Collection has decorative painting independent of wood-carving. This is the 'chair'.... whole sides, all of which are painted with ornaments in several colours on a light ground. Along the edges there are geometrical borders, and the entire compartment is filled with close and complicated ornament.... The motifs and design differed considerably from those of the ornament of the wood-carving, and there is thus reason to believe that on the whole the painting belonged to a different artistic circle, in the same way that textile art had its own style and form. (p. 404)

Accordingly, any piece of Viking camp or tourney furniture (chests, chairs, benches, stools, high seat pillars, tent frames) would look really appropriate if painted in this fashion, especially if it was carved beforehand. This works most effectively if a set of "household colors" are chosen and used consistently, in conjunction with an appropriate art style for the time and place of the owner(s).

Another interesting phenomenon of color usage is a form of "regional heraldry." There is some archaeological evidence for cloth remains in various parts of the Viking world that hint at regional color "preferences," if you will, for various colors. Viking Age dig locations yield different ratios of archaeological remnants of particular colored garments. For instance, in Viking Age Dublin, judging from the remains, the color purple was fairly commonly worn. In Jorvík (and perhaps, by extension, the Danelaw) the predominant color seems to have been red. In Scandinavia proper (Norway, Sweden, Denmark), they seem to have worn more greens and blues (Walton, p. 18). If your persona is from a specific place, it is possible to customize your garments and the colors you wear to be very true to the archaeological remains from that part of the world.

Conclusions about the cultural significance of color choice can sometimes be drawn from literature. For example, from context it seems that red was for fancy wear, blue for death (Radford, p. 6). Many of the burial finds from Birka were dressed in extremely dark blue wool, which may support the conclusion of a relationship between the color blue and death. This area of inquiry is ripe for further exploration, beyond the obvious economic and regional issues involved.

Artistic Style

There are several periods or styles of Viking art: Broa, Oseberg, Borre, Jelling, Mammen, Ringerike, and Urnes, and they overlap some. Familiarize yourself with them, so you know whether it's appropriate for a particular persona to steal motifs from Borre or Jelling style! For an in-depth treatment of the subject, see Klindt-Jensen and Wilson's Viking Art, or an excellent quickie version in James Graham-Campbell's coffee-table book The Viking.

The art styles of the Viking Age, especially of the earlier Viking Age, lacked most of the static tendencies of medieval heraldry; instead, they were aggressively fluid and active. The use of single static zoomorphic figures in a style we might call "heraldic" is an innovation of the art style in the Mammen period, beginning in the last third of the tenth century (Fuglesang, p. 178). Before that, fluid groups of zoomorphic motifs, often combined with abstract interlace, were the rule. The earlier your persona, the less strongly you should consider using a single creature motif or a traditional heraldic layout of static, discrete objects.

Display Styles

Two main forms of heraldic display are compatible with Viking Age culture: the banner and the shield.

Many Viking ships seem to have had some sort of prow ornament that was sometimes shaped like a dragon's head; sometimes, however, it looked more a flag or standard. Some of these were made of metal and removable. Many of the Viking coffee-table books refer to them as "weather vanes." They are shaped like a modified quarter-circle. Extant ones seem to be pierced at the curved edge, perhaps for the addition of streamers.

 the Heggen weather vane

There are seven extant weather vanes from this period. All some combination of copper, bronze, and/or gilding. They were re-used as ornaments on church spires, which is why they survive. Two are included in From Viking to Crusader; other large format Viking coffee table books usually have one. The one above is the Heggen vane, from Modum, Akershus, Norway. The one below is from Källunge, Gotland, Sweden. All the extant ones are in Ringerike style, which means they date from late tenth through as late as the twelfth century. Sources differ on whether they were flown atop the mast or the prow, with most saying prow. That conclusion matches more of the historical iconographic evidence, but the issue is by no means definitively decided.

 the Källunge weather vane

The historical iconographic evidence for this type of display is slim, but it does exist. A silver penny minted at York under Anlaf Sihtricsson, circa 942, depicts a standard in the same basic shape as the weather vane, including streamers. The standard has a cross on it and a cross-shaped finial atop the pole. In the eleventh century Bayeux Tapestry, a similarly shaped standard, also with streamers, is depicted downed at "fratres Haroldi regis". Later, a carved stick from thirteenth century Bryggen [Bergen], Norway, depicts a fleet of some forty-five ships (Magnusson, pp. 59-60). Three of the ships sport "weather vanes" with streamers at the prows; two others have carved heads, and one flies a gonfanon.

The weather vane-shaped standard makes a good banner. Since it's secured on two sides, it doesn't flap all over the place or flop over. You can rig such a banner to hang from the frame of a tent, the crosspiece of a gateway, or the top of a spear (during those non-martial periods, that is). If you pick a device that looks good on that shape, so much the better.

With respect to shield display, the first rule is that it should of course look good on a centergrip round shield. But the question you should ask yourself is, how much effort do you think would a Viking would have invested in painting something spiffy on a war shield? After all, why make art on something that is designed to be torn up and discarded in fairly short order? Practically speaking, fighting shields were more likely to have had ornamental ironwork, that could travel from shield to shield, than to have painted ornament. (Ceremonial shields, of course, might have been fancier, just as later-period parade helms are fancier than battle helms from the same period.) Nevertheless, there is that SCA urge toward heraldic display, so let's assume you feel you have to paint your shield.

Among the heraldic elements that convey a Vikingesque look are some of the field divisions. Gyronny divisions, both those with straight lines and those with curving ones ("gyronny arrondi") look especially good on a round shield. So does the ordinary known as a pall, which looks sort of like an uneven-sectioned gyronny, or some of the plainer quadrate (cross) effects.

If you want an animal charge, the single most common period emblem for Vikings seems to have been the raven. Other beasts known to them would also make especially good choices include the northern brown bear (not the polar bear; they were only found in Greenland, which was discovered at the end of the tenth century), the wolf, Þórr's storm-goats, Freyja's cats, or perhaps horses.

Wyverns, serpents, and other ribbony worm-like critters are also good; the College of Arms has registered some good examples of Norse critters over the years (if you're interested in registered arms, that is). They're a chief element in the Jelling style; there are also many instances of them in the Mammen period and afterward. The Bamberg and Cammin caskets, at least one of which is pictured in most coffee-table Viking books, have depictions of snakes. The sinuous regularity of the Urnes style often employed snakes as motifs (see the central panel of the Urnes stave-church doorway, second half of the eleventh century, for a probable example). Urnes is the latest of the Viking Age styles.

For more ideas, you should consult motifs from any available Viking period iconographic source: runestones, metalwork, wood carving, and so on. Wherever possible, get a look at photos of actual artifacts rather than line drawings. One thing to remember, though, is to adhere to the Rule of Scale: don't take a tiny motif (like a little border element) and blow it up to huge, and don't take a huge motif (like an Oseberg carved post) and do it tiny. Instead, try to find design elements that fit the scale of the item on which you want to put them. An annotated bibliography of easily accessible coffee-table books on Vikings can be found elsewhere at this site; any of those books would be likely to yield the sort of pictures you should be consulting.

An Example

Here is how I imbue my own mid-tenth century Danelaw persona with the practice of SCA- style heraldry. To begin with, I stress red in my persona's dress and accessories, in accordance with the "regional heraldry" concept. I display my device (Gules, three square weaver's tablets in bend Or) as a flag on a quarter-round flag shape with the curve to dexter base. This maximizes the visual effect of an implied heraldic bend, for the sake of the heraldically minded observer, while remaining true to my Viking Age aesthetics.

My husband and I are very fond of bears. Believe it or not, we discovered that the only Viking Age depictions of bears are from the tenth-century Danelaw, where our personae are steaders; how fortunate for us! So we have adapted those bears, which appear as part of the "roofs" of some carved stone coffin lids, to display on our tent and seating. The tents and furniture of my household are all painted with the same shade of "household yellow" paint. Details are added in brown and red as required. You can see a photo of this effect at Mar-Joshua ibn-Eleazar's Pavilion taxonomy website.


Bersu, Gerhard, and Wilson, David M. 1966. Three Viking Graves in the Isle of Man. Medieval Archaeology Monograph 1. London: Society for Medieval Archaeology.

Discussion of a polychrome painted shield.

Brøgger, A.W.; Falk, Hjalmar; and Schetelig, Haakon, eds. 1920. Osebergfundet: Utgit av den Norske Stat, Vol. 3. Kristiania: Universitetets Oldsaksamling.

Write-up on a rare piece of painted Viking Age furniture. Some editions have a German summary, some have an English one.

Brøgger, A.W., and Shetelig, Haakon. 1971 [1951]. The Viking Ships: Their Ancestry and Evolution, trans. Katherine John. New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1971.

Some useful information not often seen in English about the ships and their furnishings.

Fuglesang, Signe Horn. 1992. "Art," From Viking to Crusader: The Scandinavians and Europe 800-1200, ed. Else Roesdahl and David M. Wilson, pp. 176-182. New York: Rizzoli.

Touches on some art-historical issues of the Viking Age that are not often treated in brief form.

Graham-Campbell, James. 1980a. The Viking. New Haven: Ticknor & Fields.

A plate of the gilt bronze "weather vane" from Heggen, Norway. Also an enlarged plate of Anlaf Sihtricsson's silver penny.

Graham-Campbell, James. 1980b. The Viking World. New Haven: Ticknor & Fields.

A plate of the bronze "weather vane" from Söderala, Sweden. Also a black and white enlarged photo of Anlaf Sihtricsson's silver penny.

Haywood, John. 1995. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings. London: Penguin Books.

A photo of the carved stick from Bryggen depicting a fleet of ships, some sporting the quarter-round flag.

Jones, Gwyn. 1984. A History of the Vikings, Rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Line drawings of the Bryggen carving and part of the Heggen weather vane.

Magnusson, Magnus. 1980. Vikings! New York: E.P. Dutton.

Some information about the Bryggen ship carving.

Njal's Saga. 1960. Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson, trans. and introd.. London: Penguin Books Ltd.

Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney. 1978. Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards, trans. and introd . London: Penguin Books Ltd..

Radford [Roark Wulfkynde the Peacock]. 1988. "Documentation from the Sagas," pp. 1-50 of Radford and Åke Eldberg [William de Corbie], "Early Scandinavian Culture." The Compleat Anachronist, no. 36 (March 1988).

Roesdahl, Else, and Wilson, David M., eds. 1992. From Viking to Crusader: The Scandinavians and Europe 800-1200, New York: Rizzoli.

Smith, A.G. 1999. Viking Designs. Dover Pictorial Archive Series. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc.

Contains line drawings of the fronts and backs of two weather vanes, those from Heggen and Källunge. The drawings of the fronts of the two vanes are used as illustrations above.

Walton, Penelope. 1988. "Dyes of the Viking Age: A Summary of Recent Work," Dyes in History and Archaeology 7 (1988), pp. 14-19.

Technical information, written for a technical audience, concerning identification of natural dyes found on Viking Age textiles and in locations where textile production is thought to have occurred.

Wilson, David M., and Klindt-Jensen, Ole. Viking Art, Second Edition. 1980. The Nordic Series, Vol. 6. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. (First edition is fine, too.)

Plates of two "weather vanes," and a detailed line drawing of a third.

This page was created on 29 March 2000 and last updated on 12 February 2003.

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