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The Viking Mentalityby Niels Just Rasmussen from Threshold Magazine issue 6
The Viking mentality
by Niels Just Rasmussen (Justinov)
This article presents a brief guide on how to play a Northern Reaches character, which is more in tune with actual Viking mentality.
The Viking World View
In Viking age Scandinavia there was a very different view of the relationship between humans and gods than most people are used to today. In monotheistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, God is infinitely more powerful than you, so you have a very unequal standing like a Master-Servant or Father-Son relationship. Thus you worship your God and have faith that God will bring salvation to your soul and accept it into Paradise after your death.
Viking age Scandinavians saw their relationship with the Gods much more in terms of friendship and cooperation. After all, Men and Gods both strive to uphold the World Order against the forces of Chaos, which will ultimately win at Ragnarök.
The ethics of the Scandinavians are to act in such a way as to keep the Chaos forces at bay as long as possible. Both Gods and Men are thus allied together to uphold a code of conduct in relationships both profane and religious. For them it was “Forn Siðr“ = the old ways/customs.
Essential parts of the old ways are the beliefs in guest-friendship, gift-reciprocity, family-honour and blood-revenge and the duty to act according to gender and social class, which have different obligations.
The ultimate goal in life is to achieve “undying fame“, or at least to be recognized locally by achievements whether in cattle, sons, craft or personality.
So long people and Gods live by this code the chaotic natural forces are kept at bay, but when family ties are broken, guests are not well received, and gifts not given back then the world comes crashing down. This is definitely not a “Nature-religion“, but a “Culture-religion” where Gods and humans keep the natural forces of the Giants bound and under control.
It is important to note that this is not a struggle between Good and Evil, but between Culture and Nature. Everyone knows through the mythology that the Giants are the oldest creatures and that the Gods have overthrown them -- thus the Aesir are usurpers -- and built the ordered and cultural world out of the primordial Giant, Ymir. The Giants have been assigned to a lower social class of supernatural beings and every attempt has been made to tie them up and relegate them to the outskirts of the world. If Gods and men grow weak in their duty, these bonds that hold the ordered world together break and the Giants are loose to overthrow the World-Order bringing on Ragnarök.
The Giants are not “evil“, and many of the Gods are Giants through the female line and some of the Giants are even allies to the Gods, including Loki, Ægir, Mimir, who not unexpectedly are those giants who have become the most cultured. Many Giants try to intermarry with the Gods (Freya is the grand prize for male giants) to become part of the cultured God society - but are mostly tricked by Odin or Loki and/or killed by Thor.
Guest-friendship is sacred. All travellers (even enemies) can expect to be received with a meal and lodgings for a night, but then must be off the next morning. Since Odin very often travels the human world in disguise, it was quite dangerous not to receive guests well as he may “pay you back“.
Gift-reciprocity is very important in all aspects of society. If a gift is given, the receiver is honour-bound to pay it back. This is why Viking age religion is not “worship“, but really a gift-exchange! A sacrifice is really a “demand“ to a God to pay the gift back. The payment will vary in accordance to what “function“ the God has in the cosmology. A good year thanks to the friendship of the Gods requires repayment with a good sacrifice.
A sacrifice is also a communal meal where both Gods and Men eat together – the Gods come to the feast as guests and thus all eat as friends on an equal level. The Men receive the meat, while the smoke, skin and bones belong to the Gods and all are happy. That is why Thjálfi1 commits a great breach in conduct when he breaks the bone of Thor’s goat to extract the marrow (making the goat limp on it’s leg), and must become Thor’s thrall for this crime.
The reputation of a king or chief also very much hangs on his reputation for generosity. He is expected to give precious gifts to his followers and they repay him with loyalty in combat or with beautiful poetry. Reciprocity follows that if one fought well for the King or arrived to his court presenting a great poem of his accomplishments, the King must pay the gift back in a splendid fashion.
So if a follower is unhappy with his gifts (either the lack thereof or for being too “cheap“), he has the right to end his loyalty to that chief and join one that is more generous.
It is important to stress that this is not payment for the job - such an implication would be a huge insult, as only thralls receive wages for their work. Free men are self-subsistent and may only accept and give gifts in this system of reciprocity. Something given out of charity is a huge insult as it means that the recipient is not able to provide for himself. A person must always strive to pay a gift back to retain his personal honour.
Honour follows both the family and the individual, but it is the family honour that is most important. An individual should strive to never taint his family honour by questionable actions and should elevate it by conducting glorious actions.
Honour is not something people have in equal measure. Kings and chiefs have so much honour they must constantly guard against any slight, perceived or real, whereas thralls have no honour.
In Viking Scandinavia, all truths are subjective. If one is accused of something that taints his honour he must act to prove the accusations false, no matter if people close to him know the accusation to be false and absurd. Reputation is reality and any dent in one’s reputation is a dent in oneself. Appearance is all-important – to not act on a personal slight is to prove it true.
Honour also dictates revenge as an obligation. If one’s family member is killed, no matter the circumstances, he must kill one from the other family in return. The revenge is not individual. Any member from the opposing family is within the blood-revenge sphere, not only the individual that did the crime.
Those who do not strive to exact revenge will lose all honour and can no longer be regarded as men. A third party can act as mediator between blood-feuding families and work towards a blood-money settlement between these families. The family behind the first murder can also offer it to the offended family to diffuse the situation right from the beginning, but its regarded as somewhat unmanly if the offended family accepts without having tried to exact revenge even once.2
There will be a social pressure from other families to settle after some deaths to avoid a blood-feud from escalating out of proportion.
It is totally taboo to kill members of one’s own family as they are prevented from extracting revenge (and thus are unmanly).
This guest friendship and gift reciprocity created a situation where families were bound by land and tradition to certain supernatural groups.
Supernatural friendship for free farmers
Normal free farmers would have a relationship with vættir3, supernatural beings who were the original inhabitants on the land and still lived there in a society that was a mirror of Scandinavian society. So the farmers had to be on good terms with them since they really shared the land -- in a way the Scandinavians were the guests on the land. So they would help and protect a farmer, if he gave them sacrificial gifts (most often food items). There were Landvættir, Sjövættir and Vatnavættir, that is Vættir for land, sea and water.
The vættir had the ability to become invisible if they wanted and could change into any shape. They were also known as “huldufólk“ meaning the “concealed people“. They would rally to protect the land against supernatural attacks.
They could be scared off if they saw a ship with a Dragon prow, so one should never approach his own land with a Dragon figurehead, but take it down. But when landing on hostile territory, the Dragon figurehead would help the attackers to scare the local vættir off.
The Álfar4 (singular Álfr) were likely ancestors of the Scandinavians. One could become an Álfr when he died and was buried on a barrow mound on the land. Álfar were also honored with sacrifices to keep them happy and content as they expected that and so they will keep a helping eye and hand on the descendants.
The Vanir gods and the Álfar are probably synonyms for a collective group of supernatural beings that farmers had relationship with. Besides Njord, Frey and Freya the Vanir/Álfar were regarded as a collective group like the vættir and were connected with fertility and wealth.
Contrary to other communal cult-festivals a family had their “Álfablót“ (sacrifice to the elves) in secret in the end of autumn lead by the lady of the house acting as gydja (female cult leader). It was the only time where one actually could turn guests away from his farm. It was “family business“ for ancestors and descendants alone.
A buried member of the family that did not rest in the grave could become a Draugr (plural draugar) also called “aptrganga“ (after-walker). They are not spirits but physical bodies stirring and even moving out of the grave at night to either harass the family for some wrongdoing or help the family against enemies.
A Draugr is killed (again) if its head is cut off and placed beneath the buttocks, or by burning the body. They were bluish-black and with great strength and could have varying supernatural powers.
sidebar: Draugar in play
To better represent the Drugar in play, the key point to consider is that they are dead bodies, but with the “hugr” (mind) of the dead person still fully sentient and able to make the dead body walk around -- mostly during the night, while during the rest of the day the draugr merely sits in its barrow mound. If a person had special powers while alive, he would retain them as a Draugr. “Fully animated dead” might be the best description.
The Draugr thus retains all his skills, abilities and knowledge, but gains the common undead special abilities and resistances. Moreover, the Draugr have increased strength (+2 Strength bonus) and cannot feel pain. Hit points are doubled, but the Draugr can be killed by chopping off its head, which requires a natural 20 attack roll, using a sword or axe.
Note that in AD&D, the Ancient Dead described in Ravenloft Van Richten’s Guides books could be used to create Draugar with a variety of powers.
Draugr and Dragons: a really greedy person who is unwilling to make the journey to “the other world“ could force his “hugr“ to stay within the dead body, so he can guard his treasure in the barrow mound for all eternity. According to legend, this will actually turn into a Dragon. For the Norse people, Dragons are not a race, but something you can become. A Norse Dragon is called a “Ormr” and does not have wings.
The Dísir (plural = ladies/women) were a supernatural group of females collected into one group associated with fertility, death, fate and the underworld. It comprised of all the supernatural females, whether it was Norns, Valkyries or even the Vanir Goddess Freya. As the case with the Álfar dead ancestral women would be regarded as Dísir. An alternate name of Freya was in fact Vanadís (The Dís of the Vanir). She received 50% of the slain in the battlefield, with the other 50% going to Odin.
The Dísablót was held by all the Swedes at Uppsala at the end of February or early March. It included human sacrifices to bring peace (for Swedes) and victory for the King (over others).
Dísir are likely another name for Valkyries as a collective group. Women, that are “choosers of the slain“.
Supernatural friendship for the aristocracy
Aristocratic families (Jarlar = Earls) would more likely have a special relationship with one particular Scandinavian God, who would often also be the mythological founder of that family line.
So Scandinavian religion were not polytheistic in the respect that each God had a narrow function. Actually almost all the Norse gods are simultaneously war-gods, weather-gods or fertility-gods in varying degrees. This huge overlap of function is because each aristocratic family would be tied in friendship to one specific god and used sacrifice as gift-reciprocity to that god.
As all free men chose their King among the Aristocratic families on the Thing, then different areas would have different prime Gods. Most common free farmers would probably have to the collective groupings of supernatural beings, though some families would also have to specific gods.
Each area could have their own cult-feasts, where all the people were assembled and the local Jarl or the King acted as “goði“ = sacrificial leader. These cult feasts were based on old tradition for that particular area, with huge variance from place to place on the specifics. Only “Yule“ seems to have been truly pan-Scandinavian as a winter-solstice feast lasting 3 days.
Denmark seems to have been overwhelmingly Ti/Tir (called Tyr in Iceland) country until Odin took over some time in the late Iron Age or early Viking age. Meaning that members of Odin-families became King of the Danes and so elevated their god to the prime position as Allfather of the gods. The material we have in Iceland is very Odin-oriented as Icelandic poets earned a living visiting the aristocratic courts of Scandinavia where Odin was prominent.
Frey seems to be especially connected with the Swedes and there is a lot of evidence for the mysterious Ullr5 as well as well as Thor.
South Eastern Norway also have Frey, and the Norwegian settlers in Iceland were very fond of especially Thor, but based on place names you can find areas of Norway where neither Odin, Frey, Tyr or Thor seemed to have been important.
So each description of a Norse God is coloured by whether the stories about them are told by those in friendship with them (securing them center stage) or by others (where their role will be secondary and totally absent).
We have enormous amounts of place names of the God Ullr in both Sweden and Norway, but very little story-material about him. Tyr should also be much more prominent than he actually appear in the Icelandic manuscripts, but apparently lost out. Some actually believe that Ullr and Tyr is the same god under different names.
A person would normally never change from this God-friendship, as it is family-tied. Denying that family-held bond is to reject one’s ancestors and is a serious business. Regardless of whether one changes from Thor to Odin or Christ, the change causes a permanent breach with his family and ancestors.
Interestingly one of the common –vin (Anglosaxon –wine meaning “friend“) names in Scandinavia seem to be Alf-vin (Elf-friend, modern Alvin). Even after accepting Christianity the old thinking of God-friendship survived, as the name of Godwinë was quite popular in Anglo-Saxon England.
It is important to note that no professional priest class existed in Scandinavia. At the cult feasts prominent men or women acted as “Sacrificial leaders“ called “goði“ if a man or “gydja“ if a woman. If it was a household cult of was the lord of lady of that household.
Psychologically the Scandinavians lived in the “iron age“ or a symbolic “fall“ seasonally.
The Golden Age
The golden age or “spring “ was after creation when the Aesir were without worries before the arrival of 3 giant ladies, who changed everything.
Before that the Aesir had build shrines and temple (probably the only mythology where the gods seem to worship something bigger), and had been doing smithing and carpentry. Apparently these three giant ladies were the cause of the Aesir losing a lot of their creative powers and from now on they were forced to create the Dwarves, that from now on supply could them with magic items.
The Silver Age
Then came the silver age or “summer“, which is the age of human heroes. It is also the time when giants start to pressure the Aesir and where they have to keep their dominance over the giants by trickery of Loki or the help of Thor’s hand and hammer.
The Iron Age
Viking age times are a time of conflict and strife. It’s an Iron age or “fall” where things are starting to crack. The God Balder dies and Loki is chained. Odin is travelling tirelessly collecting heroes for Valhalla. Only by friendship between Aesir, Vanir and Men can the World Order hold. They all need each other to keep Culture alive and avoid Nature coming crashing in, as the giants are growing ever stronger and waiting to break free.
Ragnarök and Beyond
Rituals with sacrifices of gift-reciprocity are important to keep Nature bound. When guest-friendship, gift-reciprocity and family-honour fails the giants will attack, so only one thing is certain: “Winter is coming“ as the Völva has prophesied and as Odin and Frigg knows. The winter is the Fimbul-winter (Fimbulvetr, Icelandic for “Mighty Winter”), which signals the coming of Ragnarök (= doom of the powers). The Giants (nature) will win over gods and men (culture).
But not all is lost. Out of the ashes of the World burned by Surtr, some Gods and a pair of humans will survive and a new spring with a new green earth will rise. The younger generation of the Aesir will have a golden age of Culture, but Nature is ever present as the Dragon Nidhögg will be unleashed. It’s very much a cyclical model of the cosmos.
The Norse concepts of the "soul"
The idea of a “soul“ in the Christian sense was alien to the Norse people, which had a much more graded and fluid system, where all things naturally interchanged. The distance between supernatural and “natural“, gods and men, animal and human were also much more blurred.
Firstly there is the "Hamr": The outer form = the actual shape of a person.
This was able to change. Egill Skallagrímsson’s grandfather (Úlfr Bjálfason) was called Kveldulf (evening wolf), because he took wolf-form after dark.
He was a shapeshifter ("hamrammr") and also an "Úlfheðinn" (plural "Úlfhéðnar"), the wolf version of the bear fighters "Berserkir" (sing: "Berserkr").
One’s hamr could be changed by donning an animal skin or one could be able change to animal form on his own. It could either by an inherited ability or one learned. Freya used a falcon-hide and she loaned it to Loki so he can use it. Normally the type of animal one changed into depended on his or her personal fylgja (see below).
Dwarves could also shapechange. The Dragon Fafnir is a dwarf and brother of Reginn and Ottar. Ottar could take any form, but was in an otter form when killed by Loki, which started the whole problem of Loki having to steal the Ring Andvarinaut to pay blood money to Ottar’s father Hreiðmarr and starting the Völsunga Saga. The ring Loki stole from another dwarf this time in a fish form (Pike) called Andvari. The dwarf cursed anyone who possessed his ring.
Secondly there is the “Hugr” (thought). Odin had the ability to send out his "hugr" in animal form6, while his body laid back as dead or asleep. This is a form of magic close to Shamanism. Thought, mind, intellect was not bound to the body, but with enough knowledge and power it could leave the body.
The legendary berserkr Böðvar Bjarki could do it. When the Danish Lejre-King Hrolf Kraki was attacked, Böðvar Bjarki was seemingly asleep in the hall, but a huge bear appeared out of nowhere and fought to protect the King. When he was awakened, the bear disappeared and Böðvar Bjarki fought to the death in his own human body.
Many female vǫlur (singular vǫlva, seeress) had that ability too. They sent out their “Hugr” to see the future and their body appeared dead or very fast asleep. It was dangerous, because it could be hard to return to the body and if one could not return, their body would eventually die.
The Germanic word “soul” actually means “bound“ and denotes the result of the funerary rites where the dead person was regarded as being bound to the grave, so it wouldn't become restless and come back to haunt the living.
People that came back as undead (Danish “udød”) appeared in bodily form as a Draugr (Danish "Genganger" = “re-walkers”). Being undead is likely the idea, that something went wrong with the correct binding-ritual. The “hugr” of the deceased for some reason didn’t travel to the afterlife (Hel), but stayed in this world and by sheer force of will returned to the dead body (the “hamr”) and animated it.
The concept of an incorporeal un-dead is possibly a loan from Christianity folklore gaining dominance through the middle ages and on.
The "Hamingja" is a personified luck. It was an independent thing and could actually choose to leave the body at critical times and go into someone else. That's why you still say in English that one's “luck has run out”7.
Hamingja seem to have been mostly visible among noble families. If one still were in control of his own Hamingja he could pass it on freely to a relative. So Luck was not random, but a kind of personality that could be transferred to others and be passed in inheritance.
Some people had the special ability of luck-sight. They could see if a person contained a powerful Hamingja. Bad luck seems to have been the lack of Hamingja. So if one were a Viking seeking a leader to follow it would be good to have the luck-sight, so to be able to choose the right man.
Many saga heroes are tragic figure, who while full of bravery and martial prowess just are “out of luck”. Tolkien's Turin Turambar is also such a case.
Fourthly there is the Fylgjur (singular fylgja, follower), which appears in two different versions.
The first was an inherited family spirit. It would often show itself in times of crisis in animal or human form, but apparently always female. Mostly they appeared in dreams to give warning. Seeing a fylgja while awake could be a sign of impending death. Though fylgja means “follower”, it was always ahead of the person in knowledge and on travels. It seems all of the family would have the same fylgja that could show itself to all of them - making them having the same dream for instance. In some sagas the hamingja and the family fylgja could be mixed together as one. A female (family?) hamingja, that was transferred from one man to the next.
The second version is a kind of individual “free-soul”, that operated independently from the “hugr”. This was in a sense one’s “inner animal”, as the fylgja had an animal form. For shapechangers (those able to change their “hamr”), the animal they would change into depended on their personal fylgja.
A fylgja is sometimes seen also as the person dead “twin” (the afterbirth/placenta), and possibly this personal fylgja could be regarded as always being bound to the living person as the shadow, though this is speculation. There apparently were special burial rituals of the afterbirth to prevent it to take revenge on the living twin out of jealousy.
Shapechanging and the “Souls”
All the various souls described above provide for several different kinds of shapechanging powers:
Shapechange by changing outer form is a change of the “hamr”. Most people always took the shape of a particular animal in accordance with the animal form of their personal fylgja. This is again somewhat tied to the family’s hamingja as members of the same family generally always changed into the same kind of animal. Then there would be wolf-shapechangers in one family and bear-shapechangers in another.
Changing “hamr” by donning an animal skin. Here it is unclear if it is the animal skin in itself that do the trick, or the animal skin has to be in accordance with the personal fylgja for it to take effect.
Freeing the “hugr” from the body and sending it out traveling in an animal form. Odin’s ravens are really his thought and memory. This is shamanistic as the “hugr” is able to travel to other worlds and also to pierce past and future. It is often in the form of birds (raven, eagle, hawk, falcon, swan) though some shamans travel as whales or seals.
The fylgja that appears in animal form either in dreams or when awake. It’s in the person, but it is not him. It can make itself visible in dreams or in the real world. This last case happens when the fylgja has left the body, which is probably why it is regarded as a portent of imminent death.
This is very complex as it probably never was systematic in the Norse world, but some general outlines can be discerned.
Only warriors from families with Odin-friendship go to Valhalla and only if they die on the battlefield and are chosen by Odin and his Valkyies. So it is Kings, Jarls and their personal “hird” as Odin only picks the best for Ragnarok. It seems that other warriors dying on the battlefield go to Freya’s hall, Fólkvangr (litt. people-field).
People drowning in the ocean and where they bodies sink to the bottom and not up on a shore were regarded as having been gathered in Ran’s net and are going to Ægir’s hall on the bottom of the sea. Fortunately Ægir and his wife Ran are civilized giants, so it is not all bad.
Most people go to Hel, though. As the goddess Hel provides dwellings for new arrivals it seems that people are received according to their social status. Even the God Baldr goes to Hel and he sits in Hel’s hall as an honoured guest. High status people would be living as such there, so it is not a “hell” in the modern sense. So anyone who does not die on the battlefield or drowns in the ocean goes to Hel.
To go there is an arduous and somewhat dangerous journey for the “Hugr” (leaving the “hamr” behind). Apparently the funeral rites helped that journey to Hel. So if the funeral rites failed, the dead did not arrive to Hel and the “hugr” would instead go back to the dead body.
To get to Hel the “hugr” had to ride through dark valleys for 9 days until it reached the Gjöll-river where the only crossing was over the golden Gjallarbrú (resounding bridge). The bridge was guarded by the giant woman - Móðguðr (= Furious battler). The bridge was “resounding“, so any living person crossing it would make a lot of noise. Then the “hugr” arrived at Hel’s gate, which was guarded by the watchdog Garmr. Garm was bound to the cave Gnipahellir, but will break free at Ragnarok. Then the “hugr” would be able to enter Hel. She resides in her hall Éljúðnir.
It could be a later partly Christian influence, but it seems that sinners would go to Niflhell (litt. Misty Hel, that is really nasty) and righteous people would go to Gimlé instead.
It seems though that most people also regarded dead people as dwelling in the their barrow-mound simultaneously with being in Hel, so one could go talk to them. At Yule the “hugr” of the dead family members would be able to come and sit with the living and even up until modern time people set plates for dead family members Yule-night.
The idea is that people are in Hel, but their “hugr” can be called to their burial mound where they are fettered by their funeral ritual. So one can call them and they will arrive if they want to.
Odin is so powerful in magic, that he can force the dead “hugr“ to arrive and answer his questions even against their will. So Odin is a necromancer that likes to sit at burial mounds or under hangman trees to call forth the dead to increase his own knowledge.
For hanged criminals the noose is another kind of fetter that binds the dead person to the tree, so one could call the dead forth from the tree itself.
Society and Class
Human society was created by the travels of Heimdallr under the name Rig.
He laid with “great grandmother”, who gave birth to the swarthy Thrall.
He laid with “grandmother”, who got the red-haired and red-cheeked Karl.
He laid with “mother”, who got the blond Jarl.
Jarl himself gets a son called Kon ungr (Young Kon), who is taught by Heimdallr and actually takes over the name of Heimdallr/Rig and learns magic. Other traditions say that he married Dana, daughter of Danp and got a son Dan the founder of the Danes and so Kon ungr is the mythological King (Danish = Konge) in society.
So we have a ideological colour-scheme of the threefold society of black-red-white of the three classes (Thrall-Karl-Jarl).
To a high degree, people tended to marry within a certain class, but there was some social mobility.
The servants were Thralls. Thrall does not mean a “slave”, but includes anyone not able to provide for their own subsistence. Thralls had their own economy and could buy their freedom eventually becoming “freedmen”. Freedmen were an intermediate social group --they were still tied to their owner, as they had to vote according to his wishes at the Thing and owed him allegiance. After two generations the freedmen would become free men.
Children of thralls, on the other hand, were regarded as thralls.
Note that all people receiving wages would be regarded as Thralls and they did not have the right to take legal matters to the Thing, could not vote at the Thing and were not regarded as having any honour. Killing them would not cause any blood feud, but one had to pay for damages to their owner. This is called “wergild” (= Man-payment, meaning of blood-money) in English, and “Vígsakarbætr” or just “Bætr” in Norwegian.
Some thralls could actually be rich and powerful as the Bryti (Stewards) -- the overseers of the Kings’ halls around the country, as the Viking Kings were constantly travelling.
The class of Karls - the free men – are the ones that can provide for their own subsistence. Free men would in legal matters be allied under a local chief (great peasant in Iceland or a Jarl in the rest of Scandinavia) as the same words carry different weight depending on who is saying them. So numbers of allies mattered a great deal if one wanted to have support for his cause.
They could be mustered by the King in case of war and was by law required to have at least a spear and a shield (the richer of them could also have a helmet and a war axe).
Jarls were professional warriors who were sufficiently rich to buy expensive battle gear (swords, stylish helmets and chain hauberk) and have horses.
They had holdings large enough that they did not themselves have to work in the fields, but they were still regarded as great farmers as their income came from that source.
They belonged to prominent families that had received land-areas as reward for conquest. The place name marker is in Denmark –lev that means what is “left” (= inheritance). For instance Bjarkes-lev is the inheritance of Bjarke.
These names are often of Iron Age times and could mean the expansion of the Danish Kings. The followers of the Danish King probably gave these areas as rewards as the conquered creating Jarl families.
The new Jarls would normally have the same Odin-friendship as the Danish Kings, but allies might have kept onto their land still having their particular god-friendship.
In Norse society the law codes were oral. Each Herred had their own “þing“ (assembly) where legal matters were decided at fixed intervals through the year. There were also regional greater þings and Iceland had an Alþingi (all-thing) for the whole country. Denmark had 13 “landsting“ (land-things) besides around 200 smaller “herredsting“.
Beside questions of law, the þing was also a place of communal religious rituals and for the greater þings also political decisions like voting for the next King.
The Icelandic Alþingi was presided over by a “lög(sögu)maður“ (Law Speaker Man), who was elected for 3 years. Each year he had to recite one third of the law from memory. In the rest of Scandinavia the thing was chaired bya Jarl or the King himself.
Every free man and Jarl had to attend and could vote. Legal matters were decided by vote. Banging the shields with a sword, axe or spear was signaling agreement. Everyone had to follow the decision of the þing or be declared an outlaw.
Legal disputes between two persons could also be solved by a Hólmganga8 (a legal duel).
Law and Crime
Imprisonment and corporal punishment did not exist in Norse laws. Culprits either had to pay a fine to the king and a wergild to the offended party (and if unable to pay, they would become thralls), be exiled or in rare instances sentenced to death.
Legally a free man was one having kinship, while a thrall was kinless. Since kinship was the basis of inheritance, feuds and wergild, kinless thralls were outside of this system and thus excluded.
The law principle was based on compensation and not revenge or correction. So if a feuding could not be solved by itself it could be taken to court, where compensation was decided ending (in theory) the feud.
Most crimes were solved by fines (even killings) and each law would have very specific fines for each crime often depending on the value of the person injured or killed. So fines for crimes against men of high status were more expensive than those of lower status and those for crimes against men more expensive than for those against women. For major crimes, such as sexual crimes, religious crimes, or treason, there could be a sentence of outlawry or in rare instances death penalty.
In Iceland there was also “Fjörbaugsgarður“ or “lesser outlawry“, that seems to have been more common than fining. The sentence was being banished from Iceland for 3 years, but without having holdings confiscated.
Outlaws were without the protection of the law, so anyone could kill them if they stayed and anyone giving them help or shelter would also become an outlaw.
Skóggangur (Forest-going) or “Greater outlawry“ was a permanent banishment where all of one’s holdings were confiscated. That reduced the outlaw to a níðingr.
There was a difference between “killing“ that was done openly and “murder“, which was done in secret. The second was far worse so running from the scene of the crime increased the seriousness of the crime.
Killing would normally end with a fine or lesser outlawry, whereas “murder“ would be greater outlawry or even a death sentence.
A person that committed premeditated murder using poison or magic, that lied under oath or did treason was regarded as a níðingr. It meant a total loss of honour and a stigma as a villain.
A níðingr has no kinship and is regarded as a “vargr“ (warg), an enemy of humanity and as being legally dead. In reality they were a social class below thralls, that no longer were regarded as human or having any rights.
Níðings are regarded as using magic to damage and injured others and as being unmanly (i.e., sexually perverse, called “ergi” as noun or “argr”/“ragr” as adjective). They were considered cowards, carrying out their evil in secret.
Ergi was the worst word in Old Icelandic and means “an unmanly passive homosexual, who cowardly lies, murders and uses magic - when dressed as a woman - to kill and injured others”.
Accusing another man in public by loudly scolding him of being “ergi” was legally called “speaking níð” and became illegal by fining later in Iceland.
Poets would even create níð-verses speaking ill of a person, e.g. the following verses from Iceland, in 984 AD, accused Bishop Frederik and his friend Þórvaldr vidförle:
Hefr bǫrn borit
þeira 's allra
“Nine children have the bishop born and Thorvald is the father of them all.”
Thorvald killed the two men responsible and saved his honour -- though actually it was the bishop being accused of ergi since he had acted as the passive one, so it would be interesting to know what people thought of him after that.
Being accused of ergi and/or called a níðingr demanded an immediate reaction by killing the offender -- otherwise the accusation would be proven true. If it was done at a þing -- which was regarded as a sanctuary, so starting a fight would lead to being sentenced to outlawry -- then the accusation had to be solved by a Hólmganga (a legal duel). So it was a strategic way to force another person into a duel, which is likely the cause it later became illegal in Iceland.
Armies of the Vikings
In the early Viking age the King or Jarl (Earl) did not have a standard army. He would have a retinue - often the sacred number of 12. It could for Odin-rulers typically be 12 "berserkir" (bear-warriors) or 12 "uldhednir" (wolf-warriors), but also 12 non-ecstatic "normal" fighters.
These men - the "Hird" - were his lifeguard ("hofudvorgr" - head wardens) and they had freely taken a Sword-oath (precursor to the knighting ceremony) and were thus sworn to give their life if necessary to protect him. The Hird was normally comprised of son of kings and earls, rather than members of the lower classes.
The "Hird" could in return for their service demand protection and support ("traust") from the king/earl. These warriors were not paid, but were given gifts and parts of the war booty (they are on Danish runestones called: "heimþegar" - home receivers). It is equivalent to what the Romans earlier called the "Comitatus" system among Germanic warriors. The "Hird" lived close to their chosen leader and always sharing his table ("bordfastir" = litt. tablefast) and they followed him wherever he went, as an armed retinue ("fylgjd" = followers). It was truly a band of brothers, with the King/Jarl as "Big brother" but still a leader among peers. Wives complained that they never saw their husbands since they were always with their leader.
At that time the Kings did not have any fixed residence, but were constantly on the move within his realm visiting his Earls, who lived in great Viking longhouses (English halls, but in Old Icelandic “salir”, singular salr) owned by the King and run by Stewards (Bryti). They had to be ready to hold feasts for the King and his men at all times.
So the realm did not have any capital that could be conquered and the King and his men could also retreat to friendly Earls within the Viking sphere to return for a re-conquest at a later time. That could be very far away in Russia for instance. Much like the Viking Kings, also Attila the Hun and the Merovingian Kings were also constantly on the move9.
The term "Húskarl" (Housecarl) is a bit problematic. It probably just originally meant a "manservant" of the freeman class (to distinguish them from Thrall servants), but with time seems to become synonymous with Hird, but with one important difference. It seems that they were paid, since they are also called "málamenn" (eng: men receiving wages). They were only bound in service for one year and the contract could be negotiated on one special day every year (often New Year).
Canute the Great (King 1016-1035) had 3.000-4.000 Housecarls by him in England and they can be seen as a paid standing army. Later Danish Kings did not have these numbers and King Niels (King 1104-1134) reduced the number of Hird and Housecarls to 6-7 men and placed the others as a permanent civil servant bureaucracy around the realm. Sadly that meant that when the people of Slesvig turned against him he had basically no bodyguard to defend him and he was killed. But this system was continued as it provided better control over taxes.
In case of war the King could mobilize the entire country quickly (if he was popular). Since ancient times there was in Denmark a system called "Leding" (in Latin, Expeditio). Actually “Viking” probably means going on a sea-raid (the person going on the raid is called a “Vikingr“), so an expedition after the Leding is called for. Even in Christian times it's never called Crusades against Heathens, but always "Expeditio" against them.
The Nordic lands were separated into districts probably on the basis of old tribal borders. Each district was in Denmark called a Herred. Each Herred (“Hundred“) had their own "Ting" ("thing", meaning lawseat) and was subdivided into a given a number of "skipæn" (ships) most likely between 1-4. A further subdivision of each "ship" was "hafnæ" (harbours).
A "ship" had to provide a warship with 20-40 oars and each "harbour" provided 1 soldier (who had to be a freeman) with weapons and provision.
A "Styrisman" (helmsman) build the warship and provided leadership of it during the campaign. He was to be equipped with full armour and horse and was paid by the farmers within the "ship".
So Denmark could mobilize, when the King called for a full “Leding“, 1000 ships and 30.000 men. The logistics of getting everyone to arrive at the same time (as people had to bring their own food and drink) meant that the King often called for a “Leding“ of the areas closest to where he wanted to attack.
2 But realism also plays in if one family is way stronger and more powerful than another.
3 Vættir should be similar to Fairies in D&D. However, vættir do not live in the wild, but rather along the mundane folk, and have a very similar society, sharing the same values and world view as the Vikings.
4 Since in the Nordic world view “Alfar“ are ancestors, they are not the same as Elves. More likely, they can be represented by AD&D Eladrins -- i.e., spirits of the dead who have taken an elf-like shape. An interesting possibility is that the Norse people of Mystara might see the Elves are the reawakened ancestors of a people of short stature, such as the Hin.
6 His ravens Huginn and Muninn, which mean thought and memory respectively.
7 Literally, your hamingja has run away from you.
9 That is why it took forever for the Roman diplomat Priscus to find Attila.