Viking Age Hair
By Elisabeth Arwill-Nordbladh
Internet Archaeology, Vol.42 (2016)
Introduction: In a passage of Skáldskaparmál, a section of the Icelandic 13th-century Edda, Snorri Sturluson discusses different metaphors, or kennings, for gold. Concerning one of them, he asks, ‘Why is gold called Siv’s hair?’ Then follows the narrative of how Loki, the trickster of the Old Norse pantheon, ‘for love of mischief’ had cut off the long golden hair of Siv, wife of the god of thunder, Thor. This atrocity made Thor furious. To make amends, Loki had to provide the gods with the most precious gifts, crafted and enchanted by dwarfs, who were skilled in both smith-work and magic. Siv was given a new head of hair of pure gold, which would grow on her head like natural hair. Thor, who was entrusted with Siv’s hair to give to her, was also given the magic hammer, Mjölnir. Odin received the magic spear Gungnir and a ring of gold that every ninth night would create eight new golden rings. Finally, Frej was given the ship Skidbladnir, and a fast running boar with golden bristles.
This episode tells us that hair was a significant and highly esteemed part of the body. Inflicting damage on Siv’s hair was both a crime and an offence. Based on the frequently encountered cultural idea that access to someone’s hair equates with access to the body as a whole, Margaret Clunies Ross suggests that with this disgrace – humiliating Thor by severing this part of his wife’s body – Loki also insinuated that Siv was a goddess of easy virtue. Such an insult was an issue for the Aesir community as a kin group. That the atonement resulted in the three main gods receiving their most emblematic attributes underlines the seriousness of the deed. Moreover, it demonstrates that hair was of significant social importance, both as a mediator of values and norms, and as a material item, open for physical arrangement and rearrangement.
Top Image: The so-called Valkyrie from Hårby. Viking Age Object C 39227. Photo courtesy National Museum of Denmark