Metals in Norse culture

Foreword

Norsemen thought at metals as a kind of “soul” of the earth, something pure and divine conceded to them, if they took the effort to extract and work them. Thus the smiths were considered spiritually equal to priests and even kings. Every metal had its own symbology and to wear one, had a particular meaning. I will not write about “magical properties” and similar but instead of what Norsemen did think, taking it from sagas and Eddic poems. Reminder: Viking Age was to 700 to 1100 B.C. circa; this reminder because I have – sadly – read somewhere about platinum swordhilt owned by jǫrlum (jarls, earls)...

Gold (Gull)

Absolutely the most valuable metal in all the ancient world, it does no exeptions for Norse culture. Its high value wasn’t only given by its rarity and price given by Celts, Romans and other Europeans, but also by its native shining, its weight, and its resistance to every kind of corrosion (both air, both water, beer, and so on). These attributes made Norsemen thought that gold was the purest metal ever existed (and, probably, it was, by Viking Age) and thus it is the metal most associated with gods: Glaðsheimr is all goldmade, taflir [hnefatafl pieces, a Norse game related to chess, a.n.] with whom the god plaid at the begin of time was all made of gold, and also of gold is made Brísinga (Freyja’s necklace), and so on. Its most appreciated league, the red gold, is hard to find for sure in ancient texts: “rautt/rauð gull” doesnt’ mean just “red gold” but is also a kenningr for “copper”. By the way, it was written many times that Freyja cries red gold tears. Gold’s Old Norse name came from Proto-Germanic “gulþą”, which in turns came from the Indoeuropean “ǵʰelh₃”, which means “yellow, shining”.

Copper (Eir)

Another very imporant metal, because, by its reddish colour, it was associated with blood and so it was thought to be the vital lymph of the earth. Split copper rings, which symbolise a life cycle, were widespread; even many kaupuhringar (wedding rings) were made of pure copper and not gold. It was valued as high as silver, even if silver was rarer and more valued by other folks. Bronze and brass, its main leagues, were mostly used for weapons and for “battle jewels”, as copper was preferred in its pure form to be worn in peaceful times. Copper’s Old Norse name came from Proto-Germanic “aiz”, which in turns came from the Indoeuropean “áyos”, which means “metal, copper, bronze”.

Silver (Silfr)

As yet said, differently by other contemporary cultures, for Norsemen silver had the same value as copper. It is associated with the night, with Máni and the Moon, and also to fertility, as they were found brewing boilers whole made of silver. Fólkvangr, the place where Freyja takes the other half of the fallens in battle, is of silver. Silver was much used to craft ritual weapons, and as weawing wire to enrich wedding dresses; of silver was also made the keys the husband gave to the wife during the wedding ceremony. Silver’s Old Norse name came from Proto-Germanic “silubrą”, an autochthonous word.

Steel (Stál)

Very rare as really little producted in Scandinavia, the most diffused was the damask one, imported from Vallandr (the other parts of non-Germanic Europe), but nevertheless appreciated by Norsemen and especially by Vikings. Early it was considered a completely different metal from iron (especially because damascus steel doesn’t resemble iron at all) which had, instead, a bad reputation, and so, even if the “mass learning” of steel’s relation with iron, it was kept to be considered a good metal, and, for this, steel was always a bit “unliked” to iron in Norse mentality. The few smiths who acquired the skill to work it, used it for battle weapons and to enforce ships, but, as yet said, there are very few evidences of steel in Viking Age. Steel’s Old Norse name came from Proto-Germanic “stahlą”, which in turns came from Indoeuropean “stak”, which means “hard, strong, firm”.

Iron (Jarn)

As yet said, irond hadn’t a good reputation, because it oxidises, and it practically only used to produce weapons. Fáfnir build an iron fortress to protect its treasure, as well as many evil places are related to iron (e.g., Jarnviðr, the Iron Forest of giantesses). To wear iron jewels was considered a sign of calamity, and usually were worn by widows or by cheeky warriors who wanted to tempt fate. However, this bad reputation cannot free Norsemen from usefulness of iron, as it was necessary for weapons, houses, ships, armors, and almost everything which required resistance. Thus the saying “ert þú sem jarni”, “you’re like iron”, which means a person is needed but not welcome (e.g. undesidered kings, foreign mercant a.s.o.). Iron’s Old Norse name came from Proto-Germanic “īsarną”, derived from Old Celtic “ísarnom”, which in turn came from Indoeuropean “h₁ésh₂r̥”, which means “blood”. (Maybe it’s related to blood because iron is mostly used to kill, or because rust is red).

Aluminium (Ál)

Another extremely rare metal, actually it wasn’t the modern aluminium, but alum instead, derived fron alunite, a mineral containing hydrated aluminium potassium sulfate. Imported from Vallandr, it was mostly used to dye, but also in medicine. Aluminium’s Old Norse name came directly from Latin “alluminium”, shorten up.

Tin (Tin)

Mostly used for its league with copper (bronze), it was also mixed with pewter, a widespread metal in late Viking Age; it was used for many items: dishes, chalices, and many other households; but also for jewels [especially because, after the advent of Christianity, almost all the gold begun to disappear from Scandinavi to magically appear in Rome’s churches... the Way of the Lord are endless, a.n.]. Tin’s Old Norse name, the same as the Moder English one, came from Proto-Germanic “tiną”, an autochthonous word.

Lead (Blý)

Little known metal, but enought widespread (more than steel and aluminium), it was mostly used to arrow’s points, for its malleability, and used to seal the mounds which were thought could be the home of a draugr. It was also used to seal in general, from mails, to organic waste, to falls in boat, thanks to its low fusion point and it malleability. However, its reputation was bad, as the iron’s one. Lead’s Old Norse name came from Proto-Germanic “blīwą”, an autochthonous word.


Sources

Gylfaginning (22, 27, 34)

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