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The Gift of a Shirt


The giving of gifts was central to Norse culture. In a culture where one wore their wealth, a warrior proudly displayed golden armbands and fine belt fittings, while a woman's neckrings and amber beads denoted her husband's status. The giving of rings, armbands, swords, spears and fine cloaks were all traditionally bestowed by jarls to their warriors as rewards.

The seamstress's art was prized amongst Norse women, and the needle-case and scissors were not merely tools, but adornments. As with a man's rings, the finer the woman's station, the fine the quality of these tools, which would be worn pinned to her apron and would ultimately become part of her grave goods. Thus, as a jarl gave rings, armbands, and weapons, women gifted clothes.

The gift of a shirt from a woman to a man, was a unique gift, which could only be respectably given between betrothed or married couples, or from a mother to her son. Unlike other gifts of clothes, a shirt must be newly made. The importance of the shirt-gift is a recurring theme in the Sagas, such as in Kormak's Saga, wherein Kormak uses the gift as way to test the fidelity of his old lover:

Now Thorvald the Tinker asked Steingerd to wife. Her folk were for it, and she said nothing against it; and so she was wed to him in the very same summer in which she left Bersi.

When Kormak heard the news he made as though he knew nothing whatever about the matter; for a little earlier he had taken his goods aboard ship, meaning to go away with his brother. But one morning early he rode from the ship and went to see Steingerd; and when he got talk with her, he asked would she make him a shirt. To which she answered that he had no business to pay her visits; neither Thorvald nor his kinsmen would abide it, she said, but have their revenge.

(Kormak's Saga, Chapter 17; translation by W.G. Collingwood & J. Stefansson, 1901)

In the same way, in Gisla Saga, the hero's brother Thorkel learns of his wife Asgerda's unrequited love for his friend Vestein, when he overhears her talking with Vestein's sister, and learns that she is making him a shirt:  

Thorkel the Soursop was very fond of dress and very lazy; he did not do a stroke of work in the housekeeping of those brothers; but Gisli worked night and day. It fell on a good drying day that Gisli set all the men at work hay-making, save his brother Thorkel. He alone of all the men was at home, and he had laid him down after breakfast in the hall, where the fire was, and gone to sleep. The hall was thirty fathoms long and ten broad. Away from it, and to the south, stood the bower of Auda and Asgerda, and there the two sat sewing. But when Thorkel wakes he goes toward the bower for he heard voices, and, lays him down outside close by the bower. Then Asgerda began to speak, and said:

&quote;Help me, Auda dear; and cut me out a shirt for my husband Thorkel.&quote;

&quote;I can't do that any better than thou,&quote; says Auda; &quote;nor wouldst thou ask me to do it if thou wert making aught for my brother Vestein.&quote;

&quote;All that touches Vestein is a thing by itself,&quote; says Asgerda; &quote;and so it will be with me for many a day; for I love him more than my husband Thorkel, though we may never fulfil our love.&quote;

&quote;I have long known,&quote; said Auda, &quote;how Thorkel fared in this matter, and how things stood; but let us speak no more of it:'

&quote;I think it no harm,&quote; says Asgerda; &quote;though I think Vestein a good fellow. Besides I have heard it said that ye two--thou and Thorgrim--often had meetings before thou wert given away in marriage.&quote;

&quote;No wrong came of it to any man,&quote; said Auda, &quote;nor has any man found favour in my eyes since I was given to Gisli. There has been no disgrace. Do pray stop this idle talk.&quote;

And so they did; but Thorkel had heard every word they spoke, and now he raised his voice and said:

&quote;Hear a great wonder,
Hear words of doom;
Hear matters mighty,
Murders of men!&quote;

(Gisla Saga, Chapter 6; translation by G.W. DaSent, 1866)

In the more fantastic of the Sagas, the shirt was just as worthy as a sword or ring to be imbued with magical powers. During an adventure in Ireland, the hero Orvar-Odd (Arrow-Odd) wins an Irish witch named Olvor for a bride. Their first meeting comes after he has killed her three brothers and found the beautiful girl hidden with three other women. Olvor comes forward and offers a shirt, and by implication herself, to Odd:

Then the other women took hold of her and tried to keep her back, but she told them not to do so. “I want to make a bargain with you, Odd,” she said. “Let me go in peace, I'm not short of money.”

“Your money is the last thing I want,” said Odd, “I'm not without silver or gold either.”

“Then I'll make you a shirt,” she said.

“The answer is still the same,” said Odd. “I've had more than enough of shirts and shirt-making.”

“You're in no position to get a shirt like the one I'll make for you,” she said. “It will be made with silk and embroidered with gold. And I'll endow the shirt with certain qualities you've never been offered before.”

“Tell me more,” said Odd.

“You'll never be cold in it, either by sea or land. You'll never be tired when swimming, never hurt by fire, never troubled by hunger, and no iron will bite you. It will protect you against everything, with one exception.”

“What's that?” said Odd.

“Iron will bite you if you run away,” she said, “even though you wear the shirt.”

“I've better things to do than run away from battles,” said Odd. “When can the shirt be ready?”

(Olvar-Odd's Saga, Chapter 12, Translated by Hermann Palsson and Paul Edwards)

Odd's comment that “I've had enough of shirts and shirt-making”, perhaps suggest a number of youthful misadventures in love. Certainly, it makes it clear that, like many Norse heroes, he was no stranger to the wiles of women, whom the Sagas seemed to universally agree were the most dangerous creature in the Viking's universe!


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