Viking Age Attitudes About Left-Handedness
Dear Viking Answer Lady:
Did the Vikings have any beliefs about left-handedness?
(signed) Norwegian Lefty
The Germanic languages all share a common root word meaning "left":
- Old High German winistar
- Anglo-Saxon winestre
- Modern Norwegian and Danish venstre
- Modern Swedish vänster
- Old Norse vinstri
The word vinstri doesn't occur much in the Old Norse literature. Icelander Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241 AD), writing over a hundred years after the end of the Viking Age, composed a document that we call today the Prose Edda. In this work, Snorri attempted to catalog the phraseology, vocabulary, and poetic technique of the Vikings. It is interesting to note that the word vinstri occurs only once in Snorri's Prose Edda, in Gylfaginning chapter 5:
þá mælti Gangleri: "Hvernig óxu ættir þaðan eða skapaðist svo að fleiri menn urðu? Eða trúir þú þann guð er nú sagðir þú frá?" þá svarar Hár: "Fyr engan mun játum vér hann guð. Hann var illur og allir hans ættmenn, þá köllum vér hrímþursa. Og svo er sagt að þá er hann svaf fékk hann sveita. þá óx undir vinstri hönd honum maður og kona, og annar fótur hans gat son við öðrum. En þaðan af komu ættir, það eru hrímþursar. Hinn gamli hrímþurs, hann köllum vér ými."
Then asked Gangleri: "How were the races developed from [ýmir]? Or what was done so that more men were made? Or do you believe him to be a god of whom you now spoke?" Thus answered Hár: "By no means do we believe him to be god. He was evil and all his offspring, them we call frost-giants. It is said that when he slept he fell into a sweat, and then there grew under his left arm a man and a woman, and one of his feet begat with the other a son. From these come the races that are called frost-giants. The old frost-giant we call ýmir."]
Even more interesting is the section of the Prose Edda in which Snorri enumerates all the various ways one can describe the arm or hand, found in the Skáldskaparmál (Poetic Diction) section:
Hönd má kalla mund, arm, lám, hramm. á hendi heitir ölnbogi, armleggr, úlfliðr, liðr, fingr, greip, hreifi, nagl, gómr, jaðarr, kvikva. Hönd má kalla jörð vápna eða hlífa, við axlar ok ermar, lófa ok hreifa, gullhringa jörð ok vals ok hauks ok allra hans heita, ok í nýgervingum fót axlar, bognauö.
[The upper limb can be called hand, arm, fist, paw. On the upper limb there is what is called the elbow, forearm, wrist, joint, finger, grasp, palm, nail, fingertip, side of the hand, quick. The upper limb can be called the ground of weapons or shields, tree of shoulder and sleeve, palm and wrist, ground of gold rings and of falcon and hawk and of all terms for it, and allegorically the leg of the shoulder, bow-forcer.]
Notably, Snorri never once mentions handedness at all, unless we take jörð vápna ("ground of weapons") to be "right" and jörð hlífa ("ground of shields") to be "left".
Hrana saga hrings ch. 1 has:
þeirra sonr var Hrani hringr, sem því var kallaðr hringr, at hann hafði rauðan hring á vinstri kinn.
Their son was Hrani Ring, who was called "Ring" because he had a red ring on his left cheek.
Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu ch. 12 has:
Gunnlaugur svarar: "Svík mig þá ei," segir hann, "ef eg færi þér vatn í hjálmi mínum." Hrafn svarar: "Ei mun eg svíkja þig," segir hann. Síðan gekk Gunnlaugur til lækjar eins og sótti í hjálminum og færði Hrafni. En hann seildist í mót hinni vinstri hendinni en hjó í höfuð Gunnlaugi með sverðinu hinni hægri hendi og varð það allmikið sár. þá mælti Gunnlaugur: "Illa sveikstu mig nú og ódrengilega fór þér þar sem eg trúði þér."
Gunnlaug said, "Betray me not if I bring thee water in my helm." "I will not betray thee," said Raven. Then went Gunnlaug to a brook and fetched water in his helm, and brought it to Raven; but Raven stretched forth his left hand to take it, but with his right hand drave his sword into Gunnlaug's head, and that was a mighty great wound. Then Gunnlaug said, "Evilly hast thou beguiled me, and done traitorously wherein I trusted thee."
Færeyinga saga ch. 18 has:
Nú kemst Sigmundur upp á drekann og þeir tólf saman og drepur mann, og brátt annan, en þeir fylgja honum vel. þórir kemst og á drekann við fimmta mann. Hrökkur nú allt undan þeim. Og er Randvér sér þetta, hleypur hann fram og í mót Sigmundi, og mætast þeir og berjast mjög lengi. Nú sýnir Sigmundur íþrótt sína og kastar sverði sínu og fleygði í loft upp og tekur vinstri hendi sverðið, en skjöldinn hægri hendi og höggur með sverðinu til Randvés og tekur undan honum fótinn hægra fyrir neðan kné. Randvér fellur þá. Sigmundur veitir honum hálshögg það er af tók höfuðið. þá æpa Sigmundar menn heróp, og eftir það flýja víkingar á þrem skipum, en þeir Sigmundur ryðja drekann, svo að þeir drepa hvert mannsbarn er á var.
Then Sigmundr boarded the dragon, and eleven men with him, and there he slew man after man as quick as could be, and the men that were with him followed him up well. Thórir also boarded the dragon, and four men with him, and all gave way before them. Now, when Randvér saw that, he ran out against Sigmundr, and they met and fought a good while. Then Sigmundr showed his skill, for he cast his sword up, flinging it into the air, and caught it again in his left hand and caught his shield in his right, and then hewed at Randvér with his sword, and took off his right leg below the knee. With that Randvér fell down. Sigmundr gave him another blow on the neck that took off his head.
Brennu-Njáls saga ch. 150 has:
Grani Gunnarsson þreif spjót og skaut að Kára en Kári skaut niður við skildinum svo að fastur stóð í vellinum en tók með hinni vinstri hendi spjótið á lofti og skaut aftur að Grana og tók þegar skjöld sinn hinni vinstri hendi.
Grani Gunnarsson snatched up a spear and hurled it at Kari, but Kari thrust down his shield so hard that the point stood fast in the ground, but with his left hand he caught the spear in the air, and hurled it back at Grani, and caught up his shield again at once with his left hand.
With the very few mentions of the word vinistri, it's hard to see any cultural value placed on the word or the concept of "leftness" during the Viking Age. However, there is one phrase that uses the word vinistri, found in the Icelandic Hómilíubók, a collection of Christian homilies - vinstri handar menn, "left-hand men", a phrase used to mean one's enemies or adversaries.
Modern German eventually replaced the winistar root with the word link for "left". This word is related to Swedish linka and Old Danish lucht, luft, all of which have an original meaning of "lame, weak." English underwent the same process, with modern English left eventually tracing back to Anglo-Saxon lef ("weak, ill"), gelefed ("old and weak"), left, leftadl ("palsy").
On the other hand (not to make a pun...) Modern English right has ancient Germanic roots as well:
- Old High German reht
- Anglo-Saxon raiths
- Gothic raíhts
- Modern German recht
- Modern Danish ret
- Modern Swedish rätt
- Icelandic rëttr
All of these have the sense of "straight, direct, upright, correct, true." Modern English extends this sense to include the direction "right" and the idea of handedness.
The Scandinavian languages went in a different linguistic direction with the word for "right" or "right hand":
- Old Norse hoegri
- Modern Danish højre
- Modern Swedish höger (noun), högra (adjective)
All of these words are from the same root as English higher and have the sense of "right, right-handed," but also are identical to the comparative adjective higher, with a sense of "up high" or even "upright", which is the same sort of meaning as all the right cognate words above. This is another clue towards the cultural value judgement associated with the concept of handedness - linguistically, the right hand is "higher", more "upright."
It is only comparatively recently that osteologists have discovered that handedness can be determined from skeletal remains (see, for example, the study regarding skeletal remains from Wharram Percy in Britain). So far as I have been able to discover, there are no comparable handedness studies on Viking Age skeletal remains, but it would be reasonable to expect that these will begin to appear sometime in the next several years.