Feasting in Viking Age Iceland: Sustaining a Chiefly Political Economy in a Marginal Environment

Article excerpt


Norse seafarers colonising the North Atlantic during the Viking Age arrived in Iceland in the late ninth century AD and encountered ah unoccupied and virgin landscape. The settlers found a variety of ecosystems, including sheltered fjords, forested lowlands and ample pasturage. At the same time, this sub-arctic island exposed the Norsemen to new environmental constraints and a depleted availability of the luxury goods used to sustain social relationships and the Norse chiefly political economy. This paper addresses the economic and political responses of early Icelanders to the resulting shortfalls, challenges and opportunities by focusing on the archaeological evidence of feasting.


The subsistence strategies and technology of the Viking settlement package were integrally bound to Norse cultural norms. Among the cultural ideals was the Scandinavian understanding of leadership and political power. Early Icelandic chieftains functioned much as 'big-men', competing for prestige and support from local farmers through conspicuous consumption, gift-giving and legal contests (Byock 2001: 65). Political interactions in Iceland centred on the chieftains and their personal relationships with supporters. Feasting was a key element in these interactions. The medieval Icelandic sagas, first written down mostly in the thirteenth century from a rich Viking Age oral tradition, offer ah unparalleled source of anthropological information on early Iceland and make frequent mention of politically motivated feasting. In the following passage, Gudrun, the wife of porkell, advises her chieftain husband to spare no expense in hosting a winter feast that will impress his equals and attract supporters.

He [borkell] hosted a Yule-drinking feast at Helgafell, and a large number of people attended. He showed great magnificence with everyone that winter. Gudrun did not resist this and said that this is what wealth was for--to increase prestige; and the resources should be made available that Guorun needed to make an extravagant display (Laxdela Saga, chapter 74: Sveinsson 1934).

In the sub-arctic Icelandic environment, chieftains must have found it increasingly difficult to acquire the basic goods--particularly the feasting foods of beef and beer-- necessary for political actions and displays of chiefly magnanimity. Our investigations at an early chieftain's farmstead in the Mosfell valley in south-west Iceland (Figures 1 & 2) provided an opportunity to examine the efforts taken to sustain feasting.

Feasting in Viking Age Iceland

At its simplest, a feast is an unusual meal shared on an unusual occasion (Hayden 2001). The feasts in the Viking sagas, however, are on a larger scale and more akin to "a forro of public ritual activity centered around the communal consumption of food and drink" (Dietler 2001: 67). Feasts create relationships of reciprocal obligation between hosts and guests by the same social principle of reciprocity that governs the flow of material gifts from donors to receivers (Mauss 1954; Dieder 1996). Feasts are rife with manifestations of hierarchy--who provides versus who consumes, where people are seated, who is served first, who can procure the most extravagant food and drink--and are therefore ideal arenas to establish and reproduce social relations. Since "feasts are inherently political" and "constitute a fundamental instrument and theater of political relations" (Dietler 2001: 66), evidence of feasting offers an analytical venue for moving beyond identifying elites archaeologically and towards understanding chiefly political action.

Viking Age Icelandic feasts described in the sagas served to create alliances, build chiefly coalitions and provided an arena for competitive displays of generosity and conspicuous consumption (Byock 2001: 67-68). Early Icelanders held feasts at individual farmsteads on a number of occasions during the year, such as the autumn slaughter-time and the Yule winter celebration. …