[Heralds] Old Norse Names

GeekGrrl geekgrrl at geekgrrl.org
Thu May 3 21:07:08 PDT 2001

The following post is a post made by Mistress Gunnora on the subject of
Old Norse Names to the Norsefolk Yahoo Egroup list. I am reposting it here
with her permission, and with editing out the original question that
sparked the following article. She is in fact working on enhancing it with
name listings and all sorts of wonderful work and research, but here is
the preliminary. I only wish I had her library for my own....

Warning... this is a very LONG post, but a very informative one!

<Original questioner and specific response to that question chopped. General
information follows>

------------- Begin Quoting Mistress Gunnora --------------

In general, parents named their children after a deceased relative or
hero. In some way the child was believed to inherit with the name the
gifts or personality of their namesake: this belief almost seems to
have been one of reincarnation of the named relative in the new child
once the name was bestowed.

It was very common to give children the names of honored relatives,
for the Northmen believed that children would partake of the virtues
of the ones whose names they bore. Relatives recently dead, in
particular, were thus remembered by their kindred, a custom resulting
from a half belief that the spirit of the beloved dead lived again in
the little child. Present day Scandinavians still "call up" deceased
members of their families in this manner. (Social Scandinavia p. 61).

"The religious basis of the practice was that a departed ancestor is
reborn and again rejoins the living members of the family if his/her
name is given to the new-born child. Only the departed ancestor was,
therefore, renamed so long as the belief was a living force....
Originally the naming of the first two sons must have been very
varied; it could have been after the father only in a small
proportion of cases, or after an uncle in perhaps a somewhat larger
proportion of cases; or again the child might be named after some
other relative of the parents, as a cousin. Undoubtedly, however, it
was a grandparent in a relatively large number of cases. If one or
more of the gramndparents were dead the old belief would practically
decree it and filial love would perpetuatie the practice after the
belief no longer existed in its old form. As long as the old belief
continued the cases of renamings of the child's great grandparent
would undoubtedly dominate, but as soon as it ceased to be believed
that reincarnation of the departed in the child took place with the
bestowal of the name of the deceased, the possibilities for new forms
of the practice were at once at hand". (Flom, p. 249, 251).

Several scholars have commented on this, seeing it as a belief in
transmigration of the soul among the Old Norse:

"According to the pagan view the name was a part of the personality,
or rather the name in some mysterious way represented the spiritual
and intellectual element of the individual for whom it stood. After
death the soul went with the name and the individual was restored to
new life with the name. But the soul and consequently the name
signified not only renewed life in a new body, but a continuation of
the whole siritual personality of the departed in the new body. The
new-born child so named would with the name become endowed with the
character and the personal qualities of the departed". (Flom, p.

Other Considerations in Name-Giving

Aside from the practice of naming children after deceased relatives,
the two major principles of Germanic name-giving also influenced how
children were named.

Alliteration: The first principle was alliteration, in which the same
sound at the beginning of one name is repeated in another, for

Sometimes the names went from generation to generation in an
alliterating series (Agni, Alrek, Yngvi, Iörund, Aun, Egil, Óttar,
Adils, Eystein, Yngvar, Önund, Ingiald, Olaf were successive kings of
the Uppsala dynasty, all with names beginning with a vowel) (Viking
Achievement p. 115).

Variation: The second principle was variation, the practice of
forming a new name so that it differs from that of others in the
family by changing one element in the name:

"sometimes names were chosen on the so-called "variation" principle --
 a ninth-century Norwegian Végeirr had sons Vébjörn, Vésteinn,
Véþormr, Vémundr, Végestr and more children with names of the same
kind". (Viking Achievement p. 115).

When variation was used, the childrens' names often contained one of
the same name-elements found in the parents' names
(Sørensen, "Personal Names", p. 499). Variation was not limited to
keeping the first syllable unchanged: family names might use
variation by changing the first name element in the various names
while keeping the second name element the same, for example: Abjörn,
Finnbjörn, Gunnbjörn, Hallbjörn, Ketilbjörn.

Single-Element Names vs. Compound Names

The basic Old Norse name was usually composed of two name elements,
although some names had only one element. Some good examples of
single-element names might include:



Two-element names are combinations of single-elements. These single
elements may sometimes be found standing alone as a single-element
name, but the majority are found only in compound names. For instance:

Þórbrandr (Þórr+brandr)
Björnólfr (Bjorn+Úlfr)
Guðmundr (Guðr+mundr)

Ragnhildr (Reginn+Hildr)
Álfdís (Alf+Dís)
Halldóra (Halla+Þórr)

It is crucial to understand that one cannot simply "mix-and-match
with random name-elements. Some name elements are only found in the
first position and never in the second, while others occur only in
the second element and never the first. And in some cases certain
name elements were used only with a limited set of other name
elements in compound names. As Geirr Bassi notes:

"Not all simple names occur in compounds; some may be used only as
the first or the second element while some occur in both positions.
If it were not for this problem of limited constructability, it would
suffice to supply a list of 'name elements' from which compound names
could be constructed at will. But a great number of potential
compounds constructable from popular elements do not show up anywhere
in the extensive documentation. To cite an example, the simple name
Hallr (feminine: Halla) is documented as the first element of many
compounds: (masculine) Hallbjörn, Halldór, Hallfreðr, Hallgeirr,
Hallgrímr, Hallkell, Hallormr, Hallsteinn, Hallvarðr, (feminine)
Hallbera, Hallbjörg, Halldís, Halldóra, Hallfríðr, Hallgerðr,
Hallkatla, Hallveig, Hallvör, but it is not attested in compounds
with the popular second components (masculine) -brandr, -fiðr, -
finnr, -gautr, -gestr, - móðr, -oddr, -ólfr, -valdr, or (feminine) -
finna, -gríma, -hildr, -ný, -unn, etc., although all such compounds
are certainly theoretically possible. (The Old Norse Name, p. 5)
There are also some elements which are only found in male names,
while others are found exclusively in female names. In the first
case, it may be that we are just missing women's names containing
elements that are well-documented in men's names, since we have many
fewer women's names surviving from this period than men's names. Some
examples of name elements which are exclusive to women's names are: -
dís, -veig, -ný".

Names and Luck

In Hauksbók it is mentioned that it was the practice to name children
after the gods (Goð-, "god"; Þór-, "Thórr"; Frey-, "Freyr"; Regin-
, "power, the gods"; Ás-, "god") and that:

"...menn höfdu mjök þá tvau nöfn, þótti þat likast til langlifis ok
heilla, þótt nokkurir fyrirmælti þeim við goðin, þá mundi þat ekki
saka, eí þeir ætti eitt nafn..."

Thus it was thought that a compound name composed of two name-
elements gave luck and long life, especially those compounded with
the names of gods, and that people who had such compound names would
have langlifis ok heilla, "long life and health", and it was also
thought that if someone cursed a person by calling on the Old Norse
gods that it would not hurt the person who was a namesake of the god
invoked in the curse (Cleasby-Vigfusson, pp. 207-208 s.v. goð).

Name Meanings

Even a brief look through a list of Old Norse names reveals that the
majority contain one or more name-elements which are identical to
ordinary nouns and adjectives in Old Norse. While certainly people
were aware of the meanings of these words which continued being used
in the everyday language, some name-elements are derived from archaic
words which were present in the most ancient Germanic roots of Old
Norse, but which were no longer commonly in use. Modern philologists
make a study of these names and attempt to reconstruct the ancient
forms based on well-known rules which describe the way human
languages change over time.

Even in cases where name meanings were clearly understood in a
contemporary sense, the meaning of the name was not important in
choosing a name for a child. As has already been discussed, the use
of a family name belonging to an ancestor was the most important
factor for the Viking Age practice of naming.

In the lists of names I have available (write me off-list at <gunnora
@ vikinganswerlady . org>. I have provided etymological information
wherever possible, for several reasons. While the meanings of the
names would not have influenced which name a Viking Age child was
given, modern parents write and ask about names to give to their
children today, medieval recreationists using these names for their
Viking Age personas care about the meanings of names, and so forth.
Just recall that a Viking hearing someone introduced as Björn
probably didn't immediately think of a bear, any more than a modern
person being introduced to a man named Forrest thinks of trees, or
hearing of a person named Christie assumes that they are Christian.
With a little thought certainly these meanings become apparent, and
even today become the grist for puns, joke, nicknames or compliments -
- but what we hear first when we hear a name is a "name word" and not
the meaning underlying it.

Surnames: Patronymics and Matronymics

The Vikings did not use surnames as we understand them. They followed
the system of using patronymics (or rarely matronymics) and this
system is still in use in Iceland today. A patronymic is simply a
name that means Son-of-{father's name} or Daughter-of-{father's
name}. In Old Norse, we see names such as Skallagrimson (son of
Skallagrim), Hakonardottir (daughter of Hakon).

Patronymics (or matronymics) must follow the ordinary rules of Old
Norse grammar. In modern English, when we want to indicate a
possessive (sometimes also known as the genitive case of the noun) we
do so by adding an ending (the possessive of John is John's) or else
we use a phrase that indicates the possessive (of John). So in modern
English, when we want to indicate a son belonging to John, we say
John's son or the son of John

In Old Norse, the possessive is indicated by a change in the ending
of the word. Without teaching an entire course on Old Norse here, I
will provide below some basic rules controlling the formation of Old
Norse possessives for use in patronymics and matronymics:

If the name ends in >> The ending will change to >> Sample name in
nominative case >> Genitive+Son >> Genitive+daughter
-i -a Snorri Snorrason Snorradóttir
-a -u Sturla Sturluson Sturladóttir
-nn -ns Sveinn Sveinsson Sveinsdóttir
-ll -ls Ketill Ketilsson Ketilsdóttir
-rr -rs Geirr Geirson Geirssdóttir

Most other men's names end in terminal -R, which normally forms the
genitive by adding -s:

If the name ends in >> The ending will change to >> Sample name in
nominative case >> Genitive+Son >> Genitive+daughter
-r -s Grímr Grímsson Grímsdóttir
-ir -is Grettir Grettisson Grettisdóttir

Certain men's names form their genitive in -ar. Most of these are
names ending in -dr, but others are included:

-gautr  -mundr
-urðr  -varðr

If the name ends in >> The ending will change to >> Sample name in
nominative case >> Genitive+Son >> Genitive+daughter
  -ar Hálfdan Hálfdanarson Hálfdanardóttir
  -ar Auðunn Auðunarson Auðunardóttir
-r -ar Grettir Grettisson Grettisdóttir

Mens' names that end in -björn ("bear") or -örn ("eagle") change form
slightly in the genitive, becoming -bjarnar and -arnar.

Names ending in -maðr have the genitive form -manns.

Names ending in -ss do not change in the genitive, but in the
compound patronymic, one of the "s" is dropped, thus Vigfúss,

Matronymics: While people did occasionally bear matronymics
({Mother's-name}'s-son) it was extremely uncommon. I can document
only a handful of men with matronymics. There were a total of only 34
women in Iceland whose sons are shown by the historical records to
have borne their mother's name as a matronymic, and most of these
women lived in the northern and western districts of Iceland (Barði
Guðmundsson. The Origin of the Icelanders. trans. Lee M. Hollander.
Lincoln: Univ of Nebraska Press. 1967. Library of Congress Catalog
Card #66-19265. pp. 26-31). Some of these men with matronymics were
court skalds:

Eilif Guðrunarson
Hrafn Guðrunarson
Stein Herdísarson
Bersi Skald-Tórfuson
Kormak Dolluson
Ofeig Jarngerðsson of Skarð

Some of the mothers whose names were used in matronymics were:


Nicknames and Short-form Names

In addition, people were sometimes called by nicknames or heiti.
These nicknames were rarely, if ever, used by the person themselves,
and almost never used to the person's face. You were tagged by your
friends (or enemies) with a nickname. This becomes painfully obvious
when you look at the historical nicknames we have recorded. they are
invariably descriptive, and mostly derogatory in some way, though a
few denote desireable traits the person was known for.

Perhaps eventually I will compile a list of Norse nick-names to
accompany my web article, however at the present time I am
concetrating on further enriching the personal name information. In
the meantime, perhaps the best collection of nick-names in Old Norse
is to be found in Geirr Bassi Haraldsson's The Old Norse Name.
Another sources is in the glossaries and appendices of Viking Age
literature such as the sagas.

In addition to heiti people also used sort forms of longer names,
just as we use Bobby for Robert or Liz for Elizabeth today. Several
of these short forms are reported in the lists of names available
through the links above.

Sometimes adults were given a nickname in a formal ceremony, for
example if the new name was the result of some special event or feat
of skill or prowess. In such a case, the newly-nick-named person
would be given gifts, just as newborns were gifted when they received
their name after birth.

Ceremonies Involved in Name-Giving

Naming is an important rite of incorporation in many cultures, and
certainly was so among the Norse. Not all children were raised:
children with defects or which the family could not afford to rear
were exposed. The fate of a new-born generally was the responsibility
of the father, or the male head of household if the father was not
available. If it was decided to rear the child, then the baby was
washed, dressed, and formally named. The ceremony of naming was
certainly a rite of incorporation, for once the child had been named
exposing it thereafter counted in the laws as murder. The giving of
the name conferred upon the child the status of a member of the
family and any rights of inheritance. In antiquity, it is assumed
that placing the child at the breast to suckle would have been the
act which signified the child was to be reared, not the naming.
However, by the Viking Age, the ceremony of naming took the place of
this older ceremony.

Naming was done by a practice called ausa vatni, "to pour water
over". The ceremony began with the lifting of the chlid from the
floor (where, presumably, it had been laid for the father's
inspection and evaluation of its fitness to be raised) and placed in
the father's arms (borit ar foður sinum). This rite was not the same
as Christian baptism, which is usually termed skirn or "purification"
in Old Norse after the advent of Christianity in the North. Once in
the father's arms, a sign recalling the Hammer of the god Þórr was
made over the child, probably invoking the protection of the god who
was considered Mankind's Warder as well as hallowing the child and
the ceremony. Another vital element in the name-giving ceremony was
the giving of a gift to the child: children received a name-gift from
friends and relatives of the family, and also another gift called
a "tooth-gift" when the baby cut its first tooth.

The sagas include several mentions of this naming ceremony. For
example in Egils saga Skallagrímssonar:

"Skalla-Grímr og þau Bera áttu börn mjög mörg, og var það fyrst, að
öll önduðust; þá gátu þau son, og var vatni ausinn og hét Þórólfr."

[Skallagrím and Bera had many children but all the older ones died in
infancy. Then they had a son. They sprinkled him with water and
called him Þórólfr.]
(Egils saga Skallagrímssonar, chapter 31)

Another example can be seen in Eyrbyggja saga:

"Þórsteinn þorskabítur átti son er kallaður var Börkr digri. En sumar
það er Þórsteinn var hálfþrítugur fæddi Þóra sveinbarn og var Grímur
nefndur er vatni var ausinn. Þann svein gaf Þórsteinn Þór og kvað
vera skyldu hofgoða og kallar hann Þórgrím."

[Þórsteinn Cod-Biter had a son called Börkr the Stout. Then in the
summer when Þórsteinn was twenty-five years old, Þóra gave birth to
another son, who was sprinkled with water and given the name Grímr.
Þórsteinn dedicated this boy to Þórr, calling him Þórgrímr, and said
he should become a temple priest.]
(Eyrbyggja saga, chapter 11)

This rite was also used for girl-children:

"Þóra ól barn um sumarið, og var það mær; var hún vatni ausin og nafn
gefið og hét Ásgerðr."

[In the summer Þóra gave birth to a girl, who was sprinkled with
water and given the name Ásgerðr.}
(Egils saga Skallagrímssonar, chapter 35)


Viking Names and Name-Giving

Ellis-Davidson, Hilda R. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe.
Harmondsworth: Penguin. 1964.

Ellis-Davidson, Hilda R. "Thor's Hammer." Patterns of Folklore.
Totowa NJ: D.S. Brewer. 1978. pp. 113-127.

Flom, George T. "Modern Name-Giving in Sogn, Norway and the Pagan
Belief in Soul-Transmigration." Scandinavian Studies 2:4 (March 1916)
pp. 235-254.

Geirr Bassi Haraldsson. The Old Norse Name. Studia Marklandica I.
Olney, MD: Markland Medieval Militia. 1977.
[The best inexpensive source of information on Old Norse names for
SCA folk, since the SCA College of Heralds relies upon it
extensively. This is one of the few name sources that the CoH does
not require photocopies of the documentation for, just the page
number that the name is located upon. It's available from CELTIC
TRADITIONS, 3366 Laurel Grove South, Jacksonville FL 32223, (904) 886-
0326; they currently list the book at $5.00.]

Pentikainen, Juha. The Nordic Dead-Child Tradition and Nordic Dead-
Child Beings: A Study in Comparative Religion. Helsinki: Academia
Scientiarum Fennica. 1968.

Sørensen, John Kousgård. "Personal Names" in: Medieval Scandinavia:
An Encyclopedia. Phillip Pulsiano et al., eds. Garland Reference
Library of the Humanities 934. New York: Garland. 1993. pp. 498-500.

Woolf, Henry Bosley. The Old Germanic Principles of Name-Giving.
Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press. 1939.
[Woolf has compiled an impressive set of genealogies and king-lists
from throughout the Germanic world. However, he has normalized the
names, meaning that he's cleaned up the spelling to better conform to
the norms of modern English, and he doesn't tell you which names are
historical vs. which are mythological - a problem in the genealogies
and king-lists, since most tend to try to trace their ancestry back
to notables such as the god Óðinn or Wotan, or else to famous
Classical figures such as Æneas or Priam of Troy, or even to Biblical
characters such as Adam, Noah, Abraham, etc. His examples of the way
names were selected to contain similar or identical name elements
within a family is very useful, however.]

Hale, Christopher J. "Modern Icelandic Personal Bynames."
Scandinavian Studies 53 (1981): 397-404.
[This is a useful study on how nick-names are used in Iceland. Hale
points out that most nick-names are in fact derogatory, and would
never be used by a person of themself, and almost never by others to
the person's face. Looking at period Old Norse nick-names (such as
the list with meanings given in Geirr Bassi, above), it soon becomes
apparent that this is nothing new in Iceland.]

Anglo-Scandinavian Names (Viking Names from the Danelaw)

Fellows-Jensen, Gillian. Scandinavian Personal Names in Lincolnshire
and Yorkshire. Copenhagen. Akademisk Forlag. 1968.
[The SCA College of Heralds doesn't like Fellows-Jensen nearly as
well as Geirr Bassi. You have to use this source with caution, as
Fellows-Jensen is working backwards from place-names and personal
names in medieval sources and using linguistic principals to figure
out what original Old Norse name these may have been derived from.
This doesn't mean the book is not useful - in a bunch of cases he
includes information documenting a name in Scandinavia, with dates.
He also includes etymological information (name meanings), which
would not have mattered to the Vikings, but modern folk like to know
what a name may have meant.]

Norwegian Viking Names

Sørheim, Helge. "Rað Rett Rúnar. Runeinnskrifter fra Møre og
Romsdal." Tidsskrift for Sunnmøre Historielag 1996. pp 9-31.
[A survey and a discussion on runic inscriptions and names found in
these inscriptions, dated from the Roman Iron Age to the Middle Ages,
found in Møre and Romsdal.]

Danish Viking Names

Lis Jacobsen and Erik Moltke, with Anders Baeksted and Karl Martin
Nielsen, eds. Danmarks Runeindskrifter. Copenhagen. 1941-1942.

Danmarks Gamle Personnavne, I Fornavne, II Tilnavne. eds. Gunnar
Knudsen, Marius Kristensen and Rikard Hornby. Copenhagen. 1936-1964.

Danmarks Stednavne I ff. Copenhagen: Stednavneudvalget (Institut for
Navneforskning). 1922.

Swedish Viking Names

Aeskil M. Lundgren and E. Brate. Svenska Personnamn Fran Medeltiden.
Uppsala 1892-1915.

Manx Viking Names

Gelling, Margaret. "Norse and Gaelic in Medieval Man: the Place Name
Evidence." The Vikings: Proceedings of the Symposium of the Faculty
of Arts of Uppsala University, June 6-9, 1977. eds. Thorsten
Andersson and Karl Sandred. Stockholm: Almqvist and Wiskell. 1978.
ISBN 91-554-0706-4. pp. 107-118.

Megaw, Basil and Eleanor. "The Norse Heritage in the Isle of Man."
The Early Cultures of North-West Europe. H.M. Chadwick Memorial
Studies. eds. Sir Cyril Fox and Bruce Dickins. Cambridge. 1950. pp.

Olsen, Magnus. "Runic Inscriptions in Great Britain, Ireland, and the
Isle of Man," Viking Antiquities in Great Britain and Ireland. Part
6. ed. Haakon Shetelig. Oslo: 1954. pp. 151-233.

Vigfusson, Gudbrand, "Northerners in the Isle of Man." English
Historical Review 3 (1888): pp. 498-501.

Wilson, David M. "Manx Memorial Stones of the Viking Period." Saga
Book of the Viking Society for Northern Research 18 (1970-1971) pp. 1-

Wilson, David M. The Viking Age in the Isle of Man - the
Archaeological Evidence. C.C. Rafn Lecture No. 3. Odense. 1974.

Early Norman Names

Jean Adigard des Gautries. Les Noms de Personnes Scandinaves en
Normandie de 911 a 1066. Lund. 1954.

F.M. Stenton. The Scandinavian Colonies in England and Normandy.
Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 4th series. Vol 27.

R.E. Zachrisson. A Contribution of the Study of Anglo-Norman
Influence on English Placenames. Lunds UniversitetsArsskrift. 1909.

R.E. Zachrisson. The French Element: Introduction to the Survey of
English Place-Names. EPNS Vol. 1 part 1. 1924.

Jules Lair, ed. Dudonis Sancti Quentini. De moribus sue actis
primorum Normanniae ducum. Memoires de la Societe des Antiquaires de
Normandie. 23. Caen: Le Blanc-Hardel. 1865.

Raymonde Forevill, ed. Guillaume de Poitiers. Historie de Guillaume
le Conquerant. Paris: Les Belles Lettres. 1952.

L. Musset. "Scandinavian Influence in Norman Literature." Anglo-
Norman Studies: Proceedings of the Battle Conference 6. 1983. ed. R.
Allen Brown. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer. 1984 pp. 107-121.

-------- End Quoting Mistress Gunnora -------------

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