Siðr, Religion and Morality

  • Declan Taggart


The religious semantics of Old Norse siðr have been heavily scrutinized by scholars over the last fifteen years, yet its moral dimensions have almost not been considered at all. In this, research on siðr may reflect the lack of attention paid in general to the morality of worshippers of Old Norse gods, beyond considerations of honour and masculinity. With this article, I aim to fill this gap in scholarship and to assess whether siðr’s moral semantics developed with the Christianization of the North or pre-existed it.
To begin, I survey the earliest surviving instances of siðr and distinguish a range of denotations from their uses, from “religious praxis” to “individual practice” to “moral”. The last of these senses first clearly appears in Harmsól in the twelfth century, although moral dimensions do arise earlier. Despite the dearth of earlier attestation, it is proposed on the basis of those moral dimensions in earlier usage and the term’s geographical spread (as well as its etymological derivation) that siðr “moral” was popular and relevant during the Viking Age.
The article concludes by briefly considering the relationship between morality and religion in the context of siðr, chiefly through the prism of legal change. Christian siðr may be inflexible already in the late Viking Age; however, siðr associated with Old Norse gods may also be less accommodating than is sometimes assumed, given how deeply embedded Old Norse religion was in the lives of its adherents and its possible legal and administrative connections. Siðr may not have meant “moral” for any Old Norse speaker in the same way as moral does for a speaker of modern English, and the evidence is too provisional to promote its use as an emic term for a Viking Age code of conduct. Nevertheless, siðr is the extant word that most captures that concept.