Saturday, March 1, 2014

Anglo-Saxon Saturdays: Wulfes-Heafod

This Thursday, the History Channel series, Vikings, opened Season 2 with an episode called "Brother's War." Aside from the fantastic Viking shield-wall battle, gorgeous scenery, and imaginative costumes, the episode dealt boldly with the issue of betrayal. Without giving too much away, I thought it strange that when the traitor came to trial in this episode, the punishment everyone expected to be carried out was death. Death is certainly a terrible punishment, and probably fitting for such a grievous betrayal, but I had expected the verdict would be the Germanic institution of wulfes-heafod.


(wolf-es heh-av-od)

a wolf-headed creature in the 15th c. Nuremberg Chronicle
Wulfes-heafod translates literally to "wolf's head," and no, this is not a mythic creature or monster, some sort of human with a wolf's head. Wolf's-head was a severe punishment for severe crime. When someone committed a crime serious enough to warrant a verdict of wulfes-heafod, such as murder or betrayal of one's lord, a priest (or other leader) would place his hand on the convicted criminal and declare him a wolf's-head.

Last week, I talked about Anglo-Saxon agoraphobia and how they did not like open places, but instead felt secure under a roof - both a literal one and the figurative roof of societal laws. This is exactly why being declared wolf's-head was such a terrible punishment; a wolf's-head was declared to be a wolf.

If you were declared a wulfes-heafod, you were no longer considered human. You were an "outlaw," that is, you were no longer under the protection of the law. No one was allowed to acknowledge you as a person; they couldn't talk to you, or give you food or shelter. Worst of all, they could, and were almost obligated to, kill you. Wolves were a threat, they were pests who attacked livestock and sometimes people, so whenever a wolf was spotted, it would be hunted. The same idea was supposed to apply to a wolf's-head, if seen, he would be hunted.

This, alone, would be a horrible fate for anyone at any period in history, but it was especially terrible for Anglo-Saxons (and in other Germanic cultures, such as in Vikings) because of their agoraphobia, their fear of open spaces. Being declared a wulfes-heafod exiled you only to open spaces, and away from the protection of the law. Being an "outlaw" was not freedom, it was a punishment worse than death.

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