My father is originally from Iceland. He was born and raised in Iceland, and all of our relatives on his side of the family still live in Iceland. The current traditions for an Icelandic wedding ceremony follow the traditions of the Lutheran church, which is the religion of about 98% of the population in Iceland. While the Lutheran practice is also beautiful, I found the historical marriage customs to be much more interesting to study than a common Christian wedding. Historically Iceland was inhabited by Vikings, which populated the country. The marriage rituals of the Vikings are told in many of the Icelandic sagas, which the Icelandic people hold dearly as their history.
The function of marriage in society is to control human sexuality, and as a form of socioeconomic associations between groups. In Iceland, there was a double standard for men and women. The ideal woman was to be chaste and devoted to her husband, and a virgin was a commodity to a family bringing wealth through her bride price. A man on the other hand, was free to have concubines as bed slaves without and within a marriage. Since the Viking laws made provisions for extramarital activity and illegitimate children, the Vikings saw marriage more as a means for forging alliances rather than the limitations of sexuality. The Icelandic Viking's wife served as a promise of economic gain, political advantage, and/or reconciliation between formerly feuding parties. Marriages were arranged in the Viking age, and love was considered a thing to grow after a marriage. Love was insignificant compared to the bride price, dowry, or political maneuverings. While the men were not consulted on his match, fathers of the brides usually asked her for her approval. If a bride did not approve, the sagas show that the marriage, if continued, would usually end in disaster or death for the husband. In general, most brides went with their father's choice for a husband. If in any case the union did not work out in the end, Viking law had many provisions for divorce of an unhappy couple, and the families always stood to gain in some way.
Because Vikings considered marriage to be a legal contract of sorts, it was appropriate that the place to find a suitable bride was at the Thing. The Thing was a place for social gatherings of law. The law codes show that negotiating a marriage followed the same sort of rules as formation of any other contract or legal agreement, and was appropriately conducted at the Thing where other legal events. As if going to court for trial, the families negotiating a marriage often took with them men of power to act as brokers or advocates to making the proposal. These sponsors were the witnesses the formal agreement by the hand-clasp (handsal), and the promise of support and political alliance. Once the alliance between the families was satisfactory, they negotiated the bride price (brudhkaup). This consisted of three payments. The bride's family paid the dowry (heiman fylgia), and from the groom's family would come the bride price (mundr) and the morning gift (morgengifu). The dowry was the bride's accompaniment from home. The dowry represented a girl's portion of her inheritance from her father. The husband administered the dowry, but he kept it as a trust, which could not be squandered. It was intended as a payment for the wife's maintenance in a marriage. In the case of a divorce, the dowry was returned to the wife. The bride price was set at minimum of eight ounces of silver in Iceland, and twelve ounces in Norway. This was the minimum amount that would be accepted because if a man could not provide economic support now, would not be able to sustain a family. The bride price also compensated for her loss of work at home. Lastly, the price paid by the groom to the bride's family was the morning gift. The gift was usually one-third to one-half the woman's dowry, and was compensation for her virginity. The morning gift served to ensure financial support during the marriage, and owned it outright from the time it was given.
The traditional day for weddings in Iceland was Friday. This day was sacred to the goddess Frigga. The date of the weddings in Iceland was further limited by the climate. Guests, witnesses, and the bridal and grooms parties would have to travel and during the dark winter months that is almost impossible. The wedding celebrations usually lasted about a week, so enough food had to be provided to feed all the guests. This would make the wedding date have to be around harvest time. Legally, the requirements of a wedding made it mandatory that the bride and groom drink the bridal ale together, mead. Therefore, honey must have been used to brew the ale, and in sufficient quantities so that the couple could drink the mead in the four weeks following the marriage. From this tradition stems the term "honey-moon."
The preparations for the wedding ceremony began with the bride being separated from everyone with female attendants. Usually these were other married women, her mother, and a gydhja to supervise her preparations. For the bride there had to be a visible symbol of the loss of her former role as a maiden. The new bride was stripped of her clothing, and any symbols of her unwed status were removed. The kransen, a circle that was worn by girls on outspread hair on top of their heads was a token of virginity that would be removed and wrapped up for the bride until she had a daughter of her own. Next, the bride and her attendants would visit the bathhouse and washed in the steam. The symbolism of the bath included the washing away of the maiden status, and a purification to prepare her for the religious ritual to follow. While bathing in the steam, the new bride's attendants would instruct her on the duties of a wife. The final step would be to plunge into cool water to cool the bather and close the pores, completing the cleansing. The cool water usually had flowers or herbs added to it to add magical potency for fertility. The final preparation for the bride would be dressing for the ceremony in which the bride wore a blue spruce colored cloak. The bride's hair would be down and outspread because the feast would be the last time when she would wear her hair unbound and uncovered. To replace the kransen, she wore a bridal crown that would have been passed on to her by previous generations to be worn only during the wedding festivities.
The groom would also have attendants, made up of his father, married brothers, and a godhi. The groom was required to obtain an ancestral sword belonging to a deceased forebear for use in the wedding ceremony (in the sagas they talk about breaking grave-mounds in order to retrieve a sword belonging to a deceased forebear to be given to a son of the family). This is a powerful ritual of separation and destruction of the man's identity as a bachelor with the descent into the grave-mound to recover the sword serving as a symbolic death and rebirth for the groom. If an appropriate grave was not available, the sword may have even concealed by the groom's relatives in a mock-tumulus. This would provide an opportunity for the groom to be confronted by a man costumed as a ghost of his ancestor who would elaborate on the duties of a husband. If this didn't occur, the sword may be received from a living relative with a lecture on family history. Next, the groom would visit the bathhouse and symbolically wash away his bachelor status. The groom then dresses bearing his newly acquired sword during the ceremony, and a hammer or axe as a token of Thor.
The first order of business at the wedding ceremony would be the exchange of a dowry and bride price before the witnesses. Once the legal considerations were out of the way, the religious ceremony could proceed. The wedding was usually celebrated outdoors because it was more appropriate for invoking the deities of fertility and marriage. The bride was escorted to the location preceded by a young relative bearing a sword that would be her wedding gift to her new husband. The first part of the ritual summoned the attention of the gods and goddesses through invocation and a sacrifice. Instead of sacrificing, sometimes an animal was instead dedicated to the god as a living gift, and maintained thereafter as a sacred beast. In a sacrifice, the godhi or gydhja performed the ritual by slitting the animal's throat and catching the blood in a bowl consecrated for that purpose. The flesh would become a part of the wedding feast, and the bowl was placed on an altar. Next, the groom would present his bride with the sword of his ancestors. The bride would hold the sword in trust for her son. In turn, she gave her husband the sword, which had preceded her to the ceremony. The ancestral sword signified the continuation of the bloodline and transfer of a father's power of guardianship over the bride to her new husband. Following the sword exchange, the bride and groom would exchange rings. The rings were offered to each other on the hilt of their new swords. This symbolized the sacredness of the compact and the binding nature of the oath, which they take together so that the sword symbolizes a threat to either, should the oath be broken. With the rings upon their hands, and their hands joined upon the sword hilt, the couple spoke their vows.
The wedding feast begins with a bride running, and a bridegroom's ride. This indicates that there was an actual race on both parties to get to the hall where the celebrations would be taking place. The groom's party, mounted on horses would inevitably reach the hall first, which allowed the groom to lead his new bride into the hall, ensuring that she would not stumble over the threshold. This stems from a superstition that each doorway was a portal between worlds. Stepping over the threshold represented the bride's literal transition from her life as a maiden to her life as a wife. It was of great importance that the bride should not fall as she passed the door, for that would be an omen of extreme misfortune. Once within the hall, the groom would plunge his sword into the rooftree or supporting pillar of the house. This was to test the luck of the marriage by depth of the scar he made. With the preliminaries over, the feast began. The most important part of the feasting was the ceremonial drinking of the bridal ale, another of the legal requirements for the marriage to be considered legal. Here the new wife would assume the foremost of her official duties as housewife, the serving of the drink. When he received the cup, the groom would consecrate the drink to Thor, by making the sign of the hammer over it. Before drinking the groom would make a toast to Odinn, take a sip and pass the cup to his wife who would make a toast to Freyja before drinking. A drop or two of the blood from the morning's sacrifice may have been blended into the mead that the couple would drink together for the next four weeks. Once the couple was seated together, hallowing the bride with Thor's hammer, by placing it in the bride's lap and invoking Frigga, goddess of childbearing, again insured the couple's fertility. Once this was completed, the feasting would begin through the remainder of the week. This included wrestling, good-natured insult contests, dancing, and the wedding themed lygisogur (lying songs).
The last legal requirement would be the groom going to bed with his wife, led to her by the light of the witnesses. The purpose of this was to ensure that the six legal witnesses could identify both bride and groom, so if called later to testify to the validity of the marriage, they would have no doubts. The groom would remove the bride's bridal crown as a symbol of sexual union. After the wedding was consummated, the bride's dreams would be noted because they were supposed to be prophetic to the number of children she would bear and their destinies. The next morning the bride and groom were separated again and her attendants in dressing assisted the bride, and at this time, her hair was braided and bound up. The hustrulinet, a long white headdress was now to be worn as well as a symbol of being a wife. Once dressed she was escorted to the hall once again to complete the final legal requirements of the marriage. Before witnesses, the husband paid his wife the morning gift completing the marriage. He also gave her the keys to all the locks of his house symbolizing the authority as the mistress of the household.
My father didn't practice this ritual when he married my mother (they were married in a Catholic wedding, she is Colombian and that is the traditional wedding style) and neither did his mother and father. However, some practices were continued to when my grandmother was married. The braids for a married woman, the head cloth, and the mead were all used in her wedding. We also have a sword that was not used in the wedding ceremony of my parents, but was used in the ceremony of my grandparents that my dad received from his family as a gift for the wedding. I found it quite interesting to see the pagan rituals still stemming down through tradition even when Christianity tried its hardest to put all that to an end. My cousins inform me that there are still some people in Iceland who practice this type of marriage, and still practice the pagan beliefs, however the Lutheran wedding is the most typical of all.
Note: any information not given to me by my family was from an article sent to me by a relative
Jenny M. Jochens, "The Church and Sexuality in Medieval Iceland," Journal of Medieval History. (1980): pp383-384)