A couple of days ago I read a blog post, Veiling: A Different Take on Pagan Womanhood, which intrigued me for several reasons.

1. I have studied early medieval textiles and fashion for years and wrote my Master’s thesis on the subject.
2. When I was in Europe I was heavily involved in Medieval recreation. I learned to sew and construct my own clothing, then I learned to weave my own trim, and then learned to spin my own thread and make dye from plants and minerals. After grad school I even attempted to have a costuming business (unfortunately no one actually wanted to pay me for the time it took to recreate historical clothing in an authentic way).
3. I have a vested interest in women’s roles and practices in modern Heathenry.
4. I learned to love veils and head scarfs as props and garments in modern belly dance.
5. I love wearing hats! I think I love winter mostly because I get to wear lovely, warm hats in public.

In the very first written law code that we have, the Code of Hammurabi, the wearing of veils was regulated. Women wore veils unless they were slaves or prostitutes. There were repercussions for low-class women who wore the veil like a freeborn woman of family. Veils, hats, and head coverings have been with us since we first put animal skins on our furless bodies to keep warm. Since I am a Heathen, I will limit this blog post to what we know of a few of the more prominent early Germanic cultures: the Anglo-Saxons, the Merovingians, and the Vikings.

We have very little evidence of women’s head coverings in the Anglo-Saxon pagan period, though there is no evidence of them not covering their hair, either. We do know for certain that Anglo-Saxon women wore filets, woven bands that were worn around the forehead and tied at the back of the head. There is textual evidence of filets, as well as archaeological remains of some filets woven with gold thread in a brocade pattern. The problem of recovering textiles and recreating historical clothing is one of chemistry. Most everything decomposes at some point. When we are lucky enough to recover clothing it is under unusual circumstances. The bog bodies of Denmark and northern Germany were only preserved because the acidic water and soil of the bogs kept microbial activity from destroying the animal-based materials, including the bodies themselves and the wool clothing they wore. In the Swiss lakes, plant-based items, such as linen dresses and bow staves, have been recovered due to the water being alkali. The only reason we have any pieces of the filets is simply because gold doesn’t decompose.

As anyone who has had long hair knows, you just have to get it out of the way at times. Many of the activities women did on a daily basis would require their hair being pinned or tied back at the very least. I have accidentally woven my hair into a tablet-woven band before, and let me say, it was not a great experience. When I am in the kitchen, I have to pull my hair back to keep it out of the food I am preparing. And when cooking outdoors or even just sitting around a campfire, bad things can happen if your hair gets too close to a flame. It just seems practical that despite the lack of archaeological evidence, much less textual evidence, the early Anglo-Saxon women would have pulled their hair back in some fashion.

We also must consider the fact that the early Anglo-Saxons had a lot of contact with Romans and Gallo-Romans and had adopted some of their fashions. Veils were a status symbol for women of high rank in Roman lands. Whether veils were an Anglo-Saxon fashion or not, it is very likely that the Roman fashion would have made its way to the elite Anglo-Saxons. One of the really interesting types of head coverings recovered from archaeological digs throughout ancient Europe were made of sprang. Sprang is a net-like structure that is woven without a weft. (Look it up on YouTube. It’s really cool to see how this was made.)

Reconstruction of Sprang Veil from Iron Age Denmark
Reconstruction of Sprang Veil from Iron Age Denmark

There are a few Merovingian burials that have revealed the practice of women wearing veils, both at St. Denis in Paris and under the Dom in Koln (Cologne), Germany. These burials in or under a church attest that these were christian burials, but it is unlikely that their clothing would have been effected by their religion at this very early date (5th-7th centuries CE). It is more likely that these lovely silken clothes were influenced by the fashions of the Emperor’s court in Constantinople, since these were royal ladies.

After reading the above mentioned blog post, and reading a few others associated with it, I decided to try out this veiling stuff. I have a few recreated Viking Age caps I made based on silk caps excavated in York & Lincoln, England and Dublin, Ireland, which were Viking towns at one point. The caps are quite simple and can either tie under the chin or can be tied behind the head. I prefer to make long cords (I’ve made these cords with a braiding wheel), wrap the cords around the back of my head then around my braids/ponytail/bun and tie it underneath the hair or on top of the hair. This keeps the cap firmly in place, keeps your hair out of the way, and accentuates your braids.

Viking Lady's Cap Tied Under Chin
Viking Lady’s Cap Tied Under Chin
Viking Lady's Cap Tied in Back
Viking Lady’s Cap Tied in Back

There are also written accounts of Norse women wearing head coverings. The Laxdaela Saga tells how a jealous woman throws her rival’s beautiful head wear, a gift from a queen, into a bog. Unfortunately, there was no actual description of the head wear. But we can safely assume that the caps found in the Isles would have been worn by women throughout the Viking world, based the wide diffusion of similar fashions throughout their acumen (such as tortoise brooches being worn by women from Russia to Iceland). We also have evidence from the sagas that unmarried women wore their hair free. In fact, the only descriptions we have of beauty are those of single women with long, blonde hair. (Those who were naturally dark haired could bleach their hair with a very strong soap they routinely used.) While this points to women’s hair being free to wave about in the wind, this description is reserved for unmarried women.

There are also a few, very few, images of women from the Viking period. They are highly stylized and I’ve read all sorts of theories about them over the years. There are women depicted on the Oseberg tapestry in what is thought to be a funeral procession. You can google it and see what you think. Their hair is long and pulled back in a knot at the nape of the neck. Again, this highly stylized representation is difficult to use as a source for hair styles. They do not appear to be wearing any sort of head covering, but it is hard to say. There are other representations of women, a few on runestones, but my favorite are the Silver Ladies, also called Valkyries.

Silver Lady holding a horn.
Silver Lady holding a horn.

As you can see, her hair is pulled back, possibly in a bun or a braid, maybe even with a cap over it. She does appear to have a filet around her head, but again, that is my interpretation of this stylized representation.

The arguments for veiling, or covering the hair, made on the aforementioned blog post include things such as: being called to veil by a particular goddess (many who do this are followers of the ancient Greek goddess of the hearth and domestic order, Hestia); signifying submission to a goddess/god or to their husbands; some veil to show that they are a mature woman, not a girl; or feelings of modesty, self-confidence, or sexiness. There were many reasons, probably nearly as many as there are pagan women who veil. Of all the arguments for veiling, I can see most of them applying to Heathen women except that of submission. If you are submitting to your spouse, you need to go back and do some more homework! Embla was made at the same time as Ask, she from an elm, he from an ash. They were equal, just different. (For more info on this, see my blog post on Women’s Roles.)

Again, I must say that my interest and curiosity were piqued, so I decided to give it a go. I have my little Viking caps, but honestly, I don’t think they are very pretty. I could make caps out of more colorful fabric, and I may yet, but I looked on YouTube and found a video of a Jewish lady showing different ways to tie a tichel, the square scarfs they use. I thought they were really pretty and more substantial than the little Viking cap. I played with a few different ways of tying and wore it around all day. It stayed tied up most of the day, without any need of pins or clips. Whenever the ends did escape it was simple to tuck them back in. My hair stayed out of my face and my way all day. The next day I tried my Viking cap. Again, I think I need to make one with prettier fabric. I might like it better if it was in something more colorful. Today I am wearing the tichel model again. I like having the extra poofiness since my hair is not as long as it once was. When it gets long again I think the Viking cap may be more comfortable.

I actually felt awkward telling my husband about my little experiment. He is the most awesome of men, even though he is not a Heathen. 😉 He and I connected early on when we discovered in each other the soul of a seeker of our individual truths. He has had some adventures on his spiritual journey so he is always very supportive and understanding of my religion and my journey. When I told him about the whole veiling thing he brought up an interesting point that I had not read among the arguments: that there is something intimate and important in many cultures when it comes to covering the crown chakra. I agree. I am always sad when it’s time to put away the winter hats. I feel exposed and vulnerable without something on my head. For years I have said that we lost something important as a society when we stopped wearing hats. I don’t know that I’ll wear a hair covering in public, unless I’m in my Viking clothing or in a belly dance costume, but I feel very comfortable covering my hair at home. But I guess I’ll just see how it goes. I can foresee getting some curious looks if I do wear it out and about, but I bet if I dress up my veil with some flowers it will look more exotic and less weird. And if anyone asks I can tell the truth: I think it looks pretty.

All that being said, I think if someone chooses to cover their hair, for whatever reason, great! If they want to go bare headed, great! Wear your hair however you feel comfortable wearing it. Just like I say when it comes to ritual clothing, it’s your clothing and your ritual. Wear what you feel is appropriate for you and your group/tribe/kindred, whether that is full Viking/Anglo-Saxon kit or a black Amon Amarth t-shirt and jeans.

Here are some of the sources I refer people to for Viking and Anglo-Saxon clothing, but I tried to pull out the ones that are more specific. The ones with asterisks are really good. And toward the bottom is the blog post that got me curious about this to begin with. Enjoy!

UPDATE June 9, 2014: I tried the veiling thing, mostly around the house, and it didn’t really work for me. I see other women with lovely head coverings and I always wish I could do that, but I feel kind of pretentious wearing one myself. I still wear hats or caps while outside, though that is mostly to protect my very sunburnable skin, but I feel strange veiling in general. Maybe it’s because I am blessed with beautiful hair and I like showing it off. If my hair ever turns gray (although that seems unlikely with my family’s hair history) I may consider veiling again. Though as I write this, I’m very aware of the lack of anything on my crown. All that being said, I fully support other women, of whatever religious or ethnic background, veiling or going bareheaded, whatever YOU choose to do.

*Broholm, H.E. and Margrethe Hald. Costumes of the Bronze Age in Denmark: Contributions to the archaeology and textile-history of the Bronze Age. Copenhagen: Nyt nordisk Forlag, 1940.

Crowfoot, Elisabeth, and Sonia Chadwick Hawkes. “Early Anglo-Saxon Gold Braids.” Medieval Archaeology: Journal of the Society for Medieval Archaeology 11 (1967): 42-86.

Crowfoot, Elisabeth, Frances Pritchard and Kay Staniland. Textiles And Clothing c. 1150-c. 1450. Medieval Finds From Excavations in London: 4. London: Museum of London, 1992. Reprinted, 2002.

Geijer, Agnes. A History of Textile Art. London: Pasold Research Fund in association with Sotheby Parke Bernet, 1972. Reprinted, 1979.

Geijer, Agnes. Birka III: Die Textilfunde Aus Den Gräbern.Uppsala, Sweden: Almquist & Wiksells Boktryckeri-A.-B., 1938.

Geijer, Agnes. “The Textile Finds From Birka.” Acta Archaelogica 50 (1980): 209-222.

Jørgensen, Lise Bender. North European Textiles Until AD 1000. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 1992.

Jørgensen, Lise Bender. Prehistoric Scandinavian Textiles. Kobenhavn, Denmark: Det Kongelige Nordiske Oldskriftselskab, 1986.

Kalavrezou, Ioli, with contributions by Angeliki E. Laiou…[et al.]. Byzantine Women And Their World. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2003.

Khvoschchinskaia, Natalia. “New Finds of Medieval Textiles in the North of NovgorodLand.” In Archaeological Textiles In Northern Europe: Report from the 4th NESAT Symposium 1.-5. May 1990 in Copenhagen, edited by Lise Bender Jørgensen and Elisabeth Munksgaard. Copenhagen: Konservatorskolen Det Kongelige Danske Kunstakademi, 1992.

Kitzinger, Ernst. The Art Of Byzantium And The Medieval West: Selected Studies. Edited by W. Eugene Kleinbauer. Bloominton, IN and London: IndianaUniversity Press, 1976.

Krag, Anne Hedeager. “Denmark – Europe: Dress and Fashion in Denmark’s Viking Age.” In Northern Archaeological Textiles: NESAT VII. Edited by Frances Pritchard and John Peter Wild. Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2005.

Krag, Anne Hedeager. “Dress And Power in Prehistoric Scandinavia c. 550 – 1050 A.D.” In Textiles In European Archaeology: Report from the 6th NESAT Symposium, 7-11th May 1996 in Borås. Edited by Lise Bender Jørgensen and Christina Rinaldo. Göteborg, Sweden: Department of Archaeology, GöteborgUniversity, 1998.

Laxdaela Saga. Translated by Magnus Manusson and Hermann Palsson. London: Penguin Group, 1969.
Leeds, E.T. Early Anglo-Saxon Art And Archaeology: Being the Rhind Lectures Delivered in Edinburgh 1935. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1936. Reprinted, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1970.

Owen, Gale R. “Wynflæd’s Wardrobe.” In Anglo-Saxon England 8, edited by Peter Clemoes et al. Cambridge and London: Cambridge University Press, 1979.

*Owen-Crocker, Gale R. Dress In Anglo-Saxon England. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 1986.

Owen-Crocker, Gale R. “Pomp, Piety, and Keeping the Woman in Her Place: The Dress of Cnut and Ælfgifu-Emma.” InMedieval Clothing And Textiles. Vol. 1. Edited by Robin Netherton and Gale R. Owen-Crocker. Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press, 2005.

Pritchard, Frances. “Aspects of the Wool Textiles from Viking Age Dublin.” Archaelolgical Textiles In Northern Europe: Report from the 4th NESAT Symposium 1.-5. May 1990 in Copenhagen. Copenhagen: Konservatorskolen, Det Kongelige danske kunstakademi, 1992.

Pritchard, Frances A. “Late Saxon Textiles from the City of London.” Medieval Archaelolgy 28 (1984): 46-76.

Veiling: A Different Take on Pagan Womanhood.

*Wincott Heckett, Elizabeth. Viking Age Headcoverings From Dublin. Dublin: RoyalIrishAcademy, 2003.