From the Vaults: Vargr: The Institution of Outlawry

Here is another article that I wrote 14 years ago for the original SpikeVision website.

Vargr: The Institution of Outlawry

Dave Smith, 2004

 The institution of outlawry for punishment of severe crimes was practiced throughout the Viking age.  Further, the concept of outlaws being equivalent to or associated with wolves was widespread throughout northern Europe.   This article will briefly examine this practice, both from an historical and a literary standpoint.

 What was Outlawry?

 Although practiced throughout northern Europe, many of the best historical and literary accounts come from Iceland.  For this reason, many of the examples will be of Icelandic origin. Outlawry was a complex social and economic punishment, which could be imposed for a number of crimes, and which consisted of several components. The root of outlawry was banishment from the country.  In the case of lesser outlawry, or Fjörbaugsgarður, it was for the term of three years. In the case of greater outlawry, or Skóggangur, the banishment was for life, and after three months, the outlaw could be lawfully killed. (1)

 Often, rather than leaving the country, the outlawed man would take refuge in the heath or forest.  For this reason, such men were often known as forest-dwellers.

 The term of banishment could vary widely.  A man’s friends and family could petition the Thing for removal of the penalty, while the family of the slain could urge its extension.

 Grettir decided to go on to the Thing, and to the Thing he went. The matter was taken up by the heirs of the man slain. Thorkell gave his hand to pay the compensation and Grettir was to be banished for three years. (2)

 In fact, Grettir’s banishment lasted a total of twenty years.

 In 982 Eric the Red was outlawed for three years and used his period of banishment to organize an expedition and explore Greenland.

 The outlawed man could not petition the Thing, nor could he be named as a defendant.  If he was encountered in the land from which he was banished, he could be killed without fear of reprisal, for he was literally outside of the protection of the law.  It was common for the friends or family of a slain man to put a price on the head of the slayer.  In addition, the outlawed man lost all property.

 Though I use the term ‘outlawed man’ throughout this essay, there is evidence that a woman could also be punished in this manner.

 “If a man slays a woman he shall be outlawed just as if he has slain a man. If a woman slays a man, she shall be outlawed, and her kinsmen shall remove her from the land” (3)


 There were a number of crimes and offenses for which a man could be made an outlaw.  These include:

 Murder (cited above)


“If a well-born woman steals, she shall be driven out of the land into another kingdom. (4)

 Harboring an outlaw:

 Grettir stayed but a few nights with Grim, for he did not want it to become known that he was about to travel North across the Heath. Grim told him to come back to visit him if he needed protection. “Yet,” he said, “I would gladly avoid the penalty of being outlawed for harbouring you.” (5)

 Grievously insulting another man:

 There are three words from maliced verse between men, which are punished with full outlawry. If a man calls a man ragr or stroðinn or sorðinn. And they shall be punished as fully slanderous words, and a man is given the right to kill for these words. (6)

 Going berserk (as stated in Christian law in 1123):

 If someone goes berserk, he is punished with lesser outlawry and the men who are present are also banished if they do not bind him. (7)

 Outlaws as wolves

 The association of outlaws and wolves is very strong in the Germanic cultures. The Old Norse word vargr (OSw: varghær, OHG: warg, OE: wearg ) has been translated in a number of ways, and several Indo-European root words have been claimed as its source. These include *wergh (“strangle”, via the Germanic *wargaz) (8) and  the Germanic “wacrer” (to wander).  The latter is the root for the modern English word vagrant.  From the fact that the major component of outlawry was banishment, this last option seems to be the most likely source.  Those who transgress against society are forced to wander from their homeland.

 After the Christianization of Northern Europe, an additional aspect of being outside of the faith as well:

 _Vargr_ is the same as _u-argr_, restless; _argr_ being the same as the Anglo-Saxon _earg_. _Vargr_ had its double signification in Norse. It signified a wolf, and also a godless man.(9)

 One author holds that the association between wolves and outlaws seems to be a later phenomenon particular to the Norse cultures:

 …it is only late, and mostly in Norse, that vargr (cognate with warg) acquires the meaning “wolf” along with “criminal.” In Old English, wearg means almost exclusively “criminal” or “accursed being.” (10)

 In Anglo-Saxon lands, the term “wolf’s-head” became an accepted term for criminals (11). This connection itself is not so simple as it may seem.  At first view, it seems to be made due to the similarity in temperament between wolves and criminals.  However, deeper meanings to this connection have been suggested.  Some authors have suggested that the condemnation of an outlaw as vargr is a symbolic pronouncement that the man is now a wolf, and is worthy of strangulation (12).

 Thus it is well seen that Sigi has slain the thrall and murdered him; so he is given forth to be a wolf in holy places , and may no more abide in the land with his father (13)

 Völundur, Egill and Slagfinnur, the third son of Ívaldi, chose to become outlaws, and travelled all the way to the northernmost edge of the world, to Úlfdalir (Wolf-dales), where Gods never go. (14)

 One author has suggested that there is also a symbolic connection between the transformation of men into wolves, and the feminization of men through the practice of Seidr magic and in playing the passive role in sodomy.  The term ergi, may have applied to both of these receptive roles (15).


 Outlawry as a social institution allowed society to pass judgment and punish criminals while avoiding the authoritarian and logistical dilemma of incarceration.  In a family-based society without clearly defined leaders, it provided a social mandate for punishment that was well-suited to the temperament and attitudes of the people. The threat of being placed outside the bound of society’s protection and ejected from the homeland was a strong deterrent to discourage anti-social or destructive behavior.

 The association between wolves and outlaws is a complex one, which is not necessarily clarified by analysis of linguistic structures.  The relationship comes in part due to the temperament and unpredictability attributed to both entities, but also carries an aspect of unholiness.  As the wolf threatens the safety of the flock, so does the outlaw threaten the stability of society. Both were dwellers in the literal and metaphorical wild lands, or utangards.  Both were to be regarded with a sense of dread, as both were outside of the social construct of normal behavior.  The inability to predict the motives or actions of such protean beings would greatly unnerve members of a culture based on established social, familial and traditional patterns of conduct.


 (1) ‘Ordered Anarchy: Evolution of the Decentralized Legal Order in the Icelandic Commonwealth’, Birgir T. Runolfsson Solvason, 1992.

(2) Grettir’s Saga, Section XVI, (14th c. A.D.) G. H. Hight trans.

(3)   The Earliest Norwegian Laws,  Lawrence M. Larson trans. 1935.

(4)   Ibid.

(5) Staðarhólsbók of Grágás, Selvårv Stigårð trans. 1999.

(5)   Grettir’s Saga, Section XLVII.

(7) The Viking Achievement, P.G. Foote & D.M. Wilson.

(8)   ‘Hellhounds, Werewolves, and the Germanic Underworld’, Alby Stone, 1994.

(9)   ‘The Book of Were-Wolves’, Sabine Baring-Gould, Project Gutenberg, 2002

(10) ‘Wolf and Werewolf’, Online Etymology Dictionary.

(11) ‘Bums in Brigantia: Sacred Gender-Variance in Ancient Germanic and Celtic Cultures’, Phil Hine.

(12) ‘Hellhounds, Werewolves, and the Germanic Underworld’, Alby Stone, 1994.

(13) Volsunga Saga, ch. 1 (13th c A.D.) William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson trans.

(14) Rydberg’s Edda, ch. 43, 1889 trans.

(15) ‘Bums in Brigantia: Sacred Gender-Variance in Ancient Germanic and Celtic Cultures’, Phil Hine.