Blog June 2th 2015

The viking key as a symbol of female status and independancy

This week's blog I address one of the 'key' objects in the Viking Age, the key as a symbol of female status and independancy.

Keys were a symbol of a woman's status in the home and in society. Women would run farms both in the presence of their husband or while he was away. Keys were symbolic of a woman's power in the home.

The role of a woman and the symbolism of keys is even accounted in the Poetic Edda, in the Lay of Thyrm (Þrymskviða) when Thor disguises himself as Freya and goes to wed Thrym so that he will return Mjolnir, which was stolen. Heimdall says, "Busk we Thór then in bridal linen, and buckle on him the Brísings' necklace. Let a housewife's door keys dangle about him. let woman's weeds be worn by him. Let him bear on his breast bridal jewels, a hood on his head, as behooves a bride." Then Thor answered, "A craven wretch may call me the gods if I busk me in bridal linen".

Tough Thor thinks the wearing of keys is beneath him, a woman would show her status by wearing her keys on her chains on the outside of her dress.

The big key is really one (or one of a very few, two ?) of a kind. The only similarlike example I have came accross is addressed in Brett Hammond's book British Artefacts, Volume 3 - Late Saxon, Late Viking & Norman. The example in the book was found in Denmark. Unfortunately not is known where the other key was found. Extremely well preserved, a spectacular piece to see !

viking key

The smaller key, of a somewhat more 'common' type, is of my private collection and also to see on display. It was found near Norwich, Norfolk, England.

Viking and Later Anglo-Saxon keys comprised a circular loop developing into a thick shank developing into a headplate. The present example includes the loop complete with two lateral horns, the round-section shank with collar on the upper surface, and the lower part of the head with its quadrangular void, terminal and delicate T-shaped finial. Keys of this type are brittle and easily damaged at the extremities due to the thin metal surrounding the voids; this is a complete example.

Both keys will be on display on an exhibition in museum Dorestad from June 7th on, from wich a press release can be read beneath.

Images: Luit van der Tuuk.

Press release exhibition of keys museum Dorestad:

'Behind lock and door, exhibition on the development of the key.

An complete overview of early key types at Museum Dorestad.

As long as there have been possesions mankind has tried to keep them safe. Valuables could be hidden or stored in a closed chest or room. Valuable trading products had to be stored securely, preferably behind lock and door. It is therefore not at all suprising that so many keys have been found in the trading center of Dorestad.

This summer Museum Dorestad will be exhibiting a rare collection of keys dating from the Roman period through to the Middle Ages. The exhibition gives an unique view of the technical as well as the aesthetic development of the key. Not all keys were meant to be used, many had a symbolic function and a number of these special keys are also displayed. Never before in the Netherlands was such a complete overview of early key forms presented. Although there are keys and keys. Not all of them are used to open or close a lock. There were also many symbolic specimen in circulation, many extraordinary copies of which are exhibited.

Behind Lock and Door an exhibition on the development of the key from June 7, 2015 until January 6. 2016 at Museum Dorestad, Muntstraat 42 Wijk bij Duurstede, The Netherlands. See also'.



References: (the titles of the books/publications have a link to where one can read the publication/buy the book).

Fitzhugh, W. and Ward, E. Vikings, The North Altlantic Saga, p. 84, images 4.18, 4.19;

Hammond, B. British Artefacts, Volume 3 - Late Saxon, Late Viking & Norman, p. 97, fig. 1.13-f.

Hynson, C. How people lived in Viking times , p. 15 (2009);

Stelle, R. Viking Age Keys and Locks, Symbolism in life and death, p. 5;

Tuuk van der, L. De Vikingtijd, Op zoek naar de Noormannen in Nederland en België, (2014) p. 16, 165;

Tuuk van der, L. Noormannen in de Lage Landen, Handelaren, huurlingen en heersers (2008) , p. 57 and image p. 58/59. Note: this book will be re-published in an updated new version under the title VIKINGEN, Noormannen in de Lage Landen Autumn 2015.

Thomas Kamphuis, June 2th 2015.