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Drinking Customs of the Vikings
For the ancient Norsemen, drinking was much more than just consuming alcoholic beverages. Drinking ale and mead was instead part of their ancestral lifestyle and had deep cultural and religious significance.
Why do people tend to associate Vikings and drinking? In our modern age, most people have at least heard about the ferocious men of the North and their mighty feats but were the Vikings just drunkards, ready to gulp down any alcoholic beverages in between two longship raids? The answer is actually much more complicated and fascinating than that.
The drinking culture of the Norsemen is one of the few aspects of ancient Scandinavian culture that both archeology and literature agree on. Medieval Norse-Icelandic sagas are literally filled with tales of mead-drinking, ale-brewing and beautiful Valkyries serving refreshments to fallen warriors in Valhöll. Similarly, the archeological record of the Nordic lands is full of drinking vessels, brewing equipment and images of happy drinkers (1).Imported Viking-Age glass and pottery drink-ware found in Lofoten . Were those artifacts traded or stolen?
The Old Norse mythology very much confirms the idea that Norsemen treated alcohol as a sacred beverage. The tale of the theft of the sacred mead is one of the most well-known Norse tales. It centers around the God Óðinn (whose name actually means ´the ecstatic one´) and his quest to secure the magical mead Óðroerir for his kin, the Gods of Ásgarðr (2).
The mead was originally created following the signing of a peace treaty between the two families of Gods, the Æsir (Óðinn, Þórr…) and the Vanir (Freyr, Freyja…). To seal their bonds of friendship, all the Gods consecutively spat in a bowl, and from this bowl rose, Kvasir, the wisest of all men. Sadly, despite his incredible wisdom, Kvasir could not avoid an untimely death at the hands of two scheming dwarves who killed him and collected his blood which was the mead of poetry, Óðroerir.
The dwarves were later forced to surrender the mead to Suttungr, a mountain-dwelling giant. Upon hearing about the new location of Óðroerir, Óðinn managed to enter the mountain and met Gunnlöð, Suttungr’s daughter and guardian of the mead. Óðinn managed to seduce her and thus obtained access to the precious beverage which he brought to his home of Ásgarðr in the form of an eagle after swallowing it all.Óðinn, in the form on an eagle steals the mead of poetry from the giant Suttungr
This rather puzzling tale becomes much clearer when analyzing the numerous symbols which make up the narration. First of all, the wise Kvasir rising from a bowl of spit might actually symbolize an age-old Germanic ritual: chewing and crushing berries before leaving them in a bowl to make them ferment. This theory becomes even more interesting when one considers that the name Kvasir is probably related to the Norwegian word kvase (‘to crush, squash’…) (3).
The theft of the mead by Óðinn can also be explained in a similar symbolic way. It is well-known that the Norse giants (Jötnar) have always been viewed as the opponents of the Gods and that the Deities of Ásgarðr regularly acquire valuable items, knowledge and even wives among them (4). The unscrupulous Óðinn has therefore no qualms about deceiving the maiden Gunnlöð and his wooing of the giantess could be seen as a symbolic marriage. A union almost immediately broken when the God escapes his bride (5).
The tale also mentions that upon escaping the mountain, Óðinn is followed by an angry Suttungr and that in his attempt to counter the assaults of the now bird-shaped giant Óðinn spilled some of the beverage on earth which caused the lucky few who received it to become scholars and Skalds (Old Norse poets) (6). This legend is confirmed by the numerous mentions of the mead of poetry made by skalds during the Viking-age.Wilderness landscape at Trondenes, the Viking-Age chiefdom of Ásbjörn Selsbani
Even beyond the myths, it appears that Norsemen put a lot of thought into drinking. Consuming the divine beverage was considered a core part of any celebrations, marriages and meetings. During such events, the warriors, served by the lady of the house would hail the Gods and their ancestors as well as make boastings and oaths which were considered sacred. Through drinking, Norsemen would therefore weave their fates and address the Gods (7).
This tradition was so strong that even after the official conversion of Scandinavia Norsemen held on to those traditions as if nothing had changed. The tale of Ásbjörn Selsbani, a Christianized North-Norwegian chieftain from Trondenes (near Harstad) is a perfect example of this obsession: Ásbjörn needed grains to brew beer for his Christmas feast and had to travel to South Norway to buy some. Stopped in his wake by soldiers of the king Saint Olaf, he ended up taking revenge unto them, ultimately dying himself (8).
His death, caused by an ardent desire to keep the old Scandinavian drinking tradition alive would lead his family to rebel against their king and to his untimely downfall. When the desire for a drink causes revolutions and the death of kings one realizes that for Vikings, drinking was more than just gulping beverages: it was a beloved aspect of their age-old culture they would rather fight and die for than give up.
Different types of drinking vessels?
Drinking horns as well as wooden and clay cups had some variety based on their source and how they were made. Understanding more details will help people understand more about the Vikings’ drinking vessels:
- Drinking Horns: Horns fashioned for drinking were mainly made from cow and auroch, a type of cattle that went extinct in 17th century Europe.
- Lathed cups without handles: This type cup was made from lathed hardwood and gripped with the entire hand, rather than just the fingers.
- Cups with handles: This type of cup made from hardwood, but had a handle and was gripped with the fingers.
- Ceramic cups: This type of cup was a form of pottery that was made from treated clay.
- Steatite cups: This type of cup was made from stone.
- Glass beakers: These were the most prestigious vessels due to how they were made and the way of the looked.
A lot of people wonder what the Vikings looked like. See Did the Vikings Paint their Faces? to learn more.
Horns fashioned for drinking were mainly made from cow and auroch, a type of cattle that went extinct in 17th century Europe
How come we have the Viking horned helmet?
Horned helmets were actually the work from the the late 19th century. It appeared in the “Der Ring des Nibelungen” opera belonging to Richard Wagner a German composer. But the story of Wagner was nearly 7 centuries after the destruction of the Vikings. In fact, there has been no evidence of the Viking horned helmet.
Viking warriors with helmets that were as simple as a bowl.
It is quite impractical to wear the horned helmet and join the battle, isn’t it. It reduces the possibilities to move quickly and increases the risks of being attacked by the enemies. For example, if the warriors were moving through a small space, they stood the chances that they couldn’t get through with the horned helmet. In case they were facing with their warriors in the battle with the horned helmets, the chances were that the enemies could take hold of their head by grabbing the horned and control them. That is all to say the horned helmet was too impractical to be true in the battle.
In the Oseberg ship burial, the archaeologists found a tapestry that depicting a kind of ritual. In the tapestry, there was a man who might be the leader of the ritual. He was bigger than other people in the tapestry and he wore a helmet that had horns or something like the horns. This raises the question as to whether the Vikings ever wore the horned helmet. It makes many scholars doubt their belief of the nonexistence of Viking helmets. Whatever it might be, the Viking helmets were not really practical in the battlefield. So whether the Viking drinking helmets were practical in Viking ritualr not remains to be seen.
Viking Drinking Scene - History
Uncut US Blu-Ray Box Set
After the History Channel stopped doing real history documentaries and started focussing pseudo-scientific studies (UFOs and the like) as well as pseudo documentaries (Pawn Stars) which they achieve great successes with, they also tried out (mini) series. The Drama series Vikings is one of them. The first series was immediately able to win the audience over.
In the USA the channel aired censored versions of the episodes which often used alternate scenes. Thus there is no nudity, and some of the violence during the battles was toned down. However, the latter scenes are already quite graphic and only slightly censored here and there. In France they decided to air the completely uncensored version of the series.
The US Blu-Ray is uncensored but also offers a few additions to the plot. Whether or not these scenes were cut out for time reasons (so that the episodes are roughly 43 minutes long) could not be found out. We also do not know whether or not the scenes were included in the French broadcast. Thus this might be extended material which was saved exclusively for the Blu-Ray release.
The eighth episode on the US Blu-ray is overall 179.5 seconds longer than the TV Version.
Extended shot of the boats being unloaded in the vikings village right at the beginning of the episode.
Extended shot of Athelstan before he gets out his bible.
Lagertha tells Siggy to hang all the sacrificial offerings in front of the holy grot.
Extended shot of Lagertha in front of the Freyr statue. She asks the statue (also in the TV Version) for getting pregnant again.
BD: 14 sec | TV: 7 sec
Lagertha mentions the blood sacrifices her family gave to Freyr and requests for them to be accepted.
BD: 23.5 sec | TV: 3.5 sec
Ragnar goes back to camp. Athelstan watches and follows him. The TV Version contains an alternate transition.
BD: 32 sec | TV: 4 sec
Alternate footage of the wild party at night. The Blu-ray Version isn't much wilder though.
BD: 13 sec | TV: 10 sec
The little orgy in the tent is slighty more explicit on Blu-ray. There are breasts every now and then.
BD: 29.5 sec | TV: 23 sec
Ditto but the TV Version is longer.
BD: 3.5 sec | TV: 9.5 sec
Athelstan notices two naked people.
BD: 10.5 sec | TV: 13 sec
Athelstan is accompanied to bed by Thyri. He has sex for the last / first time before he will be sacrificed the next day.
After that, she's washing him. The Blu-ray reveals more details: distance shot of them being naked.
BD: 4 sec | TV: 5.5 sec
The preist reaches for the sword the human sacrifices are about to get killed with.
Shot of the neck of one of the voluntarily sacrifices.
TV +2 sec
Therefore, the Blu-ray contains a close-up of the throat being slit. A short subsequent scene (5 sec) is also in the TV Version but a few seconds later.
The bloody hatchet.
Priests serve the blood to the God.
The Drinking Horn - by Noah Tetzner History of Vikings Podcast
The drinking horn is an iconic feature and representation of the Viking Age. Images of beastly warriors, gathered around great bonfires, raising their horns of mead in the name of strength and honor, have become synonymous with the word "Viking’’. Although there are many inaccuracies in the way modern culture portrays the Vikings, the drinking horn is a notable exception. Drinking horns were certainly used throughout the Viking Age and there is much evidence for this. Granted, the material used to create a drinking horn deteriorates into the ground quickly, and thus despite all of the evidence, there is much more out there that has eroded away with time. Horn fragments have been found in numerous excavations and their use can be seen in a strong variety of sources including, Gotlandic picture stones, Archaeological excavations, and Old Norse literature.
Large stones encompassing carved images were found on the island of Gotland in Sweden. On one of these stones, we see the image of a woman stretching out her arms and offering a horn containing what could only be a beverage. The woman is accompanied by a man on horseback to whom she is presenting the horn. The scene described on this picture stone is identified as being something of Norse mythology, whereas a Valkyrie is welcoming a fallen warrior to Valhalla. Archeological finds, including the discovery of the famous Sutton Hoo longship burial, yield whole pairs of drinking horns. These pairs are of similar design and their close proximity to one another signifies the intention of their being used as a set. Drinking horns are mentioned in various Icelandic sagas, such as Ólafs saga Tryggvasonar, whereas the horn is described as being so large that a man can stand in its curve and a living human head is attached, still able to speak. Although this description of a horn appears to be entirely fictional, there is a good reason to believe that the saga writer is alluding to the tradition of fastening decorations in the form of animal heads, to the tip of the horn.
But aside from picture stones, excavations, and Old Norse literature, perhaps the most interesting piece of evidence available for the use of drinking horns, are the Golden Horns of Gallehus. These horns date back to the early 5th century, which occurred hundreds of year before the Viking Age. However, it is not unreasonable to believe that evidence for the use of horns before and after the Viking Age, must conclude that they were used during the Viking Age.
In the summer of 1639, a peasant girl named Kirsten discovered an unusually long golden horn in the village of Gallehus, Denmark. She happened upon it when she saw it protrude above the ground, revealing its shiny golden makeup. Once the horn had been unearthed, she wrote a letter to King Christian IV of Denmark, who acquired it for himself. In turn, he then gave it to a Danish prince, who was responsible for refurbishing and fixing possible broken pieces. About one hundred years later, in the spring of 1734, a second horn was found only a short distance away from the location of the first one. This horn was slightly damaged, and much shorter than the first, but soon revealed signs to its originating during the Viking Age. Runic inscriptions bearing the following statement "I Hlewagastiz Holtijaz made the horn’’ were engraved around the rim of the horn.
There is much evidence for the use of drinking horns throughout Medieval Scandinavian history. The numerous archeological finds, picture stones, and mentions in Old Norse literature enforce the enduring image of Nordic warriors gathered around great bonfires, their drinking horns brimming with mead.
Explore multiple varieties of the Viking Drinking Horns with Museum Replicas.
The Origin of Mead, According to Norse Mythology
They say that knowledge is power. But in the case of Kvasir, wisest man in the world, his knowledge was mead. Or rather, his knowledge (and his very life force) would go on to become mead through some unfortunate circumstances, according to Norse mythology.
You see, Kvasir was the wisest man in the world. He was born when the two godly factions (the Æsir, which included the likes of Odin, and the Vanir, made up of Freyja and her ilk) sealed a truce by spitting together into a cauldron. That spit became Kvasir. Which is a pretty gnarly way to be born, generally speaking.
One thing that’s pretty important to understand here: in Norse mythology and Scandinavian culture at the time, the wisest people weren’t the nerds who majored in Biology or Mechanical Engineering at Yggdrasil University– they were the poets. The bards, the singers, the storytellers. These were the true rockstars in the days of yore–and perhaps that’s why we still worship our actors, singers, and artists in such a revered way today. But back then, they had to have a positively epic amount of knowledge in order to memorize their epics. And Kvasir was the best of them all.
Like many of us when we have had a few drinks, Kvasir was said to know the answer of any question posed to him. And so, being the decent guy that he was, he went around answering questions to any who posed them to him. He was a pretty nice guy. And he probably didn’t deserve what happened to him.
You see, he wasn’t wise enough to avoid the dwarves, Fjalar and Galar.
The problem was that Fjalar and Galar were kind of into murder. As told in the Prose Edda (also known as the Younger Edda) by Snorri Sturluson (who is not a dwarf from The Hobbit but an ancient Norse poet), they liked killing folks. Especially important folks.
Now, maybe they didn’t originally intend to kill Kvasir, but it does seem a little pre-meditated. You see, they had already prepped two vats (called Son and Boon) and a pot (called Oorerir) to take his blood by the time that Kvasir came over to answer their questions.
But after their brutal act, these dwarvish brothers mixed his blood with honey and it became the Mead of Poetry, or the Mead of Suttungr, a booze so potent, it could turn any drinker into a scholar (also called a skald). When asked how Kvasir died, the dwarves told the gods that he simply suffocated from his own intelligence since neither they nor their kin were smart enough to ask him any questions. Poor Kvasir. This just goes to show that even the wisest man still has to suffer fools.
The Mead of Poetry went on to have its own starring role in some of the other tales of Snorri’s edda, including being stolen by Odin in one of his bigger moments of dickery. But that’s a story for another time.
You can still find remnants of Kvasir in culture even today: kvass, a fermented berry drink favored in Slavic countries, shares a root with his name.
And Dogfish Head Brewery out of Delaware makes a specialty ale called Kvasir formulated by a biomolecular archaeologist, who took the recipe from what was left in the birch bark drinking vessel of a Norse priestess. The recipe, like kvass, includes lingonberries. And like Kvasir’s blood, it has a honey taste. No telling if it will turn you into a poet though. That’s probably up to how many you drink if you can get your hands on this rare beer.
Where is Vikings filmed?
River Boyne (County Meath)
What you are actually seeing when you watch the Vikings sail down the Seine River to take Paris is the Boyne River in County Meath Ireland. The Boyne is where the famous Battle of the Boyne took place and it runs through some of the most beautiful countrysides in Ireland&rsquos Ancient East. The Vikings TV filming crew uses the Boyne river to sail the Viking Longships on and takes out the background replacing it with a CGI created ancient Paris.
The filming of the Vikings rowing to Paris is done near Slane Castle which you may have heard of as it is the host for the many famous concerts including U2, Madonna and the Stones.
Blessington Lakes (County Wicklow)
Many of the longship scenes where you see Ragnar and the Vikings from Kattegat setting forth to discover new lands are filmed on the Blessington Lakes. Set in the Wicklow Mountains the Lakes cover 500 acres of water and were formed over 50 years ago with the building of the Poulaphouca Dam. This is the largest man-made lake in Ireland and it has some incredible views of the Wicklow Mountains.
Lough Tay (County Wicklow)
Where is Kattegat?
Lough Tay (pronounced here as lock) is known to locals as the Guinness Lake because of course it is owned by the Guinness Family and is situated on the Guinness Estate at Luggala. You may recognize it as the home of Kattegat which is Ragnar and his families home base.
The Loch itself is on private land and you can&rsquot get closer than a view from Military Road but that view has become an iconic Irish photo in its own right &ndash apparently, if you look closely enough the outline of the Loch resembles a pint of Guinness.
Powerscourt Waterfall & Estate (County Wicklow)
Powerscourt is an absolutely glorious estate with gardens covering over 47 acres in total. Waterfalls, Japanese Gardens, statuary, formal gardens and so much more can be seen at Powerscourt House.
The Powerscourt waterfall is in the scene where Aslaug bathes and first catches Ragnar&rsquos eye.
Powerscourt House a view of the manor from the Gardens that are used for filming in Vikings.
Luggala Estate (County Wicklow)
This is the estate that belongs to the Guinness Family and one of its outstanding features is, of course, Loch Tay. The grand estate is comprised of over 25 km2 (9.7 sq mi) and was up for sale for &euro28 million Euros.
Luggala has reportedly been sold for about $22 million. The Irish Times reports that the estate was sold earlier this year to an overseas buyer for what is believed to be significantly less than its &euro28 million ($30 million) price tag
The Luggala Mountain itself is called Fancy Mountain which comes from the Irish Gaelic Fuinnse which means ash tree. The Estate and the mountain have been home to Ragnar and the crew filming many outdoor scenes from the TV show. However, it has also hosted films like Braveheart and Excalibur.
Nuns Beach (County Kerry)
Most of the filming of Vikings takes place in Ireland&rsquos Ancient East but for the Northumbrian scenes, the crew moved to the Ring of Kerry where they filmed in Ballybunion. Nuns Beach is probably one of the most spectacular beaches on the Wild Atlantic Way. The beach itself is a horse-shoe shaped cover and it lies just beneath an old convent and obviously, this is how it got its name as the nuns used to bathe here. The beach itself is only accessible by boat or if you have the stomach for it you can go down the side of the cliff-hanging onto the fixed rope handrail.
There is an old legend attached to an area just around the corner from the Nuns Beach called the Nine Daughters. The legend states that the 9 daughters of the Village Chief fell in love with Viking invaders. They had planned to run away with the Vikings but their father caught them and threw them and the Vikings into the blowhole where they drowned.
Lough Dan (County Wicklow)
Lough Dan is the largest natural lake in Leinster a spectacular deep lake situated in a glaciated valley, it is one of the last reserves of Arctic Char Trout in the British Islands so it is well visited by anglers and fisherman attempting to catch some trout.
A very popular lake for hikers and kayakers it lies very close to the Wicklow Way and is used for a variety of the Viking TV shows locations and sets.
Ashford Studios (County Wicklow)
Finally, and not quite as exciting as the rest, is Ashford Studios. The Wicklow studio has become the base for Viking&rsquos filming since 2013 and much of the CGI and green screen effects you see on the shows begin life here!
As you can see, much of Vikings is filmed in County Wicklow in the east of Ireland so if you want to discover more about Ireland&rsquos Ancient East just click here
Yes, there is a Norse saga about Ragnar&rsquos life, adventures, and progeny. However, these are not historical texts. Dr Shannon Godlove, assistant professor of English and the coordinator of Columbus State University&rsquos Medieval and Renaissance Studies Certificate Program, says that these accounts were oral history and legends of the time that paralleled historic events. While the show may often stick close to the saga, the story itself is not fully accurate.
After the bathing was done, the bride and groom would be dressed for their weddings. Strangely enough, clothing was not important, but the hair was. The bride's hair symbolized her sexuality, and therefore, the longer and more ornamental it was, the better off both she and the groom were.
She would be given a traditional bridal crown, which had been worn by her mother and other ancestors before her. The crown could be made of any number of materials that were available and important-- from straw to wood to metals and decorated with anything from flowers to crystals.
For the men, clothing was also not important, but weapons were. He would carry the blade he retrieved from the grave to show that he was now a man. His hair would also be expertly decorated and he might wear a symbol of Thor, such as Mjolnir.
Ceremony Rituals for a Traditional Viking Wedding
The gothi at a modern Viking wedding
Since weddings were more of an exchange of promises and property, the exchanging of these before witnesses came before any religious ceremony.
Religious ceremonies varied based on the region that the wedding was taking place, but a lot of them involved blood. The gothi would sacrifice an animal important to the god that he wishes to have look upon a wedding. For example, Freyja would receive the sacrifice of a sow.
While the meat of the animal was important for the feast, it was the blood that was required for the ceremony. It was taken from the wound and dribbled over the statues of the gods called to the wedding, then over the forehead of the gothi to symbolize the gods' relationship with mankind. Then, the gothi would dip twigs in the blood and fling it on the married couple as blessings. This ceremony was called the blot.
A modern-day Viking-inspired ring from Viking Front
And going back to that sword that was acquired from the tomb? The groom would give it to his new wife so that she might keep it for their future sons. In return, the bride would give him a sword of her own ancestors to symbolize their two families becoming one. These swords would bear metal rings on the bottom which the couple would then remove and wear.
The feasting which followed the ceremony was equally as important as the ceremonies. It's hard to know a lot about the feasting and what traditions happened therein because the Vikings were more concerns with keeping records of property exchanged, but we do know a few things.
For instance, we know about the brullaup, or the bruð-hlaup, also known as the bride-running. The two families would race from the place of the ceremony to the place of the feast. Whoever got there last had to serve beer to the other family for the rest of the night.
From the Thracians to the Vikings, a celebration of the drinking horn
The drinking horn was used in ancient times for consuming ale, milk, water, or mead. At first, the vessels were made from a horn of a bovid, and throughout the centuries various civilizations all over the world started to make them from wood, ceramics, glass, and even metal. According to historians, the horn’s history begins with the Scythians and Thracians. Other notable cultures that used them were the Romans, Greeks, and the Scandinavians.
The drinking horn was part of the way of life of the Thracians, who made them from horn and wood. Because of the frequent use of the vessels, to drink from a horn among the Greeks was known as drinking “after the Thracian fashion.” The Scythians made them from horn and metal, and mostly they were designed for the best warriors or the kings.
A drinking horn from the 16th century known as the Roordahuizum on display in the Frisian Museum at Leeuwarden.
They called them rhyta and the most notable example can be seen at the Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow that dates back to the 5 th century BC. Found in 1982, the vessel is made of gold and silver, and it is in the shape of the mythological stallion Pegasus. The oldest examples of rhytas were from the 7 th century BC and were found in Scythian tombs.
A drinking horn known as the Hochdorf found at the Hochdorf burial in Germany. Author: Chez Casver (Xuan Che). CC BY 2.0
In Ancient Greece, the vessels were known as keras, and they often used them for drinking wine during celebrations of the wine god Dionysus. There are many depictions of the wine god in Greek art and in some of them he is drinking from a horn. On some of the Greek red-figure pottery, mostly produced in Attica, Dionysus and satyr figures were painted holding keras.
A drinking horn made from glass. Author: Marie-Lan Nguyen. CC BY 2.5
The Romans were known for fascinating items made from glass, and most of their drinking horns were made from it. The glass-made horn was a symbol of power in the Empire, and Romans mostly used them for drinking at feasts and important ceremonies. During the Migration Period, the Germanic tribes were inspired by the beautiful glass-made horn of the Romans.
A drinking horn exhibited in the Nordiska Museum in Stockholm, Sweden.
In the Viking Age, many of the horns were found in burial sites. From the Germanic Roman Age to the Viking Age, the horns were mostly buried in female graves together with other drinking equipment.
One of the 20 pieces at the NTNU University’s Museum’s collections in Trondheim. Author: NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet. CC BY 2.0
They were also included in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf and the oldest poem of the cycle of poems about the legendary hero Sigurd known as Guðrúnarkviða II.
Drinking Horns on display at the British Museum
Some fitting a description of drinking horns were found at the burial site near Woodbridge, Suffolk, known as Sutton Hoo and according to Thor News, there are preserved parts of almost 20 Viking horns in the NTNU University’s Museum’s collections in Trondheim.
Highly decorated medieval drinking horn. Author: Bullenwächter. CC BY-SA 3.0
They became popular in Medieval Europe in the 13 th century after many pagan cultures converted to Christianity. The Christians used the drinking horns with enthusiasm, and in the 15 th century, they became ceremonial drinking vessels. In medieval literature, the horns were mentioned in a Middle English chivalric Romance known as King Horn from the 13 th century and in the Arthurian tale of King Caradoc. In the Early Modern period, they were still popular for ceremonial purposes.