Rigsthula: A Deep Dive into Norse Social Hierarchy


When it comes to understanding Norse society, Rigsthula is a crucial text to examine. This Old Norse poem explores the concept of social hierarchy and provides insight into the different classes of individuals that made up Norse society. By examining the roles and expectations of each class, we can gain a greater appreciation for the complexities of Norse society and the impact it had on Scandinavian culture.

Key Takeaways:

  • Rigsthula is an Old Norse poem that explores the concept of social hierarchy in Norse society.
  • Examining the different social classes and their roles provides insight into the complexities of Norse society.
  • Understanding Norse social hierarchy is important for gaining a greater appreciation for Scandinavian culture and its legacy today.

Understanding Norse Society

Before diving into the social hierarchy of Norse society, it’s important to understand the overall structure and values of this ancient civilization. Norse society, also known as Scandinavian society, was centered around a strong sense of community and loyalty to family and tribe. The harsh climate and difficult living conditions of Scandinavia fostered a culture of self-sufficiency and resilience.

The role of the individual in Norse society was heavily influenced by the idea of fate, or “wyrd”. The belief was that one’s life path was predetermined by the gods, and that one’s actions could alter the outcome but not change it completely. This idea of fate led to a strong sense of fatalism and acceptance of one’s position in society.

The Role of Social Classes

Norse society was divided into distinct social classes, each with their own roles and responsibilities. Understanding these classes is crucial to understanding the complex social hierarchy that existed in Norse culture.

The upper class was comprised of kings and jarls, the ruling elite of Norse society. Kings were the highest-ranking individuals in Norse society, with the power to make laws and govern the land. Jarls were wealthy landowners who held considerable power and influence, serving as advisors to the king and leading their own communities.

The middle class was made up of farmers and traders, who formed the economic backbone of Norse society. Farmers were responsible for cultivating the land, producing food and supplies for the community. Traders, on the other hand, were responsible for the exchange of goods and commerce, playing a vital role in the distribution of resources.

The lower class was comprised of thralls, individuals who were enslaved and had limited rights in society. Thralls were often captured in battle or born into slavery and were forced to work for their Norse masters. While some thralls were able to earn their freedom, most were trapped in a life of servitude.

Each social class had its own place in the Norse social hierarchy, with clear expectations and limitations. However, despite these divisions, social mobility was possible in Norse society, with individuals able to rise through the ranks based on their achievements and contributions.

  • The upper class consisted of kings and jarls.
  • The middle class consisted of farmers and traders.
  • The lower class consisted of enslaved thralls.

“Understanding the social classes in Norse society is crucial to understanding the complex social hierarchy that existed in Norse culture.”

Kings and Jarls: The Upper Class

The highest echelon of Norse society consisted of kings and jarls, who were considered the elite ruling class. This social class wielded immense power and had a significant influence on the political and economic landscape of Norse society.

Kings were the ultimate authority, responsible for making important decisions that governed the entire Norse realm. Their role was crucial in maintaining social stability, as they ensured justice was served and peace was maintained. They were often seen as divine figures, chosen by the gods to rule over their people.

Below the kings were the jarls, who were wealthy landowners endowed with great authority and influence. These individuals held significant military power, and their support was often crucial to the success of the king’s rule. The jarls played an important role in the governance of their respective regions, controlling the activities of their subordinates and maintaining law and order.

Characteristics of Kings and Jarls:
Controlled vast lands Held significant military power
Endowed with great authority and influence Wielded immense power
Played an important role in governance Considered the elite ruling class

The power and status of kings and jarls were often reinforced by their affiliation with Norse mythology. They were seen as descendants of the gods, chosen to rule over their fellow mortals. This idea of divine right was central to the elite ruling class’s legitimacy, and it helped maintain their authority in the eyes of the general population.

Despite their importance, the power of kings and jarls was not absolute. They were still expected to adhere to various rules and regulations, and their actions were often subjected to scrutiny by their peers. The elite ruling class was also expected to lead by example, demonstrating their superiority through their actions and behavior.

In conclusion, the kings and jarls formed the upper class of Norse society, wielding immense power and influence. Their role in maintaining social stability and laying the foundations of Norse mythology was crucial, and their legacy continues to shape Scandinavian society today.

Farmers and Traders: The Middle Class

While the upper class of Norse society consisted of kings and jarls, the middle class was made up of farmers and traders. The economic backbone of Norse society, these individuals held a significant place in the Norse social hierarchy.

Farmers played a crucial role in providing food for the community. They were responsible for growing crops, raising livestock, and producing goods such as milk, cheese, and wool. These products were then traded with other members of the community or sold at markets.

Traders, on the other hand, were responsible for both domestic and international trade. They traveled to other parts of Scandinavia and beyond, exchanging goods and information with other cultures. The wealth and connections they acquired through trade helped elevate their social status.

While farmers and traders were part of the middle class, they still had distinct roles within their respective groups. Farmers were often seen as independent and self-sufficient, with their own land and family. Traders, on the other hand, were more mobile and relied on their connections and reputation to do business.

The middle class played a vital role in Norse society, providing the resources and connections necessary for both survival and success. Their contributions helped shape the social hierarchy and establish a thriving community.

Thralls and Slavery: The Lower Class

In Norse society, there was a clear distinction between the free citizens and those who were enslaved. The lower class, including thralls and slaves, were considered property that could be bought and sold.

Thralls, who were typically prisoners of war or individuals who could not pay off their debts, were the lowest rank in Norse society. They were owned by their masters and had few rights. Thralls were forced to do hard labor and often lived in poor conditions. If a thrall had a child, the child would also be a thrall.

Slaves, on the other hand, were often brought to Scandinavia by traders from foreign lands. They were considered a more valuable commodity than thralls and were typically used for domestic work. Slaves had a slightly better position in society than thralls, but they still had few rights.

Despite their low status, both thralls and slaves played important roles in Norse society. They provided a source of labor for their owners and were often used as a form of currency in trades and negotiations.

It is important to note that the practice of slavery in Norse society was influenced by factors such as warfare and trade. It was not a part of the social hierarchy in the same way that the upper and middle classes were.

In the next section, we will explore the roles and expectations of men and women in Norse society.

Gender Roles in Norse Society

In Norse society, gender roles were clearly defined and strictly adhered to. Men were expected to be warriors, providers, and leaders, while women were expected to be wives, mothers, and homemakers. These gender roles were reinforced by the social hierarchy, as men were typically in higher positions of power and authority than women.

However, women still played an important role in Norse society. They were respected for their domestic skills and were often tasked with managing the household while their husbands were away at war or on trading expeditions. Women also had the ability to inherit property and could act as chieftains in the absence of a male heir.

The Norse also had a belief in the power of female magic, known as seiðr. Women who practiced seiðr were highly respected and could hold positions of influence in society. However, this practice was viewed with suspicion by some, and women who were accused of practicing witchcraft were often persecuted.

Overall, while gender roles in Norse society were clearly defined, women still held important positions and were valued for their contributions to the community.

Mythological Influences on Social Hierarchy

Mythology played a significant role in shaping Norse social hierarchy. According to Norse mythology, the world was divided into three separate realms: Asgard, Midgard, and Jotunheim. Each realm was inhabited by different types of beings, with Asgard being home to the gods and goddesses, and Midgard being the world of humans.

The gods and goddesses were believed to have created the world and protected it from chaos and destruction. As a result, they occupied the highest position in the social hierarchy, with kings and jarls being seen as their earthly representatives. This led to the belief that those in the ruling class were divinely appointed and had the authority to govern.

The mythology also influenced gender roles in Norse society. Norse goddesses, such as Freyja and Frigg, were depicted as strong and powerful figures, with the ability to shape destiny. This served as an example for women in Norse society, who were expected to be both physically and mentally strong.

The Role of Bragi

One of the most influential mythological figures in Norse social hierarchy was Bragi. He was the Norse god of poetry and music and was seen as the patron of the skalds, or poets. Skalds were highly respected in Norse society, as they were responsible for recording and retelling the stories and myths of the gods and goddesses.

Bragi’s association with poetry and music made him a symbol of cultural and intellectual superiority. This elevated skalds to a higher position in the social hierarchy, with many of them even being granted the same privileges as kings and jarls.

The Importance of Valhalla

Another significant myth in Norse social hierarchy is the idea of Valhalla, a great hall in Asgard where fallen warriors were said to go after death. This belief helped to strengthen the idea of a noble warrior class in Norse society, as warriors who died in battle were believed to have earned a place in Valhalla alongside the gods and goddesses.

Valhalla also served as a motivator for warriors, as the prospect of earning a place in the great hall encouraged them to fight bravely and without fear. This, in turn, helped to reinforce the idea that courage and strength were highly valued traits in Norse society.

The influence of Norse mythology on social hierarchy can still be seen today in Scandinavian culture. Many modern-day celebrations and traditions are rooted in Norse mythology, and the gods and goddesses continue to be a source of inspiration for artists and writers.

The Legacy of Norse Social Hierarchy

The Norse social hierarchy had a profound impact on Scandinavian society and its legacy can still be seen today.

One of the key legacies of Norse social hierarchy is the concept of class. While modern Scandinavian societies have largely moved away from formal social classes, remnants of the old system can still be seen in areas such as education, job opportunities, and income inequality.

Additionally, the influence of Norse mythology on Scandinavian culture is still prevalent. Mythological figures such as Thor, Odin, and Loki continue to be popular in literature, film, and other forms of media. These figures and their stories often reflect the values and beliefs of the Norse society, including the importance of social hierarchy.

Furthermore, the legacy of Norse social hierarchy can also be seen in Scandinavian traditions such as the celebration of Midsummer. This festival, which has its roots in Norse pagan rituals, often includes the raising of a maypole and the crowning of a May Queen or King, both of which were traditionally associated with the upper class.

Overall, understanding the legacy of Norse social hierarchy is important for gaining a deeper appreciation of Scandinavian culture and history. While the system itself may no longer exist in its original form, its impact on modern society cannot be ignored.


In conclusion, understanding the intricate social hierarchy of Norse society is crucial in comprehending the culture and values of ancient Scandinavia. Through Rigsthula, we gain insight into the different social classes, their roles and responsibilities, and the influence of mythology on their societal structure.

The upper class, consisting of kings and jarls, held immense power and authority, while the middle class of farmers and traders formed the economic backbone of society. The lower class of thralls and slaves had limited rights and were often subject to exploitation.

Gender roles also played a significant part in Norse society, with men being responsible for providing and protecting their families and women fulfilling domestic duties and raising children.

Furthermore, Norse mythology heavily influenced social hierarchy, with tales of gods and goddesses holding power and influencing mortal affairs. Even today, Norse social hierarchy continues to shape Scandinavian society, highlighting the lasting legacy of this ancient culture.

In conclusion, delving into the nuances of Norse social hierarchy offers a fascinating glimpse into the values, beliefs, and traditions of ancient Scandinavia.


Q: What is Rigsthula?

A: Rigsthula is a Norse poem that provides insights into the social hierarchy of ancient Norse society.

Q: Why is understanding Norse social hierarchy important?

A: Understanding Norse social hierarchy allows for a deeper understanding of the values, roles, and relationships within Norse society.

Q: How is Norse society structured?

A: Norse society is structured into different social classes, each with its own roles and responsibilities.

Q: What are the different social classes in Norse society?

A: The different social classes in Norse society include the upper class (kings and jarls), the middle class (farmers and traders), and the lower class (thralls and slaves).

Q: What were the roles of kings and jarls in Norse society?

A: Kings and jarls were part of the ruling elite in Norse society, responsible for governing and upholding the laws.

Q: Who made up the middle class in Norse society?

A: The middle class in Norse society comprised farmers and traders who played a vital role in the economic and trade activities.

Q: What was the status of thralls and slaves in Norse society?

A: Thralls and slaves were considered to be part of the lower class and were owned by individuals of higher social status.

Q: How were gender roles defined in Norse society?

A: Norse society had distinct gender roles, with men being expected to be warriors and providers, while women were responsible for managing the household and bearing children.

Q: Did Norse mythology influence the social hierarchy?

A: Yes, Norse mythology played a significant role in shaping the social hierarchy and understanding of the divine order within Norse society.

Q: How does Norse social hierarchy continue to impact Scandinavian society today?

A: The legacy of Norse social hierarchy can still be seen in various aspects of Scandinavian society, including cultural values, political structures, and societal norms.