What Did A Shield Mean?
This has been a question I have been pondering for some time now, and I have yet to come up with a satisfactory answer. Tacitus tells us, in Germania 6, that those who abandoned their shields on the battlefield were considered objects of shame and derision.
Now this should make us pause for thought. Why was it so important? Why the shield, and not the spear or the sword?
There are some very special things about the shield in Germanic society that are worth noting. First of all, it was one of the first things given to a young man upon achieving manhood. Along with the spear, it was the sign of enfranchisement, of being able to vote in the Thing. Tacitus compares it to the toga. It was therefore one of two signs of being a fully grown adult with full responsibilities and freedoms. One was no longer under the mund or protection of one's father and his house, but under one's own protection. No doubt this meaning of protection was deeply implied in the shield.
Indeed, one of the most famous of ancestors, the patriarch whom Heimdall himself had raised up into nobility, was called Scyld, and of him, one of the saga writers says he was so called because he provided such good protection to his country. Saxo says he restored all the ancient rights of the folk that had been threatened by robbers and brigands. He also instituted trials to dispense justice and correct violations. This feature of law connects Scyld to the law-courts which the young man upon receiving his shield was allowed now to attend and participate as a fully empowered, voting adult.
In Germania 18, the groom delivers to the bride a number of gifts, including arms and a shield. Since one of the transactions of a wedding was a bride-price which did not purchase the bride, but purchased the privilege of protecting the woman which had belonged to the father, no doubt the shield also signified a man's protection of his wife and family. Tacitus tells us the arms also signified that the wife would share the man's battles, and vice-versa. Thus, the shield may have represented the protection of home and family.
In Germania 7, we are told that images, statues, and battle-standards were brought out of the sacred grove during battle, and in Book Four of Tacitus' Histories, he gives us the further information that these were images of wild beasts, which each clan was in the custom of carrying into battle. It is thus obvious that these images brought out in war-time were totemic, and represented the spirit of the clan. They were, therefore, symbols of the hamingja, the Matron who warded over the clan and its luck, who often appeared in animal form. Tacitus tells us that in all other areas, the Germani were indifferent to glamorous appearance, but that when it came to their shields, all was different. There was a special pride put into them, demonstrated by their vivid colors (Germania 6). It is possible that there were special designs put on the shield.
We also know that the entire clan went to battle, and that the women and children stood on the sidelines and cheered or jeered as the case might be, and that this was a special incentive for the men to fight well (Germania 7). If the shield indeed represented a man's mund, or sacred obligation and privilege to watch over and protect his wife, children, and home, the presence of his loved ones would certainly be a strong impetus to his courage.
So the shield may very well have represented the family as a whole, but it must have been more than this, for there would have been many men from the same family lined up in the battle array, and so it must also have had a more personal meaning in addition to whatever family meaning it also most certainly had.
We know that valkyries, who were, in a sense, the fylgias or guardian-angels of the warriors, were sometimes called "shield-maidens", which may imply (amongst other meanings) that they too had a special connection to the shield. Did a man paint a design or rune representing his valkyrie or fylgia upon the shield? If so, there may have been supernatural connotations to the shield which could have afterlife ramifications ; more on this in a moment.
Additionally, shields were used to amplify and project the intense roars and murmurs of the war-chants with which the warriors raised their courage and attempted to intimidate the enemy. The strength of these incantations was thought to give prophetic information about the success of the battle. Odin, who certainly was a commander of valkyries or shield-maidens, speaks about this barritus (or barditus) in Havamal. In the eleventh rune-song he lists, he says ef ek skal til orrustu leiða langvini, und randir ek gel, en þeir með ríki fara heilir hildar til, heilir hildi frá, koma þeir heilir hvaðan,"If I must lead my loyal friends into battle, under the rim of their shields I sing, and there with might and dominion they fare whole, hale, blessed, and lucky to battle, hale from the battle, come from there hale and whole." So the song was a luck-summoning, and here, surely, we must be in the presence of the fylgia who carried so much of the man's luck. Was Odin as a leader of valkyries singing under their shields to summon the shield-maidens? Did the shield-maidens need to be roused by the furor of their roars in order to know they were needed, and come to the appointed battle-grounds?
If our investigation here is correct, and following the trail of our hints in the right direction, it is clear the shield held great significance. Still, though, as modern folks, we have to stop puzzled before the gravity of its importance to our ancestors, because to abandon one's shield was such a disgrace that not only was one barred from attending the Thing, but also the blots, and this was so shameful that many men who had abandoned their shields took their own lives! To us this seems extreme, but only underlines the immense significance a shield had. What could give it so much weight that a man might take his own life?
If we are following truth in connecting the shield and the shield-maiden, the shield may very well have represented the man's fylgia or guardian angel. Was abandoning his shield tantamount to abandoning her? If there was such a connection between a man's shield and his fylgia, we may ask whether during the manhood rites there was some ritual that bonded a man to his fylgia, perhaps even some test or ordeal he had to undergo to win her favor. This is not unprecedented, as Svipdagsmal shows young Odr having to go upon a great quest in order to win the hand of Menglad, who is none other than Freya, and Freya was clearly a commander of valkyries as well, as she won half the slain for herself. Svipdagsmal reads like the ordeal of an initiate, and may demonstrate how the mind and emotions (the poetic soul, or odr) of each young man had to quest for his guardian angel, with whom, as the Helgi lays intimate, he was often visualized having a quasi-romantic and affectionate connection. If the shield was then they physical point of contact with, or indeed the material evidence of the very compact with the fylgia, then abandoning it may indeed have been tantamount to abandoning her. But if he abandoned her, would she abandon him?
If his fylgia abandoned a man, he was supernaturally forlorn, for at his afterlife trial, she acted as his spokesman and lawyer, she who had witnessed his every thought and deed, and there was little hope for a man whose fylgia had abandoned him. His chances of defending himself against a charge of cowardly nidinghood were slim indeed, which could at worst portend a long stay in Niflhel.
All this for a shield? Did the shield represent the soul of one's family, and even one's own very soul? Did it encompass the pride and the privilege to protect those one loved? Did it signify, as a sign of the voting man enfranchised with full rights in the assembly, the duty to stand up for oneself and protect one's own rights? Did abandoning it therefore declare that one contemptuously had no care atall for the protection of everything one found sacred, and indeed, thus, that there was nothing sacred? Is this the reason that those who abandoned their shields were not even allowed at the blots?
We may never know. These remain speculations and questions. They seem to converge upon an answer whose significance still eludes us no matter how hard we try. Whatever it was, it is no exaggeration to say that for our ancestors, a shield, which we are prone to interpret in purely pragmatic terms, was a holy thing. Perhaps it signified that despite the fact that both arms and a shield were given to a boy upon becoming a man, it was the shield that mattered because warfare was still primarily seen as something defensive and not offensive, for what mattered was the defense of family, grove, and hearth. A shield was therefore something special and an object of especial pride. To hold another man's shield was to feel the resonance of his voice, his very soul that had sung into its curves, and thus, perhaps, to caress for a moment the guardian angel with whom he had been joined in sacred ceremony, and whom he may have wooed through quest and demonstration of both courage and eloquence. It was a reminder of everything that he was fighting for.
These questions and speculations can only raise calls of resonance within the individual soul. Perhaps the question of the shield still does remain with the fylgia who connects us to the luck of our ancestors. In the modern world, if we design shields, we ought remember that they are far more than pragmatic means to ward off blows, but emblems of everything for which we are standing. To inscribe or paint a shield, therefore, is to encapsulate everything that is personally of importance to us. Shields, therefore, ought be the greatest works of art, our masterpiece which says something tangibly about our very soul.
Does that sound like exaggeration? Tell that to the men who hanged themselves for losing their shield, and tell me it doesn't sound like they felt they had lost their very soul.