All cultures and civilizations have curious quirks and hobbies. In medieval Scandinavia, most notably Denmark, there seemed to have been an odd tradition of people throwing leftover bones at others. In historical records and Icelandic sagas, this interesting practice usually occurred in the halls of the Scandinavian nobility, where feasts were held and discarded bones were prevalent.
The intensity of these bone-throwing incidents could vary greatly. People sometimes threw bones as a light-hearted game during a feast—basically a food fight. Alternatively, facing volleys of thrown bones could be used as a punishment for breaking the law, disobeying the nobility, or simply behaving in an unmanly fashion. For instance, in The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki (written around the 14th century), the semi-mythical 6th-century Swedish warrior, Svipdag, saved a man named Hott, who was literally buried under a pile of bones. The greasy leftovers had been thrown at him by the courtiers of King Hrolf, a king of Denmark from the Skjoldung Dynasty. In the story, Svipdag pulled Hott out of the pile of bones, cleaned him off, and sat with him on a bench in the hall. When one of the courtiers present in the room threw a knucklebone in Hott’s direction, Svipdag caught it mid-air and launched it back with enough force to kill the assailant—after that, no one threw bones at Hott again. Hott was rebranded with the name, Hjalti, and eventually became a renowned champion for King Hrolf. On a more grounded historical basis, King Cnut I of Denmark (r. 1016-1035) was said to have punished guards that broke the law by having them sit down while members of the king’s household and other guests pelted them with bones.
As happened in the story of Hott from Hrolf’s Saga, the practice of bone throwing could become deadly. In some instances, the bones were thrown with such violence that it resembled stoning. As the term “boning” sounds either extremely risqué or like a culinary bone-removal technique, we will just continue to say “throwing bones.” Nevertheless, enough deaths eventually occurred from people being fatally pelted with bones that numerous law codes throughout the Scandinavian world specifically listed the act of killing a person with a thrown bone as a punishable crime.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Odin entertaining guests in Valhalla, by Emil Doepler (1855–1922), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki, written by an anonymous Icelander in the 14th century, translated by Jesse Byock. New York: Penguin Classics, 1998.