Vikings. The name conjures up many images more steeped in myth than in truth. Nevertheless, our fascination with the Vikings or “Northmen” continues to grow. One reason is their storied fighting prowess. This is due partly to Viking weapons. These were perfect for the kind of raids they conducted which put fear into the hearts of their enemies — and ensured we’d be getting plenty of Viking shows and books.
What Were the Vikings Really Like?
They didn’t identify themselves as “Vikings” per se, that was just a name for the people who took part in the raids. Rather, they identified themselves as the residents of whatever region they were from.
Unlike, the popular misconception that they were filthy and unkempt, Viking men and women were actually quite serious about their personal hygiene and appearance. They bathed at least once a week and washing their hair and hands daily. In digs of ancient Viking sites, many of the people were found with tweezers, razors, combs, and ear cleaners made from animal bones and antlers.
Women had many more freedoms than any of their other European neighbors at the time. Although they were expected to care for the home and children, they were allowed to own property and could divorce a husband while reclaiming their dowry. A few were actually warriors “shield maidens” who fought with the men on raids.
Were the Vikings truly bigger than their foes? It would seem so since their protein-rich diet would lend itself to growing larger than the European peasants they would encounter during raids or trading trips.
Ibn Fadlan, an Arab diplomat who traveled to the Volga (modern-day Russia) wrote about the Vikings he came across.
“I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Volga. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blonde and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor caftans, but the men wear a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free.”
“Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife and keeps each by him at all times. The swords are broad and grooved, of Frankish sort. From fingertips to their neck, each of them has a collection of trees, figures, and the like.”
This would seem to indicate that the tattooing of Vikings was a real thing as depicted in the film industry.
In the Annals of Fulda, written following the Battle of Fulda in 884, where Frankish troops defeated a Viking raid, Frankish chroniclers described the Vikings as such,
“In that battle, such men are said to have been killed among the Northmen as had never been seen before among the Frankish people, namely in their beauty and the size of their bodies.”
Viking Weapons, a Mix of Typical Arms for the Era
The Vikings carried a mixture of axes, swords, spears, bows, and knives on their forays into mainland Europe and beyond. Some wore helmets and wore chainmail armor when in battle.
Contrary to popular belief, they did not wear horned helmets into battle. While some of their religious leaders wore horned helmets for ceremonies, few Vikings fought with horned helmets, although a limited number of Viking berserkers were rumored to have them.
The Bearded Axe or Skeggøx
The Skeggøx derives its name from the Old Norse “skegg” which means “beard” and øx, “axe.” The axe was both a weapon and a tool. The simplicity of its design made it well-suited to both uses. Although it’s most associated with the Vikings other peoples also used it.
The Skeggøx first appeared around the 6th century A.D.
The hook or “beard” on the lower portion of the axe provides a wide cutting surface while keeping the overall weight of the axe low.
The design of the beard allows the user to grip the haft directly behind the head to use it as a tool to plane or shave wood. Variations of this design are still in use today. The “beard” of the axe would have a use in battle as it would allow a warrior to pull a weapon or shield out of a defender’s grasp.
The axe was the most prevalent of Viking weapons simply because of cost as most of the warriors of the era couldn’t afford to purchase swords.
Of all the Viking weapons swords were probably the most expensive. A sword cost the equivalent of about $1,300 in today’s money. Therefore, they were a sign of high status.
The swords were also long. The average length was about 90 cm or nearly 36 inches.
The most sought-after sword was the Ulfberht. These swords, which were made in Francia, were either bought, traded for, or taken in combat as trophies.
The Ulfberht swords have been described as being, “sharper, stronger, and more flexible than anyone else’s. That gave the user a huge advantage in battle. You could block an enemy’s sword and trust that your blade wouldn’t shatter, which was a constant concern. And in an era where the best warriors wore mail coats, an Ulfberht sword would slice through that protection better than other swords.”
Ulfberht swords contained the perfect amount of carbon and iron. This made their steel blades sharper and more durable than any other sword of the time. It was believed that the swordmakers from Francia borrowed the method from the Arabs who made Damascus steel. About 170 have survived the ages and have the name “Ulfberht” stamped into the blade.
Viking swords were double-edged and had a straight crossbar over the grip. This was often made of bone or precious metal and included “blood grooves” running along its middle. Making the crossbar of bone saved valuable metal and made the sword lighter.
Viking swords often used pattern welding. This was the practice of making a blade of several metal types that are forge-welded together and twisted and manipulated to form a pattern.
Longbows and Spears
Longbows and spears were very important Viking weapons used before hand-to-hand combat ensued.
A few longbows have survived. These are nearly seven feet (193 cm) in length. The actual effective range of the Viking bows varies, but all provided excellent stand-off capability.
Viking spears were quite common and many warriors carried them into battle. Viking spears typically feature metal spearheads attached to wooden shafts of six to 10 feet long. The spearhead was typically about seven to 24 inches long. It became longer in the later Viking age. Some of the Norse spearheads had wings called Krókspjót or a barbed spear. Viking spears were thrown and thrust with one hand.
The Vikings also carried a knife called a Seax. They carried it horizontally on their waist with blade upward so that the sheaths didn’t cut through. Seax were longer than a traditional knife and were single-edged. Their hilts were made of bone, wood, or even crafted from a single horn.