Warriors from the north where infamous to their Contemporaries, known for their brutal raids and ruthless mentality surrounding battle and their philosophies that contrasted the changing European world. Even today the very mention of ‘Vikings’ conjures up the image of a grizzled warrior donned in leather and fur, clutching an axe or sword. But what did these weapons mean to these formidable warriors? Weaponry meant so much more than a tool. It was a status symbol that illustrated their achievements and capability. They were not disposable; a typical Dane took pride in preserving his sword and keeping it for as long as possible. They where as personal as they where functional. Exploring the bond between man and steal in this society is an invaluable way of gaining further understanding of their own world. So here we will chart the life a Dane’s sword from purchase to its retirement.
A sword was top of the hierarchy when it came to their weapons. Axes, bows, Spears and ‘seax’ (A specialist dagger) where common place too and most had experience with multiple arms then just fixating on one niche. Even young men and those not serving in any military group where expected to have a working knowledge of weapons so they could defend their communities from rival warlords or invaders. For them defence and offence where a duty rather than something reserved for a select number like much of Europe at the time. The Norse who were from military families or nobility started ‘warrior training’ at the age of 10, leaning sword play and spear skills with peers and paternal relatives. However, war and raids where not only a matter of national or regional defence, it was far from it. Their individual lives could be shaped by the spoils of raids on a very personal level. Each man stood a chance to earn money, goods and respect form their individual contribution to military service. It was a chance to boost status and wealth without their gains being greatly diminished by higher powers or leaders since raiding groups where smaller and more diverse then that of their neighbouring lands,
This leads into weapons being a symbol of wealth and experience, Swords where the more expensive or arms that a man could own, so would require more commitment to regular service or dedication to involvement in raids and campaigns. It was not unusual to have collections of weapons as a social statement; they would pride themselves in the prestige of the arms and their ability to use them. This is evident when accounting for the archaeological evidence. Burials of the more elite members of society suggest that it was common for the richer individuals to have weaponry they used for action but also more valuable pieces they would use in ceremony or just as personal pieces. These more ornate special pieces of weaponry would not be practical for fighting, they were heavier or imbalanced. Thereby indicating that they could be seen as their own equivalent of a owning sports car or designer dress. Special and valued but not used casually.
This is not to say that an ambivalence was felt for the day to day weapons used when fighting. Far from it. These would be of equal importance to them and often just as costly. One such example would be the Ulfberht sword, which on its own is a stunning feat of craftmanship, it was the most converted sword that a Norseman could possess. Historians and modern blacksmiths are baffled by just how the people of this time where capable of producing such a pure metal (Crucible steel). The mystery of its manufacturing aside, obviously this sword being so highly processed and the niche producer made it expensive. But to many it was the ultimate battle sword. It was light, bendable without breaking and shatter resistant. Each one was inscribed with the name ‘Ulfberht’- perhaps one of history’s first example of branding. Imitators trying to make a profit off of the fame of the sword would crudely copy this style to try and con an unassuming raider out of their earnings with far inferior weapons that where soon found out. Ulfberht swords where manufactured in Francia, meaning the strong trade routes that Scandinavia made allowed them to become Europe’s biggest importer of these swords.
Furthermore, the weapons they used in battle boasted a personal value, again the right weapon could be a lifelong companion for a man if cared for. Many invested Personal time and belief in their tools. Ideas of luck, companionship and loyalty are all tied together. This is made obvious from saga’s and other records of the lives of individuals. In almost affectionate way they often named their weapons, usually in reference to their battle experience. Names such as Leggbir (Leg biter) and Gunnlogi (Flame of battle). This habit was more then an inside joke; swords were even inscribed with their given names, making it an investment. These names where earned and used as a reference to achievement. There can also be a parallel drawn to their folklore or other pagan folktales. Characters in such tales where gifted or earned magnificent swords such as Beowulf. More direct examples that tie together myth and fact are seen in the Sagas concerning Hrolf Kraki, who possessed a sword named ‘Skofnung’, a representative of perfection in terms of arms. Coveted as “The best of all swords that have been carried in northern lands” it was said to have been filled with the spirits of 12 of his fallen Berserker warriors. How deeply this belief in the spiritual aspects is debatable but it is certainly true that it was a significant part of their culture.
The idea that weapons could carry their own power and notoriety continued in legends and real life. So much so that it could be a valuable item to inherit- or in some cases gamble or steel. In the former case weapons could be passed down to other family members as part of a will or as a gift when the family member achieves a certain level of skill. Think of a parent gifting their old child a car when they pass their tests. It was a gesture of good will or passing on a spiritual legacy. However there are also numous records of men taking their swords to their graves, taking it to their afterlife just as many ancient cultures practiced. However as they were valuable and could have a reputation to make them desirable grave robbing was a feared problem to the extent that notably they took to bending the blades or otherwise compromising the weapon in order to deter theft. The practice was known as the ‘killing of a sword’.This was a common practice thought the ancient world too. Rome and other bronze age societies used it as a deterrent to grave robbers. Other attempts to keep their property untarnished by any other person included disposing of them in bogs or places of importance such as bodies of water. It is also evident that it was no rare for swords in particular to have their own ceremonial cremation.
Overall the relationship between weapon and warrior is a deeply complex one. Particularly in the case of a society that was so heavily weighted in its practice of raiding and offence. To the Norse they were far more then tools. They were social, political and spiritual symbols that could be coveted and aspired for. Their place in Norse culture is unique and deeply personal. As illustrated in there resonance in society they take on a life and legacy in their own right, making the study of their place within their world deeply insightful for getting a perspective on their values.