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Viking Arms and Armor

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

I know Vikings didn't have horns on their helmets, but what types of armor did they wear, and what types of weapons did they use?

(signed) Lost In A Haze Of Ignorance

Gentle Readers:

The original version of this page was one of the very first I constructed, in about 1988. The article was a good beginner's overview, but it had some inaccuracies and was based on "survey" books about the Vikings. While I am in the process of updating my knowledge about the current state of archaeology in Viking armor and weaponry, other researchers have published some nice materials to the web that cover many aspects of Viking martial equipment, and therefore in the interim period until I have updated my old article, I will provide links to the best web resources I have encountered, and also provide some annotated bibliography as well below.

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On-Line Resources

Helms

The Viking helmet, has been a source of much misinformation since the Nationalist movements in the 1800's, when romantic painters pictured burly Vikings adorned with helmets graced with cow horns sprouting from either temple like some sort of upright aurochs!

Vikings Did Not Wear Horned Helms Vikings Did Not Wear Winged Helms
Vikings DID NOT wear helms with either horns or wings.

VIKINGS DID NOT EVER WEAR HORNED HELMS!!!!! The only examples of Scandinavian helmets with horns come from the late Bronze Age, very much before the Viking era. One example is a bronze helmet of probable Celtic origin (c. 800-400 B.C.E.) which was found at Vikso, Denmark. This helmet has a jutting bird-beak between two round, staring eyes on the forehead, and is crowned with two S-shaped "horns" that curve up and back above the head which are bronze, not horn, and which do not resemble cow horns in any way, shape or form.

Bronze AmuletSpear Dancers with Bird-Crested Helms

Another is a small bronze figurine of a man wearing a helmet identical to the one found at Vikso. There are also a couple of art sources that seem to depict "horned" helmets. A helmet-plate die from Oland, Sweden, shows a dancing figure wearing a helm with cheek-pieces and which is crowned with two horn-like bird's heads which arc over the top of the head so that the birds appear to be staring at one another (c. 450-500 AD). Similarly, the Sutton Hoo helmet, found in England but of probable Swedish manufacture, is decorated with ornamental plates depicting almost identical figures (c. 500-600 AD). Note that the Viking Age is dated from ca. 800-1100 AD.

Shields

Viking Chieftain with Shield

Body Armor

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General Arms and Weapons Information

  • Armour Archive
    Provides info on armor, patterns, items for sale, etc.

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Kennings for Weapons

The information in this section was taken in large part from Academy of St. Gabriel Report #2871, which reports: "Old Norse literature preserves a number of names for particular weapons. The greatest number of preserved Norse weapon names are for swords, but names are also found for spears, shields, mail-coats, and staves."

The Academy of St. Gabriel report also particularly mentions: "We have put the word 'gift' in quotes because something is called the nautr of a person even when it is not a gift, but is booty."

SWORDS

  • Bastarðr ('bastard')

  • Brynjubítr ('byrnie-biter') (Sturlunga Saga I, p. 450)

  • Dragvandill (etym. unc.)

  • Fetbreiðr ('foot-broad'; 'foot' as in unit of measure)

  • Fjôrsváfi (acc.) (Life-taker?)

  • Fótbítr ('foot-biter, leg-biter')

  • Gamlanautr (Gamli's 'gift')

  • Grásíða (Grey-side)

  • Grettisnautr (Grettir's 'gift')

  • Gunnlogi (War-flame, Battle-blaze)

  • Hneitir (exact sense uncertain, but something like 'Thruster, Cutter')

  • Hvítingr (White-One)

  • Jarðhússnautr ('Gift' of an Underground Room/Passage; it was taken from one)

  • Jôkulsnautr (Jôkull's 'gift')

  • Kársnautr (Kárr's 'gift')

  • Kettlingr ('kitten') (Sturlunga Saga I, p. 452)

  • Kvernbítr (Quern-biter)

  • Lang (Long)

  • Laufi (apparently from 'leaf')

  • Leggbítr (Leg-biter)

  • Naðr (Adder)

  • Níðingr ('villain, truce-breaker') (Sturlunga Saga I, p. 453)

  • Skrřmir (etym. unc., but perhaps Large-One; also the name of a giant)

  • Skôfnungr (Shin-bone)

  • Sniðill (Pruning-knife)

  • Sætarspillir ('truce-spiller, peace-breaker') (Sturlunga Saga I, p. 453)

  • Tumanautr (Tumi's 'gift')

  • Tyrfingr (from 'a resinous fir-tree'; the sword is magical and is said to be sheathed in flame)

  • Ættartangi (apparently Family-tang, as in 'tang of a sword')

  • Ølvisnautr (Ølvir's 'gift')

AXES

  • Droplaugar ('drip-water') (Sturlunga Saga I, p. 450)

  • Hel (This is the name of the giantess who was goddess of death. The word may also be used to simply mean 'death'). (Snorri Sturluson, "Magnúss saga góða", ch. 28)

  • Himintelgja ('heaven-scraper') (Sturlunga Saga I, p. 451)

  • Hjalti (This axe-name is apparently from hjalt 'pommel of a sword; cross-guard of a sword'.) (Landnámabák, ch. 55.)

  • Hlôkk (This is the name of one of the Valkyries. It may be related to hlakka 'to cry, to scream (as an eagle); to rejoice'.

  • Randgríð (This is also the name of one of the Valkyries. The name is from Old Norse rônd 'a rim, a border', used poetically to mean 'a shield', and , 'frantic eagerness'. There is also a giantess named Gríðr. The combination hence means something like 'shield-hungry'.)

  • Rimmugřgr ('Battle-hag'). (Brennu-Njáls saga, ch. 45.)

  • Saxa (This is the name of a giantess; it is also a feminine form of sax 'a sword'.) (Cleasby, R., G. Vigfusson, & W. Craigie, An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Oxford: At the University Press, 1975)

  • Skaði (This is also the name of a giantess/goddess. The name is identical with the masculine noun skaði 'scathe, harm, damage'.) (Cleasby, R., G. Vigfusson, & W. Craigie, An Icelandic-English Dictionary. Oxford: At the University Press, 1975)

  • Steinsnautr ('Steinn's gift') (Sturlunga Saga I, p. 454)

  • Stjarna ('star') (Sturlunga Saga I, p. 454)

  • Svartleggja ('black-legs; black-hafted') (Sturlunga Saga II, p. 508)

  • Sveðja ('glancer') (Sturlunga Saga I, p. 454)

  • Tjald-sperra ('tent-spar') (Sturlunga Saga I, p. 455)

SPEARS

  • Grásíða ('grey-side', reforged from the sword of the same name)

  • Vigr ('spear'; the word is poetic, the common word for 'spear' being spjót)

SHIELDS

  • Ôrveigarnautr (Ôrveig's 'gift'; Ôrveig is fem.)

MAIL COATS

  • Emma (?)

  • Full-trúi ('full-trust'; 'Old Faithful') (Sturlunga Saga I, p. 450)

  • Sigfússnautr (Sigfúss's 'gift')

STAVES

  • Hegnuðr ('chastiser') or Hôgnuðr (etym. unc.)

  • Landkônnuðr ('land-prober, land-explorer')

Note: Items sourced from Sturlunga Saga above are from:

  • McGrew, Julia H., trans. "Glossary of Nicknames and Names of Weapons," Sturlunga Saga. Vol. I. New York: Twayne. 1970. pp. 449-455. Vol. II. New York: Twayne. 1974. pp. 503-509.

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Bibliography

  • Ellis-Davidson, Hilda R. The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England: Its Archaeology and Literature. Oxford: Clarendon. 1962. Reprint: Boydell & Brewer, 1998.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy this book today!
    [This book is an invaluable exploration of the significance of the sword as symbol and weapon in the Anglo-Saxon world, using archaeological and literary evidence. The first part of the book, a careful study of the disposition of swords found in peat bogs, in graves, lakes and rivers, yields information on religious and social practices. The second is concerned with literary sources, especially Beowulf. Ellis-Davidson frequently discusses Viking evidence as well in the process of examining the Anglo-Saxon ideas of the sword. Very good book and well worth reading.]

  • Griffith, Paddy. The Viking Art of War. Greenhill Press. 1995.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy this book today!
    [Griffith's Art of War is just about the only book that's been published purporting to deal with Viking military organization and tactics, but Griffith is clearly unfamiliar with the Vikings, their culture, and the source material. The information covered in this book is extremely shallowly presented, and all seems to be taken from secondary sources at best. In some places (notably the information on ships) the text is shockingly incorrect. Poor editing rounds out the debacle. Don't waste your money, unless you're just getting it to round out your collection or as an example of "what not to do" in terms of writing about the Viking Age.]

  • Harrison, Mark. Viking Hersir: 793-1066 A.D. Osprey Warrior Series 3. London: Osprey Publishing. 1993.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy this book today!
    [Like all Osprey books, this is most valuable for the illustrations. Harrison focuses on the local chieftain or hersir, the local warleaders of the Viking countries. The overall military organization of the Viking Age people, and some info on training and tactics is included, etc.]

  • Heath, Ian. The Vikings. Osprey Elite Series 3. London: Osprey Publishing. 1985.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy this book today!
    [Again, as an Osprey book, the focus is on the illustrations. Looks at Viking ships and shipbuilding, Vikings in Britain and Russia, with some information on tactics, armor and weapons.]

  • Peirce, Ian G. Swords of the Viking Age: Catalogue of Examples. Boydell & Brewer. 2002.
    Buy this book from Amazon.com Buy this book today!
    [This book provides an oviewrview of the swords made and used in northern Europe during the Viking Age ca. 850's-1050's. About 60 representative examples of the various sword-types are presented here, many not shown in other works. Where possible, a full-length photograph and photographs of details have been included for each example, with the illustrations and descriptions of most of the swords covering two facing pages. This book also includes a brief illustrated overview of blade types and construction, pattern-welding, inscriptions and handle forms and their classification under Jan Petersen's classification system.]

  • Petersen, Jan. De Norske Vikingesverd: En typologisk-kronologisk studie over vikingetidens vaaben (The Norwegian Viking Swords: A typological and chronological examination of Viking Age weapons). Kristiana/Oslo: Videnskaps-Selskapets Skrifter 2, Hist. Filos. Klasse. 1919. English translation by Kristin Noer, 1998.
    [This book is still probably the most exhaustive study of Viking Age swords. In spite of its age (1919) it is still the primary work used by Scandinavian archaeologists, and happily is partially available online in English translation. The swords are considered based mostly on the shape and decoration of the pommels, hilts and handles, while other aspects, such as length, balance and weight of the blade, are touched upon lightly or not at all. There is some very brief treatment of axe heads, spear heads and shield bosses from the same period.]

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