SWORD TALK: The Vikings

The Vikings. They continue in the popular imagination as the epitome of wild warriors who once instilled fear and terror in all who knew of their unstoppable plundering, pillaging and conquering. Yet it wasn’t just an indisputably – and historically verified – warring nature that characterized the Nordic men. Nowadays we know a lot more about the Vikings, and they don’t exactly fit the image of the eternally fight-picking barbarian armed with a horned helmet whose only purpose in life is one violent heist after another.

The Vikings were undoubtedly feared for their raiding. With their swift, manouverable longships they were able to travel on rivers, allowing them to penetrate deep inland where they would surprise their defenseless opponents. This strategy explains why the Vikings were so successful for hundreds of years. After raiding and plundering, they often disappeared as quickly as they showed up. They also settled remote regions far away from their Scandinavian home turf. They often went on raids from these new settlements while others became sedentary, giving up their old ways. Indeed, the very idea of the Viking is inseparable from ship-led raids, which is why farmers and craftsmen who no longer participated in such acts should no longer be identified as Vikings. Some, of course, remained faithful to their calling until their death.

The Viking Sword

As soon as they left their ships, the Vikings’ weapons played a central role in raiding. Off-board they fought with Viking swords, spears and battle axes. As with the sword, the ax was very popular, especially among those who could not afford an expensive sword. The Vikings’ weapons were feared mainly because they displayed such high-quality craftsmanship. Yet beyond dispute is that not every Viking sword was as good as the next one – after all, they were not mass produced. Experts continue to debate extensively on the issue, and now and again opinions diverge greatly. Theories range from the claim that Vikings’ swords had dull blades to the assertion that they were the sharpest in the world.

The truth is, as is often the case, somewhere in between. Many reliable examinations of the material composition of historical findings have revealed that the carbon content responsible for the steel’s hardness was extremely variable. The reasons for this are as diverse as a Damascus steel blade. Results varied based on production method and the quality of steel used as well as blade construction. Even steels that originated in the region of modern-day Afghanistan have been found in the blades of Viking swords. That goes to show how expansive the Vikings’ trading network was as early as the High Middle Ages.

The construction of Viking swords illustrates the development of swords from the Migration Period onward. The Dark Ages Spatha and Vendel Spatha on the upper left are typical examples of the evolution of swords during the transition from Late Antiquity to the Early Middle Ages. The Vendel Spatha’s transformed blade geometry comes into relief against that of the Dark Ages Spatha – especially the well-developed fuller, characteristic of Viking swords in the centuries after the Vendel Period (approx. 500 – 800 A.D.). The handling features of Viking swords were surprisingly good. Thanks to their sufficient size and comparatively light weight, they were all-rounders as cutting and thrusting weapons. Imagine, dear reader, possessing an excellent sword such as the legendary Ulfberht, which were basically a sort of medieval name-brand product with a first-class reputation. You would have been/could be the hippest of the hip.

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The Fabled Horned Helmet

Speaking of legends, let’s dispel a popular misconception: the Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets, at least not while they were on the prowl or during battle. While there have been individual findings of such helmets, they most likely relate to the primal cow, Auðumbla, and were used at ceremonial occasions such as marriage.

After all, a helmet with horns would be more of a hindrance than a help in battle. That’s why when on the battlefield – and when they wore helmets at all – they reached for their ridge helmets, Spangenhelms, or Vendel helmets. While good warrior helmets had as smooth a surface as possible in order to deflect any blows to the head, a helmet with horns would have done the exact opposite: indeed, the horns would have guided oppositional blows directly to the head, increasing the risk of neck injury and losing valuable helmets to boot!

Where does the popular misconception of the horned Viking helmet come from anyway? A not insignificant influence was Richard Wagner, who used horned helmets for their stage effect in his famous opera, The Valkyrie. More generally, there had already been a transmission of images among seafarers wearing horned helmets. They were transferred by the Sherden, a sea people known since the 18th Egyptian dynasty, from the time before the incipient Migration Period of the 4th century. The visual transmission of Vikings with horned helmets is seen today as romantic and misty-eyed due to lack of evidence, even if it is conceivable that such warrior-like helmets were used for the purpose of psychological warfare.

These Vikings sure do make for some interesting conjecturing, and they definitely made some fierce swords. Horned helmet or not, they were world-class traders and explorers and constitue an important part of European history.

As they used to say in old Norse, far vel!

The crew @ supremereplicas.com