Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Other Viking Weapon Words (Vápnorðar)

Type-A Viking Axe (*Paul Binns)

So far, with Viking Sword Words we have discussed the fascinating Norse terminology used to describe the items that were, for many members of this warlike people, their prized possession. There were many other key tools in the Viking arsenal though, and here, the terms for these are discussed.

(* Use of the word "Viking" in this article refers to the Scandinavian or Norse peoples of the Viking Age spanning the late 8th to 11th centuries.)

The Sax

The Vikings called a single-edged bladed weapon a sax, just as in Mercian Old English. The term Sax or handsax would have denoted a substantial short-sword whereas sax-knífr would have been used for a dagger/dirk. The term knífsblað ‘knife-blade’ is self explanatory but there is an interesting word hepti, which means the haft of a sax. Hence it is thought that a heptisax refers to a sax with a simple haft of horn or wood rather than having a complex hilt.

Sax from  Lærdal, Norway*
A höggsax, ‘hewing-sax’ presumably means a sax designed for cutting stokes rather than thrusting.
I am uncertain of the term Langsax ‘longsax’ which is commonly used to denote a single-edged Viking-age sword, as there seems to be limited provenance for it. These expensive weapons are equipped with the same hilt-structure as a double-edged sverð. It is thus likely that the term höggsax refers to this weapon. 
In the Old Norse literature we also come across the term skálm (pl. skálmar). This is used particularly of archaic swords, but can refer to any sword. It is cognate with the Proto-Germanic *skalmo - handle, and the Proto-Indo-European root *ska meaning cleave. There is also the term sviða (glossed as ‘cutlass) plus a compound sviða-skapt - the handle of a sviða.

The Axe

No discussion of viking weapons would be complete without mention of the axe. The generic name for an axe was Øx (pl. øxar). These were often well-crafted and decorated with silver inlay. Forged from iron, like good quality swords, they would have a steel cutting-edge (munnr) welded to the iron head (oxa-höfud).

Breiðøx; Thames-style Broad Axe 10-11th centry (*Paul Binns)
The edge was the øxaregg, the back of the axe was the øxarhammarr, the inner angle of the axe-head was the kverk, the hooked point of the axe was the øxarhyrna (axe-horn) and the haft was the øxarskapt (axe-shaft). An axe with an iron-bound shaft was a vafin-skepta.

Complex typologies of axes are been developed but I will content myself with mentioning but a few types for which names have survived.
Skegøx (*Paul Binns)

  • Höggøx (Hewing Axe) - described as a hatchet. A relativly small-headed weapon. Possibly the same as the handöx (hand-axe).
  • Skegøx (Bearded Axe). This has an elongated lower edge. It is thought this evolved to allow the wielder to hook his axe over his opponent’s shield and pull it down. It increases the cutting area without greatly increasing the weight of the weapon.
  • Snaghyrnd Øx (Snag-Horned Axe) This axe has sharp points which could be used for piercing attacks.
  • Breiðøx (Broad-Axe) This is the classic Dane-Axe of the Anglo-Danish Huscarl. It had a crescent-shaped blade between 9-18 inches (23-45cm) long. It would have been described as há-skeptr (long-shafted).

As in Old English, there are two general words for spear; geirr and spjót (cognate with Old English gar and spere).
Geirr seems to be the oldest term. It is often found in name compounds, for example Geirrod “Red Spear”, the Rime-Thurse smith and enemy of  the thunder-god Þorr.
It derives from Proto Germanic *gaizo and ultimately from Proto-Indo-European  *ghaiso- "stick, spear". Just like the word sax ultimately derives from the word for a sharp stone, the basic term for spear means ‘pointed stick’. The term thus includes all such weapons both thrusting, hewing and throwing.
The nail used to secure the spear-head onto the shaft is termed the geirr-nagli.
A light javelin is called a darr or darraðr (dart), cognate with the Anglo-Saxon daroð. The name frakka is recorded but is rare. This relates to the heavy Frankish javelin, called the franca or angon by the English. This weapon was obsolete in Viking times. A javelin is also termed a flug-vápn.

The term Spjót is generally glossed ‘spear, lance’. It would seem to derive from the Proto-Indo-European root *sper meaning pole or spar. I thus take it to denote only a pole-arm type spear. Spjót forms many compound words, notably;
  • Spjótsfalr, meaning spear socket.
  • Spjótshali, meaning the end of the spear-shaft.
  • Spjótsleggr, meaning the actual spear-shaft
  • Spjótskapt / Spjótskepti with the same meaning.
  • Spjótsprika meant the spear-head (and may have been of Swedish origin).
  • Krókaspjót meant a barbed spear and krók-fjöðr a barbed spear-head.
  • Höggspjót means ‘hewing spear’ and must relate to the type of spear with a broad blade meant to be used two-handed rather than for thrusting in the usual way. It is often glossed as ‘halberd’ in dictionaries for no good reason that I can think of.
  • Fjöðr (feather) is the term used for the spear blade.
The sagas contain several other weapon-words which essentially remain unidentified.

Spear from  Lærdal, Norway*
Atgeirr is usually glossed as bill or halberd. In Burnt Njal’s Saga, Gunnar Hámundarson uses his atgeirr to vault onto his horse. It is noted to be used for both cutting and thrusting. It thus may have been a pole-arm with a single-edged blade. In Egil’s Saga, Egil uses a weapon called a kesja (usually glossed as a halberd) and in Grettis saga, a giant uses a weapon called a fleinn against Grettir. This was said to have a wooden shaft and is usually translated as a pike. What ever these weapons were, if they were pole-arms such as bills, halberds or glaives, they belong in the post-Viking medieval world, as there is no evidence that the Vikings used any other pole-arm than the spear.

Bows and Arrows.

Slightly more regarded by the Vikings than the Anglo-Saxons but not by much.
The bow was known as the bogi. It was likely to have made from ash or elm. The bow tip or nock was known as the boga-háls. The bow-string was the boga-strengr
Viking arrows were mostly of tanged construction. The arrow was termed an ör (pl. örva). The arrowhead was an örva-oddr, the shaft an örva-skapt and the nock, the streng-flaug (string-flight).
A fire-arrow was a tundr-ör (tinder-arrow). Arrows would have been carried in an ör-malr or örmælir -literally an arrow-knapsack - a quiver.

(I have here used normalised Old Icelandic spellings, bearing in mind the limitations of the usual fonts. With regard to the pronunciation of these words, I would recommend the reader to consult ‘An Introduction to Old Norse’ by E.V.Gordon, Oxford University Press.)

(*Viking weapons found at  Lærdal, Norway, and on display at Bergen Museum. Image courtessy of arnybo 2004)

Images of Axe-replicas cortessy of Paul Binns (http://www.paul-binns-swords.co.uk/)


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