Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Viking Sword Words

Cawood Sword (12th cen)
The war-like folk of the Scandinavian homelands valued their weapons greatly.

Swords were often given fanciful names like Brynjubítr ('byrnie-biter') and Kettlingr ('kitten'), as were other weapons. However, the Viking folk also had their own names for the component-parts of their weapons and an examination of these age-worn words can often shed surprising light into the murky world of the Northern warrior.

(* 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 Sword

The Old Norse term for sword is sverð (sverth). Here, I will use this term to refer only to the typical two-edged sword, wielded in one hand. The etymology is via Proto Germanic *swerdan  from *swertha-, lit. "the cutting weapon," from the Proto-Indo-European root *swer- "to cut." There also exists the term hjörr denoting a sword. (Cognate with Old English heoru)
The term for the sword-blade would seem to have been brandr. The etymology is from a burning brand and, by inference, a flashing sword blade. The word blað is used of a knife-blade, denoting its leaf-like shape (knífsblað).
Tangi should be accepted as the Old Norse term for the sword-tang.
As in Old English, the word edge (egg) is unquestionable. There is also the term egg-teinn, meaning “edge-twig” for the steel cutting edge of the sword.
There is no clear name for the fuller in Old Norse. There is, however, the word refill, usually glossed as tapestry. Davidson suggests that this word could denote a narrow band of pattern-welding. Similarly, the word blódrefill might also denote the central part of the blade, despite its usual identification as the sword-point.
Viking terms for the twist-welded patterns in a sword-blade include mál (patterned or marked). From this term come mál-fár (inlaid with characters), mála-járn (inlaid iron weapon), mála-spjot and mála-sax (pattern-welded spear and pattern-welded sax).
Miðfáinn (ornamented in the centre) refers to the pattern showing in the centre of the blade and fiskhryggr (fish-back) most likely refers to the classic ‘herringbone’ pattern.

The Sword-Hilt.

The viking term was hjalt. Used in the singular, it would seem to mean the handle of the sword or sax. However when used in the plural (hjölt) the ‘hilts’ always designated the hilt of a true sword, where there was a distinct upper and lower guard.
The upper guard / pommel was often termed the efra hjaltit (uppermost hilt) whereas the lower guard  was termed the fremra hjaltit (formost hilt).
“Sigrúnar skaltu kunna, ef þú vilt sigr hafa, ok rísta á hjalti hjörs, sumar á véttrimum, sumar á valböstum, ok nefna tysvar Tý.”   
Sig-runes thou must know, if thou wilt have victory,    (my translation)
and cut them on thy sword-hilt; some on the hilt-ring
Some on the pommel-ring, and invoke thou Tyr twice.
Eigg Sword Hilt, (9th cen)
In this verse, Brunhilde is instructing Sigurd in rune-magic. She tells him to rist the sig-rune t on the hilt of his sword; “some on the véttrim ... and some on the valböst.” I have seen many and various ‘translations’ of these two words; some of which have made more sense than others. Davidson describes a Viking sword, now in the Oslo Museum, where runes are inscribed on a band of metal encircling the grip, below the pommel, and on a corresponding band at the other end (of the grip). It thus seems most likely that these are the véttrim and the valböst.
The grip, the area of the hilt between the hilts was called, not unreasonably, the meðal-kafli (middle piece)
The pommel-cap or knob was referred to as the knappr or klót.

The Scabbard.

There are several words listed in dictionaries as meaning scabbard.
Firstly, skeiðr (sheath) can be used. Secondly, slídrir can mean sheath or scabbard. Thirdly there is the term skálpr, which can mean scabbard or sheath. However, this word is used in contexts suggesting that its more exact meaning is ‘leather scabbard’ or the leather covering of a scabbard. The word spænir (pl. of spánn - a wooden lath) probably denotes the wooden framework of a composite scabbard. Lastly, we find the words um-gerð and um-gjörd used for the complete wood/leather sword-sheath. The word um means ‘around’, gerð means ‘gear or harness’, whereas gjörd usually means ‘girdle’.
For simplicity, perhaps the term sverð-skálpr is sufficient.

In terms of scabbard fittings, I have been unable to track down a proven name for the metal top-mount or throat or indeed the scabbard-slide. It is possible, however, that the former could have been called the slídrir-óst (scabbard mouth) and the latter might have been called the fetils-bendu.
The name for the scabbard chape, however, is without doubt the wonderfully evocative döggskór, meaning ‘dew-shoe’ presumably because this metal or bone fitting protected the bottom tip of the scabbard from the dew! It could also simply be called the sverð-skór, although I prefer to use this term for the scabbard drag.

Ornate chape-shoe

As with the Anglo-Saxons, the sword was often symbolically confined in the scabbard by the so-called ‘peace-bands’ or frið-bönd. These were wound around the hilt and then the body of the sword-sheath. 'Spretta böndum' is the phrase meaning ‘to undo the peace-bands’.
The Viking sword-belt was called the sverð-fetill. This would have been equipped with a buckle; the fetils sylgja.

(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.)

See also;

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