Friday, 9 March 2012

Vikings: Fact or Fiction 3

Double-Bladed Axes

The common caricature-Viking is depicted with a horned helmet and swinging an enormous double-bladed axe. Unfortunately, there is even less evidence for the double-bitted battle-axe in the Viking Period than the horned helmet...

It is unclear where artists got the idea, however, it is possible that they misinterpreted one of the names of the folk in the period circa 2,900 - 2,350 BCE. This is now most usually called ‘The Corded Ware Culture’ from the type of ceramic pot which characterises it. It has also been called the ‘Single Grave Culture’ or the ‘Battle-Axe Culture’ and spans the late Neolithic to the early Bronze Age. The period is named for the characteristic polished stone axe-head. It is possible that this weapon was the genesis of Ðunor’s Hammer.

Minoan labrys
During the later Bronze Age in Minoan Crete, the symmetrical double-bladed labrys axe was prevalent, and was endowed with great ritual significance, possibly as the lightning symbol of the Sky God Diwós (later Zeus). This, however, was two millennia too early to have had anything to do with Vikings.

In fact there is absolutely no archaeological evidence for double-headed axes being used by Vikings. An axe excavated from Grave 909 at Birka, Sweden and dating to the 9th Century is sometimes said to be double-headed but it is not symmetrical and looks rather similar to a Roman Dolabra or pickaxe rather than a battle-axe. 
Birka Grave 909 Axe-head
Most Viking axes that have been found in excavations are single bladed. Over time, the Viking axe evolved, becoming a more specialised war-weapon, rather than a wood-chopper that had been pressed into battle-service. 
Modern double-bitted felling axe

The modern double-bitted axe is a heavy-duty forestry tool invented in North America in the 19th Century. A double-bitted battleaxe would be at least a pound (0.45kg.) in weight heavier than a single-bladed axe. This would make it somewhat more cumbersome to use as a weapon, where speed is critical. Battle axes generally weigh far less than splitting axes because they are designed to hew flesh rather than wood; consequently relatively narrow slicing blades are the norm. These facilitate deep, grievous wounds. Moreover, a lighter weapon is much quicker to bring to bear in combat and manipulate for repeated strikes against an adversary. The extra weight of the weapon would add very little to the severity of wounds caused.
There remains the peculiar term ‘Twibil’. This derives from the Middle English twibill, and from the Old English twibill, from twí- (“double”) + bill (“edge, blade”). This does seem to denote some sort of double-edged axe, but there is no recorded Old Norse equivalent.

“Myths of the Norsemen” by H. A. Guerber, published in 1908 contains the story of the Volsung Saga. In her description of Sigmund’s last battle, she describes how Odin breaks the hero’s infallible sword :This influential book, complete with its illustrations redolent with winged and horned helmets, may in part be the source of the Viking twin-bladed axe myth.
“And he bore a mighty twi-bill, as he waded the fight-sheaves through ...”
This influential book, complete with its illustrations redolent with winged and horned helmets, may in part be the source of the Viking twin-bladed axe myth.

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