The ax is probably the most characteristic weapon of the Vikings.
One cannot think of the Vikings without thinking about their vicious axes.
The Viking Age is neither the beginning of the Norse people nor the start of their culture. The roots of the Norse go all the way back to the Megalithic and Neolithic Eras of the Stone Age.
The Stone Age for the Norse was much different than what we were taught about the Stone Age in regards to other cultures. Other cultures such as the Mediterranean Cultures are where we gathered most of our information about the stone ages, the bronze age, and the iron ages of humankind in general. But the Norse people experienced the World much differently than other cultures and thus their culture evolved differently.
During the Nordic Stone Age the people of the north developed a Battleaxe Culture, also known as the Boat-Ax Culture or more accurately, the Corded Ware Culture at approximately 2800 BC.
The name ‘boat-ax’ comes from the fact that there have been over 3000 stone battle axes found scattered throughout the Nordic areas of Scandinavia; These battle axes were made from ground stone and were shaped similar to that of boats.
Among the most remarkable finds in these communal sites were double edged battle axes, which appear to have played an important role in their culture as far as being symbols of status.
This period of time of ax wielding stone age Norsemen has also been nicknamed the Age of Crushed Skulls by Swedish writer Herman Lindqvist. due to evidence of skull damage in grave sites caused by axes.
This is also highly suggestive as to why the style of spangenhelm helmets worn by the Norse may have evolved to the distinctive conical shape as a means to protect the head from such overhead blows.
It was also during the time of the Nordic Stone Age that a prevalence of a gene that allowed adults of Northern European descent to digest lactose (milk) originated and spread to other cultures to become virtually universal. This was a genetic variant that was either rare or completely absent in early farmers from Central Europe.
The Norse Ax Culture continued well past the Stone Age, through the Iron Age and into the Late Middle Ages.
Over such a long period of time, the Norse had perfected the ax’s design. The typical head of an ax was generally formed from wrought iron with its sharpened edge made from steel. It took less skill to forge an ax, so even the poorest of the Norse could afford one.
The typical Norseman wore a small ax at their belt. Carrying an ax was as common to a Norseman as it was for anyone else in the world carrying a knife at the time. It was part of their culture and a quality ax was a often a symbol of status. The ax was a simple and universal tool that could be used for defense or battle if the need ever arose.
Axes specifically meant for battle were designed and made differently than those of farm and woodsman axes.
Battle axes were designed to cut and smash through a man. Even designed to bash apart shields and split through a helmet. Some battle axes evolved into long handled, two-handed axes that could smash through shield and armor.
Contrary to the fictional stereotype and as cool looking as they are, double headed battle axes were not made by the Norse. Almost all axes forged by the Norse were single bladed.
One of the more popular battle axes was the Dane Ax (Danish Ax). It was an ax that consisted of a wide, thin blade that was ‘pronounced’ at both the toe and heel of the bit with the toe swept inward for better shearing power.
The cutting surface of the battle ax varied between 20 centimeters to 30 centimeters (8 to 12 inches) and the average weight was around one kilogram to two kilograms (two to four pounds). It was lightweight and resembled more of a meat cleaver than a wood ax that had devastating cutting ability.
The half (handle) of the ax ranged from 0.9 meters to 1.2 meters (3 to 4 feet) long. This enabled a powerful and controlled swing with the edge of the blade just right to cut through whatever it hits. The Norse had fine tuned the ax to perfection of its use.
The Bayeux Tapestry shows us exactly the size of a two handed Danish Ax in comparison to the size of the wielder. The battle axes were shoulder level in length with slightly curved handles giving the blade edge a better cutting angle.
The ax had been part of Norse culture since the Stone Age and was well perfected for their needs, but the Norse had perfected all their tools of warfare. By time the Age of Viking Expansion began, the World never had a chance against them.
- This article is an excerpt from the book:
Kane, Njord. “Norse Armor and Weaponry.” The Vikings : The Story of a People. 2nd ed. Yukon: Spangenhelm, 2015. ISBN 978-1943066018 .
Used by permission from the author and publisher exclusively for use on spangenhelm.com only.
- Hayward, John (2000). Encyclopaedia of the Viking Age. New York: Thames & Hudson Inc. ISBN 0-500-01982-7.
- Oakeshott, R.E. (1996). The Archaeology of Weapons, Arms and Armour from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry. New York: Dover Publications Inc. ISBN 978-0-486-29288-5.
- “Arms and Armour Part 8 Shields”. Regia Anglorum. 10 December 2002.
- Holman, Katherine (2003). Historical Dictionary of the Vikings. Oxford: The Scarecrow Press, Inc. ISBN 0-8108-4859-7.
- Peter G. Foote and David M. Wilson, The Viking Achievement. Sidgwick & Jackson Ltd, March 1970.
- Kane, Njord. “Norse Armor and Weaponry.” The Vikings : The Story of a People. 2nd ed. Yukon: Spangenhelm, 2015. Print. 978-1943066018
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by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing
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