Why, then, are Vikings associated with war hammers, and how did this historically inaccurate image become so popular?

Troubled times, insecurity, and everyday violence

The early medieval period was (if you'll mind the pun), to put it bluntly, deadly violent. Following the collapse of the societal security and structure that the Western Roman Empire provided, Europe witnessed centuries of a humanitarian crisis unparalleled in history: the Migration Period.

This "period" – traditionally dated from about 100 CE to 500 CE – saw huge swathes of people migrate across the former provinces of the Western Roman Empire. 

Rome's collapse in the west by the beginning of the 5th century CE meant no Roman legions were to come to the rescue, and there was no governmental structure or standing military to stop these migrations of huge tribes of peoples.

Societal law and order, if it existed at all, was often rudimentary and brutal. Violence was not only ever-present but one of the key tools in personal or societal conflict resolution. Much has been made about Vikings' supposed "ferocity" and "bloodlust." 

Yet they were products of their time – they were renowned for violence, but this was a time of societal upheaval and political insecurity.

Were the Vikings really violent?

The image of a Viking brandishing a deadly weapon, hell-bent on rape, pillage, and plunder, is only somewhat accurate. The idea that Viking warriors were inherently and seemingly genetically violent has a long history.

Scandinavia, even in the early medieval period, was at the periphery of European "civilization," a northern region of ice and blood. From 793 CE, Viking warriors, traders, and raiders soon began to come into contact – not always violently – with societies and civilizations that had reasons to portray the Vikings as bloodthirsty.

People in Viking societies throughout this era were becoming slowly exposed to Christianity. It was in the Catholic Church's interest to portray these "heathens" as violent, lawless, and bloodthirsty when compared to good peaceful, charitable, and law-abiding Christians.

Given that the Vikings specifically targeted Christian monasteries for their mostly unguarded rich pickings, it is no wonder that Christian monks would then leave less than flattering descriptions of them. 

Upon describing that 'first' Viking raid on Lindisfarne that kicked off the whole "Viking Era," Alcuin of York wrote, "Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race. The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets." 

Alcuin appears to have a fit of absence of the mind, forgetting the past few centuries of political insecurity and structure in the British Isles – and in Western Europe more broadly – following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.

Such descriptions by scholars – whether Christian or Islamic (Ahmad ibn Fadlan, a 10th century CE Arab Muslim traveler wrote extensively on the "Volga Vikings")  – living in communities that experienced Viking raids cannot be expected to be objective or neutral. 

Yet the Vikings were just one set of warriors in a multipolar world that included the Byzantine and Abbasid Empires as well as the Frankish realms – all who conquered vast sums of territory by force and used deadly violence systematically.

While you might get the impression that war hammers were a thing during the Viking Age from popular culture, there is little evidence to support the claim. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Weapons of choice

Information on the exact weapons Viking warriors used during the early medieval period is somewhat sparse. Much of what we know arises from limited archaeological finds, contemporary accounts, pictorial representations, later medieval laws, and Norse sagas.

War was seen as the most prestigious activity in Viking societies, and weapons were often highly expensive, decorated, and cherished. They were often valued for their artistic quality as much as their practical use. The majority of weapons used by Viking warriors included swords, spears, axes, or longbows.

A Viking warrior's choice of weapons had much more to do with economics and class division than skill. Swords were expensive to make or import. Only the richest Viking warriors – or nobility – could afford a sword. 

These were highly prized heirlooms often passed down from generation to generation. Frankish swords were especially prized for their high quality, and despite an export ban being placed on them to Viking societies, more than 170 (the famous Ulfberth swords) have been discovered in Northern Europe used by Viking warriors. 

Richer Viking warriors could also afford armor and chain mail for that added sense of protection.

Those lower on the socio-economic ladder had fewer options. Swords were too expensive, so they often had to use spears, knives, or hunting bows. Layers of thick, woolen clothing had to suffice instead of chainmail or armor.

The most common weapon, however, for all classes of Vikings was the axe.

A weapon with more than one purpose

The most common handheld weapon used by Viking warriors during the early medieval period was an axe. Not only were these used for violent means, but they were also practical tools – after all, all those longships needed timber to be built. 

Axes were easier and cheaper to produce as they were mostly made with wrought iron. The village blacksmith could easily forge them at a fraction of the cost and time that a sword would take.

Two of the more common types of Viking axes were:

Skeggøx (Bearded Axe): Believed to have been used as early as the 6th century CE. It takes its name from a large hook (or "beard") which maximizes the cutting surface whilst keeping the axe's overall mass relatively low. In combat, this "beard" was also useful to pry the axe from an opponent's grasp or shield.

Dane Axe: An early version of a battle-axe with an average weight of between 1 to 2 kilograms. It often had a long shaft  - around 1 meter long – with a blade forged thin. This allowed the axe to be wielded quickly, and the extra length allowed a devastating cutting ability. Perhaps the most famous example of this type of axe is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry. One of the huscarl (bodyguards) protecting King Harold Godwinson is brandishing a Dane axe.

Elaborate war hammers seen on the silver screens are most often the result of "creative" Hollywood scripts. Illustration: The Viking Herald 

Is it Hollywood's fault?

Despite the fact that Hollywood nowadays loves to portray Vikings carrying huge war hammers, this was simply not the case. There is no historical evidence or contemporary accounts of any Viking warrior during the early medieval period brandishing a war hammer. Viking warriors were often armed to the teeth, yet a war hammer was simply not in their armory.

What is more likely is that Hollywood producers or costume designers appear to have not paid attention in history class. Small hammers (like the Martel used in the Frankish realms) were used by warriors during the early medieval period. 

However, these were small handheld weapons and not the elaborate ones that Viking warriors are seen swinging in Hollywood movies. Larger hammers were developed later in the medieval period, centuries after the last Viking raid.

Depictions of Vikings with war hammers owe little to the pages of history and more to the pages of a Hollywood script. Not for the first time in history, popular culture has muddled up, mixed, and morphed different historical periods and eras.

For more on Viking weapons, visit the Danish National Museum's webpage here.

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