People in Viking societies undertook some of the most remarkable feats of the early medieval period.
They not only settled in distant lands over the seas, specifically Greenland and Iceland, but they were also skilled navigators, traders, and merchants who plied their wares throughout the coastal regions and river systems of Europe and West Asia.
However, it was the Vikings, those early medieval warriors, who have left an indelible mark on our popular imagination.
The Vikings really were as potent and as scary as early medieval Church propaganda would have us believe.
In this era of political insecurity, the Vikings took full advantage of the fragmentation of Europe to raid, battle, and wreak havoc on whoever stood in their way.
Part of their utter effectiveness on the battlefield was a warrior culture blended with fervent religious beliefs that permeated their society.
Sacrifices were made to the Norse gods to seek favor before battle. Runes were inscribed on weapons or small amulets carried into battle for protection.
A belief in a rowdy afterlife in Valhalla, as well as notions of honor and fraternity, all contributed to this warrior ethos.
However, central to this warrior ethos was the worship of those Norse gods in both pantheons (yes, there were two in Norse mythology) associated with warfare, battle, and bloodshed.
With a thirst for knowledge and a fearless heart, Odin's presence in the sagas symbolizes both strategic brilliance and unmatched valor on the battlefield. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Odin: An inspiration on the battlefield and for eternity
Odin is, of course, the chief among the Norse gods. Among his many roles, none is more important than being the leader of the Norse gods, and he was widely revered as a god of war.
Warriors sought his guidance in combat for two reasons.
Firstly, he was fearlessly brave according to the sagas and myths created about him. He was said to ride his eight-legged horse headfirst into any battle, an inspiration for any Viking warrior with pre-battle nerves.
Brave and skillful (dare we say reckless) conduct like this by Vikings on the battlefield was believed to be rewarded, should they perish, by their selection by the Valkyries to join Odin for an eternal feast in Valhalla.
Secondly, Odin also had brains to match his brawn.
The sagas again regale us with tales of his relentless pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.
His unbending determination to master the magic of the runes came at a great personal cost and sacrifice as he gave away his own eye.
This was an inspiration to Vikings for the sort of dogged determination and sacrifice that was needed when waging war.
Freyja, often celebrated as the Norse goddess of love and fertility, also held a fierce reputation as a warrior, leading the Valkyries in selecting the bravest fallen for Valhalla. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Freyja: Leader of the pack
Whilst Norwegians reading this may associate this Norse goddess with a delicious brand of chocolate, most of us know Freyja as the Norse goddess of fertility and love.
Unlike comparisons to Roman gods or goddesses of love, Freyja was also a fierce warrior, just as likely to shoot an arrow to the head as to the heart.
One of her most celebrated roles was as the leader of the Valkyries.
As mentioned earlier, people in Viking societies believed that bravery and skill on the battlefield would be rewarded in the afterlife.
Falling bravely during battle, Vikings believed that female spirits, called Valkyries, would fly down and select them to join Odin in Valhalla.
Freyja guided these ethereal shieldmaidens to handpick only the bravest of fallen warriors magnificently depicted in the sagas as wielding spears and riding on winged steers.
Her role as a goddess of love and war, of fertility and feverous martial skill, illustrated the complexity of the Viking warrior ethos, where valor and love were celebrated in equal parts on and off the battlefield.
The sagas are rich with tales of Thor's martial prowess, depicting him as a steadfast defender who valiantly combated the forces and beings that sought to endanger Asgard. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Thor: A formidable warrior and protector
Name a Norse god that's more well-known and cooler than Thor.
In 2023, that's impossible, right?
Thanks to the Marvel comic books and their Hollywood adaptations, a Norse god that has his origins in Germanic societies in late antiquity has suddenly become part of popular culture.
Aside from the depictions on the silver screen, Thor is as widely revered by people in Viking societies as he is today by teenage fans of Chris Hemsworth.
While he is primarily known as a protector of Asgard, the Norse god of lightning and thunder was also a formidable warrior.
The sagas are littered with stories of his brave battles, often against the odds, with supernatural beings, monsters, giants, and a whole horde of nasty creatures.
He would not go anywhere or fight anything without his mighty hammer, Mjöllnir, a symbol of Thor's power and destruction on the battlefield.
Archaeological excavations have uncovered amulets fashioned into Mjöllnir, perhaps carried into battle to seek the protection of this high-octane god of war.
Skaði's dual nature as a goddess of winter landscapes and a fierce warrior reflects the Viking ethos of battling both the environment and adversaries with equal vigor. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Skaði: Bending nature to her will
It is no secret that the Nordic region, especially Scandinavia, has a deep love of skiing.
Given that their region is plunged into chilly darkness for what feels like an eternity each year, this love is as much born out of necessity as enjoyment.
Skaði, a Norse goddess, might have been associated with winter weather, skiing in the mountains, and all things snow, but she was also a skilled hunter and warrior.
Having been forced to live in the wintery wilderness and battle the harsh climatic conditions of the Nordic wilderness, Skaði was often invoked by those warriors who sought strength in the face of adversity, especially on the battlefield.
Like all good Vikings who participated in raids, Skaði was forced to live off the land. She had to forage and hunt to survive, often depicted in the sagas carrying a bow and arrow.
This giant-turned-goddess presented an ideal of how Viking warriors could overcome climatic conditions and bend the natural environment to their will, both before and during a battle.
These Norse deities not only offered protection but served as symbols of courage, valor, and honor for the many Vikings undertaking armed conflict.
This potent mix of religious reverence and inspiration, coupled with tactical battlefield brilliance, great martial skill, and an arsenal of deadly weapons, saw Vikings strike fear into the hearts of opposing warriors throughout the early medieval period.
For more information on Norse mythology, visit the BBC here.
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