Life in the 21st century – though with its many problems – is in many ways so much easier than life was for our early medieval ancestors. 

For people in Viking societies, living in an age that spanned from late antiquity into the high medieval period – there were no hardware, clothing, or food stores. 

The production line, sophisticated machinery, huge factories, and the benefits (or threats) of artificial intelligence were centuries away. 

Despite their lack of technological advancements, when compared to us moderns, these societies were nevertheless highly skilled in the production of goods. 

From the clothes on their backs to the longships that terrified coastal communities throughout Europe and beyond, people in Viking societies made everything by hand. 

One only has to look at the elaborate carvings of the items found in the Oseberg ship, the countless hours and skill put into a Viking sword, or the artistry and beauty of a stave church to understand that a lack of modern machinery did not mean a lack of artisanal skill. 

So then, if people in Viking societies used their hands daily, and everything in their world was produced by skilled and (mostly but not always) craftsmen, you would expect them to hold this skill in high reverence. 

A quick glance at the rich tapestry of the Norse sagas reveals a host of characters praised for their artistry and artisanal skill. 

Despite the absence of a singular Norse deity of craftsmanship, the dwarves stood out as mythical artisans, crafting magical artifacts like Thor's hammer, Mjöllnir. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Dwarves: Skilled metalworkers and craftsmen for the gods 

Whilst there was no one Norse god of craftsmanship, that does not mean there were not several supernatural and mythical deities and beings associated with artisanal handiwork and skill. 

The most well-known of these beings were the dwarves. 

The dwarves – who lived in their own realm (one of 9 in Norse mythology), Nidavellir – were said to be descended from the flesh of the first being, Ymir, and given life by Odin

They were known as skilled metallurgists and craftsmen, known for forging powerful and magical artifacts. 

Brokkr and Sindri (also known as Eitri), two dwarf brothers, exemplify the exceptional artisanal skills possessed by their kind.

According to Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda, they were responsible for creating a special magical hammer, Mjöllnir, for the Norse God of Thunder, Thor. 

The hammer possessed the unique ability to return to Thor each time he threw it, functioning much like a Norse heavy boomerang. 

Their prowess in transforming the earth's raw materials into this enchanted weapon earned them widespread reverence. 

Aside from Mjöllnir, the dwarves were also renowned for producing other objects for the Norse gods. 

The two brothers were responsible for forging a magical golden ring – Draupnir – which was said to have the ability to replicate itself. The ring was passed to the Norse All-Father, Odin. 

For fans of J.R.R. Tolkien, a magical golden ring sounds all too familiar, as Tolkien himself admitted that he drew heavily upon the Norse sagas and myths for inspiration throughout his career. 

As Ragnarök unfolds, Odin is prophesied to fight against the giant wolf Fenrir with the help of Gungnir, a spear that was crafted by Ivaldi's sons, showcasing the pinnacle of dwarven craftsmanship. Illustration: The Viking Herald

Ivaldi and his sons: A family business 

Forging magical creations for the vast pantheons of Norse gods was very much a family business among dwarves, not limited to just Brokkr and Sindri but extending to other skilled artisans within their kin. 

Ivaldi, another dwarf, was said to be a hardworking metalsmith and builder who constructed, with his sons, a vast range of items for the gods. 

The familial team was responsible for constructing the ship, Skidbladnir

According to the sagas, this was no ordinary ship as it had the ability always to find a favorable wind. Moreover, when not needed by the god Freyr, it could be instantaneously folded to fit in his pocket. 

Ivaldi and his sons were also responsible for the creation of the spear, Gungnir

Under the supervision of the blacksmith dwarf, Dvalin, the spear was given a very practical magical property: it would never miss its target. 

The spear was said to also make an appearance with Odin during the early beginning of the events of Ragnarök, where he would hoist it aloft and use it in an epic duel with the giant wolf, Fenrir

It was this duel that really got the violent and bloody events of the Norse end of times underway, and the fact that this magical spear was forged by the dwarves speaks volumes of their skill and prestige in their craft. 

Norse tales of craftsmanship, embodied by figures like Odin and the dwarven brothers Brokkr and Sindri, reveal a culture where crafting was not just a skill but a revered art. Photo: Flystock / Shutterstock

Shaping the physical and the metaphysical 

Craftsmanship was an integral part of Viking societies, from the Scandinavian homeland through Eastern Europe and even to the shores of North America

Aside from its practical use, it held a significant and revered role, as evidenced by the myths and legends in the rich tapestry of Norse mythology

Whilst there was no one god of craftsmanship (like, say, Thor was for thunder, Freyja with fertility, or Loki with, well, annoying the other gods in one way or another most of the time), there were several mythical beings associated with skilled artisanal work and craftsmanship. 

Artisans like Brokkr and Sindri, or Ivaldi and his sons, were celebrated for their exceptional craftsmanship that saw them forge and create iconic and important artifacts for the Norse gods. 

From Thor's hammer to Odin's spear and Freyr's ship, these creations were significant symbols of the gods who wielded them, playing crucial roles in stories that have resonated through the ages, enduring long after the last Viking ship sailed. 

This emphasis on craftsmanship even extended to the gods themselves, with figures like Odin often being portrayed as a skilled and wise artisan. 

Norse mythology was great at highlighting the divine and transformative nature of craftsmanship, which shaped both the physical and metaphysical aspects of the vast Norse cosmos. 

For more information on Viking handiwork, read an article from the Metropolitan Museum of New York here.

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