Vikings on the Battlefield: A Mindset

The first thing most people think of when they hear the word “Viking”, they imagine rough northerners in constant battle with foreign culture; raping and pillaging seemingly innocent settlements. Through archaeology and written sources, we know that they were truly formidable fighters, but what did it truly mean to be “Viking”? What kind of mindset would a Norseman have when they marched into battle?

Painting by Nils Bergslien (1853 - 1928)

The first major dilemma one would have to tackle is the age-old question: were the Norse women warriors? This is certainly not a question one could answer with 100% certainty as there simply isn’t enough proof to weigh one against the other. But the indefinite truth is that the Norse women certainly did fight, but as to what capacity they did that is still up for debate. Men were, of course, still in the majority on the battlefield while the women tended to their homestead at home, which also needed protecting. It is then correct to say that the women were warriors, protecting their homes while the men were away going “Viking”. We can even see many women figures in mythology and the old Icelandic texts in the forms of Valkyries and legendary shield-maidens, so the possibility of a minority of real women fighting on the battlefield is not so far-stretched.

While researching the Scandinavians in Rus, I came upon an interesting source by the Byzantine historian Johannes Skylitzes detailing women warriors lying scattered on the battlefield during the siege of Dorostolon in 971 AD. There are of course flaws with this account as well, which are worth mentioning. The Rus, who ended up being in a defensive war towards the Byzantine Empire had called in reinforcements from the Varangians (Scandinavian Vikings to the east), and they answered the call. The siege of Dorostolon where they made their final stand was an excruciating experience for the defenders. The Byzantine’s starved the city for 60 days and the inhabitants died more and more from famine and disease inside the city. In a desperate attempt to break the siege, the defenders launched a final attack, which of course ended in a decisive defeat for the Rus. As this was a desperate attempt at victory, it may be that even the townsfolk joined in the battle, equipping the armour from the fallen soldiers. Another aspect worth noting is that Leo the Deacon also wrote about this exact same battle. The difference being that he was alive during this time period and wrote nothing of women’s bodies being found among the remains. Overall, the account seems quite reliable and as noted earlier, is independent of Norse texts.

When the Romans were robbing the corpses of the barbarians of their spoils, they found women lying among the fallen, equipped like men; women who had fought against the Romans together with the men.

Moving on to more battle-oriented themes: rituals. Rituals were an important part for a Norse warrior and was something that both existed inside and outside of the battlefield. During a battle, a Viking warrior entered the field with the though of being protected or blessed by the Gods. This can be seen in the trinkets they wore around their neck, often in the form of Thor’s hammer. They could also be wearing different kinds of charms, such as a boar’s tusk, hoping it would grant them prowess in the eyes of the gods. They did, however, not fear death as it was a glorious one and already set in stone by the Norns (the ones who determine a person’s faith). This made the truly “pious” Vikings truly terrifying. As they thought their fate was already predetermined and could therefore fight with much more ferocity. The Vikings were far from an overwhelming force on the battlefield, as they did in fact, lose many battles throughout their raiding across Europe. Honour was above all among the Norse society and for the Viking mentality. Without honour, you were nothing. This even extends to the kings. According to a saga about a Norwegian king by the name of Magnus Barefoot who met an early end during a raid in Ireland said the following:

Kings are for honour, not for life.

Truly a fitting quote for the Norse people during the Viking age.

There were also magical aspects happening on the battlefield according to the Viking mindset. The battlefields were also the home of supernatural beings, for example the Valkyries, who according to the highly acclaimed archaeologist Neil Price were: “terrifying spirits of war, unleashed into combat and literally personifying the essence of battle”. This description is far from the romanticized and widely popular version by Wagner, who shows the Valkyries as beautiful maidens welcoming the fallen soldiers to Valhalla. This is quite synonymous to the way contemporary media depicts angels from the bible as beautiful beings, whereas according to the bible they looked like twisted beings to the normal person.

Moving on from the supernatural shadowy beings and onto more tangible concepts: the berserkers. Highly romanticized in today’s texts, the berserkers were Vikings who entered into a battle-trance and could manifest supernatural strength, becoming a highly valuable asset on the battlefield. This is even somewhat synonymous to the shape-changing beliefs in Viking warfare, where a berserker could shapeshift into a giant bear or wolf.

There different kinds of rituals which the Vikings performed or simply believed in formed an important aspect for the warriors. Maintaining their equipment properly and making sure their formations and forms are correct could be seen as equally important as to holding to these traditions and rituals on the field of battle.

Further reading:

Neil Price. (2002) The Viking Way.

Various authors. (2014) Vikings: life and legend. The British Museum.

A very wise jötunn. Only appears in this poem

A very wise jötunn. Only appears in this poem