History is made by people. If history is not observed by the people who create it, it is difficult to fully understand or accurately record it. A lot has been written about the Viking Age, by poets, academics, and historians, but very little by warriors, yet warriors have a special insight into the creation of history that even eager spectators can never obtain.
Life is struggle, and violence is a part of human life today as it was in the past. It is only though our ancestors surviving childhood to an age when they could procreate, and living long enough to care for their children through childhood, that we are here today. They are the ones who have transmitted from generation to generation, the blood that runs through our veins.
Warriors are our heritage. They are the ones who fought to protect their family, their homes, their countrymen, and their nation’s way of life and culture. Viking warriors fought for, and carved out kingdoms, paving the way for the world as we know it today. This makes Viking warriors an integral part of world history.
Over the centuries there has been an amazing amount of historical and archaeological research regarding the Norse people and Vikings. Everything from who they were, to what they conquered, when the conquered, and where they conquered. But very little research has been done regarding how they fought and why they fought the way they did. Yet these questions are of equal importance in understanding the Viking age as any other question. The answer lies in the martial art of the Vikings, and how this helped make the Viking warrior so capable, feared and respected.
The image most people have been given of Viking warriors is of wild savages, screaming and waving swords of steel and axes in the air, as they jumped out of dragon ships to spread fear and terror throughout the known and unknown world. It’s a simple image that has prevailed for over a thousand years. But where did they come from and how did they become so fearsome?
Viking warriors hailed from the hard lands of the cold north that would later become Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland. Life in Viking Age Scandinavia was tough, and if someone wanted something, they had to fight for it. From birth, the Norse people had everything they needed in order to grow up strong and self sufficient. Viking children started combat and sport glima training at the age of about 6 or 7. A boy of 12 years was regarded as a man, and as a man, he was able to hunt, farm, prepare food, build a home, provide for and defend his family. It was expected of Viking men, from the age of 12 to 60, to be fighting fit and capable of doing military service for their jarl or king. This they were able to do extremely well, according to historical scources, including one of the earliest documents about Vikings, written by Muslim diplomat Ibn Fadlan, in the year 922, who described Vikings as “The wildest warriors I have ever seen”.
In the far North there was no flat land with warm year-round climate, but rather the rough terrain of forests and mountains, and the snow and ice of harsh winters that could last 6 months out of the year. These conditions and their combat training helped Norse men and women develop a resilient spirit and the capabilities needed to survive and thrive.
The martial art that developed in Scandinavia reflects the rugged landscapes found there. It was such raw nature that sculpted the Viking warriors and how they fought. This tough environment forced the Norse people to be strong, yet felxible enough not to break, and their martial art reflects the people that created it; rough and vital, with no superfluous moves.
Because of the rough stony ground in summer, and dangerously icy ground in winter, the Viking warrior's combat footwork was super efficient. With such a core balance, grappling skills, wrestling skills and striking techniques were devastatingly fast and effective. Exactly what Viking warriors needed in life and death struggles on the battlefield or onboard a ship.
The Viking warriors way of fighting, as a group and individually, was good enough and adaptable enough, to tackle all styles of combat and all types of weapons. Vikings had two arms, two legs, and weapons, just as their adversaries had, and they were just as vulnerable as the warriors they came against, but what set the Viking warrior apart from everyone else, was how they used what they had.
One of the Viking warrior’s greatest strengths was their willingness to learn from other cultures. Vikings were eclectic, and combined the knowledge and experience they gained from fighting a wide variety of enemy to their already impressive arsenal. Viking combat training, combined with their powerful mindset and spirit, created in the harsh lands of the North, is what lay behind how Vikings became the world’s best warriors of their time, and enabled them to achieve their goals.
The Viking martial art of glima involved unarmed close combat fighting, close combat fighting with weapons, such as a dagger, saex, spear, axe, sword and shield, and long range weapons such as bow and arrow, and spear and stone throwing. Viking warriors fought on land and at sea, and they fought with whatever they could afford, make, borrow or steal. Viking warriors could fight in all types of armor, ranging from leather to metal, and their Viking shield could be used for both defense and offense.
In battlefield combat, a Viking warrior could grapple if he lost his weapon, or if everything else failed. Empty hand skills were more difficult to execute with armor, but still effective, and a warrior could strike, throw, or secure an opponent with a lock or grip. This would enable a Viking warrior to either finish an opponent with the hands or feet, or give him enough time to get out a short knife and thrust it into one of the unprotected open areas of the armor.
Two very significant things made the Viking successes possible. The first was that the Vikings were able to build the best ships in the world, allowing them to travel and explore. The second was that the Vikings created such an effective martial art, that they could successfully combat anyone that dared to oppose them when they got there.
Vikings were bold explorers and masters of the oceans. Their expeditions took them all over Europe, the Far East, Russia and North America. With just a ship and whatever they could carry, these fearless warriors dared to sail on stormy seas, and continue through dangerous lands. The fact that an ocean stopped at a country’s coast didn’t stop Vikings.
When Vikings couldn’t sail any further, they picked up their ships and carried them overland. In this manner they transported their ships over difficult and sometimes frozen terrain, until they found a river, where they sailed further inland to attack, or defend. Viking warriors fought bloody hand to hand fighting on ships at sea, and on rivers hundreds of miles inland. They opened up trade routes in Europe and Russia, and defended them successfully against warriors from other cultures and overwhelming odds.
From the Norse landscape and culture, Vikings developed a resilient warrior spirit and the skill sets to survive in all conditions and situations. The combat training of the Viking warriors gave them the ability to fight against all kinds of weapons and all styles of warfare. Their combat training created such magnificent fighters that Viking warriors were not only able to travel to hostile and unexplored lands and live to tell the tale, but they became feared and admired in all the lands they traveled.
Whatever other label they might have been given, Vikings were warriors. And not just any warriors, they were the best in the world for three centuries. The impact these warriors had on the world is attested to by there being a 300 year period of history being named after them; the Viking Age. A thousand years later, Viking warriors are still revered for their fierce spirit, their combat skills, and what they achieved.
Ár skal rísa
sá er annars vill
fé eða fjör hafa
sjaldan liggjandi úlfr
lær um getr
né sofandi maðr sigr
Get up early and fight
For what you want
Before others take it
A lazy wolf
Gets no meat
The sleeping get no victory
HÁVAMÁL – verse 58