No other sentence better describes how important the knife was to Viking Age society, than the Nordic proverb “Knívleysur maður er lívleysur maður” which translates to “The knifeless man is a lifeless man”.
The knife pre-dates the Viking Age, but the word knife possibly descends from knifr, which is the Old Norse word for blade. It was the most essential tool for staying alive in the rugged North a thousand years ago. With cold and hostile winters that could last 6 months out of the year, owning a knife would mean the difference between starving and surviving .
There are 2 distinctive types of Viking knife, the small, basic, single edge knife that served as an everyday utility tool, and the slightly larger knife that was used for hunting, fishing and combat. A Viking knife could be very useful in a combat situation, and as a result of having worked and trained with knives since childhood, Vikings were excellent knife fighters. There are descriptions of Tvekamper (single combat) with a knife in Ættesoger (clan books) and other writings from the Viking Age.
Throughout the Scandinavian regions, the Viking knife came in all shapes and sizes, with the Norwegian version being more detailed than the rest. The Viking knife ranged from basic pummeled metal, to elegant shining steel blade, and intricate handles of wood, bone or horn with metal inlay.
Basically, the Viking knife was made of a piece of iron that was shaped into a blade and tang. Viking knife blades ranged from 3 to 4 inch blades, until there is difficulty differentiating it from a small sax. Viking knife tangs were sometimes formed into a crude handle, but mostly a handle of bone, horn or wood with simple fittings were secured to the tang.
Generally, both the back and sharp edge of the typical Viking knife was relatively straight, with some amount of curvature to either surface towards the point. Most Viking knives taper in thickness slightly as they run from the hilt to the point. Having the greatest weight of the blade placed closest to the handle tends to reduce the force of impact of the working end of the blade, but it makes the tip feel light and increases control.
The Viking knife was usually held in a leather sheath, which ranged from the very simple to highly decorative sheathes with metal furnishings. Knife sheathes hung from a child or man’s belt, and by a thin metal chain from a woman’s apron.
A Viking knife was something every man, woman and child owned, in every class of Viking society, including slaves and kings. Outside of the home, men used knives for farming, hunting, fishing, carving, and when the need arose, for combat. Inside the home, women used the knife primarily in the preparation of food, but they also used knives in sacred ceremonies for the family, farm and village. The Viking knife was integral to a Viking burial, as verified by the large number of knives found in burial sites of Viking Age Scandinavian men, women and children.
Some Viking knife blades are as well made as any sword blade, with handles of beautiful and ornate decorations and fittings. But no matter how ornate, the Viking knife was known for being tough, solid and dependable, which perfectly describes the Vikings who developed it.