VIKING HUNTING, FISHING and WOODSMANSHIP by Tyr Neilsen

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Scandinavian people during the Viking Age could survive in all kinds of nature. In a land which experiences extreme weather and treacherous 6 month winters, surviving was a full time job, and for Vikings, and Viking Age families, the most important thing each day regarding survival was finding food. This meant that hunting, fishing and woodsmanshp skills were necessary skills that had to be maintained all the time.

In addition to these skills, Vikings needed tough and durable clothing, for hunting and fishing out in the mountains, forests, lakes, rivers and sea. Viking Age hunters made their own clothes and footwear for use in rough terrain, and made specialized clothing that tolerated being outside in rain or snow during violent storms and freezing winters.

Vikings also made all the hunting and fishing equipment needed in order to flourish year round. In all conditions, having the best tools and equipment is a must, as having the best possible equipment has always been important when survival out in nature can depend on the smallest advantage.

KNIFE

No other sentence describes the importance of a knife in the Viking era like this Nordic quote: “Knívleysur maður er lívleysur maður” which translates to "The Knifeless Man is a Lifeless Man". A knife 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 werere two distinctive types of Viking knives, the little simple knife that served as a daily tool, and the slightly larger knife (sax) used for hunting, fishing and fighting. In the Scandinavian areas, the Viking Knife came in all shapes and sizes, but the Norwegian version is more detailed than the rest.

 viking knife (left) and modern norwegian ‘tolle’ knife (right)

viking knife (left) and modern norwegian ‘tolle’ knife (right)

For centuries, a knife was something every Scandinavian man, woman and child owned, in every class of Viking society, including slaves and kings. Owning a knife from early childhood is an age old tradition in Norway, and it is normal for a baby to recieve a high quality knife as a gift at a christening.

In the Scandinavian areas, the Viking Knife came in all shapes and sizes, but the Norwegian version is more detailed than the rest. There werere two distinctive types of Viking knives, the little simple knife that served as a daily tool, and the slightly larger knife (sax) used for hunting, fishing and fighting.

Many Viking knives were as well made as the most beautiful swords, with handles of beautiful and ornate decorations and fittings, but no matter how elaborate a Viking knife was, it was also tough, solid and reliable, exactly what was needed.

AXE

From cutting and splitting wood, to building a house, ship and boat, or being used in a hunt or fight, an axe was truly a valuable and versatile Viking tool.

In Viking age Scandinavia, the axe was the most common tool used by any farmer. Even the poorest farm had to have an axe to cut and split wood, so from childhood everyone who grew up on a farm knew how to use an axe. Iron and weapons made of iron were expensive, but an axehead was relatively easy and cheap to make. This, and the fact that it was a tool used since childhood, the axe became the personal weapon of the Viking.

This everyday tool for the ordinary Northman changed steadily throughout the Viking Age . Some axeheads were elegant and thin, others were thick and heavy. The best axeheads had a hardened steel edge welded to the iron which made it a better cutting edge. A thousand years later, and after many design changes, the Viking style axe is becoming ever more popular when it comes to camping in Scandinavia.

 viking axe (over) and modern Norwegian camping axe (under)

viking axe (over) and modern Norwegian camping axe (under)

SPEAR

Spears were used for hunting in the Viking Age, and being able to throw a spear with great strength and accuracy was as important to a Viking as being a good archer. With a well-balanced shaft, and a steel spear tip beautifully shaped for accuracy in flight, hunting or combat, the Viking spear was formidable and fatal in both close combat and long distances.

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Spear training began at a young age, and the most important thing was to hit the target. If used in a skillful way whilst hunting, a spear would not be lost as easy as an arrow. The Viking spear was cheap to make because only the spearhead were made of iron, and it took little time to train someone to use it.

In its simplest form, a spear is just a pole with a sharp end, but in its finest form, the Viking spear was a work of art. Spears have long disappeared from use when hunting in Scandinavia, but the practice of spear throwing for fun and competition is still alive and well.

BOW and ARROW

For Viking age hunters, it was an absolute necessity to be able to use a bow and arrow. Vikings learned how to use a bow and arrow from childhood and this equipment was simple to make. Arrows shot from a Viking bow could hit a target from a long distance, but for Viking hunters, it was important to hit an animal in such a way that it would fall where it was hit and not run away. No hunter wanted to lose an arrow or his meal.

Typical Viking longbows were about 5 to 6.5 feet tall, were made of ash, yew or elm, and had an effective distance of up to 650 feet. Archaeological findings indicate that it was mostly longbows used in the Viking era in Scandinavia, but a find in Birka, Sweden shows that recurve bows similar to those used in Eastern Europe may have been used for hunting in Viking Scandinavia.

 viking longbow (over) modern compound bow (under)

viking longbow (over) modern compound bow (under)

The continuing modernization of weapons has displaced the bow and arrow as the primary weapon in hunting, but the use of a bow and arrow for hunting never disappeared. Hunting with both historical bows and modern compound bows (which have a levering system of cables and pulleys to bend the limbs) is becoming increasingly popular.

FISHING EQUIPMENT

Fish and seafood played a major role in the Viking era. Fish was important food for the Viking diet and lakes and rivers delivered plenty of freshwater fish. In some regions of Viking Age Norway, especially along the coast, fishing was more important for the Vikings than agriculture.

Archeological finds show that Viking age fishing equipment consisted of nets, fish traps, lines, fishing rods and harpoons. Fishing nets were also used in lakes, rivers and streams. Viking age Scandinavians could also catch fish with only their hands!

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Fish were caught with hook and line from land and from small boats. A Viking fishing line could have one or more hooks on the end, and finds from Viking Age Scandinavia, including finds from the Gokstad Viking ship, show that fishing hooks made of bone and iron were used.

Archaeological evidence of Viking towns shows that a lot of fish were caught locally in nearby rivers and lakes. Cod and herring were the two most important fish, but the Vikings could choose between 26 different types of fish. Fish were also transported from place to place, and these transported fish were salted in barrels to avoid being destroyed during the journey. Fish preserved in salt was a main course on Viking ships, and salted fish guaranteed a nutritious form of food through the long winter on land.

WOODSMANSHIP

In Viking Age Scandinavia, all food and building materials came from the forest, so being outdoors was an important part of life for our ancestors. Since the Scandinavian folk spent much of their time in nature, they naturally became skilled woodsmen and experts in tracking wildlife, trapping, hunting, fishing, cutting wood for building and camping.

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In order to be capable woodsmen, Vikings had to have a well developed understanding about nature. They had to know what plants and herbs were good and what were poisonous. They had to know how to build a shelter and light a fire in all kinds of weather. They had to know how to find animals, then catch, kill, slaughter, preserve and cook them.

For the people of Viking Age Scandinavia, days revolved around making sure they had food to eat. As well as their woodsmanship skills, hunting skills, and quality equipment, the other elements Vikings needed was the right attitude and good common sense when hunting, fishing and being outdoors. Qualities that will never lose their value.

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Good hunting

No one can carry
a better cargo
than good common sense

Hávamál - verse 11

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