Pole-weapons in the Sagas of Icelanders: a comparison of literary and archaeological sources

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The Icelandic sagas are a major source of information on the Vikings and their fighting prowess. In these stories, several mysterious pole-weapons appear, which are often called “halberds”, for lack of a better word. In order to better identify what these weapons could have been, and to provide a better understanding of how the sagas relate to the Viking-age events they describe, we confront textual and archaeological evidence for several of these weapons (the höggspjót, the atgeirr, the kesja, the krókspjót, the bryntroll and the fleinn), keeping in mind the contextualisation of their appearances in sagas. The description of the use of each weapon allows to pick several candidates likely to correspond to the studied word. Without a perfect knowledge of what context the authors of the sagas wanted to describe, it appears to be impossible to give a final answer. However, we show that some specific types of spears are good candidates for some of the studied weapons.


  • Primary sources

  • Anonymous, Bandmanna saga, Bárðar saga Snæfellsáss, Bjanar saga Hítdælakappa, Brennu-Njáls saga, Droplaugarsona saga, Egils saga Skallagrímssonar, Eiríks saga rauða, Eyrbyggja saga, Finnboga saga ramma, Fljótsdæla saga, Flóamanna saga, Fóstbræðra saga, Gísla saga Súrssonar, Grettis saga, Grænlendiga saga, Grænlendiga þáttur, Gull-Þóris saga, Gunnars saga Keldugnúpsfïfls, Gunnlaugs saga ormstungu, Hallfreðar saga, Harðar saga ok Hólmverja, Hávarðar saga Ísfirðing, Heiðarvíga saga, Hrafnkels saga Freysgoði, Hænsna-Þóris saga, Kjalnesinga saga, Jökuls þáttur Búasona, Kormáks saga, Króka-Refs saga, Laxdæla saga, Ljósvetninga saga, Reykdæla saga ok Víga-Skútu, Svarfdæla saga, Valla-Ljóts saga, Vatnsdæla saga, Víga-Glúms saga, Víglundar saga, Vopnfirðinga saga, Þórðar saga hreðu, Þorsteins saga hvíta, Þorsteins saga Síðu-Hallssonar, Ölkofra saga, 13th century, ed. by Bragi Halldórsson et al. (Reyjavík: Mál og menning, 1998).

  • Anonymous, Gulaþingslög, 13th century, ed. by R. Keyser and P. A. Munch (Norges Gamle Love Indtil 1387, Christiania: Chr. Gröndahl, 1846), translated by L. M. Larson (The Earliest Norwegian Laws, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1935).

  • Achille Marozzo, Opera Nova, Bologna, 1536.

  • Paul Dolstein, Landskecht’s diary, 1502 (Weimar: ThHtStAW Ernestinisches Gesamtarchiv, Reg. S fol. 460).

  • Pictorial sources

  • Anonymous, Bayeux tapestry: La telle du conquest, ca. 1077 (Bayeux, 0.5 m x 68.38 m embroidered cloth).

  • Anonymous, Maciejowski Bible, ca. 1245 (New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, Ms M. 638).

  • Secondary sources

  • Cleasby, Richard and Vigfusson, Gudbrand, An Icelandic-English Dictionary (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1874).

  • Einarsson, Stefán, A History of Icelandic Literature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1957).

  • Falk, Hjalmar, Altnordische Waffenkunde (Kristiania: Dybwad i Komm., 1914).

  • Gylfason, Þorsteinn, Njál’s Saga, Introduction (Ware: Wordsworth Classics, 1998).

  • Hreinsson, Viðar, editor, Attwood, Katrina C., translator, The Complete Sagas of Icelanders (Reykjavík: Leifur Eiriksson Publishing, 1997).

  • Keller, May L., The Anglo-Saxon Weapon Names Treated Etymologically and Archæologically (Heidelberg: Carl Winter’s Universitätsbuchhandlung, 1906).

  • Mallet, Paul Henri, Scott, Walter et al., Northern Antiquities: Or, An Historical Account of the Manners, Customs, Religion and Laws, Maritime Expeditions and Discoveries, Language and Literature of the Ancient Scandinavians (London: H. G. Bohn, 1847).

  • Nicolle, David, Knight of Outremer, 1187-1344 (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1996).

  • Oakeshott, Ewart, European Weapons and Armour: From the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution (Oxford: Boydell Press, 2012).

  • Petersen, Jan G.T. De Norske Vikingesverd, (Kristiania: Dybwad i Komm., 1919).

  • Short, William R., Viking Age Arms and Armor: Viking Shields, , accessed 3 March 2016.

  • Short, William R., Viking Age Arms and Armor: Viking Spear, , accessed 3 March 2015.

  • Short, William R., A Listing of References to Arms and Armor in the Sagas of Icelanders, , and references therein, accessed 3 March 2015.

  • Sigurðsson, Gísli, The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition: A Discourse on Method (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004).

  • Sveinsson, Einar Ól, Laxdoela saga, preface (Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1934).

  • Webster, Noah et al., Webster’s international dictionary of the English language (Springfield: G. & C. Merriam Co, 1913).

  • Zoëga, Geir T., A Concise Dictionary Of Old Icelandic (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1910).

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