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

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Abstract

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).

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