Source: ‘Part II: After the Bronze Age,’ Chariot of the Sun and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age, 1969, pp. 145-152.
All through the pagan period in Scandinavia the weapons of the Bronze Age remained important symbols, and were linked with religious cults. The axe, here as elsewhere, was consistently associated with the deity of the sky, and regarded as a thunder weapon. It was still a powerful symbol at the close of the heathen period, to judge from richly decorated axes found in graves in Denmark and round the Baltic (Paulsen, pp. 101 ff.). There must have been a definite link between such axes and the cult of the god Thor, for some bear the bearded face or the hammer sign which are his symbols in the late heathen period (Fig. 68). By this time, however, the axe had largely been replaced by the hammer as Thor’s traditional weapon (Davidson, 1965b), possibly because the hammer striking out sparks on the anvil seemed similar to people familiar with the smithy an excellent symbol for the weapon which caused the lightning. It is Thor’s great hammer, Mjollnir, which is famous in literary sources, and with this he slew giants and monsters and protected the realm of the gods from the evil forces which threatened it.
The hammer symbol was known to the Anglo-Saxons, since small hammer amulets are found in Kentish cemeteries (Davidson, 1956b, Pl. I). small amulets in the form of axes in metal, bone and amber are also known from Roman times and probably earlier, and continue to appear sporadically until the ninth and tenth centuries, when they were replaced by Thor hammers. Some hammers were simple shapes hardly distinguishable from axes (Fig. 69), but some of those from Denmark and Sweden in bronze and silver are elaborate, richly ornamented symbols of Thor’s cult. Combined with the axe-hammer are signs suggesting lightning, rain and thunder, faces with staring eyes and beards, rings and chains and the heads of monsters, since the hammer was associated with the ring of Thor, on which oaths were sworn, and with the great World-Serpent which was the god’s chief adversary.
We learn from the literature that the hammer of Thor was associated with the marriage ceremony, and was laid in the lap of the bride to hallow the union, since the comic plot of the Edda poem Þrymskviða is based on this custom. An echo of this has lingered on in folklore in Germany, where it was held in the nineteenth century to be lucky for a newly wedded wife to carry something heavy during the first thunderstorm after her marriage (Handworterbuch des deutschen Aberglauben (1927-41), ‘Donner’, p. 318). Saxo Grammaticus in the twelfth century tells us that in temples of Thor in Sweden bronze hammers were used to strike on metal and imitate the noise of thunder. The hammer of Thor was also visualized as a throwing weapon, since it is often said to have been hurled through the air to strike the skulls of Thor’s opponents, while it is depicted on some Swedish memorial stones hanging from a cord or strap, like the hammer thrown in Highland games (Fig. 70). No doubt the axe of the thunder-god was also imagined as something which could be hurled through the air, like the throwing-axe of the Franks.
In folklore it is axe rather than hammer which is remembered as a thunder weapon (Blinkenberg). It was long customary in Scandinavia, England and Germany to keep prehistoric stone axes, as well as stone arrowheads, fossil sea-urchins and belemnites, ‘for luck’, and to call them thunderstones. It was said that they fell during storms, sank deep into the earth and then slowly rose to the surface again. Sometime children were sent out to look for them after a thunderstorm, for they had to be found in the earth if they were to bring luck to the holder. Such finds were hidden away in the wall of the house, up in the roof, or in the box-bed, where no one would disturb them, in order to guard against damage by lightning or fire, and to protect also from theft and other calamities. There were few houses in rural Denmark in the early years of this century which did not have one or more of these thunderstones. The custom probably goes back to Roman times, for in a first-century fort at Scarlett, in the Isle of Man, a prehistoric stone axe-head was discovered under one of the stone slabs forming the hearth of a hut within the fort.1 The find of an axe buried under the floor of a house of late Neolithic date at Troldberg in Denmark (Brondsted, 1938a, I, p. 193) shows that it was based on a practice almost as old as the axe itself. In Germany the prehistoric stone axe-head with a hole through it was especially valued as a protection against lightning, and used to be whirled round on a string and hurled against the door of a house during a thunderstorm. Sprockhoff (1955, p. 112) records an interesting example of the symbolic use of the stone axe in Germany, where a farmer kept three of them in order to place them in the three first holes made by the drill at sowing time, ‘to make the corn grow well’.
The spear is consistently represented in the literary sources as the weapon of the Scandinavian god Odin. this is in a way surprising, since in Anglo-Saxon and Viking times the spear was the weapon of the ordinary fighting man, and one might expect the deity who was the ancestor of kings and leader of armies to carry the leader’s weapon, the sword. But although Odin gave swords to his followers, he himself bore the great spear Gungnir, one of the treasures of the gods, which when hurled through the air stirred up strife among men, and determined on which side victory should fall.
It is not easy to determine how far this conception of the god with the spear can be traced back to the Germanic Wodan, god of magic and the dead. On the strength of the Norse literary evidence, figures of warriors with conspicuous spears, like one on a buckle from Baden of late seventh-century date (Fig. 71), have been identified with him. One of the Gotland stones Lindqvist dates to the fifth century, found under Stenkyrka church, shows what appears to be a spear passing over a ship (Pl. 5). Lindqvist (1956, p. 23) interprets this as the spear of Odin, passing over the doomed host.
From an earlier period still we have the decorated spear-head from Kowell and Dahmsdorf (p. 140 above) which bear runic inscriptions and appear to have magical or religious significance. They bear runic inscriptions and appear to have magical or religious significance. They bear figures of the swastika and triskele, and are presumably associated with the cult of the sky-god. There is also a spearhead from an Anglo-Saxon cemetery which bears the T-rune, so small as to be almost invisible without close scrutiny (Evison, pp. 97-100). The existence of such ceremonial spearheads suggests the possibility that Wodan, the Germanic god of the underworld, inherited the spear as his symbol along with certain attributes formerly possessed by the sky-god Tiwaz, of whom we hear something in the early sources, but who had retired into virtual obscurity in the Viking Age under the name of Tyr (Davidson, 1964, pp. 56-60).
In the Vendel and Viking periods the connection of the spear with Odin is well established. It is borne by certain naked warriors in horned helmets, depicted on helmet plates of the seventh century from Sweden and on a buckle from the Anglo-Saxon cemetery at Finglesham in Kent (Fig. 72). There is reason to think that such warriors represent the worshippers of Odin(or Woden in England), warriors who fought without defensive armour because of their devotion to their god, and who in the Other World formed part of Odin’s picked band of warriors. On one Swedish helmet plate from Valsägarde (near Uppsala), such a warrior is shown leaping behind a warrior on horseback and guiding his spear, and here he would seem to be acting as the emissary of the god and speeding the departure of a hero to Valhalla (Davidson, 1965a, p. 25).
Tiny spearheads are found along with daggers and axes, in both Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian graves. There are also a considerable number of spearheads of less than normal size found in the graves of children in East Anglian cemeteries.2 The practice of burying real spears with adults in Anglo-Saxon graves is so common that it is not unusually assumed to have any special significance, other than the general custom of putting a weapon in the grave of a dead man. Spears, however, are weapons normally thrown in a battle and therefore expendable, unlikely to have been cherished personal possessions like a sword or a knife. It is conceivable that the practice of placing a spear in the grave was in order to show that the dead man had been a fighting man, and was linked with that of marking a man with a spear at death to indicate that he was under the protection of the god of battle, as stated in Ynglinga Saga. small spearheads in children’s graves might thus be signs of dedication to the family cult, and not mere playthings, and it may be noted that small votive offerings of model spears, deliberately bent, have been found at the Romano-British shrine at Woodeaton in Oxfordshire, together with model axes (Ross, p. 48). In one of the Icelandic family sagas (Víga-Glúms saga) the gift of an ornamented spear is an important symbol (Holtsmark, pp. 115 ff.). Thus the link between the spear and worship of the god presiding over the battlefield is still remembered in the written sources of a much later period.
The sword remained a powerful symbol throughout the north all through the heathen period, since it was the weapon of king and leader (Davidson, 1962, p. 211 ff.). He was expected to hand out swords to his followers, as a pledge of loyalty between them until death, and this conception is enshrined in the heroic literature. Germanic and Scandinavian leaders possessed splendid swords, which they received at their succession as a sign of their royal power and right to possess the throne. The sword was also a family heirloom, passed down through many generations, and given to a man of good family on his attainment to manhood. A good sword accompanied its owner everywhere, since it was essential to defend life and possessions in an unsettled age. From Roman times onwards we know of blades, hilts and scabbards marked with devices to bring the possessor of the weapon luck and protection in battle; we find the swastika, the boar, staring eyes and runic inscriptions, and later on the Christian cross.
Yet in spite of the paramount importance of the sword, it is not linked closely with any particular deity, according to the evidence of the literary sources or surviving pictures of the gods. Odin gave swords to his followers, but his own weapon was the spear. Thor used his axe-hammer. Freyr is reputed to have possessed a sword, which he gave away when wooing Gerd, but this tradition is not fully explained and may be an assumption made by the thirteenth-century writer Snorri Sturluson. However, the sword can be a phallic symbol, and may have been associated with Freyr for this reason. The plunging of a sword into the main beam of a house was a marriage custom in Norway in later times, a proof of the virility of the bridegroom and a sign of good luck for the marriage (Davidson, 1960, p. 3).
There are, moreover, traditions of a mythological sword associated with the World Tree, which according to some of the Edda poems is won from the underworld by knowledge of magic lore. The seeking of this weapon was an esoteric enterprise, and the seeker had to possess mantic knowledge, little of which is comprehensible to us now. The sword was forged by an underworld smith, and earthly swords of fine craftsmanship and great age were often called the work of Weland, after the supernatural giant figure remembered in both Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian tradition. He lived on in folk tradition, associated with ancient burial mounds and stone ruins (Davidson, 1958). These traditions may provide a basis for the association of the sword with the gods of fertility, who have many links with the giants beneath the earth and sea. As a family heirloom the sword could also serve as a link between dead and living, and the story of the birth of Olaf the Holy, King of Norway in the tenth century, when the sword of an earlier king was taken from his burial mound to be girded round the mother, is a striking example of the importance of this weapon as a symbol of rebirth and connection with the ancestral dead (Davidson, 1960, pp. 13 ff.). The Vanir, who were regarded as the divine ancestors of the kings of Sweden, have again a natural association with the dead in the earth.
The bow appears occasionally in the hand of an archer on gold bracteates of the Migration period, and also on the Gallehus horns from fifth-century Denmark. In one scene an archer is aiming at a horse which seems to be marked out for sacrifice (Fig. 73), and in another at a hind with her fawn. The archer who appears on the Franks Casket, Northumbrian work in whalebone of the late seventh century, and again on Gotland stones of the Viking Age, may represent a figure of heroic rather than mythological importance, although Schneider (pp. 67-9) associates him with the Balder myth. Whether the name given in runes on the Franks Casket is that of the archer Egill, who according to later sources was the brother of Weland the Smith and a skilful archer, is not certain; possibly here we have a supernatural figure with the bow whose story was all but forgotten by the time of the written sources.
The Norse god connected with a bow was Ull, believed to have been an early deity of the sky, because his name is related to a Gothic word meaning ‘glory’. Places called after him in Norway and Sweden are often in the neighbourhood of those named after Freyr and other Vanir deities, so that he may be one of them. He is called ‘god of the bow’, and ‘god of the shield’, and the shield is called his ship. This puzzling image has not been satisfactorily explained, and prompts the question whether he was originally connected with the shield-like disk associated with the sun in the Bronze Age. He is also said to cross the sea on a magic bone, which has been interpreted as moving on skates over the ice, and, according to Snorri Sturluson, wore snow-shoes. By the time of the written sources Ull is little more than a name, but he seems at one time to have been a deity of some importance, judging from the number of places called after him in Norway and Sweden. These names are based on two forms of his name, Ullr and Ullin, which suggests that there may originally have been a pair of deities (see p. 179 below).
The bow is also found in association with some of the minor goddesses, who appear to be fertility deities connected with the Vanir, but about whom we know little. Skadi, daughter of a giant and wife of Njord of the Vanir, parted from her husband because she came from the mountains and he wished to dwell by the sea. After she returned home, she was said to wear snow-shoes and carry a bow. Some have thought that Skadi was originally a male deity, perhaps representing winter, or that she had some associations with the Lapps, who used the bow in hunting. Two goddesses associated with Jarl Hakon of Halogaland were also skilled in the use of the bow, Thorgerd Holgabrudr, a mysterious supernaturl figure worshipped with great devotion by the Jarl, and her sister Irpa, about whom we know almost nothing. When these sisters once aided the Jarl in battle, they appeared as giantesses, shooting arrows so swiftly that it was as if one flew from each finger. There is some reason to think that Hakon’s family came from Sweden (Chadwick, 1950, p. 402) and that this cult was associated with the Vanir. What scattered evidence we possess about the bow, then, suggests association with the Vanir and the deities of fertility.
- Information from Peter Gelling, who published an account of the excavation in Proc. Prehistoric Soc. XXIV (1958), pp. 85-100.
- E.g. at Ipswich (Suffolk Institute of Archaeology, 13 (1959), 3); Girton College (Hollingworth and O’Reilly, 1925, grave 58); and Shudy Camps (Cambridge Arch. Soc. 1936, 12).