Sailing from their homes in Scandanavia to raid and settle across Europe, the Vikings were some of the most feared warriors in history. What did they say before entering battle?
Before a battle, Vikings often invoked the name of the Norse Gods, in particular, Odin and the god of war, Tyr. As Scandanavia increasingly converted to Christianity, Viking warriors began using Christian incantations before heading into battle.
For more on how Vikings lived, waged war, and what they said before a battle, read on.
Battle was a way of life for Vikings and being a warrior was not a profession but a mark of prestige. Documents from the late Viking period tell us that all free men in Viking society were expected to own weaponry.
Societies were governed by magnates, who were elected by the local freemen. Those elected to become a magnate were generally among the wealthiest people in their society. This was partly because magnates were expected to provide weapons for those who could not afford them.
Spears were the most popular weapon in Viking society and could be used to both thrust and throw, usually combined with a shield for defense. Swords were a rarity due to the costs involved and the skills required to make them; as such, they were usually restricted to high-status Vikings.
Axes were a common alternative to swords, usually paired with a shield. A larger, double-handed battle ax became more popular in later centuries but didn’t allow the use of a shield, making them a riskier option.
Weapons were material symbols of an owner’s status. As a result, they were often ornately decorated with silver, bronze, and copper details. These more artistic weapons were expected to be no less deadly and were designed to be used in battle.
Vikings were trained in their necessary skills from an early age, learning to use weapons, to hunt, and how to effectively raid their enemies. Those who dedicated themselves to a warrior’s life pledged their loyalty to successful warriors in the hope of earning fame and spoils. As being a leader required both money and prestige, frequent wars were a necessity for Viking leaders.
Vikings were not full-time professional soldiers, which were a rarity in Europe at the time, and they generally lacked tactical expertise. Rather than being placed into rigid formations by a commander, their personal bonds to family and their lords created a sense of unity in the army.
Although formations were generally rudimentary, there was a definite hierarchy to the way that Vikings fought. The youngest warriors lined up in a shield wall for protection, while the more experienced would stand behind them to provide support where needed. Chieftains were surrounded by their personal bodyguard, chosen from their most trusted friends and warriors.
At the commencement of the battle, a single spear was thrown over the opposing battle line, mimicking a feat performed by Odin in Norse mythology, who threw a spear over an entire enemy host. As this spear was thrown, the other Vikings shouted “Odin owns you all!” Vikings often also shouted “Tyr”, the name of the Norse god of war.
At this point, spears were launched from the entire Viking battle line, attempting to shatter the enemy’s morale from range. If the ranged attack proved indecisive, melee combat commenced.
One of the few formations used by the Vikings was in the shape of a wedge, called Svinfylking, using brute force in an attempt to break through the enemy’s defenses. The most feared Viking warriors were berserkers, who were said to fight wearing nothing but a bearskin, entering battle with furious abandon.
The disparate nature of Viking armies meant that common chants and battle cries were a rarity, other than invoking the names of the Norse gods. In later centuries, this changed somewhat as Christian influence spread throughout Scandanavia and many Vikings converted to the religion.
In time, these Christian converts began using Christian invocations while on the battlefield. In 1030, Olaf Haraldsson, the King of Norway, famously used the battle cry “Onward, Christ’s men, cross men, King’s men all!”
This was a significant change for a group that had once been feared across Europe for their willingness to loot and destroy Christian centers of worship.
There were likely countless battle cries used by individual Vikings but warriors invoking the names of Odin and Tyr, and later the Christian God, appear to have been the most widespread.