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The Most Important Quality of a Viking Warrior

#The Most Important Quality of a Viking Warrior

War was an integral aspect of Viking society, with all free men in the Norse world eligible for participation. But what qualities defined a great Viking warrior? A recent study sheds light on insights gleaned from poetry and runic expressions.

Near the end of the tenth century, a battle took place at Fyrisvallarna in Sweden. Later on, a rune monument was placed to commemorate one of the men who died in the fighting:

Áskell placed this stone in memory of Tóki Gormr’s son, to him a faithful lord. He did not flee at Uppsala. Valiant men placed in memory of their brother the stone on the hill, steadied by runes. They went closest to Gormr’s Tóki.

The rune monument can now be found embedded in the walls of Hällestad Church in Torna-Hällestad, about 20 kilometers east of Lund in Skåne, southern Sweden. Photo by Kallerdis / Wikimedia Commons

Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson, a leading historian of the Norse world, sees this inscription as an excellent example of perhaps the most important ideal of a Viking warrior: Tóki did not flee from a fight, even though it cost him his life.

As Viking warbands waged battle in close, tight formations, where each individual relied on his comrades to protect his flank, it is not surprising that this form of personal courage was a key quality. Another historian, Judith Jesch, has even called this the ‘he fled not’ motif as it is very common among runic inscriptions to commemorate the dead.

Hedenstierna-Jonson notes that while honour and loyalty were important concepts in Viking society:

Martial reliability was a most important part of a warrior’s reputation. As war was fought in battle formation where the outcome was fully dependent on the unity and stability of the group, the life of the individual warrior was in the hands of the men that fought next to him.

Another reason that this form of courage was so highly regarded within Norse society was it could only be achieved by dying. The importance of posthumous reputation is reflected in this statement found in Hávamál:

Cattle die, kinsmen die, you yourself die; I know one thing which never dies: the judgment of a dead man’s life.

Either in poems written or in the runes etched, Vikings made sure to remember and praise their dead. These words also served another purpose – to instruct and inspire others and future generations towards these goals.

Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson’s article, “Warrior identities in Viking-Age Scandinavia,” offers more insights into this topic as well as other aspects such as the relationships between lords and retainers in this society, and the role women could have in this warrior group. The article appears in Vikings across boundaries: Viking-age transformations, volume II, edited by Hanne Lovise Aannestad, Unn Pedersen, Marianne Moen, Elise Naumann, and Heidi Lund Berg, and published by Routledge in 2021.

Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson is a researcher at the University of Uppsala where she works on the Vikings and Norse society. You can learn more about Charlotte through her university webpage or on Academia.edu.

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