Conquering with Courage: A Guide to Viking Training and Battle Tactics

11-minute read

Introduction

The Vikings were renowned for their ferocity in battle and skilled warriors, which they achieved through unique training and preparation methods. Although there are limited records of their training, their games, and pastimes indicate that training was a crucial aspect of their daily routine. This blog post delves into the Viking way of training and battle tactics, focusing on the role of games in their training regimen. Additionally, we will explore the Viking practice of single combat, known as "holmgång" in Swedish and “hólmganga” in Old Norse.

The Viking Warrior: Training and Preparation

If we gather sources from the Viking era we can imagine that training and physical fitness were a big part of people's lives at that time. But unfortunately, few sources describe their training methods. Chroniclers at the time had limited space to write, and they would not waste it on training programs. However, the majority of Vikings were farmers so they were "working out" every day through their daily tasks. We can also learn some things from the games that the Vikings played. The games were viewed as something fun to do in their spare time and not as a serious life goal. Therefore, if you want to train like a Viking, have fun with it, and don't kill yourself with hard and boring training.

The Viking way of training was all about having fun, being well-rounded, and doing what comes naturally to you. Incorporate full-body movements, cross-training, and explosive movements into your training routine. So, get out there, have fun, and train like a Viking!

The Importance of Games in Viking Training

The Vikings were known for their skill in battle and their fierce warriors. Skill comes with practice. Sports and games were good practice and the Vikings loved sports and games.

There were many individual sports that they enjoyed. Horse riding, archery, and spear throwing just to mention a few. Games that involved running and speed were activities they engaged in regularly as well as swimming. Swimming races could be done but they also participated in more dangerous competitions like drowning contests, where they would hold each other underwater to see who could last longer. There were also more playful games that children and adults could play together. The games usually required strength, balance, flexibility, or speed. Or all combined! Tug of war in different forms and wrestling was popular. A wrestling game practiced by the Vikings and still practiced today is called Glima.

Team sports were likely a big part of Viking life, but there are few records of organized competitions. Old texts describe how the Vikings had snowball fights, two teams fighting each other. Rowing was probably a team sport, with rowers competing against each other and with other groups.

Board games were also popular among the Vikings and we're not only played for fun but also to practice and for tactics. Chess-like board games and dice games. One of the most famous ones is Hnefatafl, pronounced nef-ah-tah-fel. The word Hnefatafl means "the King's Table".

The Viking Game Hnefatafl is a tactical warfare game that is similar to Chess in terms of strategy. It is easy to learn and fun for the whole family, from grandparents to grandkids. Although Chess enthusiasts will find some familiar aspects, there are major differences that make Hnefatafl truly unique. The king is outnumbered and must defend himself against attackers while trying to escape. The role of the king is very different from the role of the attackers, making it like two games in one. Unlike Chess, the attack comes from all four sides, adding an extra layer of challenge.

Hnefatafl requires tactical skill to take the enemy by surprise and win the game. With the game reconstructed based on archaeological research, it can now be played as it was back then. It is a great way to experience a piece of Viking culture.

Gambling was also popular among the Germanic tribes, and the Vikings likely enjoyed gambling as well.

Poetry was also considered a game. It was not only fun but also an important part of Norse culture. Poets were highly respected in the Viking community because they could recite long poems from memory and entertain people with their stories.

Vikings were often skilled in multiple sports and considered well-rounded athletes. This meant that they were able to compete in everything from wrestling to archery, horse racing, and poetry competitions.

While there are few records of organized competitions, Vikings likely competed similarly to ancient Greeks in their love for competition. Norse mythology is full of stories about competition.

Games were a way for people to bond, they were used as a form of entertainment, but also as a way to train warriors. In conclusion, we can see that games and entertainment have been around since ancient times and were as popular as it is today!

Island Duels: Holmgång in Old Norse Culture

The Vikings had a unique way of settling disputes and court cases through single combat, known as "holmgång" in Swedish, and “hólmganga” in Old Norse. This duel would take place on a small island, as "holme" in Swedish translates to the island, and adding "gång" makes it mean "going to the island." The practice was originally used by all the Germanic peoples even before the Viking age.

Holmgång was also referred to as "envig," meaning "single combat," although it was slightly different from holmgång as it was more free and wild. Holmgång had rules for experienced fighters, making it more of a competition.

If a person refused to participate in a holmgång, they would be seen as an "níðr," a person without honor. 

One source tells us that the ring where the fighters would meet was either a cloak or an ox hide laid out flat with stakes and poles made from hazel trees stuck into the ground in each corner. The formation appears to have some relation to a sacrifice. In the same source, we can read that before the fight, a bull was sacrificed, and an incantation or charm was set. It was believed that bending over and looking between the legs while reciting the spell could give glimpses into the spirit world and was used for different magical practices such as curses or divination. Another source tells us how the sacrifice took place after the holmgång, as a way of saying thank you to the gods for granting victory.

The ring was quite small, the size of a cloak or oxhide. It is also mentioned that each fighter could put each cloak on the ground flat, and that would be the ring.

One could also fight for someone else in a holmgång, such as a family member or friend, which was seen as an honorable act. Holmgång was a unique way of settling disputes in the Old Norse culture, steeped in tradition and beliefs.

The Viking Battle: Tactics and Strategy

Viking tactics and warfare were heavily influenced by the cultural beliefs and values of Norse society. Their way of life was characterized by minor kingdoms with limited central authority and organization, leading to communities ruled according to laws made and pronounced by local assemblies called "ting". Due to the lack of any kind of public executive apparatus such as a police force, violence was likely common in the Viking world. The enforcement of laws and verdicts fell upon the individual involved in a dispute, and violence was not limited to a man but extended to his kin.

Personal reputation and honor were crucial values among Norsemen, and actionable slander was a legal category in addition to physical and material injuries. Honor could be shamed from mere insults, where Norsemen were legally allowed to react violently, and fearlessness was expected. The belief that the time of death was predetermined, and that nothing else in life was, meant that Vikings had two possibilities in life: "success with its attendant fame; or death." These core values and convictions were displayed in the tactics of Viking raids and warfare.

Norse society also shared traits of bonding through mutual gift-giving to ensure alliances and loyalty, and many Norse went a-Viking for the opportunity to gather loot and wealth by trading and raiding. This wealth was then brought back to Scandinavia and used for political gain. Monasteries and churches were often targeted during Viking raids due to their wealth in relics and luxury goods like precious metals and fine textiles.

These cultural beliefs and values were integral to the Viking way of life and played a significant role in their tactics and warfare. The necessity of defending honor with violence, the belief in predetermined death, adventure, and fearlessness were all central to Viking warfare. Understanding these values and beliefs provides insight into the tactics and motivations behind Viking raids and warfare.

Vikings were known for their extensive raiding and expansion, which was facilitated by their seafaring culture. Coastal regions were regularly attacked due to their vulnerability, and the Vikings utilized rivers to raid deeper inland.

One of the key features of Viking ships was their shallow draft, which allowed them to land directly on sandy beaches and navigate rivers. This made it easier for the Vikings to launch surprise attacks on coastal towns and settlements.

The ships were constructed out of riven and hewn planks preserving the wood grain, and making them strong and flexible. The use of high-quality materials contributed to the durability and longevity of the ships.

Steering was accomplished with a single rudder in the stern, which allowed for greater control and maneuverability. The low mast of the Viking longships allowed for fast rigging and unrigging and could pass under bridges erected in rivers.

The Vikings prioritized speed and flexibility in their shipbuilding, sacrificing hull depth and durability for mobility. This allowed them to respond quickly to changing situations and launch surprise attacks on enemy territories.

Overall, the Vikings' success in raids and expansion was due in large part to their superior shipbuilding. Their ships were fast, efficient, and flexible.

The warriors’ arsenal: Weapons and armor of Choice

The Viking arsenal consisted of various weapons, including spears, bows, axes, and swords. With helmets, shields, and chain mail as protection.

The spear was probably the most common weapon in the Viking arsenal. It was an inexpensive and effective weapon used for both hunting and combat. The wooden shaft was between two to three meters long. While spears could be used as a distance weapon it is likely to have been used as a close combat weapon since you don't want to lose your weapon or give it to your opponent in battle by throwing it away. The spear was popular due to its lower cost and longer reach than swords and axes.

The bow was another weapon used in Viking times. Archers formed up behind a line of spearmen who defended against a mounted attack. The bows could be made of yew and elm, and the arrows out of birch wood with feathers for fletching. Viking's long arrows were meant to be drawn to the ear for instinctive shooting. The bow that was used was a longbow.

The axe was used for farm labor, logging, construction, and shipbuilding making it common on Viking raids. The axe varied in size from small handheld broadaxes to Dane axes that were over a meter in length. It required less swinging power than expected, as the heads usually were forged thin and light. The famous beard axe could be used to hook an opponent.

The Vikings also used swords. The most commonly found swords in Viking graves were double-edged but single-edged swords were also used. Swords were designed for slashing and cutting, rather than thrusting.

Overall, the Vikings had an effective arsenal of weapons that helped them achieve their military success. The spear was the most common weapon due to its lower cost and longer reach than swords and axes. 

Defense in Viking times consisted of helmets, shields, and chain mail.

Findings of intact helmets are rare, with only fragments of metal found in burial sites. Some historians believe that most warriors wore leather helmets instead of metal. Shields were round and made of wooden boards, held together by a rim of leather or thin iron fittings. Shields were covered in thin leather to prevent splintering and had an iron boss. Shields were effective at blocking weapons, and enemies' weapons sometimes became stuck in the shield.

Chain mail was found in wealthy Viking graves, but it was expensive to manufacture in the 9th-10th centuries. It was made by weaving small metal rings together to form a protective mesh. Chain mail was an effective defense against swords and other slashing weapons. However, it was heavy, making it difficult to move quickly in battle.

The Shield Wall: A Misunderstood Battle Tactic?

The shield wall is a traditional battle tactic that has been used by various cultures throughout history. However, there is a widespread misconception that it is a tactic solely used by Vikings. The shield wall has been used for thousands of years, in ancient Greece, by Sumerians, Persians, and Romans. Additionally, Anglo-Saxons used the shield wall before the Vikings started raiding.

It is unclear why the shield wall is associated with the Vikings since it was not only used by them and was not used that often by them. The rare recorded use of the shield wall was only for very specific purposes, such as when waiting for reinforcements to arrive. The benefit of the shield wall is that it provides good protection but makes it difficult to hit weapons and move around.

The shield wall was not used when trying to destroy the enemy Instead, it was used when trying to draw out the battle and stay safe until reinforcements arrived. Maybe the most famous example of the shield wall is the Spartans against the Persians. The shield wall was important for protection since they were so few.

Berserkers: The Fierce Warriors of the Viking Age

In Norse culture, shape-shifting was a common practice that recognized two main types: changing the body's form and sending the spirit out of the body to control another body. The concept of shape-shifting was closely related to the idea of the hamr, one aspect of the Norse Soul (read more about the Norse soul). The ability to transform was a powerful tool for both warriors and spiritual leaders. The berserkers were a group of Norse warriors known for their uncontrollable rage and exceptional strength. They achieved this state by entering a trance-like state, through either deep meditation or the consumption of potent plants. The berserker ritual remains a fascination to this day.

Conclusion

The Vikings had a distinctive approach to training and preparing for battle. They viewed training as a form of entertainment and regularly engaged in games and sports to maintain their fitness and all-around skills. The Vikings were well-versed in various sports, making them well-rounded athletes capable of competing in wrestling, archery, horse racing, and poetry contests. The Viking's training and mindset remain relevant today and can inspire maintaining a good and healthy life.

Back to blog