Born for Valhalla: How Viking Children Learned the Art of War
We know from the sagas that Viking boys were trained in the art of war. The Viking’s success in killing and oppressing everyone who stood in their way was no accident: The warrior mentality followed a Viking from birth until he proudly stepped into Valhalla.
Even little boys knew that they could only become real men through warfare. According to the Eddic poem Rigstula, children learned a variety of skills and combat techniques. The poem tells about the boy Jarl who “tamed horses, made arrows, shaped shields and brandished spears.”
The name Jarl (English: Earl) indicates that the boy comes from a chief’s family, but children from farming families were probably also playing war games.
Historians believe that even three-year-old boys played with wooden swords and threw spears covered by a piece of leather so that they should not hurt themselves or others.
When the children grew older, they could be lucky and get real weapons of iron forged in a child’s size. Norwegian archaeologists have found several such weapons, including a small sword and an ax in a child’s grave.
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Viking longswords (not child-sized). (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Wrestling and Snowball Fights
Besides playing with weapons, wrestling was one of the most popular games and something boys were doing throughout the year. Through wrestling matches they practiced speed and agility, and the training was a good preparation for future close combat situations.
Through wrestling the children also learned game rules and discipline. The Vikings had to promise that they would not hurt each other intentionally during play. These rules were taken very seriously and strictly enforced. Those who broke the rules committed níð and were often called níðingr – one of the worst epithets in the Viking Age.
When it was snowing, children built ramparts and fortresses that they used as battle arenas. Snowball fighting was not only entertaining but also effective training in siege techniques and different throwing skills.
A Matter of Honor
The most important of all was that the young Viking learned about the warrior society’s code of honor. The Norsemen were convinced that a number of Norns (goddesses) spun the threads of life and that every human life was predestined.
No man could change his destiny and only the brave warrior would come to Valhalla. A Viking therefore had to fight like a man and die like a man if the gods had decided it.
Time Travel: It is uncertain whether young girls got training in the use of weapons, but it is not unlikely. (Image: NRK Super)
In every battle, one of two things will happen: either you will fall, or you will survive. Therefore, be brave because everything is predetermined. Nothing can kill a man if his time has not come, and no one can save the one who is destined to die. So a farmer exhorts his son in Sverris saga while they are walking together down to the longship waiting at the coast.
In the same way, to die in battle was the most honorable a thing a Viking could achieve. The ability to plunder was also highly respected – unlike ordinary thefts which were considered cowardly actions.
Viking boys had to prove that they had the courage and skills before they were considered as grownups. If they belonged to a powerful family, they could prove themselves worthy by participating in a battle or go on Viking.
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Young Vikings practiced wrestling and close combat. (CC BY-ND 2.0)
The sagas mention that Olaf Tryggvason (c. 963-1000 AD) killed his first man when he was nine years old.
Olaf Haraldsson (995 – 29 July 1030 AD), who later became Olaf the Holy, went on Viking when he was twelve years old.
Although the saga writers are exaggerating in their eagerness to glorify the heroes, they provide an image of how the children already at an early stage had to live up to the expectations the Viking society demanded.
The sagas say nothing about whether young girls were trained in the art of war. This may be because they were written down after Christianity was introduced in Scandinavia and that “warrior women” were not tolerated.
Top image: These Norwegian children have traveled back to the Viking Age and practice archery. (Source: NRK Super)