Material Culture 4: Bearers of Arms
Updated: May 7, 2022
Another outward sign of a tribe member’s free status is the carrying of weapons. This is due to the long-held wisdom of our folk which states that without weapons, and the skill and will to use them against oppressors, there can be no true freedom. This may sound strange to the ears of some modern people, but it is no less true now than it was for our ancestors back in their day. Think about it. What if our government ever turned tyrannical and corrupt? Would we be able, of our own accord, to free ourselves from their yolk? Not without weapons and not without warriors, and that’s a fact. No amount of complaining and objecting can change the hearts of those who are truly evil. They will perceive the lack of armed opposition as weakness and will harm the innocent with even more fury. Even if the ill intent of the oppressors is not made manifest to such extreme lengths as this, it cannot be denied that we live in a world with far, far more petty rules and restrictions on the lives of so-called “free” people than was the case in the past. If you examine these rules closely, you will find that many of them do not serve the greater good, but are borne of the ignorance and prejudices of those who make them. I am not saying that all modern laws are pointless and superfluous, but many of them did not exist in the heathen days of yore, and our ancestors were a far more happy, free, and accomplished people. Laws existed to serve the folk, and to ensure that we could continue to exist as a coherent, harmonious, and thriving society, whereas now (and ever since the advent of Christianity) many of the co-called “moral order” laws (and those that delegate responsibility for dispute resolution to third party strangers) have little other function than to control the lives of individuals just for the sake of control. When was the last time, for example, that youwere consulted on whether you wanted some law or other to be passed? If you have had recourse to our modern legal system, did you truly get justice? When has the true will of the common people, and all of its various constituent groups, ever been truly considered? It is difficult to balance the needs and desires of all the different, sides, true, but that is the problem with modern, pluralistic societies with no common set of norms, values, customs, and ideals. Concensus is seldom if ever reached. It is far easier to do if a society is united religiously, socially, politically, and spiritually.
Differences will still exist, of course, on both individual and clan levels, but the fault lines dividing the societies of today were far less deep and grievous than was the case in the days of our heathen ancestors. Leaders had the power to settle disputes and make decrees, but they did so after carefully weighing the opinions, desires, and needs of the people as well as established tribal thew before making a decision, and many of their decisions were based all or at least in part on these considerations. On the other hand, Heathen leaders did not always have to be “crowd pleasers” who went along with whatever idea the masses wanted, no matter how ill-conceived or foolish, or not matter how far it went from the established folkways and traditions of the tribe. It was very much a balancing act between the desires of the multitude, tribal thew, and the common weal. When a heathen leader made a decision, it was respected and observed, but concerned parties could appeal it and have their objections heard. This is not the case now. It seems that, more and more, the politicians of our day can do whatever they want without fear of repercussions, because they know that they control the military (and police) might of the country, and can use it against us in whatever way they see fit. This is why the American public is becoming more and more disillusioned every year with our politicians and the current political devices that are in play. Little by little, they are edging their way to more and more complete control, encouraged by the fact that most people are too scared to speak up for themselves or to refuse any of the rules, ordinances, restrictions, regulations, laws, and various other pieces of bureaucratic clap-trap that they foist upon us. They work tirelessly to erode the right to bear arms, that we might be all the more easily controlled and have even less chance to fight back than we already do. Our ancestors were not expected to keep their heads down, punch a clock, jump through a bunch of hoops, have games played with their lives, and just accept whatever the government of their day decided without question, no matter how ridiculous and no matter how unfair. Leadership had an important role to play in our ancestors’ time, and leaders were respected and revered (if they were worthy of it) but if something is truly wrong, and the folk knew it in their hearts to be so, they had a sacred duty to refuse to obey an unjust law or an immoral order. In many cases they were truly blessed to have good, wise, and noble leaders who cared about their people. In other cases, not so much. It was the warrior society of our ancestors that allowed them to balance order and personal freedom in such an efficient manner. Those who were led by the gods comported themselves as such, and those that were not, and who sought power for all the wrong reasons, eventually met bad ends, as the sagas will show. But leadership IS necessary, and history will attest to this fact. A head must steer the “body” of the folk. There has not been a single “anarchist experiment” to make it in the long term.
It is common nowadays for certain people to think that just because they feel strongly enough about something, they will be able to change the hearts and minds of those who do wrong. The evildoers of this world will only laugh contemptuously at such sentiments, and wreak havoc and harm all the more on these people for their perceived impudence. Arms must be met with arms, and force with force. In heathenry we do make a distinction between good and evil, right and wrong, honor and dishonor. It is different from the Christian sets of morals and ethics we are used to (a lot of the prudish, puritanical aspects of “good” for example, do not apply) but overall, our ancestors had a strong sense of justice, and a belief that those who did right by others should be dealt with in like kind. If you have already read the “Heathen Ethics” section of this site, you will understand at once what I mean by this (and if not, I suggest you read it at this point and then return to this section and finish reading it. It will give you more perspective.)
No matter how much of the moral high ground the forces of good in this world hold, they cannot hope to prevail without weapons and knowledge of the ways of war. It is a fundamental truth of our folk that good will always prevail in the end, but only if the good are willing to act to make it so. Edmund Burke, a British philosopher, put our ancestors’ way of thinking well when he said “the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to stand by and do nothing.” He is right, but “doing something” means more than conscientiously (and only verbally) objecting to tyranny and wickedness. Words must be backed with action; to our ancestors, one honorable deed was worth 1000 honorable words. To truly square off against evil involves taking a strong stand against it, with declarations to use force and the means and intent to back it if that becomes necessary (and the wisdom to know that it HAS, in fact, become necessary.) Where words fail, steel must answer. And what happens if both sides are more or less evenly matched in terms of military might? What happens if, despite their best preparations, the forces of good are still outnumbered and outgunned even if they are bristling with weapons and brimming with fighting spirit? Our ancestors believed that good will triumph in the end, even if for a while (even long periods of time) it looks like evil gets the upper hand. Evil must NEVER be allowed to reign unchecked. Not ever.
The gods favor the just, and the gods favor those bold enough to use force of arms to uphold justice and stand up for what is right and true. The ill deeds of the wicked will affect their wyrd adversely, and eventually they will sink under the weight of their own malevolence, and their luck will abandon them. But for this sequence of events to play out, good men and women must contend with evil. Unopposed, we cannot act as the agents of wyrd and of the gods, and nothing will ever change for the better. We would be little more than inert and helpless spectators in the drama of life, a nonfactor that the forces of evil trample over to get what they want. True heathen living means getting the most out of life and never backing down from those who would seek to take our liberty out of our hands. Violence, despite the beliefs propogated from many quarters of modern society, is not always and invariably wrong in and of itself; it is WHY it is taken up, and for what ends that separates the hero from the tyrant. The gods know our hearts, and if we can still our minds and quiet our thoughts, and truly get to know ourselves, then we, too, can learn to discern the right use of armed force from its opposite. Come to know your higher self, and you come to know the will of the gods. Come to know this, and there will never be any problem in life that is absolutely hopeless and insurmountable.
For modern heathens in many places, the aforementioned weapons restriction laws can make it difficult to carry both gun-steel and blade-steel. In some places open carry of a firearm or bladed weapon is technically legal (like here in Kentucky) but often results in adverse reactions from the populace and the police, even if you are going about minding your own business, hurting no one and doing absolutely nothing wrong. It is absurd, but that is where we are in modern society. That is one of the many reasons why things must change. Concealed carry is also allowed in several states, including my own, and as of last year no longer requires a concealed carry license. Of course, concealed carry limits you to knives and handguns mainly, as well as whatever smaller weapons you might have (throwing stars, brass knuckles, blackjacks, etc.) You can also carry long guns like shotguns or rifles in your vehicle, but can generally get away with carrying it on your person way out in the country. The carrying of swords, axes, bows, and other ancient weapons in the wrong places can also certainly bring adverse attention from the “authorities,” but context can matter a great deal with this. Our ancestors didn’t have to take all these considerations into account. A free, armed society meant exactly what it meant. People were able to trust one another a lot more back then because our communities were much more closely-knit and its members honor bound to deal with others in the way that they truly deserved. There were of course criminals and outlaws, as no society is totally free of them. If enemies did emerge and bear weapons against our ancestors, they had the means to deal with it. They went about their lives boldly without the constant fear or maiming or death that the sight of visible weapons evokes in the sheepish, cowardly monoculture. They knew that their deaths were ultimately in the hands of the gods and the norns, and they had only to play their part while here, changing the aspects of their destinies that they could while accepting the things they could not. If you live your life constantly gripped by fear of what others might do to you, then you may as well not live at all.
Our ancestors did not go around wearing their armor all the time, like some media portray. They did, however, always go about armed, even if their weapon was nothing more than a small seax knife. The wearing of a weapon was one of the outward signs that someone was a freeman and not a thrall (slave). In the Havamal, Odin advises that you shouldn’t be more than three paces away from your spear. Most ancient heathens would probably not have carried a dane axe (which is quite long-hafted and requires the use of two hands) or spear around with them unless they were travelling or expecting trouble. Instead, they would carry a one-handed battle axe on their belt, or a sword if they were one of the fortunate few who could afford one. There are many shows and movies that depict nearly everyone carrying a sword, when most of the time only kings, jarls, hersir, their thanes, or a very wealthy karlar could obtain one through the spoils of war, a gift, the spending of coin. Most people in the viking age who went on raids or to battles were not full-time professional warriors. They were common craftsmen, farmers, or laborers who were levied by the jarl into the king’s army during time of war or called upon to undertake some kind of military task for their jarl. Other times, they would go on raids for reasons of their own, usually to gain wealth, fame, and honor by raiding in neighboring nations or to take revenge for a wrong done to them or their kin. These people usually only had a seax knife and as spear, and often a common single-headed battle axe as well. Many could only afford one of these things.
As for the affordability of armor, most could not acquire anything aside from a cloth gambeson, the padded undergarment over which chain mail byrnies and leather brigandine or composite “scale mail” armors were worn (and these last were largely imported from abroad. In addition, due to the fact that leather rots, no extant examples currently exist in a museum.) Gambesons absorbed the shock trauma of a melee weapon on the armor and helped to protect the wearer from bruises and broken bones, which can occur even if one is struck with a weapon primarily designed for thrusting or cutting. This was particularly true of axes, which delivered a great deal of impact along with their ability to hew and cleave. Blunt weapons did not appear to be very common at all in Viking Age Scandinavia, and very few examples of what (might) have been mace heads have been found in archeological digs. It was not until the Middle Ages, with the advent of better quality mail and the newer plate armor designed to be worn on most or all of the body that maces, warhammers, and the like began to come into vogue in northern and western Europe. However, in continental Germany wooden war clubs were commonly carried by warriors and used against the Romans, since there was not enough bronze or iron to go around.
Shields were also quite common. The requirement by jarls for each village to levy troops from the populace when the need arose called for each warrior to own a spear and a shield. The typical common man’s shield was made of linden wood with leather sometimes stretched over it to help absorb impact and diffuse the force of the incoming blows, though they were principally used to parry or deflect an enemy’s weapon rather than provide the passive defense of other types of armor. Several solid strikes to a shield usually caused severe cracks to form which compromised their integrity. They were not designed to survive more than a single battle or duel, whereas decorative shields or those fashioned for thanes or jarls might be made of stouter (but heavier) material like ash or oak. They were integral to the system of Western martial arts practiced by our ancestors and were vital equipment for many of the military formations they used, such as the shield wall (a linear defensive line composed of tightly knit ranks and overlapping shields), the boar’s snout (a wedge-shaped attack formation designed to charge into and break a section of an enemy line after it was weakened by arrows, javelins, and stones) and the schiltron (a circular or dome-shaped formation that provided all-around defense against cavalry or a much larger force of infantry.) This last formation was used by our ancestors but the norse name for it does not seem to have survived.
The cost of armor aside, it was not unheard of for a common warrior to obtain a repairable or salvageable piece of armor from the enemy. While some would argue that the Vikings did not wear leather armor due to the fact that no leather pieces have survived the ravages of time (and indeed none have) I must once again say here as I have in other essays that lack of evidence of a thing does not disprove that thing’s existence. It is very likely that much of this evidence has rotted away. From a purely speculative standpoint, it would not at all be surprising to venture the notion that our ancestors probably did wear it.
Metal armor such as chain mail byrnies were prohibitively expensive for most people. Leather was common, its commonality likely being the very reason its escapes mention in the sources. Remember, before the coming of Christianity our ancestors did not write things down, and when this practice was taken up during the conversion period they likely wrote the way that they spoke, and only included the information they considered unique or important. It is quite difficult to punch through boiled reindeer hide! If you were going into battle, wouldn’t YOU want something more between your own hide and a sharp blade than cloth? Dying in battle was an honorable death to our ancestors and the best way to meet one’s end, but the point of going into battle was usually not to die (unless an old warrior wished to avoid the “straw death.”) It was common enough in later centuries, with one example being the brigandine. Interestingly enough, the one other piece of armor which the common warrior might be able to afford is seldom seen on the “Hollywood” Vikings: the helmet! The head is the most vulnerable place to strike at in combat, injury to this part of the body carries a high probability of incapacitation or death if injured, and this would be a highly coveted piece of equipment.
Much of what I have just described applies to Scandinavians during the Viking Age, and not necessarily from earlier eras or from other parts of the greater Germanic/Teutonic world. These eras and tribes tend to receive less of the historical limelight than the Vikings from Norway, Denmark, Sweden (and the lands they subsequently settled.) That’s a shame, because our religion and culture weren’t just practiced by the vikings. Being a “viking” described what someone did more than who or what someone was. It was a term applied to sea-faring raiders who often went on raids, but this was a part-time endeavor, with the rest of their time being spent farming, ranching, and whatever else they did back home (and during which time they were no longer considered vikings.) Though such raids were conducted before the commencement of what we commonly refer to as the Viking Age, the era was given its name because it was marked by an unprecedented explosion of frenzied viking activity unleashed upon Christian Europe due to the effects of overpopulation, food shortages, internal wars, and Christian-imposed trade embargoes that plagued Scandinavia. Therefore, the terms “Heathen” and “Germanic” describe what we are (and who our ancestors were) more accurately than “Viking.” After all, its probably a safe bet that none of us have raided folks in other lands recently! The Viking-Age Scandinavians were just a few of the many tribes that practiced what we call Heathenry. Their dress, as you might expect, experienced evolutions as their culture passed from the stone age through the bronze and iron ages, but many of the cultural developments were retained.