As the pre-Christian Germanic peoples progressed from the later Iron Age into what we now call the Viking Age, they came to be widely known for raids like the one at Lindisfarne in CE 793 and for their prowess in battle against Christians, against each other, and even as mercenaries fighting as far away as the Byzantine Empire. While most of these Northern European peoples were focused on agriculture and trading, war still found them, and sometimes, they needed to seek out resources in times of poor harvest.
Warriors of the North had more than one archetype on which to base their participation in battle as there was more than one Germanic god associated with war. Of the Norse pantheon at least three gods, Týr, Thor, and Odin, were responsible for bringing victory in war. By the Viking Age in particular Týr’s influence had waned to the point that only Thor and Odin remained as patrons of the warrior class.
Just as Thor and Odin are very different gods, so might the warriors who worshiped one god or the other behave as very different warriors.
First, let’s talk about the basic social structure among the pre-Christian Germanic peoples. French mythographer Georges Dumezil hypothesized that cultures descended from the Proto-Indo-European root culture had a tri-functional structure. The highest-level structure was focused on sovereignty, the rule of the people, and was usually represented by a priestly class. The second-tier function was military and corresponded to warriors. The bottom tier was focused on productivity and the economics of daily life.
The Vikings and other Germanic societies had a fairly rigid social structure and, while it doesn’t map perfectly onto Dumezil’s tri-function hypothesis, it fits. Fulfilling the sovereignty function and at the top of society were jarls and kings, the patriarchs of the Germanic peoples, who were also often highly important figures in ritual. The second class, called bondi, consisted of all free men, who were the common people, including farmers and craftsmen. The third class, called þræll, or thralls, an underclass of slaves, sometimes debtors, sometimes criminals, sometimes prisoners of war, but among this class were hereditary slaves who were born into thralldom.
I didn’t list a specific warrior class above because there wasn’t one or, rather, the warrior class was temporary and chosen from among the bondi class. These peoples did not maintain standing armies. Instead, for the most part, warriors were volunteers who entered into reciprocally binding contracts with jarls and kings to join them on raiding parties or in other skirmishes as necessary to defend land or violently settle disputes with neighboring jarls and kings.
Thor was the most beloved of the bondi class, loved by farmers in particular for his role in fertility and loved by all for his role in protecting the community from a variety of threats. His reputation for eating and drinking in the myths was well-matched to those who sought the mead hall after a long day’s work in the field or at the forge.
When bondi entered into agreements to become warriors, they were most often doing so in defense of their homes, as Thor was when he slayed the master builder, or going out to retrieve resources in a time of need, as Thor was when he took the giant Hymir out to sea for a tangentially relevant fishing trip for the Midgard Serpent Jormungand. They worried that they would return home to find trouble at home, as Thor found during Loki’s troublemaking flyting in Lokasenna. As the god who fought for the community, and who maintained the status quo, fighting off the giants who represented the dark and destructive forces of nature, he was the mythological warrior most worth emulating. Taking up arms as Thor did and swiftly dispatching foes was honorable and noble.
Odin, however, was not the most-loved of the bondi class, but rather of the elite jarls and kings. Few tales of Odin in battle survive. Instead, we know him as the enigmatic wanderer, always searching for foreknowledge of Ragnarõk and means to delay its arrival. He is the god who exchanges one of his eyes for knowledge, who impales himself upon the world tree Yggdrasil for nine days and nights to learn of the runes.
Why would Odin be a god of war?
It’s a misconception that Valhalla was some sort of Viking heaven that all men aspired to. Rather, this was the home of those who participated in the cult of Odin – the jarls and nobles who worshipped him. Some valiant warriors, chosen by Odin and his Valkyries, also joined the einherjar in Valhalla, but without a standing army or dedicated warrior class, Valhalla was not often on the minds of men as they reached adulthood. Odin was the patron of the leaders of battle and the very best warriors, those who had already worshipped him in life.
But worshiping Odin involves more than just participating in the patriarchy or having a position more likely to lead to a key role in a battle. Odin was one of two gods (alongside Freyja, and also Loki, who I’m reluctant to call a god for reasons we’ll discuss another day) strongly associated with magic and, particularly, with shamanism.
Shamanism is associated with many animistic religions and is a practice where the participant enters an ecstatic or trance-like state in order to communicate with spirits or travel through spiritual worlds to accomplish something specific. Odin’s name literally means “master of ecstasy” or “furious one” and so his connection to altered consciousness is inherent to his nature.
Tales of the Norsemen of the Viking Age don’t focus so much on the common warriors of the bondi class, the farmers and craftsmen who joined the cause of the nobility. Instead…
[Odin’s] men rushed forwards without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were strong as bears or wild bulls, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon themselves. These were called Berserkir.
—Ynglinga Saga, Ch. 6
The berserkers, or in the Old Norse, berserkir, were a different kind of warrior altogether. The term is understood to mean literally something like “bear-shirt”, that is, that these men wore the hides of bears as their only defense against weapons. A similar kind of warrior was called the úlfheðnar, or wolf-hide-men. The berserkers and úlfheðnar were part of the cult of Odin and were initiated by extended periods in the wilderness, living like the bears whose names and skins they took on. They spent their initiation focusing on honing predatory instincts and being as close to their animal selves as possible. Upon return, the berserker was trained to call upon a trance-like state to re-enter his animal existence so that he could be like an enraged animal warrior on the battlefield. It’s hard to be sure exactly how this was achieved, but the process may have involved fasting, extreme heat, ceremonial weapons dances, and more.
Of course, it isn’t necessarily a good thing to have men who have given themselves over to their animal natures fighting alongside you in battle. Once achieving their shamanistic state, these men destroyed whatever was in their path, friend or foe, without any concern but their need to destroy. These are the warriors best-known for burning villages, raping women, and causing mayhem throughout the rest of Europe.
Several of the sagas from the period involve such tales of berserkers gone wrong, particularly when the hero of the story must fight bands of berserkers, usually twelve but sometimes just two, who have become completely disconnected from society and, even though they are not always in their animal state, are constantly seeking out violence and destruction. They have become the forces of destruction, and in losing their way from society are now the utangard. Odin, of course, not being so focused on the status quo as Thor, finds them useful tools in his ongoing quest for knowledge and victory.
And so on balance we have two views of military life among the pre-Christian Germanic peoples. For the most part, these peoples were of the bondi class, regular folk defending their homes or seeking out resources to ensure that they could survive the next winter. This kind of warrior fits the model of Thor the protector, maintaining the innangard and ensuring the community would survive.
But the other kind of military life, associated with Odin, the chieftain of the gods, is quite different. Odin and his followers are not necessarily interested in the status quo. And the iconic image of the Viking Age, resonating down through the centuries, of villages burning and hordes being looted, surely comes more from the sovereign function of the jarls and kings and the destructive weapon of Odin’s shamanic cult: the berserkers and úlfheðnar who destroyed anything and everything.
Perhaps these two war gods have something to tell us about war itself; perhaps they are just relics of a bygone age. But their shadow looms large over the history of Europe.