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A Statistical Summary of Weapons Usage
in Sagas of Icelanders

Using a compiled list of references to arms, armor, and combat in the Sagas of Icelanders, I've compiled a summary of the use of weapons as described in the sagas. For some of the data, I've further broken the usage down into subcategories.

The data are shown in graphical form, showing how often, as a percentage of total number of instances in the sagas, any given combat usage is described in the sagas. Any mention of a weapon outside of a combat context has been discarded; only combat usage has been tallied.

In some categories, there are too many different types to permit clear graphical presentation of the data. For those categories, I've combined the different types into broader divisions. The raw data making up these categories is shown in tabular form below.

Weapons Used in Combat in the Sagas

weapons in the sagas

The sagas describe the use in combat of more than forty different weapons. I've combined them into eight broader divisions. (For example, in the category of axe, I have been placed ÷xi, ÷xarhamar, vi­ar÷xi, and many more variants.) The plot above shows the percentage of instances in which a weapon in the group is described as being used in combat in the sagas. As an illustration, in nearly 40% of the instances in which weapons are used in combat in the sagas, that weapon is a sword.

Some of the weapons described in the sagas are poorly understood today. There no known surviving specimens, and the weapons are not so well described that one can make a good guess about what they might have been. In creating the broader category of halberd, I've placed a number of these poorly known pole weapons such as atgeir, fleinn, kesja and others. Translators frequently use halberd for these Icelandic words, even though strictly speaking, halberd refers to a pole weapon developed and used to good effect by the Swiss in the 14th century.

Combat Targets Described in the Sagas

combat targets in the sagas

The targets of the attacks as described in the sagas are shown in the plot above. Head refers to targets from the neck up, including throat, ear, head, and others. Arms includes any portion of the upper limbs. Front includes targets above the waist, including chest, side, and stomach. Back includes backbone, and, particularly for axe attacks, blows made between the shoulder blades. Legs includes attacks below the waist, such as hips, thigh, and feet. Unspec includes any targets that are not specifically described. Many of the thrusting attacks fall Into this category because the saga authors often say merely that the combatant was run through. Having no further information, I categorized these attacks as unspecified. However, I believe many of these attacks were likely made to the torso and would fall into front category.

In some cases, the intended target and the location of the injury differed. In these cases, I used to location of the injury to create this plot, primarily because the injuries tend to be more carefully described than the targets.

Combat Injuries Described in the Sagas

combat injuries in the sagas

In addition to the location of the combat injuries, the sagas also describe the degree of the injury. The plot shows the percentage of combat injuries described in the saga that result in death (either immediate, or after a period of time), in a wound (ranging from loss of limbs to bloody wounds), and in minor injuries (including instances where an attack resulted in no injury because it was successfully parried). One can imagine that in reality, a higher proportion of the attacks would result in a minor injury than is indicated by this plot. Presumably combatants in the sagas had sufficient combat skills to be able to parry many of the attacks against them. Those successful parries are likely not to have been mentioned by the saga authors.

Types of Attacks Described in the Sagas

The attacks described in the sagas fall into the categories of cuts (which includes other blows and slices), thrusts, and missile attacks. Scarcely any fall into the unspecified category, which is primarily a catchall category for attacks that couldn't be identified.

Intent of the Attacks Described in the Sagas

intent of the sagas in the sagas

Some of the attacks described in the sagas were not meant to be lethal. Weapons were used to back up verbal threats and to humiliate opponents. The ÷xarhamar (the back side of the axe) was often used for this purpose.

Weapons Used in Combat in the Sagas Grouped by Date Written

weapons used divided by time period

One contentious area is the matter of when the sagas were first written down. Without any doubt, it wasn't until centuries after the events they describe took place. As a result, the reader has to question whether the sagas conflate the period in which they were written with the period in which they took place. One might expect that sagas written earlier would have less of this conflation than later ones.

The plot above shows, by date the saga was written, the distribution of weapons used in combat. I've used the dating method of VÚsteinn Ëlason, who divides the sagas into broad categories of early, classical, and late. This plot provides less insight than I had hoped. For example, the sax, known to be more widely used in the early Viking age than later times, shows up more frequently in the sagas written later, primarily because of its frequent mention in Grettis saga.

Attacks Described in the Sagas Grouped by Weapon Type

The plot shows, for each weapon type, the distribution of types of attacks, as described in the sagas. I had hoped these data might help lead to a better understanding of the halberd type weapons, which were used primarily for thrusting, but were also used in cutting attacks and missile attacks. The nature of these weapons remains elusive.

Combat Injuries Described in the Sagas Grouped by Weapon Type

injuries by weapon in the sagas

The plot shows, for each weapon type, the distribution of types of injuries resulting from an attack, as described in the sagas.

Combat Injuries Described in the Sagas Grouped by Type of Attack

injuries by attack in the sagas

The plot shows, for each target, the distribution of types of injuries resulting from an attack, as described in the sagas. Not surprisingly, attacks to the head and torso resulted in a higher proportion of lethal injuries than did attacks to the limbs.

Combat Targets Described in the Sagas Grouped by Weapon Type

The plot shows, for each weapon type, the distribution of combat targets, as described in the sagas. Again, thrusting weapons, such as the spear and halberd weapon types, have a high proportion of unspecified targets, because the saga authors frequently say only that the combatant was run through. It is very likely that many of these attacks fall into the front category.

The axe and halberd attacks have a higher percentage of attacks to the back, since the stories say that the blows were often struck between the shoulder blades.

Combat Intent Described in the Sagas Grouped by Weapon Type

The plot shows, for each weapon type, the distribution of the intent of the weapon use, as described in the sagas. The axe type shows a higher percentage of non-lethal attacks than other weapons, in part because of attacks with the ÷xarhamar, and because of the instances in which a verbal threat was delivered with a raised axe.


Raw Data. The tables below summarize the raw data as compiled from the text of the Sagas of Icelanders.

Summary of Types of Weapons Used in Combat in the Sagas

 

total
number
of
instances

percent

atgeir

19

3.1

bjarnsvi­a

1

0.2

blˇ­refill

2

0.3

bogi

1

0.2

bol÷x

2

0.3

brei­÷xi

2

0.3

bryntr÷l

2

0.3

exarhamarr

2

0.3

exi

13

2.1

fleinn

1

0.2

gaflak

2

0.3

grjˇt

1

0.2

grřta

1

0.2

handsax

1

0.2

hand÷xi

2

0.3

hjalt

1

0.2

hvalrif

1

0.2

hyrna

3

0.5

h÷ggspjˇt

5

0.8

h÷gg÷xi

1

0.2

kesja

3

0.5

krˇkaspjˇt

1

0.2

sax

29

4.7

skj÷ldur

1

0.2

skŠri

1

0.2

smÝ­ar÷x

1

0.2

snarspjˇt

1

0.2

snŠrisspjˇt

3

0.5

spjˇt

167

27.3

stafur

1

0.2

sver­

233

38.1

sver­shjalt

1

0.2

svi­a

2

0.3

tapar÷xi

1

0.2

tygilhnÝfur

2

0.3

tßlguhnÝfur

2

0.3

tßlg÷xi

3

0.5

unspecified

10

1.6

vi­ar÷xi

3

0.5

÷r

9

1.5

÷xarhamar

6

1.0

÷xarhyrna

2

0.3

÷xi

66

10.8

Summary of Combat Targets in the Sagas

 

total
number
of
instances

percent

arm

30

4.9

back

28

4.6

belly

8

1.3

buttocks

1

0.2

chest

36

5.9

foot

3

0.5

hand

5

0.8

head

98

16.0

hips

1

0.2

kneecap

1

0.2

leg

72

11.8

middle

24

3.9

neck

17

2.8

shoulder

33

5.4

side

4

0.7

stomach

7

1.1

thigh

3

0.5

unspecified

232

37.9

waist

9

1.5

Summary of Combat Injuries in the Sagas

 

total
number
of
instances

percent

immediate death

265

43.2

lethal wound

64

10.4

minor injury

37

6.0

none

109

17.8

serious injury

134

21.9

unspecified

4

0.7

Summary of Attacks Used in Combat in the Sagas

 

total
number
of
instances

percent

cut

341

55.6

missile

104

17.0

thrust

163

26.6

unspecified

2

0.3


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