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The Wolf-Warrior: Animal Symbolism on Weaponry of the 6th and 7th centuries

The Wolf-Warrior: Animal Symbolism on Weaponry of the 6th and 7th centuries

By Karen Hoilund Nielsen

Archaologisches Zellwerk. Beitrage zur Kulturgeschichte in Europa und Asien: Festschrift fur Helmut Roth zum 60, eds. E. Pohl, U. Becker and C. Theune (Geburtstag: Rahden, 2001)

Beserkers - Vendel era bronze plate found on Öland, Sweden.
Beserkers – Vendel era bronze plate found on Öland, Sweden.

Introduction: Decorative art in Scandinavia during the late Iron Age and Viking Period was largely dominated by animals in stylized forms. In the course of the period this animal style changed a great deal. One of the style phases, which is known as Style II, is found not only in Scandinavia but also more widely over much of Germanic Europe. It first appeared during the 6th century AD and survived to the beginning of the 8th century. Some of the animals in this style can be identified as birds of prey, horses, boars, and serpents or snakes. These however, are only a minority of the large number of beasts that confront us in this style. The remainder are quadrupeds; but the identification of the species is not clear. Many of the beasts appear as decoration on weaponry and horse-gear. Later the style is also found on female jewellery. While the birds of prey, for instance, are often found on zoomorphic objects, the horses and unidentifiable quadrupeds are typical forms when surfaces are filled out with intertwined animals.

Style II is very highly correlated with richly decorated weaponry and horse-gear from high-status graves, and distributionally it appears to link together large areas of Scandinavia in terms of association with a royal comitatus. In the poem Beowulf, important swords are described as being furnished with rings and looped animal ornament, indicating the significance of such decorated weapons among the warrior class. On the basis of stylistic analyses, it would appear that some weaponry – despite the fact that it is often found in eastern Scandinavia – originated in the context of the southern Scandinavia king’s retinue . It would therefore be informative to investigate whether the actual meaning of the decoration itself can be discovered. It is primarily in southern Scandinavia that surface-covering Style II is also found on certain types of female jewellery. In these cases the style follows essentially the same course of stylistic development as on the weaponry, but any difference in the details may add to an understanding of what these animals mean.

There are a number of approaches which bring us closer to realizing what species the style-II quadrupeds can be considered to be, and what significance these animals may altogether have: analyses of details of the animals themselves and their context; analyses of standardized motifs; analyses of scenes portrayed; comparison with surviving name evidence; references in Old Norse literature. The first three of these depend upon archaeological analyses, while the latter two sources are both geographically and chronologically quite distant from the material in question, and can therefore only be used to support eventual propositions.

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Through an analysis of the decoration of the warrior’s equipment and its context, experimentally combined with later literary sources, it is indeed possible to attempt to sketch a picture of the conceptual world of the later Germanic Iron Age, which must have been part of the ideological background to the organization of which the warriors were manifestly part.

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