The term "halberd" has been used to translate several Old Norse words relating to polearms (specifically the atgeir) in the context of Viking Age arms and armour, and in scientific literature about the Viking age.
The term "halberd" is not to be taken as referring to the classical Swiss halberd of the 15th century, but rather in its literal sense of "axe-on-a-pole", describing a weapon of the more general glaive type.
Instances in literature
In a translated saga, the term halberd can be used to translate several words :
- atgeir
- höggspjót, literally "hewing, beheading (högg) spear (spjót)", as in the 1866 translation of the Víga-Glúms saga by Edmund Head: "He [Glúmr] had his shield and a halberd, with his sword by his side...", which translates: "Glúmur hafði skjöld sinn og höggspjót, gyrður sverði..."
- kesja[disambiguation needed], as in the 1893 translation of Egils saga by W. C. Green: "So Egil prepared to go. He had his weapons, sword, halberd, and buckler," which translates: "réðst Egill til ferðar þeirrar; Egill hafði vopn sín, sverð og kesju og buklara."
- krókspjót, literally "crooked (krókr: "hook, anything crooked") spear (spjót, cf. höggspjót above)", as in the 1914 translation of Grettis saga by G. H. Hight: "Over Thorfinn's bed there hangs the great halberd which belonged to Kar the Old", which translates: "Yfir sæng Þorfinns hangir krókaspjótið stóra er átt hefir Kár hinn gamli."
- skeggöx, literally "bearded (skegg : "beard") axe (öx)", as in the 1893 translation of Egils saga by W. C. Green: "He gave into his hands a halberd that he had been carrying. Such weapons were then customary", which translates: "Hann seldi honum í hendur skeggöxi eina, er Þórður hafði haft í hendi; þau vopn voru þá tíð...".
It is thus difficult to know what kind of weapon these translations, and the original texts, refer to. There are several interpretations. The first Icelandic-English Dictionary by Richard Cleasby and Guðbrandur Vigfússon, translates kesja as "a kind of halberd" and states that "kesja, atgeir and höggspjót appear to be the same thing".
Other translations have been used, most notably "bill". For instance, in the 1892 translation of Eyrbyggja saga by William Morris and Eirikr Magnusson, atgeir is translated in this manner: "Thou shalt go to Holyfell and get into the loft that is over the outer door, and pull up the boards of the floor, so that thou may'st thrust a bill therethrough; then when Snorri goes out to his privy, thou shalt thrust the bill through the floor of the loft into his back so hard that it may come out at his belly", which translates : "Þú skalt fara til Helgafells og ganga í loft það er þar er yfir útidyrum og rýma fjalir í gólfinu svo að þú fáir þar lagt atgeiri í gegnum. En þá er Snorri gengur til kamars þá skaltu leggja atgeirinum í gegnum loftsgólfið í bak Snorra svo fast að út gangi um kviðinn".
Egils saga gives a description of what it calls a kesja:
In his hand he had a halberd, whereof the feather-formed blade was two ells [4-5 feet, 120-152 cm] long, ending in a four-edged spike; the blade was broad above, the socket both long and thick. The shaft stood just high enough for the hand to grasp the socket, and was remarkably thick. The socket fitted with iron prong on the shaft, which was also wound round with iron. Such weapons were called mail-piercers [brynþvarar].
The weapon would thus have a blade with a diamond cross-section at the end, and an additional spike attached to the socket, whose placement and purpose is not explained. The length of the weapons' shaft is unclear : it has been translated as "the shaft stood just high enough for the hand to grasp the socket", as above, but also as "no taller than might be grasped at the socket by the hand", which could mean that the shaft was just long enough to be grasped in one hand, and thus, no bigger than a sword's hilt. Alternatively, if the shaft was approximately 1.1m in length, and the butt placed on the ground, the socket would be just high enough to be grasped by the hand. A third possibility, less exotic but simpler and probably more logical: when reaching up you would be able to touch the socket, in other words the shaft was about 2.2-2.4 m long, like many other polearms.
The term "Viking halberd" was used to describe a find in North America in the 1995 book Early Vikings of the New World, but it was later demonstrated to be a tobacco cutter.
There has currently been, in fact, no clearly identified Viking halberd or bill found. Spears are the only type of polearms found in Viking graves. It is possible that halberds and bills were not part of Viking funerary customs, as opposed to other weapons that have been found in graves. Bills have been found in Frankish graves from the Merovingian period, which predates the Viking age; but their use by the Scandinavians is not attested and, if existent, seemed to have been rare.
- Cleasby, Richard; Vigfusson, Gudbrand (1874). "Cleasby-Vigfusson Old Icelandic Dictionary". northvegr.org: Clarendon Press, Oxford. Retrieved 18 February 2010. [dead link]
- Saga book of the Viking Society for Northern Research, Volume 23. Viking Society. 1990.
- Head, Edmund (1886). "The Saga of Viga-Glum". sagadb.org. Retrieved 18 February 2010.
- Anon. "Víga-Glúms saga". sagadb.org. Retrieved 18 February 2010.
- Green, W. C. (1893). "Egil's Saga". sagadb.org. Retrieved 18 February 2010.
- Anon. "Egils saga Skalla-Grímssonar". sagadb.org. Retrieved 18 February 2010.
- Hight, G. H. (1914). "Grettir's Saga". sagadb.org. Retrieved 18 February 2010.
- Anon. "Grettis saga". sagadb.org. Retrieved 18 February 2010.
- Cleasby, Richard; Vigfusson, Gudbrand (1874). "Cleasby-Vigfusson Old Icelandic Dictionary". northvegr.org. p. 337. Retrieved 18 February 2010. [dead link]
- DeVries, Kelly; Smith, Robert Douglas (2007). Medieval weapons: an illustrated history of their impact. Weapons & Warfare: an illustrated history of their impact. ABC-CLIO. p. 88. ISBN 978-1-85109-526-1.
- Colwell-Chanthaphonh, Chip; Ferguson, Thomas John (2008). Collaboration in archaeological practice: engaging descendant communities. Plymouth, UK: AltaMira Press. p. 66. ISBN 978-0-7591-1054-0.
- Harrison, Mark; Embleton, Gerry (1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005). Viking Hersir 793-1066 AD. Warrior series. Osprey. p. 50. ISBN 978-1-85532-318-6.