This is the original transcript of our interview with William R. Short, manager of Hurstwic LLC. Above is the original video that William viewed in the putting together of his answers. You’ll find time stamps throughout the interview that indicate the section of the footage that is being referred to.
TSA: @ 50 seconds – Something depicted both in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and also in popular TV shows such as Vikings, is the sight of warriors with face paint. Often this paint is primarily positioned around the eyes, is this something that has a precedent in history? Did Vikings wear face paint or make-up?
William: It does look good, but we know of no evidence that suggests that Vikings wore makeup.
What we can probably say with some certainty is that Viking-age people were clean and neatly groomed. We see that in pictorial sources, such as a carving of a man’s head with a trimmed beard and neat, long hair sticking out from under his helmet. Combs and grooming aids are common archaeological finds. There are countless examples in literary sources telling of the desire of the Viking people to take regular baths, and there are treaties between Viking people and other lands that require the Vikings be provided with all the hot water they demand for their baths.
It also seems likely that men would routinely have beards. There is at least one famous example in the literary sources of a man who could not grow a beard who was mocked, an insult that resulted in multiple deaths.
There is talk around 20:40 in to the video of tattoos. Whether Vikings wore tattoos or not is up for debate. The one source that might suggest them, the account of Ibn Fadlan, can be interpreted in ways other than as tattoos, and that source contains many other puzzling and questionable aspects. Literary sources from Viking lands often have detailed descriptions of peoples’ personal appearances, and we know of no description that suggests tattoos.
TSA: @ 1 minute – Eivor is seen wielding two hand axes at one, is this something you would recommend? People have the idea that Vikings thought wildly and without any sense of self preservation, but was this the case?
William: What we would recommend is not important in any way. The weapons a Viking carried and used were based on many things, and none were based on our personal recommendations. The choice might depend on what weapons he could acquire, whether he was part of the king’s levy or not, what weapons he felt most comfortable with, and so on.
There are many examples in the literary sources of warriors dual wielding, with a weapon in each hand. While the pictorial sources (such as Viking-age pictures stones) rarely show actual combat, there are examples of warriors with different weapons in each hand on the stones.
The second part of your question is a bit more complex. We disagree with the statement that Vikings fought wildly and without any sense of self-preservation for several reasons. For example, Vikings are well known for using a shield; that in itself tells us that they were concerned in some way with their self-preservation.
On the other side of the coin, it is quite clear from the sources that defence and self-preservation were not as crucial to a Viking as was cutting the opponent down. Viking-age people believed the moment of their death was predestined, and nothing they did could change that moment. What was important was how you were remembered after the day of your death. One of the more famous verses in the poem that allegedly came from Óðin himself states that everyone dies: your cattle, your kin, and you yourself, but a good reputation never dies.
So taken together, the sources suggest that Vikings were more intent on attacking their opponents than on protecting themselves, but they did protect themselves.
At 1:33 and 2:02 Punches and kicks seem to be used as the basis for empty hand fighting in Assassins Creed. Yet, punches and kicks did not seem to be a part of Viking combat or even a part of Viking sport.
Empty-hand methods were a big part of Viking combat. In order to understand how Vikings fought with weapons, one must first understand how they fought without a weapon. Glíma (Viking empty handed fighting) is an area that Hurstwic has researched very deeply. Empty-hand fighting often ended with a take down, followed by a kill on the ground. We did not see any element of glíma in the parts of the gameplay that we saw.
TSA: @ 7:30 minutes – Eivor is shown here using a bow and arrow to pick off an enemy from afar. Hunting aside, were bows and arrows a weapon that a Viking warrior would use?
William: Yes, there are many examples of bows being used, especially in mass battles and in naval battles where a large number of warriors would not be in range to use their conventional weapons. Using a bow against someone in a fortification as seen in the gameplay video is mentioned numerous times in the literary sources. In archaeology, we see arrow heads intended to penetrate mail and make the kill despite the opponent’s wearing armour.
At 1:19 in the video, an archer uses a bow that probably was not typical in Viking times, a recurve bow. Viking bows were typically longbows, as best as can be determined from limited archaeological finds. Warriors from other cultures in the Viking age used recurve compound bows, and it is possible some of those may have been used in Viking lands, but the evidence is slight. Generally, this compound bow would not be a bow that a Viking would use. That does not mean much, though, since a Viking might have gotten the bow whilst raiding, trading, or other interactions with other societies.
TSA: @ 8 minutes – Throwing axes, are they a real thing? Would a throwing axe actually be effective or would it be virtually impossible to hit anything in real life in the midst of a battle?
William: Every weapon can be effective, and every target can be hit if the universe bends to your rules. Throwing axes are a real thing, but Viking axes were not throwing axes. The physics of the Viking axe makes it less than suitable as a throwing weapon. The physics of the weapon tell us that in the chaos of combat, it is unlikely to hit the target in a way to do lethal damage because of the way it rotates in flight. There are few examples of axes being thrown in the literary sources, usually as a move of desperation.
At 8:35, there’s essentially no evidence from the Viking age for the swinging death weapon seen in the gameplay. Apart from Þór’s hammer Mjöllnir (which he uses to crush his enemies), impact weapons, such as maces, hammers, and morning stars were not much used. The only impact weapons that are mentioned in any of the sources are improvised weapons, such as a club or staff.
TSA: Eivor is shown swinging a double handed war axe. Is there any historical or archaeological evidence for this being a weapon that Vikings used and, if so, how effective do you think it would have been?
William: A two-handed axe (which some call a Dane axe, even though that term would have been unknown to the Vikings) is a real and formidable Viking weapon. There are numerous axes of this type found in the archaeological record and seen in pictorial sources. The literary sources often say that an axe blow to the head split the skull down to the shoulders. We tested this move with a sharp replica two-handed axe and an animal carcass, and the result was just as described: the axe split the skull and was stopped when it hit the spinal column. As effectiveness goes, it’s not a tool one would be keen on meeting; it is formidable.
TSA: Throughout the video we see battles depicted as chaotic skirmishes, there’s little strategy or tactics, instead it’s a violent free-for-all. How does this contrast to what we know about battles and warfare from the Viking era?
William: We have no doubt that battle in the Viking age was chaotic, yet there is no simple answer to this question, sadly. Viking combat took on quite a few forms: small fights (like one on one or two on two), skirmishes, and mass dynastic battles. All three forms had their individual method of combat. There were, in many cases, tactics and strategy, but that was more based on cunningness of fighting, such as ambushes, spies, burning houses to attack those inside, or surprise attacks such as raiding. In mass battles, warriors were drawn into lines, and lines fought together to achieve the goal.
TSA: If there’s anything else you would comment on, please feel free!
William: There are many more issues that can be nit-picked from this single clip. Doing so would take pages upon pages. This is a game where the rules of the real world don’t fully apply, and it is not supposed to be a history lesson. There are so many exceptions to the rules when it comes to Vikings that many things, though not part of the common thread running through Viking combat, could possibly have been done by Vikings.
That having been said, there are many good things about the gameplay, as it relates to Viking combat. It captures some of the brutality that we feel was at the core of Viking combat. It avoids the technique-driven approach to combat that we feel was not part of Viking combat. It features women combatants (skjaldmær, the shield maidens discussed in several literary sources and seen in pictorial sources), a fascinating topic that is currently much debated, with conflicting points of view. And it brought in to the world of the game aspects of Viking culture that are well supported: Niflheim, Valhöll, and others.