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Unusual religious symbolism and early Medieval European weapons

Unusual religious symbolism and early Medieval European weapons

Image by Peter Johnsson

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Weapons in every culture have been inscribed with religious and other symbols as marks of prestige, to show the faith of the bearer, or to call down protection and blessings on the owner. We’re going to examine the work of several researchers and experts have done in examining some of the more unusual markings or designs found on European weapons of the early medieval period

Crosses on Northern European Axes

In the paper The sign of the Cross on Early Medieval axes – A symbol of power, magic or religion  Pitor Kotowicz examines a wide sampling of axes — some quite literally symbolic, found in tombs — from a number of Nordic and North Western European countries, in an attempt to determine the purpose of crosses inscribed on them.

Of all axes recovered in digs in Europe, very few have been found with crosses marked on them, suggesting they are somehow different or special.  Of those that have been found (total 27):

“…most of them were discovered in Scandinavia (Denmark – 3, Sweden – 7 and Norway – 2), a few axes were found in Poland (4), Finland (2) and Latvia (2), and only single specimens come from Estonia and Germany. Finds from the territory of Russia (3), however, group along the basin of the River Volga, on the route from Scandinavia to Volga Bulgaria. An isolated find comes from Bulgaria, but in scholarship it is connected with Northern Europe and the Viking culture as well.”

Thus he places the source of these axes strictly with Viking and related cultures, which would have been slowly becoming Christianized over the centuries.  He again notes the rarity of axes with this marking, point out that of 900 medieval axes recovered in Poland and dating from the 6th to 12th centuries, only 27 are decorated, and of these only four are marked with a cross.



Of the inscribed axes which were examined, the following cross designs appear:

  • Greek cross – five examples
  • Saint Andrew’s cross (saliter) – three examples
  • Latin cross – four examples
  • Celtic cross and swastika – two examples
  • Cross pattee and the mark of the Rurik Dynasty

What’s interesting here, adding to the confusion of the purpose of the markings, is that none of these symbols — as used at the period they were inscribed — can be connected definitively to either Christianity or paganism.  Even the most basic symbol listed, the Latin cross, also appeared as a pagan symbol in Nordic and other cultures long before Christianity moved into Northern Europe.

Next,the paper examines the nature of the inscribed markings, with the three main categories being punching (using a line of dots to “draw” the crosses), engraving (carved into the steel) and inlaid (having the engraved lines filled with precious metal).   Six of the axes from the samples bear punched designs, with four of the six being dated between the 8th and 9th centuries.  Two axes are both punched and engraved, being dated somewhat later (11th century).  The axes bearing a Greek cross were cleanly and clearly engraved with a sharp tool, and all come from the region of Poland, being dated between the 11th and 13th centuries.

Likely the largest sampling, and the most prestigious, were tomb recovered from the burial sites of important personages.  Most of these axes date from the 11th century or later, with the majority being found in Scandinavia, with the exception of the Polish and Russian examples .  Some examples appear in the first image near the start of this article, with another below.  In almost all cases, the inlay material is silver, though some gold is used.



Christian or pagan symbols?

The authors, with one exception — defined by it’s location, estimated age and shape of blade, cannot clearly state whether the crosses are meant to be Christan or pagan symbols.  As they note:

The group of artefacts dealt with in this paper is difficult to interpret, due to their wide territorial distribution, a variety of signs and vast chronology of the symbols. The main problem is how to answer the question whether the symbols depicted on the axes are connected with pagan or Christian users. Additionally, it is hard to say whether they were used as magical signs, were placed on weapons in order to protect the owner from some kind of threats, or used as the symbol of the new religion. All of these questions are related to the problem of the meaning of the axe as a symbol of power, rule or social status.

Theoretically, the chronology should give us the answer on the question whether a given axe can be connected with the “pagan period” or maybe with the “Christian period.” As a consequence, this should explain who the user of this weapon was and for what purpose the sign of the cross was placed on its blade. In practice, this is very difficult or even impossible to establish. What is more, it is connected with different periods of time, in which the nations were converted to Christianity in particular regions of the Baltic Sea basin. For example, the official baptism of Denmark, Poland or Kievan Rus’ took place in the 2nd half of the 10th cent. The conversion of the Baltic nations, however Latvia, Estonia did not take place until the 13th cent.

It is interesting to note that the axe was

What they are able to determine is that axes, as symbols of power and authority, became more prominent and richly decorated as time passed, and that they likely became an integral part of warrior burial practices.  Other researchers have stated that richly decorated axes with the social elite of medieval Europe.  Thus richly decorated axes a symbols of temporal power and grave goods would explain the seeming rarely of such weapons.

It is interesting to note that the axe is also the symbol of several pagan deities (Scandinavian Thor, and Slavic Perun), but also of at least one Christian saint, Saint Olaf.  Some researchers have suggested his axe was originally a hammer, and that Olaf was a Christianized version of Thor.


Unusual symbolism on other early medieval weapons

The power of symbolism was, of course, not limited to the Nordic countries.  The authors of another paper, A sign, a symbol or a letter? Some remarks on omega marks inlaid on early medieval sword blades, looked at swords found across Europe — in this case with patterns of the Greek Omega symbol: Ω  inscribed in sets or patterns.  They note that: “Societies where the knowledge of writing and reading was highly limited showed “the sensual particular sensitivity to any signs and symbols and, consequently, to the shape of the letter”. From this idea, there is only one step to the perception of letters and other supporting characters in terms of magical thinking.”

They also noted that the Ω symbols were often balanced on the other side of the blade with inscribed crosses and other symbols suggestive of power and authority.   Thus, the blades could have been both a symbol of temporal power, suggestive of the authority of God, and at the same time a reminder to the bearer that death was a part of their life.  Below is a photograph from their report of an Ulfbert blade of the 11th century, with two Omegas on either side of a cross-like symbol.  Note that the report has extensive scans and hand-drawn images of the Ω symbol blades.

So few examples of blades with these markings have been found, the authors end their paper with no conclusion, but suggesting further research needs to be done.


Ulfbert viking sword with Omega symbols


Swords as religious or mystic symbols in themselves

There are some modern researchers and experts who believe that at least some swords themselves are religious symbols.  Peter Johnsson is one such expert swordsmith and historian who has analyzed swords in several collections using sacred geometry as a measuring system.

In short, sacred geometry is system of mathematics and design which believes that certain numbers — and therefore geometric forms —  are inherently perfect, and that the universe was designed using them.  As such, sacred geometry was used in building many ancient religious structures, in many cultures.  In doing so the builders were both imitating the creative forces of the universe in their building, but also calling down these forces to protect and empower the structure.

In The Søborg Sword A Study of a 12th Century Weapon, (abbreviated .pdf version here) Johnson scribes how he believes sacred geometry was used in designing weapons.  In part, it is because the measurements and proportions of sacred geometry, once learned, are easy to remember, being based on “perfect forms” such as the circle, square, octagon, etc.   He suggests that the weapon designers were also attempting to mystically “perfect” the weapon, hoping to make it superior by virtue of its holy proportions and representations, and/or to bring blessings on the bearer.

He has analyzed several weapons using this technique;  fortunately, he has produced videos of these, making it somewhat easier to understand his concepts.


Sacred Geometry Analysis of a Longsword


Sacred Geometry Analysis of Ljubljana Late Gothic Sword


For those interested in the details of his ideas, here’s an almost hour-long Skype video interview with him.



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