The northern lands the Vikings called home were places of long, frigid winters, creeping glaciers, and howling blizzards. Icebergs and gale-force winds made the maritime routes too dangerous even for the dragon ships in the dark months of the year. In Scandinavia’s dense forests, snowdrifts could swallow a traveler. If a man on foot got lost, he might freeze to death before morning.
So, you might think that during the winter, Vikings hunkered down in their longhouses to await a break in the frost. But, in fact, Vikings were active in the winter months. They used the time when their farms were all but shut down to hunt, trap furs, or visit kin. Sometimes, Vikings even made war in the wintertime (for example, Guthrum’s infamous Christmas/Yule attack on Alfred’s Wessex in 878). Archeologists have found numerous sleighs, sledges, and sleds in Viking graves. But for Vikings making the most of winter, nothing was more adaptable or practical than snow skis and ice skates.
How Old is Skiing?
Skiing is an ancient, cross-cultural phenomenon. It has been an essential survival skill amongst northern people for at least 8,000 years. The oldest known skis are from about 6,300 B.C. and were discovered by archaeologists digging in Russia. In China, there are rock wall paintings of skiers dating further back, and there are mentions of skis in Chinese documents as far back as 200 B.C.
The oldest depiction in Scandinavia skiing is a rock carving in Norway from about 4,000 B.C. Skis were found in Finland from 3,300 B.C. and a pair recovered from a Swedish bog date to 2,700 B.C. When 18th century explorers bumped into the Inuit and other aboriginals of northern Greenland, Canada, and Alaska, they found that they were as comfortable on skis as natives in Siberia.
Ancient skiing is commonly associated with the Sami people – indigenous nomadic hunter/trappers of northern Scandinavia, Finland, and the upper fringe of the Baltic. In time, the Sami were direct neighbors of the Vikings. The two peoples interacted and exchanged goods and ideas regularly. But it would have been the distant ancestors of the Vikings (the Proto-Norse tribes stretching northward many millennia ago) and not the Vikings themselves, who picked up skiing from the Sami or others.
So, by the Viking Age (circa 793-1066 A.D.), skiing was well-established in Scandinavia and wherever else Vikings might roam. Vikings carved their skis by hand, often adding features to make them sleeker, reduce friction (or add traction) as desired, or simply to add to their artistry. Viking skis were as unique as the individuals who hand-carved them, but in general, they were about six feet long, tapered towards the back and curved up towards the front (much like modern skis), and had metal or leather bindings. However, unlike some ancient skis, Viking skis were not covered in fur or hide. Instead, they relied on direct contact between the carved surface of the wood and the snow for speed and agility.
Viking skis might be used in pairs or as singles. Fantasy images of snowboarding Vikings might come to mind at the mention of "single skis," but we should remember that skiing for Vikings was almost certainly about covering distance efficiently in the snow (i.e., cross-country skiing) rather than downhill thrill-seeking. Still, Vikings were at least as fun-loving as any of us, and Scandinavia is full of slopes. Another difference between Viking skiing and modern skiing is that Vikings may have only used one ski pole rather than two.
Skiing would give Vikings an advantage in hunting or simply in covering more miles faster with less energy. Saxo Grammaticus (the early 13th century Danish historian) mentions Norse warriors around 1200 using skis for reconnaissance missions, so the earlier Vikings might have done so, too.
Skiing is a valuable skill for fur trapping. According to period European and Middle Eastern sources, luxury furs topped the list of the most sought-after trade goods Vikings provided. Nimble, cunning animals like snow foxes, black martens, minks, otters, and the like boast their thickest, finest fur in the dead of winter. And they are also a little easier to snare as they search for scarce food. However, Vikings would need to get to all their traps quickly and quietly, least they frighten off their prey or lose their quarry to scavengers. Skis were ideal for covering the distance between traps while making hardly a sound.
Skating on Bones, Viking-style
For Vikings, it was usually easier to get around by water than it was to trek overland through the dense forests or open wilderness. This was still true when the rivers were frozen. Vikings used sleighs and skates to follow waterways inland and reach areas otherwise blocked by snow and undergrowth. Viking skates were made from cattle or horse bones (not metal, as far as archeologists have been able to tell). Holes were bored through the bones, and then the skates were securely strapped in a figure-8 pattern to the Viking's shoes.
It is difficult to know how Vikings skated (that is, questions of form or style), but – again, as in the case of skis – the primary goal was efficient transportation. Bone skates do not cut the ice as metal skates do but instead make use of their smooth shape to reduce friction on the ice. Instead of trying to not slip on ice, this innovative idea used a state of controlled sliding to create fast, easy propulsion. Archeologists think Vikings may have used poles to push themselves along (and keep their balance) as they skated over the frozen rivers and streams that connected their farms and trading posts.
The best-known pair of Viking skates was found in the famous site of Birka, Sweden, and dates to the 9th century. Another pair was found in York, England (a major Viking stronghold) from the 10th century. This illustrates how widespread the use of the skates was.
Norse Ski Gods: Skadi and Ull
Vikings associated skiing and snow travel with two very popular Norse gods. One is Ull (or Ullr), the son of Sif (of the famous golden hair) and the stepson of Thor. Though Ull is not a major character in the surviving lore, place names and archeological finds suggest he was one of the most popular gods in the Viking Age. According to Snorri Sturluson’s Edda (circa 1220), Ull was a warrior god who “is so skillful a bowman and skier that no one can compete with him … He is also a good person to pray to when in single combat” (p. 38).
The hunter goddess, Skadi (or Skathi), was the daughter of the Ice Giant (Jötunn), Thjazi. When the gods killed Thjazi, Skadi stormed Asgard. She was decked in full armor and so fearsome in aspect and appearance that the gods thought it better to pay her legal compensation than to fight her.
Part of Skadi’s compensation was marriage to any god she chose – but there was a catch. Skadi had to select her divine husband after only seeing his feet (hey, many of our romance reality shows are not based on much more). Unfortunately for Skadi, the best feet in Asgard belonged to the sea god, Njord, and not the beloved god, Baldr, whom she was hoping for. Skadi moved her husband up to the glaciers and mountains that were her home, but he was miserable. So, Skadi and Njord lived by the sea for a while, but she was equally unhappy. The two lived separately after that.
This story's deliberate juxtaposition between Njord's wild, expansive sea and Skadi's forbidding land of glaciers and snow peaks gives us a glimpse into how the Vikings saw the world around them.
Snorri says of Skadi, “She travels much on skis, carries a bow, and shoots wild animals. She is called Ski God or the Ski Lady …” (p. 34). Skadi plays a prominent, heroic role in numerous surviving stories and Eddic poems – a sure sign that the Vikings loved and revered her.
Though originating as survival skills, skiing and skating became quintessential Scandinavian pastimes. Their popularity exploded in the 19th century, and their sports forms hopped the oceans to take hold in North America and beyond. Skating became an Olympic sport in 1908, and skiing has been a permanent Olympic fixture in many evolving forms since 1924. Today, millions of skiers worldwide seek the exhilaration of rushing down the mountain. Cross-country skiers love the sublime tranquility of slipping through the silent, snow-laden forest, leaving hardly a trace. Skaters delight in the feeling of gliding with nothing holding them back. The Vikings loved all these things, too, and they passed these joys on to us.
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- Snorri Sturluson, The Prose Edda. (translated by J. Byock). Penguin Classics. London, England, 2005
- Rodgers, D.G. & Noer, K. Sons of Vikings: History, Legends, and Impact of the Viking Age. KDP. USA. 2018
- Price, N. Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings. Basic Books, New York, 2020.
- Gershon, L. Archaeologists Extract 1,300-Year-Old Wooden Ski from Norwegian Ice. Smithsonian Magazine. October 6, 2021. Archaeologists Extract 1,300-Year-Old Wooden Ski From Norwegian Ice | Smart News | Smithsonian Magazine
- Short, W. Viking Age Skates. Hurstwic. 2021. Hurstwic: Viking-age ice skates
- Clark, M. The Origins of Skiing? 8,000 Years Ago … SnowBrains. 2020. The Origins of Skiing? | 8,000 Years Ago... - SnowBrains.
Ancient map of skiiers in Finland:
Reconstructed medieval skis found in Norway:
The two Birkebeiner skiers, Torstein Skjevla and Skjervald Skrukka:
Skates made out of bones found in Sweden:
Skadi hunting in the mountains: