Question regarding a cruel Viking practice.


I’ve been trying to verify a cruel Viking practice that I heard about of throwing children (caught up in their raids) up in the air and skewering them as they landed on their spear tips. If this was indeed practiced, what was it called?
I look forward to your feedback.

That sounds like the sort of story that every nation has told about its enemies, in every conflict ever, but which has never been verified for any of them.

I do believe there are verified instances of such happening during the Sepoy Mutiny. Bayonets rather than spears, but the same game.

Yeah, it was a common meme and mentioned in multiple chronicles( probably simply repeated from one to another ). The Scots and Irish also got accusations of this sort. While I wouldn’t entirely discount the likelihood that infanticide of this sort happened during raids at some time or another( barbarism breeds barbarism ), it seems unlikely this was a traditional past time.

If we don’t take the various chronicle mentions at face value and we probably shouldn’t, the strongest bit of “evidence” seems to come from a medieval Icelandic saga written by Christians several hundred years after the fact about their pagan ancestors. It refers to one Ölvir Barnakarl( Olvir “Children’s Man” )and claims his nickname came from not indulging in that charming hobby of spearing infants. But it seems it actually was likely referring to him having an unusually large brood of kids, in much the same vein as that shining example of fecundity Johann der Kindermacher.

If is to be belived, Ölvir is my 29th great grandfather.Ølver-Einarsson-Konge-i-Rogaland/6000000006803156915

So I’d like to see some more solid evidence if anyone wants to repeat this slander of my family! :wink:

This is why I only cruise Princess.

I wonder who your other 536,870,911 29th great grandparents are. :wink:

Quite a few of them are going to be Ölvir, but I geni won’t even tell me how many of lines to him are confirmed. :wink:

So you’ve got nothing?

A romanticised picture of Vikings as noble savages that were a well defined group is a myth?

Or that the events were violent, but no more than anyone else at the time, including Charlemagne’s armies?

Or that the mechanics of throwing struggling children into the air to be piked seems unlikely to anyone who has ever tried to get a toddler in having a tantrum into a car?

The story seems to have more in common with myths like Satanic ritual abuse than anything to do with reality.

That said I would appropriate a reliable cite or claim that it happened.

I have no information as to whether it happened or not but it seems to me, if you wanted to subdue and conquer a new land, the most horrific and brutal tactics would gain the quickest compliance.

Consider an invasion and wide ranging brutal attacks from a people from a marginal, underdeveloped region of the world; against one of the most urbanized, culturally sophisticated zones on the planet, or how the Muslim world viewed the Crusades.

Most of the “Vikings” looking for better places to live and while it was a far more cruel world, and awful things happened those were no worse than the actions of Charlemagne’s armies.

I want to be clear that I am making no claim that the “Vikings” were nice or innocent, but they were also traders as well as marauders. Dehumanizing opponents is probably more critical for defense as making them out to be monsters evokes fear and leads to action.

Just look over the propaganda posters from the world wars as an example

I have no idea if it happened or not nor do I have an opinion about it. My comment was about the appropriateness of his comment. This is GQ not IMHO. The very first response is a guess backed up by nothing in an apparent attempt to marginalize the question. Since a moderator has opened up opinions in this thread I’ll give mine, that was a crappy first response.

Peter Sawyer, author of The Age of the Vikings, concurs: “Babies on spearpoints were later propaganda from the 13th century… Overwhelmingly the most colourful accounts came from that point. But among contemporaries, no one was in any doubt that Vikings were bad news.”

Regarding bad news, here are some specifics from Prof Simon Keynes of Cambridge University. They stole anything they could. Churches were repositories of treasure to loot. They took cattle, money and food. It’s likely they carried off women, too, he says. “They’d burn down settlements and leave a trail of destruction.” It was unprovoked aggression. And unlike most armies, they came by sea, their narrow-bottomed longships allowing them to travel up rivers and take settlements by surprise. It was maritime blitzkrieg at first. But, yes, their exploits were inflated in the re-telling over time.

Maybe I’m projecting modern attitudes onto an ancient situation, but if invaders from Iran, Cuba or North Korea landed in the USA and began flinging American children in the air and impaling them on spears, I hardly imagine it would pacify the American populace (although ancient people were probably significantly overmatched in fighting ability vis a vis the Vikings).

I have no idea if this actually happened or not. However, I do know that I have read about it before, and when I went to look for some cites, I found references to it in books from the modern times all the way back to the 1800s. Some are tales (or histories of sorts) about such-and-such from some particular place, though the stories are obviously not firsthand. Anyway, the point is, the stories at least can be cited. That’s not quite what the OP asked for, but it’s a step in the right direction.

The Sea-king: A Metrical Romance, in Six Cantos, with Notes, Historical and Illustrative (1848)
The Religion of the Northmen (1854)
The Book of Firsts: 150 World-Changing People and Events from Caesar Augustus to the Internet (2010)
Ideology and Power in the Viking and Middle Ages (2011)
The Farfarers: A New History of North America (2011)
Wayward Heroes (2016)

The Sea King has this:

If the book is to be believed, the practice was common.

The Religion of the Northmen refers to vikings as “heathens” and “Norwegian Vikings in heathendom”, and so might be a bit biased, but claims that the practice wasn’t just savage cruelty, but was also an offering of human sacrifice to Odin.

The Book of Firsts refers to a Viking who was teasingly dubbed “Child-Friend” because unlike the other Vikings, he did not throw babies into the air and catch them on the end of his spear. This story at least has some consistencies with Olver mentioned in The Sea King. There is some consistency in that different books do refer to Vikings who did not engage in this practice as being viewed as weak in the eyes of their peers.

The Farfarers gives the detail that the Vikings stood in a circle, and tossed the babies from one spear to another, catching it and tossing it across the circle over and over.

Wayward Heroes also mentions that the babies were considered offerings to Odin, and states that the Vikings considered it “wholesome” when the child’s mother had been beheaded or captured, and the father killed, and the homes burned to the ground. I suppose in that sense, rather than leave defenseless babies to die from exposure when there was no one left to take care of them, they sacrificed them to Odin instead. It’s horrific by modern standards, but it seems a bit more justified than spearing infants merely for sport, as other references imply.

So, there you go. That’s what the books say. It was either a sport of sorts where Viking warriors would stand around in the circle and spear-chuck the baby back and forth, or it was an offering to Odin, or perhaps both, or something else altogether. And they are all stories. I did not see any firsthand accounts in any of the books, nor have I seen any elsewhere.

My own take on this (which is taking a hard left turn into IMHO territory) is that there is enough consistency between the stories for me to think that there is some truth to it all. Exactly what that truth is, I have no idea though.

All of these “corroborating details” make the story less likely, not more. Sacrifices to Odin? There’s never been any verified instance, in any culture, of babies being sacrificed to the gods (but it’s a story that many cultures tell about their enemies). A warrior being named “child-friend” because he remarkably didn’t engage in this practice? Even among the Nazis, most soldiers wouldn’t commit the worst atrocities, and there was no pressure on them to do so: They just quietly found someone else to do it. There’s no way that being a conscientious objector would be remarkable enough to warrant a nickname. The quickest way to pacify a populace? Quite the opposite: There’s nothing to motivate an enemy against you as strongly as baby-killing (which is precisely why every culture in history has accused its enemies of baby-killing).

And it just doesn’t make any sense, anyway. The Vikings were often cruel, yes, but they weren’t motivated by cruelty. They were motivated by profit, the same as most cruel people now and throughout history. They raided and stole, not because it was cruel, but because they wanted the stuff. When trade was more profitable than theft, they traded instead. When they abducted women, it was because (surprise, surprise) they wanted women. But there’s no profit in baby-spearing.

Woah, there, with the “never”. Depends exactly what your cutoff for “baby” is, but even leaving aside some pretty solid evidence for the practice in Carthage, young child sacrifice is *very *well attested from preColumbian Americas.

Note that the sagas are known as unreliable, and often are more myth than historical fact.

Those stories from the 1800’s are from an era where Europe was particularly fascinated with Vikings and as an example, even mistranslated of the word “horns” were even changed into stories of vikings drinking out of the “skulls” of their enemies.

To quote my previous cite,

The “The Sea-king” is one of those known to not be reliable, but yes dramas of this era the basis of a lot of myths we take as facts. It is important that their “sources” were the Sagas were tales in tales in prose themselves.

While these stories seem to be given more weight in English sources this is due to the pervasiveness of these stories. If you can read Swedish, (and probably in Norwegian and Icelandic too but I can’t struggle through them to read them) you will note that they use terms to indicate these stories about kings are most likely fictional and the sources are unreliable.

Even Google translate will convert Sagokung to “fairytale King”

As my Swedish isn’t very good, but google translate picks some bad translations, here are some translated passages from that page with a few minor fixes.

A modern analog for Americans is that of the American West. While in general we buy the ideas of dime store western novels. The Wild West is based on a false understanding of what the past was like, yet even Tombstone plays up a false story to drive tourists there to spend dollars.

The viking invaders weren’t saints and lots of bad things were done by them, but the stories of the 1800’s are mostly romantic myths similar to modern US myths about the Wild West