by Pete Jennings
The existing evidence
There is certainly evidence for dancing with spears in both Anglo Saxon and Viking sources. The Mantebo memorial stone, and the Oland metal helmet stamp from Sweden, and the foil covered helmet plates from Sutton Hoo, Suffolk and Caenby, Lincs , England all show figures bearing spears, (and sometimes additionally a sword), in dance poses. The helmet foils are similar to dies found at Torslunda, Sweden. They frequently feature either animal masks or helmets with a boar crest (such as the one from Torslunda bronze die) or elaborate horned bird terminals. This motif can also be found on a Anglo Saxon buckle from Finglesham, Kent.
The bird terminal helmets would certainly be too unwieldy to fight in. The boars shown on some helmets , (and mentioned in the Anglo Saxon poem Beowulf) are similar to the 7th century helmet finds at Benty Grange, Derbyshire and Woolaston in Northants, and the boar found without a helmet at Guilden Morden, Cambs. The boar is sacred to the Heathen fertility god Frey. Some texts mistakenly associate it with Freyja, his sister/consort, but she is associated with cats and tigers.
The Sutton Hoo helm is of Anglo Saxon ownership, generally believed to belong to King Rædwald, who died around 625 CE, and thought to have been the occupant of the spectacular treasure ship burial there. It is possible the helmet was made for him by Swedish craftsmen. Another helmet fragment discovered in Caenby, Lincolnshire, shows further traces of similar ritual dancers, and could be directly related: King Rædwald defeated Æthelfrith of Northumbria near there, losing his son Rægenhere in the battle. I have noted that some spears are definitely pointing down in the illustrations - not the usual way to carry them if you are to avoid stabbing your feet.
Figures on the 5th century golden Gallehus horns from Tønder, Denmark also included dancers.
Copies of Gallehus horns. The originals were stolen and melted down.
There is historical written evidence for Scandinavian warriors dancing: the Vikings who formed the Emperor’s Varangian Guard in Constantinople are described in Constantine VII Porphrogenitus’ Book of Ceremonies (c.953) as dancing in two circles, with some wearing skins or masks, along with chants of “Toúl!” and clashing staves on shields. Whether those dancers are of the same type illustrated above is hard to say. It seems to be a very different tradition. The Roman historian Tacitus describes a dance performed by unpaid, naked youths of Germanic tribes at each festival, who danced amongst swords and spears levelled at them, showing skill and daring my making moves around them.
How to reconstruct?
Whilst I have knowledge of common folk dance moves from several cultures, I wanted to see what could be achieved bearing a pair of spears? How far could we end up in the poses shown in the illustrations? E.g. one dancer appears to be dragging his leg in a classic ‘slide’ movement, of advancing one leg, then dragging the other to meet it. There was the influence of the Viking inspired, but still active communal chain dance of the Faeroes Islands, as well as rapper and long sword dances from England. We came up with some possible moves as part of a weekend workshop session, but deliberately left things open; it would be unlikely we could reproduce the diverse dances, (from different time periods and countries) accurately, but we could try to see what worked, and what didn’t.
There was learning to with the crossed spear movement: we had not realised when some youngsters joined in that their hands were not big enough to hold two spears crossed in one hand. From this we can conclude that there must have been a minimum age/size requirement for dancers, probably related to when they were recognised as warriors.
A very warrior-like move of driving the two spears into the ground as a mock attack on the audience was popular, but it felt quite tricky circling with the ‘lame step’ in any co-ordinated way without a bit of concerted practice.
Keeping a fun element, we invited everyone who wanted to a brief solo spot in the middle. Imagination generated everything from a Cossack move to jumping over spears and a hilarious ‘pole dance’ with leg provocatively coiled around a spear!
One group move lifted directly from sword dancers was to work in couples, holding the spears between us and moving in a dos-i-dos figure of eight around other couples. It could be confusing, but was worth the effort when it went right. One visitor ingeniously suggested that we stand in a circle and do a 'Mexican wave' movement by sequentialy raising and lowering our spears.
With a need to have the maximum number of us dancing, it was decided at this stage to use recorded music of a simple percussive kind, to keep us to a rhythm. Later we intended to equip others in the audience with percussion instruments to join in with, so that a larger number can be involved, and have progressed to dancing to the sound of a beaten frame drum.
Pagan religious tunes were played at a wedding in the Icelandic saga Bosi and Herraud, but no instruments are mentioned. Whilst the lyre and harp are well known in Viking and Saxon contexts, it is also known that a loud lurs trumpet, stone framed drums and bird bone whistle were all available to various Viking ancestors, as well as the bull roarer and rattles in the shape of bulls testicles. (Funny, but I haven't seen those on sale at any re-enactors market yet, but give them time.) One source says that late period Anglo Saxons had bagpipes, cymbals, chimes, psaltery and horn available as well as the ubiquitous lyre and harp, so if ever we manage to recruit a band to accompany us, it should be loud, varied and should provide hours of fun producing and practising the instruments. Any volunteers?
Illustrations from ‘Heathen Paths: Viking & Anglo Saxon
Pagan Beliefs' by permission of Pete Jennings and Capall Bann
Other photographs © Pete Jennings & Kerstin Neumann, 2008.