Return to Long Serpent

Viking Weathervanes

This gilt copper weathervane is from the medieval church of Heggen in Modum, Norway and was acquired there from a private collection in 1921. It dates from the first half of the eleventh century and once had decorated the prow of a Viking ship, the dents in the metal likely from the impact of arrows. Hung from a metal rod, the vane was free to rotate, the pierced holes along the edge holding ribbons or streamers (or even thin metal leaves). When fitted to the curved stem, the vane would have tipped forward and its slight upward angle become horizontal again. Two lions are depicted, one large and one small, theirs mane and tails an elaborate spray of tendrils.

Dating to the same period, this openwork gilt copper vane is from the church at Söderala on the eastern coast of Sweden and discovered in 1916. Although less dramatic, it too has impact marks. The brass lion, which had become detached, was found next to the church, although its tail is missing.

This is only one other vane with the same zoomorphic style and abstract interlace: the Källunge vane from the church on the Swedish island of Gotland, which was discovered in 1930, when the spire was taken down for repair. It depicts a lion, its neck wrapped around by a serpent against a background of tendrils. In this detail from the museum website, two large serpents are entwined, surrounded by smaller ones. Some of the drilled holes along the bottom rim have begun to open, as they have on the Söderala vane, which suggests that small metal rings may have been inserted to hold the fluttering streamers. If they, too, were of metal or thin chain, wear would have been aggravated even more. (The holes on the the Heggen vane are so prominent because its curved edge had been replaced.)

There is a fourth vane from the parish church at Tingelstadt (in Gran, just north of Oslo). But it dates from the second half of the eleventh century and is later than the Viking Age (AD 800–1050), as can be seen from its distinctive Romanesque style. Recalling the shepherd David in I Samuel 17:34-35, it shows him prising apart the jaws of a lion to rescue a lamb.

That all these vanes once adorned church spires may relate to leidang, whereby men and ships were levied in time of war to defend the kingdom. In peacetime, however, conscripted ships and equipment were put in storage, the sails and gear usually kept in churches. With the decline of the levy system in the Late Middle Ages and the superiority of higher-sided Hanseatic cogs against the longship, it is surmised that the vanes, as one of the more valuable (and still useful) items to be left behind, were newly utilized as weathervanes.

That holes along the curved edge of the vanes held streamers or some other decoration can be seen in several graffiti, some of which were scratched on the inner walls of the stave churches at Urnes and Borgund. More readily visible is the Bryggen ship-stick, a piece of juniper wood found in the medieval harbor of Bergen, Norway, and incised sometime between 1248 and 1332, given the stratum in which it was found. On the back is a runic inscription that reads "Here goes the sea-brave." Altogether, forty-eight longships are represented, as if resting at anchor. Whether they are shown in perspective, order of importance, or simply that the decreasing size represents smaller boats is not known. The strakes are clearly depicted, as are vanes prominently attached to the prows of several ships.

On one, a pennon (pennant) also flies from a post directly behind the fore-stem, streaming in the opposite direction of the vanes, which would seem to indicate that these gilded and elaborately wrought objects were more a display of a chieftain's wealth and power, much like the ship's pennant, than a simple indicator of the wind's direction. (Behind the sail, there would be little wind to direct the vane in any event.) The Old Norse word for such a weathervane is veðrviti, and Bugge quotes several sagas in which its presence signified a longship. In the Saga of Håkon Håkonsson, for example, the king hid his warships behind smaller boats and were recognized only when their vanes reflected in the sun. In another, a ship was disguised so as to slip by a sentry. When it had safely passed, the mast was raised and its gilded vane put back into place. Invariably, these vanes are described as gilded: they glitter in the sun, shine like red gold, and look as if fire burned out of their heads.

Here, the reverse sides of the Heggen and Söderala vanes are shown in more detail. Together with the Källunge vane, they all are examples of the Ringerike style of ornamentation: a lion and serpent entwined in tendrils. Wilson considers the Källunge vane to be earliest of its type, "the lion and snake motif in its purest Ringerike form" (p. 136), whereas the Söderala vane is "a slightly more developed expression of the same design" and the Heggen vane, "a high point in the surviving art of the Ringerike style." Campbell, on the other hand, considers the Söderala vane to be "the most stylistically advanced version of the 'Great Beast' motif of these three vanes" (p. 126) and dismisses Wilson's claim that it is "over-fussy to modern eyes, even degenerate" (p. 138).

Erected by King Harald Gormsson (nicknamed "Bluetooth" because of a dead tooth) in about AD 965 (when he became a Christian or possibly twenty years later, when he died), the Jelling stone commemorates his parents. It also established the decoration of runic memorials in Denmark and subsequently all of Scandinavia. After mentioning his father and mother, the inscription says "[he was] that Harald who won for himself all of Denmark and Norway and made the Danes Christian," the first mention of Denmark in that country. The name itself, however, had been used some seventy-five years earlier (in about AD 890) by Ohthere (Norwegian Ottar) in an account of his travels purportedly related to Alfred, king of Wessex. It is preserved in an interpolation to an Old English translation of Orosius' Seven Books Against the Pagans and provides the earliest written record for some parts of Northern Europe (I.16-22).

Reading almost as if a series of questions were being asked of him in conversation with the king, Ohthere relates that he lived in Hålogaland on the coast of Norway, the "furthest north of all Northmen" and crossed by the Arctic Circle, beyond which no-one lived except the native Sami, who hunted and fished even farther north (in Lapland). He was wealthy and one of the foremost men in his country, owned hundreds of reindeer and received tribute from the Sami, who paid taxes in the form of animal pelts and hides, feathers, and ship ropes of whale and seal skin. Curious to discover how much farther the coast extended and whether anyone lived there, but principally to hunt walrus for their tough hides and ivory tusks (some of which he gave to Alfred), he sailed "as far north as the whale hunters ever go" and continued until he had rounded the North Cape and reached the White Sea.

On another voyage, Ohthere sailed south to Sciringesheal (likely present-day Kaupand) on the southern coast of Norway. It was from there, on his way to the trading center at Hedeby on the Jutland peninsula, that he passed "Denmark [Denamearc] on the port side and open sea on the starboard." The Scandinavian peninsula then still would have been on his left and presumably a part of it belonged to Denmark at that time, as did some islands to port that he also passed. Eventually, Ohthere traveled to London, although it is not known when or how, where he told the king of his adventures.

In the Heggen vane, an eagle is intertwined with a serpent; in the Söderala vane, a lion is entwined—as it is on the reverse of the Källunge vane. They all derive from the lion and serpent fighting on the Jelling stone. Art historians consider this rendering of the "Great Beast" iconographic in that it provided "the literal prototype for all single, large, lion-like animals which appear in Ringerike stone carvings" (Wilson, p. 134). As can be seen, the lion is spiral-hipped and has a lappet (fold of skin) at the lip and springing from its head. The lappet tail, too, develops into an acanthus-like pattern. The serpent presumably is a symbol of evil, possibly after Midgard, the mythological snake that encircled the world. (Although brightly colored in this reproduction, the colors have long faded from the original stone, which now is protected by a glass enclosure in a churchyard in Jelling, Denmark.)

The Heggen vane is in the Historical Museum (Oslo, as is the Tingelstadt vane) but was photographed at the National Gallery (Copenhagen), where it was much better illuminated during a special exhibit. The Söderala vane is in the History Museum (Stockholm) and the Källunge vane in the Gotlands Museum (Visby). The Bryggen stick is in the Maritime Museum (Bergen).

It is Harald's runic initials "H" and "B" that, when combined, form the familiar symbol for Bluetooth short-range wireless interconnectivity. Just as the king had united Denmark and Norway, so a common technical standard was intended to join mobile devices.

References: "The Golden Vanes of Viking Ships" (1931), by Anders Bugge, Acta Archaeologica, II, 159-184; "The Gilded Vikingship Vanes: Their Use and Technique" (1982) by Martin Blindheim, in The Vikings, edited by R. T. Farrell, pp. 116-127; "Ship Graffiti" (n.d.) by Jan Bill, Vikingeskibs Museet (Viking Ship Museum, Roskilde, Denmark) website; Viking Art (1966) by David M. Wilson and Ole Klindt-Jensen; Viking Art (2013) by James Graham-Campbell. The Old English History of the World: An Anglo-Saxon Rewriting of Orosius (2016) translated by Malcolm R. Godden; Icelandic Sagas and Other Documents Relating to the Settlements and Descents of the Northmen on the British Isles (Vol. IV): The Saga of Hacon (1894) translated by G. W. Dasent.

See also Flags in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Return to Top of Page