Possible function of the „Perun Axes“

In this article we shall focus on Early Middle Ages axe miniatures, so called “Perun’s Axe”, which have recently come to a great attention from reenactors and neo-Pagans. We will attempt to outline key sources of information and will reflect upon possible function of the symbol, which sure will bring a lot of controversy.

It is important to say right in the beginning that at least in 9th – 12th century, axe miniatures were used ranging from Ireland to Russia, and are thus not bound solely to Slavic lands as is often presented. Apparently, real-size local axe types were copied, and in the case when we find an axe miniature that does not follow a shape of local weapon, we can speculate about movement of people or import of goods. In general, the miniatures were made of copper alloy (“bronze”), amber, silver, iron, tin alloys, lead and bone. The label “Perun’s Axe” is, as will be described, based on interpretation from 1960s, which does not reflect the current research. For that reason, we will stick to the term “axe miniature.”

Axe miniatures research has gone through a century of interpretations, which brought various views on the topic. The whole issue suffers from insufficient cataloging and lack of cooperation between East European, Scandinavian and West European researchers, which caused creation of detached catalogues, which do not reflect one another. Currently, the best source for East European axe miniatures are catalogues by P. Kucypera, P. Pranke a S. Wadyl (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2010Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011), which count 154 specimens from 10th – 13th century. Scandinavian and West European miniatures were collected by Bo Jensen (Jensen 2010), with 44 items in total. Since publication of these catalogues, there were many new finds, some of which were made public on this website (Vlasatý 2018aVlasatý 2018b).

Axe miniatures finds in Eastern, Northern and Western Europe.
Source: Jensen 2010: 44; Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011: 33, Map nr. 3.

East European axe miniatures, which we will reference in this article, can be divided into the following categories (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011: 11–26, 29):

  • Makarov type I miniatures (74 specimen), dated to turn of 11th century – end of 12th century
  • Miniatures similar to Makarov type I (21 specimen), dated to 2nd half of 11th century – turn of 13th century
  • Makarov type II miniatures (30 specimen), dated to beginning of 11th century – 1st half of 12th century
  • Atypical miniatures (29 specimen)

Functions

A major group of similar items brought the interest of several researchers towards interpretation. There are already a number of conclusions, of which the most used are:

  • amulets meant to be worn discretely by their owner (Jensen 2010: 43–45; Koktvedgaard Zeitzen 1997: 3, 17; Beck – Jahnkuhn 1973: 567–568)
  • items connected to deity of thunder (Darkevič 1961Kulakov 1993)
  • gifts to boys during the ritual of first haircut (Paulsen 1939: 159; Panasiewicz – Wołoszyn 2002: 261)
  • items connected to members of Old-Russian druzhina (Makarov 1992: 48–51; Wołoszyn 2006: 591–593)
  • items connected to cult of St. Olav (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2010: 116)
  • child toys (Shetelig 1912aPaulsen 1939: 159; Nadolski 1953: 390)

There is no doubt of the pendant function of some of the miniatures, as they are provided with rings or whole chains – though this is only the case of three miniatures (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2010: 36). It is evident that even some other axe miniatures had that function as they are very small and have a tiny eyelet. Axe-shaped pendants are known in Europe from as far as antiquity (eg. Tejral 1982: 131). At least in one case, an Early Middle Ages axe miniature is hung on a small clothing pin (Paulsen 1956: Abb. 98g) – this is very interesting detail in connection to a clothing pin from Daugmale, which also has an axe-shaped formation attached (Paulsen 1956: Abb. 99d). At least two axes without eyelets, found in female graves, were placed on chests along with other amulets and beads, forming necklaces.

Source: Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2010: Tabl. VII:9, VIII:3, XIV:6; Paulsen 1956: Abb. 98g

The ties to Thunder deity, most often Perun, is mostly based on an ornament that can be found on the miniatures. This interpretation is problematic nonetheless and even has its critics, who call for caution (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011: 43). The decoration basically only suggests that the miniatures might have had a decorative purpose, which is also indicated by the chosen material. Many a time it seems that the decoration only copies an ornament used on real-size axes.

Real-size axes (upper row) in comparison with their miniatures, 10th – 12th century.
Source: Atgāzis 1998; Paulsen 1956; Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011.
See higher resolution.

But the similarities to the real-size axes are way farther than just in decoration. The edge of these miniatures has an extensive sharpness, like the real axes would. At least in 10 cases (that is around 7%), the miniatures were mounted on wooden hafts, of which only fragments survived (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2010: cat. 13, 21, 48, 51, 57, 65, 120, 124, 135, 152). Another two detector finds from Belarus and Ukraine were published by Koršun (Koršun 2012: cat. D-6, D-44). One find is currently for sale on eBay (eBay 2019), the other on Mešok (Mešok 2019) and Violity (Violity 2019) portals. Three questionable items can be found on Arkaim server (Arkaim 2019). At least in one case, the axehead is secured by an iron wedge (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2010: cat. 21, tabl. III: 3). It seems possible that a higher number of the axe miniatures had a wooden haft, but only a few survived to present day.

Fragments of wooden hafts.
Source: Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2010: Tabl. II:1, III:3, IV:8, V:1,6, VI:3, XI:1,5, XIV:3; Koršun 2012: 152, 160, kat. D-6, D-44; eBay 2019; Mešok 2019; Violity 2019Arkaim 2019.

More than half of all miniatures were found in hillforts, in hillfort areas or settlements. Quite a large number comes from situations without any context. It is important to note that 11 miniatures come from graves (male graves in 5 cases, female graves in 2 cases). In total, 7 are from child graves. Most often the miniature was placed at right hip, on legs, and in the case of women, also on chest (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011: 30).

Axe miniatures found in graves.
Source: Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011.

Based on the presence of axe hafts, the authors of newest catalogue suggest that such items were not meant to be worn as necklaces and were rather worn at belt (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011: 37). In the case of some child graves, we would not be far from truth if we suggested that the miniature played a role of symbolic representation of a real axe. Miniature axes with hafts can also be found in other European regions – some were meant for wearing as a necklace, some lacked the loophole and were more suitable for carrying in a pouch.

Miniature axes with hafts.

From left: iron axe miniature from Estonia (source: Edvards Puciriuss), soapstone form from Ribe, Denmark (source: The Northern Emporium project), amber axes from Ribe, Denmark (found in 2018 and 1990/1, source: The Northern Emporium project), bronze miniature from Haithabu, Germany (Elsner 2004: 79), bronze miniature from Mülheim, Germany (Koch 1970), bronze miniature from Menzlin, Germany (Schoknecht 1977).

As one can see, the listed axe miniatures make a disparate group – they are made of various materials, in a different way and are also of different shape. East European miniatures on the other hand form quite unified groups and only vary in detail. If we consider the detector finds as well, we have hundreds of miniature axes to deal with and can speak of a spread phenomenon in terms of quantity, time and geography. The idea of majority of these axes serving as offering to the dead or as a necklace is not supported in the case of grave finds, which only represent less than 10% of all officially researched specimen. We would thus like to add a few interpretations to the already listed ones, in order to attempt to make sense of the axe miniature’s purpose.


Other interpretations suggested by the author

The fact that the miniatures can be found all over Eastern Europe in the span of several centuries is a warning sign suggesting the axe could be a favoured item with practical and decorative function. We attempt to explain the frequency of finds by three additional interpretations other than a pendant or symbolic offering.

Selection of cloak pins from Western, Northern and Eastern Europe.
Source of graphics: Tomáš Cajthaml, 
grafikacajthaml.cz.

 

Cloak pins
The axe miniatures with hafts can be compared to 30 bone and 5 bronze cloak/hair pins from Western and Northern Europe. Lets examine this analogy further. From Netherlands we know of over 20 finds of axe-shaped bone pins (Roes 1963: 67–69, Pl. LIV: 1–9). From UK, we know of at least 6 other Early Middle Ages bone pins (MacGregor 1985: 118, Fig. 64). Haithabu in Germany provided us with yet another 3 bone pins (Schwarz-Mackensen 1976: 27, Abb. 7: 2–3; Schietzel 2014: 355). One specimen is also known from Århus, Denmark (Roesdahl et al. 2014: 285).

Axe-shaped bone pins.
Source: Roes 1963: Pl. LIV: 1–9; MacGregor 1985: Fig. 64: 15–17, 22; Schwarz-Mackensen 1976: Abb. 7: 2–3.

Metal variants of axe-shaped pins are quite rare, yet they do exist. One piece was found in Aggersborg, Denmark (Roesdahl et al. 2014: 283–285). Also from Denmark we know of another pin, found in Avnsøgård (Pedersen 2014: 239, Fig. 7.5). Third find is an axe from Islandbridge, Ireland (Harrison – Ó Floinn 2014: 157–158, III. 90). Fourth specimen was found in Svingesæter, Norway (Shetelig 1912b: 206, Fig. 482). Fifth axe miniature comes from Bjåland, Norway (Petersen 1951: 338, Fig. 184).

Axe-shaped metal pins.
Source: Roesdahl et al. 2014: 283; Pedersen 2014: Fig. 7.5; Harrison – Ó Floinn 2014: 158, III. 90; Shetelig 1912b: Fig. 482; Petersen 1951: Fig. 184.

Despite the lack of valid proofs due to incompleteness of East European axe miniatures with hafts, there are several arguments supporting this interpretation:

  • almost 40 analogies from Europe and the use of axe-like formations or miniatures on some cloak pins of Eastern Europe
  • practical and useful construction which has been experimentally proved
  • aesthetical badge showing a social status
  • the pins do not deviate by either shape or material from other Early Middle Ages cloak pins with long needle
  • a tradition of using Scandinavian pins with a ring and pins with miniature weathervane in Eastern Europe (Chvoščinskaja 2004Schmidt 2005)
  • specifically broken hafts right below the miniature axe head
  • placement in graves on the right side of the body does not rule out usage as a cloak pin, as many of North- and East European pins were worn this way (Thunmark-Nylén 1984: 11, Abb. 2.3; Lehtosalo-Hilander 2000: 206–207; Stepanova 2009: Rys. 19, 194) and the whole axe miniature from Nikolskoje III was “wrapped in cloth” (Kucypera – Pranke – Wadyl 2011: 88, kat. 56).

Experiment: bronze cast of miniature axe (production: Wulflund) with a wooden pin, which fixates the cloth. We tried several ways of fastening the strap, where two-point fixation on the pin proved to be the most useful.

I have presented this theory to Pawel Kucypera, author of an East European axe miniatures catalogue, who commented the experiment as follows: „I cannot rule out this possibility. The idea to compare axe miniatures with the cloak pins is interesting, but it is not possible to research this concept any further.” We thus have to wait for more miniature finds, that might confirm or dismiss this interpretation.

Reconstruction of axe-head sheath found in Schleswig, Germany. Author: Stephan Meinhardt.

 

Wedge fixating a sheath to an axe-head
While this is improbable due to lack of relevant excavation situation, it cannot be ruled out that some of the miniatures with a haft could had functioned as a wedge for fixating a sheath to the axe-head. From Early Middle Ages Europe, we only know of a single such wedge, specifically from Haithabu, Germany (HbH.432.002; Westphal 2007: 55, Taf. 30:3), which was inserted to the inner side of sheath from the axe-side. Though there are even other sheaths suggesting the usage of a wedge. Specifically, we speak of sheath from Novgorod, which has holes on its tongue-like protrusions corresponding with holes of East European axes (Kainov – Singh 2016). We can thus assume that the holes found in axe heads served as a simple way of fastening the sheath, which was then plugged from side. Such an uniform solution would require a vast number of wedges, which would explain the presence of miniature axes throughout time and place. The axe-miniature shape is also appropriate for this purpose. Furthermore, as the sheath from Schleswig suggests, which is decorated by two axe engravings, it was not perceived as an issue in the past mentality if the sheath was decorated by another axe (Saggau 2006: 264; Abb. 44:13, Abb. 45). It was suggested in past that the miniatures might have had a sheath of their own, which would then be fastened to the miniature axe thanks to the hole (Makarov 1992: 37; Panasiewicz – Wołoszyn 2002: 251). This suggestion has not yet been confirmed though.

Early Middle Ages axe sheathes with suggested ways of fastening.
Source: Westphal 2007: Taf. 30:3; Kainov – Singh 2016: Rys. 2.
Source of graphics: Tomáš Cajthaml, grafikacajthaml.cz.

Votive gift during colonisation
In 11th century we have witnessed major changes in Old Russian settlement towards previously uncolonized areas. Old settlements ceased to exist, resulting in creation of dense network of small cities and villages in castle areas. Thanks to their newly gained economical and political potential, these aimed for independence and attempted to break out of the Kievan rule (Kotyčev 2016: 246–248). The epoch is sometimes called as “era of small cities” (эпоха малых городов) copies the usage of axe miniatures in Eastern Europe.

From other parts of Europe, we know that the Early Middle Ages axe as a tool played a major symbolic role in the cultivation of land, and it was not uncommon that when a new land was being settled, the settlers would light a bonfire or would bury an axe in the ground as a symbolism for bringing order (Starý – Kozák 2010: 44–45). Furthermore, axes had been buried as early as late Neolithic era to define estate boundaries with the purpose of protecting it from disruption (Rønne 2008).

We should not forget that majority of the axes were found around small cities, settlements or villages. The phenomenon of miniature axes in Eastern Europe can thus be connected to inner colonisation and the transformation of estate structure of 11th – 13th century.


Conclusion

In this article we took a deeper look into the phenomenon of miniature East European axes, in order to bring it closer to re-enactment community. We have discussed a great deal on the possible functions of the item. Our suggestion is that the geographical and time-related expansion reflects its practical use. We assume the following functions:

  1. Female necklaces, cloak pins
  2. Symbolic offering from the parent to her/his deceased child
  3. Votive placement in ground during colonisation of new land

These functions can thus suggest that the miniature axes played important roles in the life of their owner, a role that could change in the time and contect:

  • Demarcation of cultural space, bringing an order to chaotic environment
  • Bringing luck and good faith (preservation of good health and mental condition, protection from danger)
  • Decoration
  • Representation of a real axe

Let us conclude the article here. Thank you for your time spent reading it and we look forward any and all feedback.


Bibliography

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Vlasatý 2018a = Vlasatý , Tomáš (2018). „Z manažera archeologem“ : Dokumentace detektorového nálezu středověkých šperků. In: Projekt Forlǫg: Reenactment a věda [online]. [cit. 2019-03-12]. Available at: http://sagy.vikingove.cz/z-manazera-archeologem/

Vlasatý 2018b = Vlasatý , Tomáš (2018). Interní soutěž skupiny Herjan. In: Projekt Forlǫg: Reenactment a věda [online]. [cit. 2019-03-12]. Available at: http://sagy.vikingove.cz/interni-soutez-skupiny-herjan/

Scandinavian cloak pins with miniature weathervanes

 

During my research work, I have long been coming across an unusual type of artefacts, which are being described as miniature weathervanes (Swedish: miniatyrflöjel, miniflöjel, German: Miniaturwetterfahne). After many years, I have decided to take a deep look into these interesting objects and provide the readers with thorough analysis, comments and further references.


Finds description

At the moment, I am aware of eight more or less uniform miniature weathervanes, originating from seven localities. Let us take a detailed look at each of them:

  • Svarta jorden, Birka, Sweden
    At the end of the 19th century, one miniature weathervane was found in the Black Earth (located on Björko) during the excavations led by archaeologist Hjalmar Stolpe. It is 45 mm long and 35 mm wide (Salin 1921: 3, Fig. 4; Sörling 2018: 59). The material is gilded bronze (Lamm 2002: 36, Bild 4a). Currently, the item is stored in The Swedish History Museum under the catalogue number 5208:188; the on-line version of the catalogue also mentions a presence of 85 mm long pole (stång).

    Li
    terature: Salin 1921; Ekberg 2002; Lamm 2002; Lamm 2003; Lamm 2004; Sörling 2018; Thunmark-Nylén 2006; catalogue SHM.

The miniature weathervane from Birka. Source: Salin 1921: Fig. 4; catalogue SHM.

  • Tingsgården, Rangsby, Saltvik, Ålandy
    Most likely in 1881 in Tingsgården, a barrow was found on the land of Ålandian landlord Robert Mattsson, whene he took it apart to use the materials for landscaping. Inside of the barrow, he found a wooden riveted coffin with remnants of coal, bones and an iron object. An archaeological research was conducted in the summer of 1903 by Björn Cederhvarf from The National Museum of Finland, who documented the find and transported it to the museum in Helsinki. The landlord’s son made yet another discovery in the barrow’s ground – a damaged bronze item with stylised animal ornament – a miniature weathervane which was 52 mm long, 37,5 mm wide and weighed 17,6 grams. To this day, the object is stored in The National Museum of Finland, designated by inventory number 4282:13. The Åland Museum only displays a very successful replica (Salin 1921: 20, Fig. 21; Lamm 2002: Bild 4c; Lamm 2004). In the museum, the object is displayed together with a pole , which can be seen here.

    Literature
    : Salin 1921; Ekberg 2002; Lamm 2002; Lamm 2003; Lamm 2004; Thunmark-Nylén 2006.


A miniature weathervane from Tingsgården. Source: Lamm 2002: Bild 4c; Lamm 2004: Fig. 1.

  • Gropstad, Syrholen, Dala-Floda, Dalarna, Sweden
    Supposedly in 1971, a highly damaged cremation burial was uncovered near Gropstad at Dala-Floda, containing only two fragmentary casts of miniature weathervanes (Frykberg 1977: 25-30). Both were made of bronze and vary in shape, level of conservation and decoration. One of them does not retain pole sockets, has more significant tassels and is of Borre design. The other has pole sockets, but lacks the tassels – instead, it has perforation, which could had been used for tassel attachment – and is decorated with simple concentric circles. Currently, the weathervanes are stored in Dalarnas Museum in Falun, Sweden.

    Literature
    : Frykberg 1977; Ekberg 2002; Lamm 2002; Lamm 2003; Lamm 2004; Thunmark-Nylén 2006.


Gropstad weathervanes. Source: Lamm 2002: Bild 4e-f.

  • Häffinds, Burs, Bandlunde, Gotland
    Another miniature weathervane was found during excavation of a Viking age marketplace near Häffinds on the eastern coast of Gotland (Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 366-367, Abb. III:40:7:I). The excavation was then led by Göran Burenhult from the Stockholm University and the weathervane was the most interesting item found during the work. The object is made of bronze, measures 53 mm × 42 mm (Thunmark-Nylén 2000: 92) or 54 mm × 43 mm (Lamm 2002: 39, Bild 4g; Lamm 2003: 60). It weighs 26 grams (Lamm 2002: 39). During that time, this particular weathervane brought interest mainly due to having been the first one differentiating from the Birka and Tingsgården finds: it has three pole sockets, the yard ends with animal head terminal and the tassels are pointed.

    Literature
    : Brandt 1986; Edgren 1988; Thunmark-Nylén 2000; Brandt 2002; Ekberg 2002; Lamm 2002; Lamm 2003; Lamm 2004; Thunmark-Nylén 2006.

Häffinds weathervane. Source: Thunmark-Nylén 2006: Abb. III:40:7:I; Lamm 2002: Bild 4g.

  • Söderby, Lovö, Uppland, Sweden
    A completely shape-identical bronze weathervane was found in spring of 2002 during excavation in Söderby, Sweden, lead by Bo Petré. It was unearthed in a particularly interesting cremation grave A 37 – it seems the grave was deliberately dug within a Bronze Age barrow, and the dead (presumed male) was laid on a bear fur along with dogs, a horse, a chest, a long knife, a silver-posament decorated clothing, two oriental silver coins from 9th century, a comb, a whetstone, two ceramic cups and an iron necklace with a hammer pendant and then cremated (Petré 2011: 60-61). The weathervane is 48 mm long, 37 mm wide and weighs 19,9 grams. Three pole sockets hold a bronze circular shaft, which is broken on both ends (Lamm 2002: 39). The grave has been dated to 10th century (Lamm 2002: 39). Currently, the item is stored in The Swedish History Museum under catalogue number 26192 (F2).

    Literature
    : Ekberg 2002; Lamm 2002; Lamm 2003; Lamm 2004; Thunmark-Nylén 2006; Petré 2011; catalogue SHM.

Söderby weathervane. Source: catalogue SHM.

  • Novoselki, Smolensk, Russia
    After the Söderby weathervane find, Jan Peder Lamm, the author of an article about miniature weathervanes, received a message of yet another object from Russian archaeologist Kirill Michailov of the IIMK Institute of Russian Academy of Sciences. The miniature weathervane was excavated in Novoselki village in Smolensk area. The message also included a drawing, produced by Mr. Michailov himself after the find in 1996. The drawing shows that the item is the same type like the Häffinds and Söderby finds, though differentiating in the number of pole sockets – having only two instead of three and mounted with an iron shaft. Dr. Lamm stated (Lamm 2002: 40; Lamm 2003: 61) that the find originates from the grave nr. 4, which was marked as incorrect after the publication of E. A. Schmidt’s find in 2005. Schmidt (Schmidt 2005: 196, Il. 11:2) claims that the miniature weathervane was found in the grave nr. 6, along with a spearhead, a knife and a ceramic cup. The object was depicted with a long needle pin and a ring in the form of clothing pin. Personal interviews conducted with archaeologists Sergei Kainov (State Historical Museum of Russia), Kirill Mikhailov (Institute for the History of Material Culture, Russia) and jeweller Vasily Maisky indicate that Schmidt’s drawing is a reconstruction and that the weathervane (which is now stored in The Smolensk State Museum-Preserve under inventory number 23656/1-9) is broken to pieces and lacks the central part with the ring. Despite that, there is no reason not to trust in Schmidt’s reconstruction; it only means that not all of the pieces of the original find are on display.

    Literature: Ekberg 2002; Lamm 2002; Lamm 2003; Lamm 2004; Schmidt 2005; Thunmark-Nylén 2006.

A drawing of the Novoselki weathervane. Source: Kirill Michailov; Lamm 2004: Fig. 7.

The miniature weathervane from Novoselki. Source: Vasilij “Gudred” Maiskij.


A drawing of the weathervane from Novoselki. Source: Schmidt 2005: 196, Il. 11:2.

  • Menzlin, Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Germany
    During the autumn of 2002, the International Sachsensymposion (Internationales Sachsensymposion 2002) was organised at the Schwerin castle, where Dr. Lamm held a speech on then newly excavated Söderby and Novoselki weathervanes. After the presentation, he was informed by Friedrich Lüth about yet another, similar object found nearby, at the Viking age trading centre Menzlin. The very same day, Mr. Lamm went to see the find that was deposited in a special showcase in Menzlin, which is used for displaying newly excavated items from the area. He acknowledged that the item is in fact a miniature weathervane and is very similar to the Birka and Tingsgården finds (Lamm 2003). The weathervane was probably excavated in 1999 and published the next year (Schirren 2000: 472, Abb. 136:1). As far as we can tell from the detailed photos, it is about 50 mm long and 38 mm wide.

    Literature
    : Schirren 2000; Ekberg 2002; Lamm 2002; Lamm 2003; Lamm 2004; Thunmark-Nylén 2006.

Menzlin weathervane. Source: Lamm 2003: Abb. 1.

Looking at the finds, we can clearly define two standardized types of the miniature weathervanes – the “Birka type” and the “Häffinds type” – along with the unusual and atypic pieces (Gropstad). Next, we will take a closer look at the presumed function of these objects and the symbolism of miniature weathervanes in Old-Norse culture.

Map of the miniature weathervane finds mentioned in the article. Source: Lamm 2004: Fig. 2.


The function of miniature weathervanes

Jan Peder Lamm had three theories on the possible function of miniature weathervanes. According to him, they were mainly a status symbols and pieces of artistic value. At the same time, he held the opinion of the objects being a part of boat-models, similar to ship-shaped candlesticks (Lamm 2002: 40; Lamm 2003: 61; Lamm 2004: 138), which we know from Norwegian church environment of 12th and 13th century (Blindheim 1983: 96, Fig. 7). The third supposed function was in a seafaring naviagion tool – Mr. Lamm suggested the weathervanes could had been used to help with determining angular height of astronomical objects. This theory was pursued before Lamm by Engström and Nykänen (Engström – Nykänen 1996) but was denoted as surreal and inconclusive (Christensen 1998).

As far as we can tell, the theory of boat models does not fit most of the listed finds. The boat-shaped candlestick platforms are at least two centuries younger and we have only one pair-find of the weathervanes from Gropstad. Thus, it is more probable that the Viking-Age miniature weathervanes were a part of clothing pins, as can be seen at the example from Novoselki. It seems that the poles were narrowed on the inserting part, while having the tip widened and flattened. Below the weathervane, there was a eyelet for attaching a string, which was used for fixing the pin. This method was most likely used for cloak fastening. The standardized look can indicate a centralized manufacture and distribution via for example gift-giving.

Cloak pins with miniature weathervanes made by Vasili “Gudred” Maisky.


Weathervane symbolism

The literature on miniature weathervanes was to a major extent focused on symbolism that was presumed the items had. From the era between 1000-1300 AD, we know of at least five complete Scandinavian weathervanes and several of their fragments – all of which were made from gilded high-percentage copper (Blindheim 1983: 104-105). That is in compliance with literary sources, which place gilded weathervanes (oldnorse: veðrviti) at the bow of the war ships of important personas (Blindheim 1983: 93; Lamm 2003: 57). The bow-situated weathervanes can also be found in 11th-13th century iconography, while in the older iconography, the weathervanes can also be found on masts (Blindheim 1983: 94-98; Lamm 2004: 140; Thunmark-Nylén 2006: 367). Aside of that, we also have several instances of the weathervane motive used on metal applications of horse harnesses, pendants and – as discussed above – as clothes pins, which are very faithful miniatures of the genuine ship weathervanes.

Scandinavian weathervanes and their fragments, 1000-1300 AD.

From the upper-left: Källunge weathervane, Heggen weathervane, Söderal weathervane, Tingelstad weathervane, Høyjord weathervane, a horse figurine from the Lolland weathervane. Source: Blindheim 1983: Figs. 1, 3, 4, 6, 9, 20.

Selection of miniature weathervanes depicted in iconography, 800-1300 AD.

From the left: Sparlösa runestone, Stenkyrka runestone, Bergen engraving, engravings from churches in Borgund, Urnes and Kaupanger. Source: Lamm 2004: Fig. 10; Blindheim 1983: Figs. 8, 10, 11, 12.

Horse harness fittings in a shape of weathervane, Borre and Gnezdovo.
Source: Myhre – Gansum 2003: 27; Lamm 2004: Fig. 9; catalogue Unimus.

Norwegian church boat-shaped candlesticks with weathervanes, 1100-1300 AD.

The weathervanes first started to appear on bow of the ships as early as 11th century, when they began to replace the wooden heads. Their function did not change though – the weathervanes were also removable, and the animals depicted on them were meant to frighten any chaotic agents dwelling along the journey. At the same time, the weathervane posed as a revering representation of the ship’s owner and thus presented a clearly distinguishable symbol. It is often stated that the function of weathervanes changed throughout the following ages, finding the usage on church buildings. However, according to Martin Blindheim (1983: 107-108), the old Norwegian military service laws mention that important ship equipment was stored in churches, and while the rest of the equipment (sails, ropes) fell victim to the passing of time, the weathervanes survived and became a permanent property of the churches. The connection of a church and a ship in naval-oriented Scandinavia is also backed up by the church boat-shaped candlesticks.

At the very least we can say that during the Viking Age, the weathervane was perceived as a property of the ship’s owner and as a precious symbol referring to naval activity and personal reputation. Not every ship owner could afford such an accessory though – the weathervane was undoubtedly limited only to a very small group of the richest, who owned huge and top-grade equipped vessels. The tradition of using weathervanes was so anchored in Scandinavian culture, that it had a substantial effect on weathervane usage even in different parts of Europe – e.g. France where the French word for „weathervane“ (girouette) originates from Old Norse (Lindgrén – Neumann 1984).


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