Reconstruction of a cross axe. Author: Jakub Zbránek.
In the vortex of battle, we often encounter axes that have an atypical appearance – the center of the blade is cut and in some cases filled with a cross-like or hammer-like protrusion. This popular shape of axes has repeatedly provoked debates about authenticity, so we decided to gather known information into one summary article, the value of which may prove in the future with increasing material.
We will not include axes with one round hole in this article. Single round perforation is a common feature of 10th-13th century Central and Eastern European axes and its meaning can be reduced to two interpretations – the suspension hole for a sheath and decoration originally filled with a contrast metal (Kotowicz 2018: 35-6; Vlasatý 2015; Vlasatý 2020b).
The catalog collects a total of 15 European Early Medieval axes, which have more significantly perforated blades. Typologically, they belong to axes of Petersen types L / M, double axes, hammer axes and T-shaped axes.
The axe from northeastern Bulgaria. Source: Jotov 2004: кат. No 582, обр. 51, табло L.
The axe from Falköping Museum. Source: Paulsen 1956: Abb. 25d; Vlasatý 2020a.
The axe from Borovan. Source: Jotov 2004: кат. No 584, табло L.
A cross axe (Danish korsøkse) is a designation for a small group of Petersen axes of the L/M type, whose blades are perforated to form a cross. The types can be generally dated to approximately 950–1050 (Petersen 1919: 46–47), while cross axes were dated more accurately to the second half of the 10th century (Paulsen 1956: 67). So far, six pieces of these axes are known – three come from Denmark, two from Sweden and one from Poland. The distribution is therefore spread in the Baltic region. In terms of the frequency of these axes, they represent a marginal topic in the corpus of Scandinavian weapons, and even within the L/M types they cannot make up more than 1% of the total. It would be difficult to find a more eloquent statistic than Kotowicz’s analysis, which shows that only 0.45% of all Polish axes from the period 6th – 1st half of the 13th century were somehow decorated with a cross (Kotowicz 2013: 41).
The scientific literature pays surprisingly little attention to these axes. This is partly due to the fact that the finds are of an older date, which limits the possibilities of interpretation. Therefore, it is appropriate to list the literature that concerns this phenomenon. The website of the Danish National Museum reads:
“Research indicates that such axes were robust enough for practical use. However, it is more likely that they were reserved for ceremonial purposes. The owners of these cross axes were not necessarily Christian, but the axes reflect the strong Christian currents that existed in this part of the Viking period.“
In the book “From Viking to Crusader: Scandinavia and Europe 800-1200” (Roesdahl – Wilson 2000: 279, no. 194) we find the same information and learn that axes “could have been used for ceremonial purposes, as were axes inlaid with silver and gold [eg axes from Mamten or Trelleborg].” We also read that such “perforated axes are unusual in Scandinavian times in Viking Period.” Finally, the book informs us that “during Christian missions, weapons were rarely buried in graves, but even at the end of the 10th century, the ax could have been a symbol of the warrior class.”
In her study “Materiel kultur, identitet og kommunikation” (Pedersen 2008: 15–16), Anne Pedersen considers that “the practical function of cross axes has been subordinated to symbolic significance“, and also deals with their distribution:
“Due to the relatively uniform shape of the axes and their geographical distribution, it can be argued that they were a symbol that was used and understood in a broader context in a large area of Scandinavia. We can also assume that the few men who owned such an axe were part of a closer community, and the axe was thus a symbol of loyalty that was not limited to local space.“
This is in line with Piotr Kotowicz’s study “The Sign of the Cross on the Early Medieval Axes – A Symbol of Power, Magic or Religion?“. He puts perforated axes into the broader context of axes decorated with crosses and shows that this is a northern European phenomenon of 6th to mid-13th century and that there was more frequent storage of axes with the dead after the Christianization of Scandinavia, which is also reflected by perforated axes (Kotowicz 2013: 42). Kotowicz understand cross axes as strictly Viking phenomenon. However, he does not state that the deposit of axes ended up in Scandinavia during the 11th century. This increase of axes in graves is truly remarkable and, according to Kotowicz, is related to the fact that the axe has become a symbol of the warrior profession, which can be compared to the Varagian Guard (sometimes referred to in period sources as pelekophori, literally “axe carriers”), in which Petersen’s type L/M axes were used for various ceremonies and saluting the monarch:
“Guardsmen were holding them in the right hand, leaning the blade against the left wrist. When the Emperor came, they brought up the axes to lean them on their right shoulders. During the time of the name-day of the Emperor the Varangians saluted him and banged their axes, which emitted rhythmical sound.” (Kotowicz 2013: 52)
The distribution of axes along the Baltic Sea and the timing support this theory. Kotowicz also suggests that the use of perforated axes may be related to the cult of St. Olaf (Kotowicz 2013: 53). However, due to its use in the second half of the 10th century, we cannot agree with that. In addition to the above information, we can add that the hole in the blade certainly offered interesting options for attaching the case protecting the blade.
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