Athletic Vikings – How the Norsemen started skiing 6,000 years ago

Skiing is a very popular sport in the mountain regions of the world nowadays. It is mainly practiced for fun by many amateurs, but also professionally, and is quite noteworthy for such countries as Norway, Sweden, France, Germany, Austria or the United States when it comes to the Winter Olympics. The etymology of this sport is quintessentially Scandinavian in origin, given the fact that the very word ‘ski’ comes from the Old Norse ‘skíð’, meaning stick of wood.

Nonetheless, it must be mentioned that it was not intended to be a sport from the very beginning of its creation. Today, we know from archaeological findings and historical research than the skis were initially used in mankind’s early history as a very convenient means of transportation, rather than being part of a pleasant leisure activity.

Warrior on Skis’ by Danish artist Kay Rasmus Nielsen, 1914. Illustration from the fairy tale book ‘East of the Sun and West of the Moon‘ by Norwegian folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

The oldest skis that have been discovered thus far were unearthed in contemporary Russia, near Lake Sindor. These ancient artefacts were dated 6,300 BC. However, paintings discovered in the Altaic region of modern day China also suggest that skiing (or a sport quite similar to it) was already practiced approximately 10,000 years ago.

'Skadi hunting in the mountains' by H.L.M. | Foster, Mary H. 1901. Asgard Stories: Tales from Norse Mythology. Silver, Burdett and Company. Page 79. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

‘Skadi hunting in the mountains’ by H.L.M. | Foster, Mary H. 1901. Asgard Stories: Tales from Norse Mythology. Silver, Burdett and Company. Page 79. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

In the Scandinavian peninsula, the earliest evidence of skiing consists of a circa 5,000-year-old rock carving depicting a skier with one pole which can be found in the municipality of Rødøy, pertaining to Nordland county, in the north of the country. One of the most internationally illustrative examples of Norwegian culture, this rock carving was, unfortunately, intentionally damaged in 2016.

Archaeologically though, the most veridic discovery of a pair of skis can be mapped to Hoting, Jämtland county, Sweden, dated circa 2,500 BC. Other significantly ancient skis found in Scandinavia include those near Kalvträsk, Sweden (discovered in 1924 and dated circa 3,300 BC) or the Vefsn Nordland ski from Norway (dated about 5,100 BC).

Whatever the precise origins of this sport might be, it is clear that it became massively popular in Europe and worldwide starting starting in the 19th century and ever since closely associated with Scandinavia through professional sporting contests and various related competitions. In this respect, it must be mentioned that the sport as we know it today has been developed by Scandinavian populations since Antiquity.

The Norsemen used skis during the Viking Age as well. Skiing was a very significant means of travelling and transportation in contemporary Norway and Sweden throughout the Middle Ages. But skiing was not solely used for the needs of travel or transportation as hunting and recreation were equally quite representative.

In fact, in the Norse mythology there’s even a god for skiing which is known as Ullr. Additionally, both Ullr and Norse goddess Skaði (Skadi) were described hunting on skis, which clearly highlights the importance of these tools during the Viking era.

Skis are also known to be used in warfare by the Norsemen (specifically by Norse ski troops) according to the 13th century works of Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus. Even after the Viking Age ski troops were still a customary part of some Scandinavian armies (most notably those of the Kingdom of Norway).

'Skiing Birchlegs Crossing the Mountain with the Royal Child' by Norwegian painter Knud Bergslien. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

‘Skiing Birchlegs Crossing the Mountain with the Royal Child’ by Norwegian painter Knud Bergslien. Image source: www.commons.wikimedia.org

Furthermore, it is in the 13th century that a civil war broke out in medieval Norway, and that skis played a pivotal part in the future of the Norwegian monarchy.

Briefly, the birkebeins (or birchlegs in English) were initially formed in Norway in the late 12th century as a rebellious movement against King Magnus Erlingsson and his father Erling Skakke.

Nowadays, they are recalled and celebrated for saving the life of Håkon IV Håkonsson during his early childhood, by escorting him safely from Lillehammer to Østerdalen and then finally to Trondheim, facing a dangerous adventure.

The deeds of these birkebeins (birchlegs) were subsequently made into a Norwegian film in 2016 entitled ‘The Last King’.

You can watch the official trailer of the film below:

As of 2016, the third best ranked countries at the Winter Olympics are:

  • Norway (First place with 329 medals; 118 gold, 111 silver, and 100 bronze)
  • United States (Second place with 282 medals; 96 gold, 102 silver, and 84 bronze)
  • Austria (Third place with 218 medals; 59 gold, 78 silver, and 81 bronze)

Today Scandinavians enjoy skiing as much as they did 6,000 years ago and thus there’s no wonder that Norway leads the all time Winter Olympics medal count top. 🙂

Documentation sources and external links:


One Response to Athletic Vikings – How the Norsemen started skiing 6,000 years ago

  1. TrueNorsman says:

    The Viking era didn’t start that early!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *