Sunday, September 10, 2017

Battle of Herdaler ca.1008 AD: Young Olaf finds trouble in Viking Age Finland

Heimskringla, the collection of Norse sagas about their kings contains an early written record of Finns at war. In the Saga of Olaf Haraldsson (St. Olaf, who is often credited for the christianization of Norway) is a tale of a raid by the vikings led by Olaf to Finland. Even though already a king, Olaf was under twenty and still a pagan when this raid took place around the year 1008. His ledung had plundered in Estonia before arriving to Finland. I'll let Heimskringla pick up the narrative from there:

After this they sailed to Finland and plundered there, and went
up the country. All the people fled to the forest, and they had
emptied their houses of all household goods. The king went far
up the country, and through some woods, and came to some
dwellings in a valley called Herdaler, -- where, however, they
made but small booty, and saw no people; and as it was getting
late in the day, the king turned back to his ships. Now when
they came into the woods again people rushed upon them from all
quarters, and made a severe attack. The king told his men to
cover themselves with their shields, but before they got out of
the woods he lost many people, and many were wounded; but at
last, late in the evening, he got to the ships. The Finlanders
conjured up in the night, by their witchcraft, a dreadful storm
and bad weather on the sea; but the king ordered the anchors to
be weighed and sail hoisted, and beat off all night to the
outside of the land. The king's luck prevailed more than the
Finlanders' witchcraft; for he had the luck to beat round the
Balagard's side in the night. and so got out to sea. But the
Finnish army proceeded on land, making the same progress as the
king made with his ships. So says Sigvat: --

"The third fight was at Herdaler, where
The men of Finland met in war
The hero of the royal race,
With ringing sword-blades face to face.
Off Balagard's shore the waves
Ran hollow; but the sea-king saves
His hard-pressed ship, and gains the lee
Of the east coast through the wild sea."
Raiding! Ambushes in the forest! Sorcerers! Good material for wargaming I say! And it so happens I've finished a whole bunch of Viking Age Finns (just generic dark age warriors really) I've been working on the past summer:
After my previous batch turned out a bit too colourful, I made the colours on this new batch a bit simpler. A lot of undyed wool and flax, and natural, earthy colours. I also didn't do decals on the shields because I was laz-- I mean because I wanted to emphasize how poor these backwater farmers and hunters are.
There's a healthy dose of archers in this group because a lot of Iron Age Finns were hunters.
Individually the figures are nothing special but I really like how these guys look like en masse. Here you see Lieto Lemminkäinen, their chieftain ordering them to form a shieldwall.

We played the scenario using the Lord of the Rings rules. I have never tried the rules before and was a bit hesitant to use them for a historical battle, but my friends assured me they should work well and they were right! The rules are a nice and simple way to play out a big skirmish battle suitable for the amount of figures me and my friends have completed for the period so far.

According to the Saga the vikings were ambushed in a forest so we set up a table with a forest and a path running through it. At the far end are the outskirts of the coastal village their ships are waiting, but the Finns led by their famous chieftain Lieto Lemminkäinen block the way out. The vikings must fight their way through and protect king Olaf in order to win. The Finns mus try to stop the vikings' escape.

The Finns' plan was to form a killzone at the head of the viking column, pepper them with arrows from the flanks and try to hinder the rear of the column from advancing to help the front. The game started off nicely with the vikings sending some of their forces to attack the Finns at their flanks. The Finnish main force converged on the head of the viking column but the archers made very few casualties against the Norse, many of whom wore armor.

At the head of the Viking column a proper battle ensued with supported ranks of warriors pushing each other. The Finns on the hill were in for a surprise though as the Vikings snatched initiative and charged the exposed archers with their berserkers before they had time to pull back! The Finnish hero leading the flank party was confronted by a bearskin-clad berserker champion and was slain.

Lemminkäinen knew he had to cut down the leader of the Norsemen to defeat them and fought his way through the Norse hirdmen to confront Olaf. The young king was not as experienced a warrior as Lemminkäinen was, but he had his hirdmen to help him and Finns were having trouble penetrating their armour.

In the end the Finns managed to completely surround Olaf's retinue and Lemminkäinen killed the young king in the middle of it all. It was starting to look like a massacre at that point so we called the game.

The scenario was very fun and had a lot of drama. The vikings made an error in letting their force become split up but I think the scenario could still be tweaked by letting the Finns have fewer troops to block Olaf's escape. As far as ambushes go, this was textbook material and a fine game to start our dark age gaming adventures.


  1. Dude!! I was looking for information about that period almost for months!!! I am very, vey happy to find this battle report. I suppose that these generic dark age warrior were made by gripping beast. Do you know something or have any source about finns or lapplander´s costumes, during dark ages or earlier? Congratulations by your blog!!!

    1. Hi! Sorry I didn't spot your comment earlier. To the best of my knowledge, Finns and Saami people wore pretty similar clothing to their viking neighbors during the dark ages. Obviously decorations etc. would need to be changed a bit as Finns didn't share the religion of the Norse, but basic clothing, tunics etc. would be the same. Even though Finland was a backwater even by dark age European standards there was a fair bit of trade going on in furs etc. That means "European" influences did find themselves into Finland and relations with "the west" were even then warmer than with the east. The Karelians would be more influenced by their close proximity to Novgorod and sport more slavic features on how they look. Information is a bit hard to come by but I concluded that I won't go very far off by using generic dark age warriors fit for Nordics. Just remember that Finns were pretty poor so armour, swords, non-local dyes in their clothing etc. would be rare. One of the best reconstructions of dark age clothing in Finland is the "Euran muinaispuku". Google it up and you'll see a good example worn by our red headed ex-president. This was a wealthy woman's best dress but will give you something to work with