Lessons From The Ulfberht

By Craig Hysell

A thousand years ago, the Vikings were a dominant force in the world. Their warriors were fierce and their trade routes were vast, reaching well into the “known world” and even into the Americas 500 years before Columbus. The elite few, often only the very best of the best, carried a fabled sword known as the Ulfberht.

Where this sword was made and how it was made is to this day, unknown. It existed only for 200 years. Its steel was some of the most pure the world has ever seen, and had definitely ever seen at that time. It was a technological marvel of which only the very best craftsmen in the world could make.

Steel is made from iron ore. It is heated to a high temperature and mixed with charcoal, glass, or even bone for example to get the steel to separate from the ore. The higher you heat the steel along with the right mixture of separating agents determines the quality of the steel. The more impurities that remain, the weaker the steel becomes. The Ulfberht was beyond comparison when it came to the quality of its steel.

After that came the tedious, hour after hour after hour, of pounding and molding the steel to its superior shape, weight and point. The more pure the steel is, the harder it is to mold. This would take days. After that came the chiseling of the insignia, the pounding down of the middle of the sword to make it lighter and easier to wield, the cleaning, the sharpening, and the fashioning of the pommel. At any point in this process, the sword could be ruined and all the man hours of intense and exacting labor up to that point would be thrown into the scrap heap to be melted down and forged again.

This work was the top technology of its time. Only the disciplined craftsmen, those that graduated to masters and artists could forge it. What is interesting is that during this time, a fake began to be made from someone or some few looking to “cash in”. It was a copy, a forgery, with the insignia misspelled in the blade, and made from weaker steel by weak-minded craftsmen. This blade would snap in battle, most likely embarrassing and enraging the man wielding it just before he was killed.

Pay attention to what you are crafting. Pay attention to whom is teaching your craft to you. Start over if necessary, either with yourself or with a new school. Never settle for anything less than the best. Always cultivate it. Do your homework and practice constantly. This never ends for the true master craftsman. Anybody can be a master if they are willing to do the work. This takes a lifetime. Most will lie to themselves and to others about their mastery. Do not worry about them. Nor should you worry what the forgers and copycats do when imitating you. Their work speaks for itself and you must never buy into it. Your quality of life depends on these things. You must pay attention.

Do you understand?

The story of The Ulfberht and one modern day master craftsmen’s attempt to replicate it for the first time in a 1000 years airs on September 25 at 9pm on PBS.

Achilles was no Viking, but his mastery of his art (war) was complete. His mastery of himself, however, was not. You are a warrior. You must strive to be complete. This is the way of the warrior. Enjoy the journey.



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