Ski history | hunting in a landscape with deep snow | Norway

The word ski comes from the Old Norse language, with the meaning cleft wood. The old Norwegians were master hunters, and have been skiing for over 5000 years.
The Rødøy skier - rock carving from 2000 BC - Rødøy, Nordland, Norway. | Illustration: Based on a stamp published by Posten Norge.
The Rødøy skier - rock carving from 2000 BC - Rødøy, Nordland, Norway. | Illustration: Based on a stamp published by Posten Norge.

Pronunciation

Ski

Rock carvings and archaeological finds

The above illustration is based on a stone-age rock carving, found at Rødøy in the Norwegian region of Nordland. Some say that the depiction shows a person in a boat, but the general belief is that she or he is one of Norway’s earliest skiers. In 1959, Johan Kleivhaug found 5000-year-old ski-remains on his land in Vefsn, also in Nordland. Norway’s historical Sami and Norse populations were both excellent skiers – and guarded and guided their abilities safely through the millennia and into our own time.

Hunting in the deep snow

When the early Norwegians were out hunting, they moved through vast areas of land. In winter, the ground was covered by deep snow, and they needed a tool to help them conquer the elements; they needed skis. Not only did a simple pair of wooden planks allow the hunter to float on top of the snow, they also allowed her to move as fast as the wind.

The skis were shaped to fit the landscape

Throughout history, the length and width of the skis have changed. It was very much the layout of the landscape and the practical use that decided the design; some were long, some short, and some wide. Every generation and every community had their own master ski-maker, who adjusted, tweaked, and improved as the millennia passed by.

Clad with fur

Today, ski wax is applied to the bottom side of the skis to create the optimal glide. It is all very high tech. Our ancestors, on the other hand, used quite a different method. They simply attached animal fur to the bottom of the ski, with the tip of the hairs pointing backwards. This gave a good forward glide, and had the opposite effect when moving uphill. Fur-clad skis have been in use well into our own time.

One long and one short ski

In steeper terrain, the two skis were often of equal length. However, in areas with relatively flat or undulating mountain plateaus and forestland, there would often be one long and one short ski – a langski and an andor or ånder. The long ski was on the left foot and was mainly used for gliding. The short ski on the right foot was used when moving forward, steering, and climbing uphill. It was usually this shorter right-hand side andor that had fur underneath.

Only one ski pole

Today’s skiers have two poles when out in the tracks. Our forebears made do with just the one. Photographs from as late as in the early 1900s show that the one pole was still the norm.

Gods and Vikings

The old Norse winter-god Ull was a master at skiing, running faster and bolder than anyone else. And the goddess Skade could ski down the hill and still shoot with her bow and arrow. A Viking warrior was no less of a skier than he was a swordsman.

Visit the Norwegian ski museum when you are next in Oslo

The next time that you visit Norway’s capital Oslo, ask a passer-by to point out the Holmenkollen ski jump for you, up on one of the hills shielding the city. You can easily see the majestic lambda-shaped structure from down-town Oslo. To most Norwegians, Holmenkollen is a symbol of pride, a link back to their ancient past. The Oslo Metro will take you there in 30 minutes – high above the city. We highly recommend the outing. And whilst you are there, why not visit the Norwegian Ski Museum. We are sure that you will not regret the trip.

Main source: «Norsk skitradisjon» by Olav Bø – Det norske samlaget 1966.

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