Imagine you’re on England’s eastern coast sometime in the ninth century CE and you see hordes of men and women charging your village, axes and shields in hand, and they all look a bit mean. However, while our imaginations have been saturated with such images through popular shows like the History Channel’s Vikings or video games like Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, there is one thing missing: the Viking adorned in a horned helmet.
Vikings never wore horned helmets so where did the idea come from?
For years, this titular image of a Viking clad in furs and leather armor wearing a large helmet with bull horns protruding from its top was the representation of these early medieval warriors. The helmet has appeared on everything from toys and mascots to fancy dress costumes and cartoon depictions – but the truth is that this classic symbol is utterly incorrect.
There is no historical evidence that Vikings wore such helmets, and similar specimens have never been found in any archaeological site.
The image of the horned helmet was first made popular through 19th-century costume designers, especially Carl Emil Doepler who included horned helmets in his costume designs for the 1897 performance of Wagner’s classic saga Der Ring des Nibelungen. The opera consists of four German-language epic dramas that were loosely based on Germanic heroic legends drawn from Norse sagas and the Nibelungenlied (Song of the Nibelungs) – a Middle High German epic poem that was written around the year 1200 CE. Wagner’s narrative mixed motifs from Norse and German traditions so as to make them indistinguishable – or, more accurately, to tie German heritage to the legendary Norse heroes.
German nationalism was on the rise at this time, and many intellectuals were looking for ways to bolster ideas about the superiority of German culture. Norse legends were perfect as they represented an ancient origin that was free from that of the Greeks and Romans. The inspiration for horned helmets actually has roots in old Germanic tribes from the medieval period who did indeed produce such ungainly items, but their transmission onto popular images of Vikings was an artificial and historically specific decision. Within no time, this became the representation of these warriors and became part of a wider enthusiasm for all things Viking within late-19th century Europe more generally.
This was the birth of the “Viking age”, as the historian Roberta Frank described it, a mythical invention that accompanied a historical reality. “Until the viking age was invented, there was no horned-helmeted viking, and vice versa: the two go together like Easter and bonnet”, Frank wrote. The “Viking age” was not mentioned as a historical thing until the 1870s and was, she argues, tied to the late-century fascination for all things related to warfare, expansion, empire-building, and naval prowess.
This is not to say Vikings did not exist. There certainly were people from Norway, Sweden, and Denmark who, from the eighth to the 11th century, explored mainland Europe, Britain, Iceland, Greenland, and even America. They also famously raided and pillaged as they went, before eventually settling in various locations and becoming active traders. However, many stereotypes and misconceptions (such as the horned helmet) were born with the imagined “Viking age”, and some of those myths have endured ever since.
Viking is a verb, not a noun
Today we are unlikely to use the word “Viking” as a verb (“I’ll be back later mum, I’m going a-viking”), but that’s how the word was first used in Old Norse – to denote an activity, though it is not clear exactly what this activity involved. It is actually the word “vikingr” that was first used to represent someone on an expedition, usually abroad and usually by sea, and in a group (vikingar for the plural). By the 12th century, “vikingar” was being used in Icelandic sagas to describe aggressive, piratical hunters who terrorized the Scandinavian, Baltic, and British waters. These Icelandic Sagas heavily contributed to our perceptions of what a “Viking” was in our modern world.
To contemporaries, mostly Christians in northern and southern Europe, these people were referred to as Norse Men, the North Men, or just “pagans”. Another misleading feature of this history includes the idea that Vikings were a single Scandinavian people, but they really weren’t. In reality, each region had its own leaders and distinct identity. There were indeed times when a ruler may have been able to combine their forces with another to enhance their strength, but to describe them as a homogenous “Viking” people would be inaccurate.
There is plenty of archaeological evidence to show that Viking warbands were not ethnically exclusive. The mobility of these people led to many fusions of cultures within their groups and their ranks, especially as their trade networks spread from North America to Afghanistan. This is partially why they were so successful – they could adapt and adopt various cultures and people, from Christians on the British Isles to Muslims in Abbasid Caliphate. According to the analysis of the genomes of 442 ancient humans from archaeological sites in modern Scandinavia, the UK, Ireland, Iceland, Greenland, Estonia, Ukraine, Poland and elsewhere, Vikings were genetically diverse people and therefore had no concept of ethnic purity.
Were Vikings illiterate?
It is often believed that Vikings were illiterate and ignorant people, but this is not accurate. They had their own alphabet called futhark (named after the first six letters of the alphabet – f-u-th-a-r-k), which was made up of runes. This written system wasn’t unique to the Vikings either, it was used by others such as the Germanic peoples of northern Europe, Britain, and Iceland. Nor was there a single system, as the use of runes changed over time – the Elder Futhark, with 24 characters, was mostly used from 100 to 800 CE; Younger Futhark, with 16 characters, was used from 800 to around 1200 CE; and the Anglo-Saxon Futhark, with 33 characters were used mostly in England from the fifth century.
It is currently believed that the runic system emerged among early Germanic peoples who recognized the power and status that came with being able to write in some meaningful and legible way. It is likely they were warbands who came into contact with people living in Italy, which has led scholars to debate whether runes were derived from Old Italic alphabet or from an Etruscan script.
While often associated with magic and mystical beliefs, it is likely these early markings were first used for mundane things such as recording payments and stocks, and keeping track of orders. Although runes would certainly appear on all sorts of devotional and religious objects over time and were used for charms and spells, they also recorded short messages, marked memorials, and even told jokes.
It is interesting to note that many of the runes have shapes that would have made them easier to cut into wood, which suggests they were designed for this purpose. It would also explain why so few examples have survived to this day.
But while Vikings did not produce extensive and lasting written records, that does not mean they were a simple people. They were actually prolific storytellers and produced many sagas and poems. These narratives were passed from person-to-person and from generation to generation through oral transmission. Although it may seem unlikely, this mode of transmission appears to have been more accurate than you might think.
Were Vikings godless savages?
Unfortunately, little is known about the beliefs and rituals practiced by the various people who we now identify as Vikings. But one thing is certainly true: they were far from being “godless pagans” as many contemporary Christians described them. To understand their intricate beliefs, however, we have to do more creative detective work, as there is very little written material to go on – and, what we do have, was mostly written centuries later by Christian commentators.
As the Vikings were not a homogenous group of people, it makes sense that their practices and beliefs would vary from region to region. So what was believed in Norway would not necessarily be the same as in Demark. Each community had its own ways to honor the gods and practice devotion.
Chieftains and rulers were responsible for religious rites and ceremonies. There is evidence of other religious authorities, such as the völur (seeresses who had magical prophetic abilities) that provide spiritual guidance in Nordic societies. Sacrifice (blót) was an important feature of Viking ritual, and though human sacrifice did take place, it was not as common as Christian writers made it seem. In most cases, the sacrificial ritual was conducted by a priest, and it would involve the offering of either grains or livestock. These sacrifices were performed to promote fertility and regeneration for society.
Although we do not have any written texts describing Viking beliefs, there are several themes that stand out from the established narratives. Overall, the Vikings believed in a vibrant cosmology filled with gods, giants, elves, dwarves, and various spirits. The world was divided between life on Earth – Midgard – and various other realms which were all connected by the roots of the sacred tree Yggdrasil. The gods, known as the Aesir, lived in the realm of Asgard, and warriors who died good deaths would go to Valhalla.
Were Vikings as violent as we think?
With the recent rise of Vikings in pop culture, the idea that they were all hyper-aggressive masculine warriors has become troubling. Not only is it historically inaccurate, but it is also now a hallmark of multiple ethno-nationalist and white supremacist movements who believe Vikings would have shared their views on race, culture, and gender. The myth of Viking racial purity is as old as the 19th century “Viking age” and was an idea nurtured by Nazi ideology in the 1930s. However, it has been debunked many times and, given their wide-ranging activities across the medieval world, it would have been impractical for Vikings to be hostile to all the various people they mixed with.
Equally, the common emphasis on Vikings as “plunderers”, “raiders”, and “marauders” has fostered the idea that they were always violent and, more often than not, men. This too is inaccurate. Not only were women sometimes among the war parties, but decades of research has shown that Vikings more generally engaged in numerous forms of activities other than raiding. They were merchants, explorers, diplomats, farmers, settlers, and so on.
Moreover, many stories concerning their apparent barbarism come from Christian sources who criticized them for their early attacks on Christian settlements, especially monasteries. This activity isn’t likely to endear them to those producing written records. However, Viking violence should be understood within the wider context of the medieval period where other peoples performed equally (and sometimes more) horrendous acts. A key example here would be Charlemagne’s famous Massacre of Verden in 782 CE, where Christian forces murdered more than 4,500 Saxons. You could argue the only reason we do not regard Charlemagne in the same violent terms as we do Vikings is because he had a Christian biographer.
So while the historical reality concerning Vikings may not be as sensational, it is important to understand where these inaccuracies have come from. Regardless of whether these impressive explorers were as homogeneous or aggressive as popular culture likes to think, their real activities nevertheless had an important influence on history that should be celebrated in its own right.