Do You Know the Vikings? 6 Myths about the Norse Dispelled

Do You Know the Vikings? 6 Myths about the Norse Dispelled

Patrick Lynch - November 14, 2016

The Vikings were made up of various groups of explorers, warriors and merchants who conquered and pillaged their way through parts of Western Europe from the 8th century to the 11th century. Groups of Vikings also landed in America and gained a general reputation for cruelty and barbarity.

It is widely assumed that the Viking Age began in 793 with a raid on a small island called Lindisfarne off England’s northeast coast. Within two years they raided Lambay Island off the coast of Dublin, Ireland. These raids were notable because the Vikings targeted churches where they murdered monks and destroyed religious texts and buildings.

Yet archaeological research suggests the Viking Age began some 70 years before the raids mentioned above in the Southern Danish town of Ribe. It appears as if they began peacefully with an emphasis on trade and not plunder. Perhaps their level of trade wasn’t sufficient to feed their families because, by the end of the 8th century, they were prepared to loot and murder to get what they wanted.

As well as establishing towns and cities in Ireland, France and the UK, the Vikings also voyaged to the new world and set up colonies on Greenland’s west coast. There were even failed attempts to settle in modern day America. Despite having access to an immense array of information related to the Vikings, there are some myths that just won’t go away. I will tackle 6 of them below.

Do You Know the Vikings? 6 Myths about the Norse Dispelled (The Stereotypical Viking Helmet look)

1 – They Wore Horned Helmets

There have been countless TV programs and movies about the Vikings and most of them feature the Norse warriors clad in helmets with horns or wings on them. In reality, while the Vikings probably did wear headgear into battle, there is no evidence whatsoever that these helmets had horns.

In fact, no Viking helmet with horns has ever been found. Furthermore, one of the few complete helmets ever discovered that can definitively be classified as ‘Viking’ was a rounded iron cap. It was discovered on Gjermundbu Farm in Norway in 1943 and also featured a guard around the eyes and nose but there were no horns on the 10th-century helmet.

According to the 9th-century Oseberg tapestry, horned helmets could possibly have existed for rare ceremonial use but it is also possible that the figure depicted with the helmet in the tapestry was actually a god rather than a Viking. Pretty much all other evidence suggests the Vikings would have worn domed leather caps as headgear. This is pretty logical when you think about it; the Vikings usually fought in close quarters so horned helmets would have been cumbersome in the extreme.

The entire myth became popularized in the 19th century when Scandinavian artists created paintings which included Vikings wearing horned helmets. Costume designers for Wagner’s Nibelungenlied created horned helmets in the 1870s and within decades, the stereotype was born.

There is a possibility that these 19th-century artisans got their idea from Grevensvænge figurines that were found during the era. These figurines depicted warriors wearing horned helmets and were originally believed to be from the Viking Age. It was later discovered that these figurines came from the Nordic Bronze Age which was from 800 BC – 500 BC. They may also have been fooled by discoveries of bronze-horned helmets. These helmets would have been too fragile for battle, were almost certainly for ceremonial use and would have been made in 900 BC; over 1,500 years before the Viking Age.

Do You Know the Vikings? 6 Myths about the Norse Dispelled
Pinterest (Viking Combs)

2 – They Had Poor Hygiene

Even today, those who don’t know their history believe that Vikings were wild, filthy and unkempt savages. Much of the historical details about the Vikings were written by Christians who saw the Norse warriors are plunderers and murderers. As such, they were hardly likely to portray what they saw as an ‘enemy’ in anything other than the most negative light possible.

Archaeological excavations have uncovered evidence that suggests the Vikings enjoyed a spot of personal grooming. Discoveries include tweezers, ear cleaners, combs, toothpicks and even nail cleaners. Obviously, the whole ‘bloodthirsty savage’ thing sounds less plausible if these vile individuals were clean and partial to a mani-pedi. One of the most common artifacts to be discovered was the comb. The Vikings also created extremely strong soap as it was used to bleach their hair as well as clean their body.

Not only were the Vikings clean, they also liked to style their hair. It was typical for men to have short hair on the back of the head and long fringes at the front. Norsemen were expected to grow beards and it is believed that men who had trouble growing facial hair were roundly mocked. Regardless of whether their beards were long or short, they were always well-groomed.

Writings by Anglo-Saxons back up the notion of the ‘clean’ Vikings. In 1220, John of Wallingford described them as ‘well-groomed heartbreakers’ as he wrote an account of the Vikings attacking Britain. Amusingly, Vikings that settled in England were considered ‘clean freaks’ by the locals due to their propensity to bath weekly. In contrast, the Anglo-Saxons would only bathe a few times a year.

It gets better; there are numerous reports of Vikings ‘undermining the virtue of married women’ and ‘seducing the daughters of nobles’. This is because they combed their hair daily, bathed weekly and regularly changed their clothes. The original meaning of the Scandinavian words for Saturday (such as laurdag) is ‘washing day’.

There are a few reports that suggest the Vikings were the dirty people of lore. One came from an Arab Ambassador who described them as “the filthiest of Allah’s creatures.” However, this man was a Muslim and would have bathed five times a day (once before each prayer). The Viking culture of bathing once a week would have seemed nasty in comparison. Nonetheless, compared to most people of the era, the Vikings were rather neat and tidy.

Do You Know the Vikings? 6 Myths about the Norse Dispelled (They didn’t generally look like Hafthar Bjornsson)

3 – They Were Large

Vikings are sometimes depicted as large and heavily muscled people who struck fear into rivals due to their size. While these warriors were undoubtedly intimidating foes, it wasn’t because they were giants. Archaeological excavations have revealed that the average Viking male was approximately 171cm tall; the average female was 158cm.

Aside from being a couple of inches shorter, Viking anatomy was similar to that of modern day people. They were relatively muscular due to the extremely hard work they had to put in as peasants. Their living conditions in Scandinavia were also harsh so it is hardly a surprise that a large number of them elected to settle in places they discovered on their travels. There was a scarcity of resources at home which is another reason why they sailed to foreign lands.

Even though they ultimately had access to wide variety of foods due to their sailing exploits, their nutrition was poor in comparison to today. Their children also experienced slower growth than modern-day children and common medical complaints included osteoarthritis and dental problems.

Vikings are traditionally said to be blond and while a high percentage of those who lived in Northern Scandinavia were blond, those in the west tended to be redheads. In other words, Swedish Vikings may have been predominantly blond but the Danish usually had red hair. It’s also important to note that there was a mixture because other cultures also came to Denmark during that age.

Interestingly, Viking women had ‘masculine’ faces with pronounced jawbones and cheekbones. One archaeologist from the University of Copenhagen admits that it is difficult to determine the gender of skeletons from the Viking Age because men’s faces were often more feminine than those of modern males.

Do You Know the Vikings? 6 Myths about the Norse Dispelled
4 – Flickr (Female Viking Fashion, Apparently)

4 – They Were Fashion Icons

There are certain depictions of Vikings which suggest their clothing style was greatly admired by those they came into contact with. An 11th century English drawing shows King Canute as an elegantly dressed and well-groomed man complete with socks, trousers, tunic and a cloak draped over one shoulder. It is hard to believe that the Vikings were the Gok Wan of their age; especially since historians are still not sure precisely what their attire consisted of.

They know that Vikings enjoyed colorful clothing with patterns and are also sure that fashion and style changed from region to region over time. Unfortunately, the majority of Viking clothes had rotted away by the time archaeologists located their burial sites. As a result, the picture historians have of Viking fashion is based on the textiles and objects found in their tombs. As well as not being able to reconstruct this attire correctly, it is also possible that their burial clothes were ceremonial. This would mean these items are not representative of their everyday clothes. In other words, we don’t have enough evidence to suggest the Vikings belong in Warrior GQ.

Archaeologists have attempted to take a guess as to the clothing of the Vikings. For example, there are a large number of belt buckles found in women’s graves; these buckles are located on the shoulder of the females which suggests they worn ‘harness’ dresses. Further excavations suggest that women wore dresses with built-in sleeves. Females wore double-layered clothing with a linen base on the inside with wool forming the outer layer.

Men probably wore the same materials and also wore a linen shirt which was pulled over the head. They wore a woolen coat on the outside along with short or long trousers. In most instances, these trousers would only go down to the knee. Finally, men tended to wear hats while women would wear either a small hat or a scarf.

Do You Know the Vikings? 6 Myths about the Norse Dispelled
Visit Kent (Viking Ship)

5 – They Did Nothing but Fight & Raid

This myth suggests that Vikings did little other than raid and pillage as if their entire life revolved around plundering. While they undoubtedly pillaged, looted and murdered on their travels, it was an additional source of income rather than a way of life. A significant number of Vikings would have had farms back home which were tended to by females while the men went away for a spot of looting.

Those who returned resumed their farm duties. It is also important to note that it was a fairly small percentage of the Norse that were warriors. The rest were farmers, traders and craftsmen. They settled peacefully in a number of locations including Greenland and Iceland and were actually international merchants who traded with a number of countries.

It would be wrong to paint a soft and cuddly picture of the Vikings however. They were certainly violent at times and could slaughter and destroy with the best of them. Yet it is crucial to remember that they lived in a violent age when brutality was common on the battlefield and when invading armies were resisted by towns and cities. For example, Holy Roman Emperor (and King of the Franks) Charlemagne lived in the same age and is regarded as one of the great rulers of that era. He ordered the beheading of 4,500 Saxons at Verden in a display of brutality that matched anything the Vikings had to offer.

Perhaps the Vikings were singled out because they gleefully destroyed things of religious value such as monasteries and they also killed clerics. They did this at a highly religious age which would certainly explain the level of hatred towards them. The Vikings enjoyed a reputation for brutality which they probably exploited; especially when they found that people would flee for their lives rather than encounter them. This made it easy to plunder whatever they liked.

While they may have been hated by religious people, they also earned respect. French king Charles III allowed the Vikings to remain on land where they settled and his daughter married a Viking chief. These warriors repaid the king by fighting against other Viking invaders. Byzantine emperors used Vikings to form their personal bodyguard unit known as the Varangian Guard.

Do You Know the Vikings? 6 Myths about the Norse Dispelled (Vikings TV show on History Channel)

6 – They Were a Unified People

The ‘Vikings’ weren’t actually a unified group. They were never a nation nor did they possess a unified army. They were disparate groups of warriors, merchants and explorers led by their own chieftains. Vikings from Denmark and Norway would not go exploring together for example. During the so-called Viking Age, the land that makes up Norway, Sweden and Denmark were made up of a collection of tribes and they often fought against one another when they weren’t busy exploring and plundering.

In fact, the term ‘Viking’ is a term used to describe an overseas expedition. For these Scandinavians, they would take time out from tending the farm to go for ‘a Viking’. Some historians claim the word comes from the term vikingr which means ‘pirate’. In reality, the term used to describe these raiders would be ‘Norsemen’ (man of the north) if you are looking for accurate historical context.

To make things a bit more complicated; there is a difference between Old East Norse (from where dialects of Danish and Swedish emerged) and Old West Norse (from where dialects of Faroese, Norwegian and Icelandic emerged). The ‘West’ Norse colonized Greenland, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Iceland. The ‘East’ Norse conquered most of Southern Britain which led to the establishment of Danelaw; they also conquered modern day Normandy in France.

The Vikings were also extremely adept when it came to adapting to the societies and cultures of other nations; even ones that they conquered. Those who elected to settle down overseas typically gave up speaking Old Norse and spoke the language of the natives. In Ireland they spoke Irish, in Normandy they spoke Anglo-Norman and in Sicily, they spoke Sicilian.


Some Sources and Further Reading:

ThoughtCo – Did Vikings Wear Horned Helmets?

Today I Found Out – Viking Warriors Didn’t Wear Horned Or Winged Helmets

BBC News – Were the Vikings really so bloodthirsty?

Thor News – Why Is This the Only Existing Viking Age Helmet?

History Collection – Do You Know the Vikings? 6 Myths about the Norse Dispelled

History Collection – 12 Essentials You’ll Learn in this Quick Crash Course on Norse Mythology