What Vikings didn’t wear
Norskies love horned helmets, but historians say uff-da!
Judith Gabriel Vinje
Want to look like a Viking?
Simply put on a Viking helmet sporting foot-long horns … or horns with flashing LED lights. They’re easy to find on the Internet.
Thousands of otherwise intelligent folks proudly sport such horned helmets at parades, football games, Sons of Norway picnics, beer busts. But if you tell any of them that real Vikings never wore such protuberances, they might not believe you. Or care.
After all, the fantasy Vikings of the screen and the cartoon strip have boasted all shapes and sizes of fiercely pointed head ornaments for decades.
Even the descendants of the Vikings themselves swear by their right to sport the horned appendages as a badge of their ancestry. Norwegian-Americans have long participated in the ruse, knowingly or not. And often in blatant defiance of historical accuracy. The image is all around us. In St. Paul, Minnesota, a statue of Leif Erickson has horns on its headgear. And the Minnesota Vikings football team logo carries a horn on each side of the helmet. With all this inaccurate historical fantasizing, it’s easy to see why the stereotype has lasted so long.
Just ask Scandinavian history expert Ernst F. Tonsing, professor emeritus at California Lutheran University. “Why do people still like to wear horned helmets? They look cool. That’s it! Besides, the Minnesota Vikings have them, and everybody watches football.”
Put “Viking helmet” into Google Images and you will find lots of (reproduction) horned helmets, mostly plastic, sometimes with blonde wigs attached, some sporting LED lights. You can buy them online.
And forget cartoon characters such as Hägar the Horrible, where the scruffy red-bearded hero sports a horn-festooned helmet. Comics aside, even serious publications such as the prestigious Economist magazine in 2013 featured on its cover a Viking wearing a horned helmet, to accompany an article on contemporary Nordic finance. A magazine spokesperson acknowledged they knew the image wasn’t historically accurate.
The thing is, however, EVERYONE associates that image with Vikings. Never mind the fact that only about 3% of Viking Age Scandinavians ever left their farms or fishing boats to go on the highly dramatic raiding and trading voyages in the first place. And those who did, well, the horns just weren’t there.
“The trouble is that no ancient Viking helmet so far excavated has horns,” declares Tonsing, who has lectured and written on the Viking Age for decades, and who owns several Viking Age artifacts himself. In the first place, no sane Viking warrior would ever wear a horned helmet in battle – they weren’t that stupid. Helmets with horns would be very impractical in combat, likely ending entangled in a tree’s branches or embedded in a shield. In addition, enemies could use the horns as a great handhold while slitting the Viking warrior’s throat.
No wings either
Because iron was difficult to make during the Viking era, it was expensive. As a result, helmets were only for the very rich. Most wore leather helmets, if any. But there is no evidence, archaeological or otherwise, that Viking warriors wore any type of horns or wings on their helmets.
In depictions dating from the Viking Age, warriors either have nothing on their heads or wear simple helmets made of either iron or leather. No wings, no horns. Despite years of searching, archaeologists have yet to uncover a single Viking-era helmet sprouting horns. In fact, only one Viking Age helmet of any kind has ever been found. Discovered in 1943 on a farm in Norway, the 10th-century artifact has a rounded iron cap and a guard around the eyes and nose. No horns at all.
There is one single piece of evidence, the 9th century Oseberg tapestry, with a horn-headed figure, suggesting ceremonial use, or perhaps even representing a god. Horned headdresses were used by the ancient Celts and other ancient civilizations in religious ceremonies.
So where did the false but compelling image come from? More than anything, it was 19th century opera. “We can blame the German opera composer, Richard Wagner, for giving us horns on Viking helmets,” says Tonsing. “In staging his vast Ring Cycle that told of the wars and jealousies of the Nordic Gods, his costume designer placed horned helmets on that fearful breed of women warriors, the Valkyrie. From then on, Vikings were pictured with misplaced cow’s horns. Artists complied, and the Romantic paintings and sculptures of the late 19th century show the Nordic warriors with these horns.”
And of course the movies loved them. “Hollywood would never let an archaeological fact get in the way of a good picture,” Tonsing says, adding that he noted the latest series of “The Vikings” on History Channel did not depict Vikings with horns on their helmets, though other historical elements in the series are more questionable.
While Scandinavian-Americans loved to wear their plastic helmets with horns, many have finally caught on. This may be due to the growth of Viking reenactment groups and their living history demonstrations. Jaan Calderon of Los Angeles, director of one popular group in Southern California, notes that over the last few years, more people are attending Scandinavian festivals where the group performs are savvy to the fact that helmets weren’t part of the wardrobe. More and more people have let go of their horn illusions.
“Now they want to know how the idea of horned helmets got started in the first place,” Calderon noted. Calderon directs the Ravens of Odin, a Viking reenactment group that runs historically based Viking encampments at venues such as the Scandinavian Festival at CLU and Danish Days in Solvang, as well as in public schools. Ravens’ living history educators research and recreate Viking Age garments, household items, armor, and head gear. Lots of gleaming helmets. The only horns are drinking horns.
And the word has spread. In a performance at a session of a Sons of Norway Language and Heritage Camp, a troupe of young campers staged a skit titled “Vikings Didn’t Wear Horns but We Have a Sense of Humor.” As young narrators called out actual historical facts, a parade of campers sporting plastic [non-authentic] helmets demonstrated the myriad benefits of wearing horns atop their [plastic] helmets. “They’re a great place to hang your cellphone,” announced one.
This article originally appeared in the Sept. 26, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.