Question: True or false? Vikings always wore helmets embellished with animal horns into battle.
Answer: False—they never did.
Today every Viking mascot, character, and costume is almost always embellished with the iconic horned helmet. But would you be surprised to know that the Vikings never actually wore this style of headgear? From all of the research that archaeologists have collected, there’s only ever been one Viking-era helmet discovered, and it didn’t even contain any horns.
The image of the horned helmet that is often associated with the Vikings is not historically accurate to what these ancient raiders really wore—instead, this depiction comes from the costume design of a 19th-century German opera. In 1876, costume designer Carl Emil Doepler outfitted opera singers with the helmets for performances of the Norse saga Der Ring des Nibelungen. The show became such a success that the costume design stuck and the image of the horned helmet was permanently ingrained in popular culture. In addition, in the 1800s, Scandinavian artists included this style of headgear in their artistic portrayals of the Vikings. These depictions have become so entangled with what the Vikings actually wore, that most people assume they wore that style of armor.
However, the Vikings were brutal warriors and heavy helmets with protruding horns would have likely gotten in their way while fighting. Horns may have been intimidating, but they would have weighed down the warriors and could have gotten entangled in trees or clashed with swords. The ancient Greeks and Romans did describe their northern European neighbors as wearing headpieces with horns, wings, and antlers, but this documentation comes before the Viking era which was from the eighth to 11th centuries. If headgear with horns and antlers was worn it was most likely done so for ornamental and ceremonial purposes—not in battle.
The only helmet unearthed that was from the Viking era was a 10th-century rounded iron cap with protection for the eyes and nose but no horns. Other illustrations from that time period show Vikings in long boats with a kind of peaked hat. Researchers think these hats were probably leather and worn for protection against the cold.
While mascots and characters still use the horned headpieces in their costumes, if you traveled back in time to the age of the Vikings, you wouldn’t see anyone wearing those helmets during seafaring expeditions or
8 More Facts You May Not Have Known About the Vikings:
- They are believed to have had excellent hygiene: Despite the bloody brutality of the Vikings, research suggests that the Vikings also generally cared about their hygiene. Excavations have discovered tweezers, razors, combs, and ear cleaners all made from animal bones and antlers. They also bathed at least once a week in natural hot springs.
- The Vikings were never one unified group: The Vikings were never actually one united people, but instead, the term is used to describe Scandinavian tribes who lived from the eighth to 11th centuries and traveled to foreign shores. They didn’t even recognize one another and had varying Norse religions.
- They buried their dead in boats: We’re all familiar with the iconic Viking ship. This boat was so important to the Vikings that they buried noble warriors in them. In Norse religion, warriors entered a glorious realm after death, and it was believed that the boat would help them reach that final destination. Distinguished leaders and raiders were laid to rest in ships surrounded by valuable goods and weapons.
- Vikings landed in North America long before Columbus: Viking explorer Leif Erikson landed on the North American shores more than 500 years before Columbus “discovered” the “New World.” Erikson’s grandfather, Erik the Red, was the first Viking to set foot on Greenland after he was banished from Iceland for murder.
- Women had more basic rights than in other cultures: While Viking girls got married at as young as 12 years old, they did have more freedoms than women in other cultures of the same time period. Women were allowed to inherit property, request a divorce, and reclaim their dowries if their marriages ended.
- They spent most of their time farming, not fighting: It may come as a shock, but most Viking men spent most of their time peacefully farming barley, rye, and oats—not pillaging villages. While some men certainly spent their time at sea and conquering other lands, typical Vikings spent their lives growing crops and raising cattle, goats, pigs, and sheep.
- They got around by ski: Scandinavians developed skiing technology as early as 6,000 years ago, and the Vikings took advantage of this efficient technology. For them, skiing was a practical form of transportation as well as an enjoyable recreation.
- They preferred being blonde: Due to the northern European genetics, most Vikings were blonde—but those that naturally were not used a soap with heavy amounts of lye to bleach their locks. Luckily for them, using this strong soap also helped to prevent head lice.
Discover the land that the Vikings once roamed during our New! Arctic Expedition: Untamed Norway & Svalbard Small Ship Adventure.