Let's bust the biggest myth straight away. People that lived in the Nordic and Baltic regions, in Viking societies, during the early medieval age, did NOT all have blue eyes and blonde hair.
Whilst the northern latitudes meant a relative lack of sunlight – meaning lighter skin and lighter hair – this was not the case for all peoples in Norse communities. Recent genetic studies have found a healthy mixture of hair colors throughout Viking societies, with brown, red, and blonde all found in significant numbers.
The studies found, however, that there seemed to be a multitude of blonde-haired people that lived in what is today the northern part of Scandinavia, particularly north of what is now Sweden's capital, Stockholm.
From the early 8th century CE, inhabitants of Viking communities may have been somewhat homogenous – there was little direct contact with the outside world due to the geography and climatic conditions of the Nordic and Baltic regions – but by the end of the 11th century CE this had changed.
Vikings amassed a considerable portion of their wealth through slave trading.
Consequently, they captured an unknown number of enslaved people from various regions, including the present-day British Isles, Eastern Europe, the Russian Steppe, the Black Sea region, and beyond. This only added to the genetic melting pot and meant that blonde hair and blue eyes were not necessarily predominant.
Genetic studies suggest a significant presence of red hair in western Scandinavian Vikings. Photo: Fotokvadrat / Shutterstock
In need of some good hygiene lessons?
"They are the filthiest of all Allah's creatures: they do not purify themselves after excreting or urinating or wash themselves when in a state of ritual impurity after coitus and do not even wash their hands after food."
This was how 10th-century Arab diplomat, scholar, budding travel writer, and ethnographer Ibn Fadlan described some Vikings he met while traveling around the Volga River more than a millennium ago.
Traveling on a diplomatic mission for the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad, he wrote down his thoughts on the people he met, including what modern historians have called the "Volga Vikings."
These were Viking warriors and traders who had expanded eastward, from Scandinavia, across the Baltic to the Volga River. In this region, the Volga River served as an early medieval highway where they conducted their trade and settlements, moving freely up and down its waters.
Whilst the Islamic world was centuries ahead in personal hygiene and cleanliness (your average European did not bathe daily until maybe the late 19th / early 20th century CE), these Vikings were probably no more or less "dirty" than other peoples.
It wasn't all stinky meetings, though, because Ibn Fadlan (somewhat creepily) commented later in his work that he had "...never seen more perfect physiques than theirs – they are tall like palm trees, are fair and reddish..."
It should be noted that for Ibn Fadlan, who was Muslim, these descriptions of the Vikings as dirty and vulgar aligned with the Muslim worldview of Europeans – they were seen as dirty, backward, and non-Muslim infidels.
Interestingly, the mention of reddish and blonde hair backs up what genetic studies have shown about people in Viking societies during this era.
As for being tall like palm trees, scientific research on the skeletal remains of people in Viking communities has revealed that they were about average height. Male Viking warriors, on average, stood somewhere between 5'7" to 5'9" (170 to 175 centimeters).
So, unlike some of their Scandinavian ancestors, Vikings were not seemingly giants.
Hipsters before hipsters were hipsters
Depending on factors like your age, generation, or personal taste, some individuals may view hipsters as either ruining or revitalizing facial hair and tattoos. Like a hipster bartender plucked from Hollywood Central casting, one of history's stereotypes is that all Vikings were heavily bearded and tattooed.
Is this true, though? Let's examine each one in turn.
Whilst our friend Ibn Fadlan may have found them somewhat filthy, people from Viking societies were often known for their long and well-braided hair. For men, beards were common, and these were well-groomed and kept.
Indeed, one of the best examples of Vikings being well-groomed was from the Oseberg Viking ship.
In this archaeological find, a carved male head on a wagon uncovered in the burial mound portrays a man with a meticulously groomed appearance. He is depicted with a neatly trimmed beard and, that most hipster of facial hair, a long mustache.
Both men and women took pride in their hair, and there was a wide range of regional differences amongst hairstyles.
As for tattoos, there is evidence that some Vikings did indeed have them. However, they appear not to be widely spread.
Possibly these had some religious or ceremonial significance or could have been used to signify social status. The tattoos also could have represented a group or clan affiliation or simply served as a form of personal aesthetics. In this instance, the Vikings are in sync with many of us today.
All of this information should allow you to cast a critical eye on how Vikings are depicted in a Netflix show or Hollywood movie. As they say, knowledge is power.
Science Nordic has more information on the archaeological evidence behind how Vikings looked like, available to read here.
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