Thanks to Hollywood's renewed interest in the Viking age, films, Netflix series, and comic books awash with Viking warriors are increasingly popular. However, as the saying goes, you should never let the truth get in the way of a good story.
We, at The Viking Herald, have a mission to inform, educate, and entertain about all things Viking-related. As such, we are launching a new ongoing series focusing on busting some common Viking misconceptions. In this first installment, we look at burning boats, horned helmets, women warriors, and blonde-haired Vikings.
Did the Vikings really wear horned helmets?
Perhaps the easiest misconception and myth to bust: the answer is a big NO. A recent study found that a horned Viking helmet, discovered in Denmark, was made during the Nordic Bronze Age from approximately 900 BCE – dating it about two millennia before Viking warriors raided, traded, and spread across much of the North Atlantic world.
There is no solid archaeological proof discovered (yet) that Vikings did indeed wear horned helmets. In fact, the only Viking helmet that has been discovered was on a farm in 1943 in Gjermundu in Norway. Now taking pride of place at the new Nasjonalmuseet in Oslo, this Viking helmet most certainly does not have any horns.
The horned helmet is the invention of some lively 19th-century European imaginations. Swedish artist Gustav Malmstöm was an artist, painter, and illustrator. He often drew Vikings with horned helmets, especially for children's books. Furthermore, when the great German composer Richard Wagner staged his epic series of operas Der Ring des Nibelungen throughout the 1870s, his costume designer, Carl Emil Doepler, added the horned helmets for the Viking characters. The most famous part of this opera series was, of course, the dramatic, Die Walküre, with a trope of horned helmeted Valkyries belting out operatic tunes.
Many modern historians have assumed that 19th-century historians, academics, and artists wrongly mistook earlier Nordic Bronze Age horned helmets as being made and worn during the Viking Age. This myth was busted thanks to more modern carbon dating techniques.
We still love our logo though!
All the Vikings were Nordic, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and tall
Believe it or not, people in Viking societies did not all look like Chris Hemsworth in the latest Thor movie. They were not all blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and indeed not all were Scandinavian. This common stereotype about the appearance of people in Viking societies needs to be corrected.
When we talk about Vikings, we are, of course, talking about warriors and pirates who took to the seas to raid, pillage, and plunder most of Europe during the late 8th to mid-11th centuries CE. Originally, these Vikings were from Scandinavia – in English, this commonly refers to a subregion in Northern Europe that now consists of the three kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Bursting into European history with these initial raids, as time developed, they soon became traders, merchants, and – in the case of Normandy, Iceland, and parts of Eastern Europe and into the Russian steppe – settlers and colonists. People from Scandinavia set about trading, raiding, and settling huge swathes of Europe. As such, they often intermingled, wed, and bred with local populations.
A recent study by the Lundbeck GeoGenetics Centre at the University of Copenhagen analyzed the human remains of 442 people living between 2400 BCE to 1600 CE across a wide variety of European archaeological sites. Most of these people lived during the "Viking Age" (approximately 793 CE – 1066 CE). Researchers then compared this DNA with 3.855 modern individuals and 1.118 ancient individuals' DNA. The results were interesting. There was a high level of intermingling between Scandinavian, southern European, and Central Asian DNA, and, for those living in Scandinavia, brown hair was far more common than blonde.
Slavery was an important part of Viking societies. Whether this was a defeated enemy after a battle or women seized from coastal communities during a raid, many people arrived in Viking societies by force and against their will. With a Viking presence from Eastern Europe to the Iberian Peninsula, from Iceland down to Constantinople and Baghdad, a myriad of different peoples eventually found themselves living amongst peoples from Viking societies. Contact with a variety of different cultures and peoples from the Frankish Kingdoms, Byzantine Empire, and Umayyad Empire saw a blending and mixing of genetic DNA.
This common stereotype of people in Viking societies as looking "Scandinavian" – tall, blonde-haired, and blue-eyed – is scientifically and historically wrong. It robs us of the knowledge that peoples in Viking societies were of diverse origins, cultures, religions, and appearances.
Whilst the Vikings originated from Scandinavia, settling, trading, and conquering huge swathes of Europe and beyond made sure they were never quite so homogenous. New research has also found that Viking societies were multicultural, multilingual, and full of genetic diversity. Photo: Arshad Khan / Unsplash
Women in Viking societies had little or no rights, political power
Women in Viking societies had a bit of a mixed experience during the so-called "Viking Age." First and foremost, women could not technically become "Vikings." These were, after all, warriors, and given the ingrained patriarchy and misogynistic attitudes in many Viking societies, women were seen as physically and mentally inferior and thus unable to wield an ax or join in a raid.
However, Norse folklore and sagas make mention of female warriors, often called Skjoldmø (shield maidens). The most famous example of these, of course, are the mythical Valkyries. However, the historical existence of Skjoldmø is debated, and there appears, at present, to be scant archaeological evidence of them.
Like most pre-modern societies, women had specific gender roles in these male-dominated societies. The lives of women centered around the home: raising children, cooking, cleaning, and caring for the house. In fact, these roles were so ingrained that they even followed women into the afterlife. Whilst men might be buried with treasure or weapons, women were often buried with household items and jewelry. However, Norse women had a significant amount of power and authority in the domestic sphere, especially when their husbands were away.
They could often adopt the role as head of the household during his absence or even take it on permanently should he die. Furthermore, they could request a divorce and even own property. Marriages took place when women were in their early teenage years, and a series of negotiations between the two families took place with the girl allowed to have a say.
Yet, for every (somewhat) emancipated female in a Viking society, there was a slave. The capture of females for sexual or domestic slavery was a common feature all throughout Viking societies. Countless women were raped and killed during Viking raids or captured, bundled onto a ship, and sent back to a Viking society anywhere from Iceland to the Russian steppes. Often these females did not speak the local language and had no personal liberty, privacy, or agency.
There are no cases of female Viking rulers in their own right but only as consorts. Ultimately, regardless of the small rights that some women enjoyed in Viking societies, women were more or less treated as second-class citizens or, in the case of female slaves, even worse.
Vikings burnt their dead in boats
The image of a dead body being carried onto a longship and then set alight out at sea or on a lake has been one of the most enduring popular images of Vikings in part thanks to the small and silver screen.
Before the arrival of Christianity into Viking societies, cremation – funeral pyres – was an important part of burial practices and beliefs. The intense heat and smoke from cremation were believed to be the best way to carry the deceased's spirit into the afterlife as quickly as possible.
Many in Viking societies used ships or boats as part of everyday life – from fishing to exploring, raiding, and trading – but some were used to transport people to their final destination in the afterlife. The practice of burning boats – as part of a funeral ceremony – appears to have been very common in the 8th and 9th centuries CE, but there is little archaeological evidence of this occurring later.
Perhaps the most famous example of a burnt Viking burial in a ship was discovered in 1874 on a farm in Norway. The now-famous "Myklebust Ship" was over 30 meters long and believed to have been one of the last Viking ships burnt in Norway. Academics and scholars have analyzed the ashes and archaeological ruins of the ships and theorized that it was part of an elaborate funeral ceremony for a Viking ruler, possibly one mentioned in various sagas as King Audbjorn of the Fjords.
Due to the labor, resources, and skill required to build a ship during the Viking Age, it would have been a great honor to be cremated as part of an elaborate funeral ceremony in one. Though it did happen, the archaeological evidence appears that it was not as common as shows like "Vikings" or movies like "The Northman" would have you believe.
This deep-dive article was written thanks to the support of subscribers to The Viking Herald's Facebook page. Do you enjoy our work? You can SUBSCRIBE here. You'll get access to exclusive content and behind-the-scenes access.
Feel free to reach out to discuss potential stories that may be in the public interest. You can reach us via email at firstname.lastname@example.org with the understanding that the information you provide might be used in our reporting and stories.