Modern scholars and historians are divided over whether Vikings tattooed their bodies.
With understandable little archaeological evidence, we must rely on contemporary early medieval accounts, which are historically problematic.
Little scientific evidence
There is an ongoing debate in academic circles about whether Vikings had tattoos. The archaeological and scientific evidence points to "unsure."
Human skin – being biodegradable – simply cannot survive the centuries of burial that people from Viking societies have undergone before being dug up in modern times.
As such, there is scant archaeological evidence which, regardless of any future technological advances, will seemingly remain so.
Aside from the lack of archaeological evidence, there is, from the Viking perspective, a lack of written sources.
People in Viking societies had a great love of language – one only has to look at the popularity, in contemporary times, of the lure and lore of the Old Norse sagas.
Yet the Vikings left us with little recorded insights into their life, especially about any markings or tattoos on their skin. For that, we must turn to an outsider, from a civilization half a world away.
A very medieval journal entry
You only have to switch on the television, or a streaming service, nowadays to see a seemingly endless amount of travel shows.
In fact, it seems that almost anyone (even an "idiot."..sorry, Karl Pilkington) can travel abroad and document it.
However, this was indeed a rare luxury (if traveling hundreds of miles reliant on animal transportation can be called luxury) for only a handful of early medieval travelers.
One of the most famous was the 10th-century CE Arab diplomat from the Abbasid Caliphate, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan. He spent years traveling throughout Eurasia and recorded fascinating ethnographic and travel accounts in his famed risāla (often translated into English as "journal").
Employed as an envoy for the Abbasid Caliph, he traveled more than 4,000 kilometers through the heartland of the Caliphate in what is now Iraq, through Iran, and into the Eurasian steppe area, encountering a number of Turkic tribes.
However, most of his risāla is devoted to his musings on the Rus – Varangian Vikings who lived along the Volga River system.
Fadlan wrote that, in his opinion, "I have never seen bodies more perfect than theirs (peoples from Viking societies living on the Volga). They were like palm trees. They were fair and ruddy. They wear neither coats nor caftans but a garment that hangs on one side and leaves one hand free. Each of them carries an axe, a sword, and a knife and is never parted from any of the arms we have mentioned. Their swords are broad-bladed and grooved like the Frankish ones..."
The most interesting detail was to follow. He describes how these people had "From the tips of his toes to his neck, each man is tattooed in dark green with designs and so forth..."
This is the earliest historical reference (recorded sometime in the first half of the 10th century CE) we have available to us of some Vikings having tattoos. It is not the only historical reference from a traveler from a medieval Islamic civilization, though.
Modern scholars and historians are divided over whether Vikings tattooed their bodies. Photo: Andrej Hyvel / Shutterstock
Roughly contemporaneous with Fadlan was another medieval traveler and proto-ethnographer, the merchant (and probably spy!) Ibrahim ibn Yaqub.
This Sephardi Jewish traveler from Al-Andalus traveled widely throughout Western Europe in the early 960s CE - he even managed to secure an audience with Pope John XII.
One of his more interesting observations was when he got to the Danish city of Hedeby. This was, at the time, one of the most bustling and vibrant entrepots in the Viking realms and, as such, was a city full of life with a wide variety of peoples from different cultures, civilizations, and societies.
For Ibn Yaqub, however, this great Viking society was a pale shade of his hometown, Cordoba.
Amongst his observations on the locals, he mentioned the use of makeup for both sexes and the use of tattoos.
However, there is some scholarly debate about whether the Arabic word for "tattoo" he used was to describe painted markings on the body or, more possibly, the sort of decorations that may adorn a mosque.
Nonetheless, we have a second 10th-century CE traveler who has recorded Vikings donning some ink.
Modern Viking tattoos
The only evidence we have of Vikings having tattoos are from two 10th-century travelers who were from different civilizations with different language, culture, religion, and background to the peoples they were observing.
Relying on observances from more than a millennium ago is problematic. Add to this the fact that no Vikings ever recorded or made mention of (even in legend or saga) tattooing.
However, there are some Vikings who most definitely do wear tattoos.
For many people nowadays, Viking symbols and signs have become a popular source of tattoo inspiration.
Designs today are based on pseudo-Viking symbols like the Aegishjalmur or the Vegsvisir (both first mentioned in a 19th-century Icelandic book but supposedly used during the "Viking Age").
Nonetheless, the recent "Viking" culture boom (thanks to shows like Vikings) has seen tattoos finally adorn themselves, pride of place, on these modern-day (wannabe) traders, raiders, and settlers.
The National has written more on the interconnectedness of Arabic and Viking civilizations in an article, available to read here.
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