The image of a Viking spending hours grooming their hair is not exactly one that recent small and silver screen adaptations would like to highlight. Much more is made of their ravenous, rapacious, and predatory nature.
However, despite their warriors' well-deserved reputation as some of early medieval Europe's most fearsome and feared fighters, people in Viking societies had a sophisticated level of skill and imagination when it came to styling hair.
One of the most popular forms of this hirsute artistry was braiding.
This intricate art form of hairstyling emerged from these societies' Germanic roots and remains an enduring symbol of the Vikings' rich history and striking aesthetic.
These braids, often adorned with beads and other embellishments, served as more than just a practical way to manage hair – they were often integral to people in Viking societies' identity, representing aspects of status, family ties, and even spiritual beliefs.
The art of a good family story
At the heart of Viking braiding was the notion of storytelling through hair.
Now, we know that Early medieval Norse communities loved a good yarn; they were responsible for gifting posterity the rich tapestry of Norse sagas, myths, and legends that everyone from J.R.R. Tolkien to Richard Wagner has drawn upon.
Yet what is less known is how the same people who created the sagas would create visual stories in each other's hair through braiding.
Different braiding patterns conveyed specific messages about an individual's identity (e.g., marital status or work position), achievements, and affiliations (e.g., they were employed as warriors or Vikings).
These elaborate braids were not just about fashion; they were a visual language that communicated a person's place within the fabric of Viking society.
Braiding also strengthened the fabric of these societies, as it was a communal experience that strengthened familial and social bonds.
Parents often passed down braiding techniques to their children, ensuring the continuity of this cultural practice.
The intimate nature of braiding sessions also helped foster a sense of closeness and connection within the community at large.
It was also a way to while away boredom and cold in the long Nordic winters with a sense of communal warmth.
Hairstyles like the Lagertha and Valkyrie braids, inspired by warrior women from the Norse sagas, were fashionable and culturally significant, symbolizing the strength and mystique of Norse heroines. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Practicality and the warrior spirit
Beyond its aesthetic appeal, Viking braids served a very practical purpose. In a society where farmers, seafarers, and warriors abounded, practicality was crucial.
Braiding hair kept it secure and out of the way during intense activities – whether sailing on the high seas, vanquishing foes on the battlefield, or harvesting a fresh crop in a field – preventing it from becoming a hindrance.
Vikings were renowned for their resourcefulness, and their approach to hairstyling was no exception.
Whilst shieldmaidens are the source of historical debate and speculation, the Lagertha braid is not. This trendy style featured a series of tightly woven braids that cascaded down the back.
However, this was not a mere fashion statement; it was seen as a symbol of strength and resilience. It embodied the fierce and independent spirit of the shieldmaidens, which is evident in their depictions in the Norse sagas.
These braids often incorporated more complex weaving patterns, emphasizing the ethereal and otherworldly nature associated with the Valkyries.
The intimate act of braiding hair in Viking society fostered close community bonds and familial connections, serving as a vital cultural practice passed down through generations. Illustration: The Viking Herald
A spiritual connection
Styling one's hair is not necessarily associated with the otherworldly, but for people in Viking societies, braiding reflected a connection between the earthly and the divine.
Specific braiding patterns were associated with ceremonies and rites, which helped emphasize these societies' deep-rooted spirituality.
Hair, considered sacred by many adherents of the Old Norse religion, played a role in rituals that honored the Norse gods and sought protection from malevolent forces.
Part of the ritualistic nature of these ceremonies could be the wearing of beads in the braids of worshippers. These beads added both ornamentation and symbolism to the hairstyle.
Often crafted from materials like bone, metals, or even glass (either created firsthand or recycled from other products), these beads were meticulously woven into the braids.
The beads were not just accessories, as they often held a deeper meaning. Some represented family ties or connections, while others served as protective charms or symbols of achievement and conquest.
Viking braids were a practical solution in a society of farmers, seafarers, and warriors, keeping hair secure during activities like sailing and battling, reflecting the Norse emphasis on functionality. Illustration: The Viking Herald
Connecting with Viking culture
While Viking braiding was undoubtedly a practical and symbolic practice in the past, stretching back to the early medieval period, its legacy still endures in the modern era.
The recent resurgence of interest in Viking culture – stemming, in part, from popular shows like Vikings – has led to a revival of Viking hairstyles as a fashion trend.
A quick glance at Instagram reveals that hundreds of thousands of people worldwide are once again embracing Viking hairstyles, including braids.
People around the world, from vastly diverse cultures, embrace these braids not only for their historical significance but also for their connection to Viking culture.
They embrace Viking braids as a way to connect with the strength, resilience, and creativity of the Viking people long after the last longship ever sailed.
Transcending a mere fashion statement, Viking braiding was a cultural artifact that has been bequeathed to we moderns through the centuries.
From the intricate patterns that adorned Viking warriors to the familial bonds strengthened through shared braiding sessions, this ancient practice remains a testament to the enduring power of symbolism in shaping human expression and connection.
It has also helped generations connect with a culture that ceased to exist almost a millennium ago.
For an in-depth look at Viking home life, visit BBC History Extra here.
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