The Vikings, those warriors with a barbaric and unkempt appearance, with bushy beards and long hair, with a fierce and merciless gaze, as much as the climate of their homeland; masters of the axe and the sword, experienced navigators of seas and rivers aboard their sturdy longships, and merciless raiders and plunderers of Christian villages. This is often the image, the archetype of Vikings that emerges in our minds when we imagine them. Oh, and let’s not forget the classic helmet adorned with intimidating horns.
Possibly, it is this last feature that, at the popular level, is most associated with the Vikings. However, there is no evidence to support that the Norsemen added such noticeable and uncomfortable elements to their helmets, at least not in the ones they wore into battle. So why is this image so ingrained in the collective imagination?
The 19th century, besides witnessing the rise of Romanticism, also saw a resurgence of interest in the Vikings and their history. The Norsemen aroused great admiration among various individuals who decided to dedicate their time to learn more about this subject and to dispel the historical gaps surrounding it.
At times, that admiration turned into excessive exaltation, leading some authors to add fantastical and historically incorrect elements (sometimes due to misinterpretation of sources or translation errors) to glorify this part of history and make it even more heroic. It is in this context that the myth of horned helmets is born, and time has deeply integrated it into popular culture.
Specialists identify two main artistic expressions that would be behind the origin of this myth:
The depictions created by the Swedish artist Gustav Malmström around 1820 to illustrate Esaias Tegnér’s version of Frithiof’s Saga.
The costume designs created by the German painter and illustrator Carl Emil Doepler for Richard Wagner’s opera The Ring of the Nibelung in 1876, a work that draws inspiration from the Viking revival. The outfits included winged or horned helmets.
From then on, the image of the fierce Viking warrior with his peculiar helmet was repeated several times over the course of the decades until it reached our times, as the animated series Vicky the Viking or the successful film saga How to Train Your Dragon.
Archaeology disproves the myth
Archaeology has clearly demonstrated that we are dealing with a legend. To date, none of the few helmets found in Viking sites and associated with warfare have given any indication of the presence of horns or similar ornaments. It is true that most of the discovered helmets are fragmented and incomplete. However, the two most complete helmets found to date, the Gjermundbu helmet (9th century) and the Yarm helmet (ca. 10th century), confirm what has been previously stated.
Moreover, the scarcity of Viking-era helmets found raises doubts among historians about whether they were common equipment among Vikings. In fact, some authors have proposed that only the wealthiest warriors tended to wear them in battle, while the majority fought with their heads uncovered or with some simple leather or iron protection.
If a helmet with these characteristics is discovered in the future, it is most likely that its use would have been religious or as a symbol of political authority. It does not make much sense to have worn them in battle because they would have been a nuisance, as they would have made it difficult to move among the branches, to hide, to make surprise attacks, or to engage in close combat.
Horned helmets that are not Viking
Since ancient times, different cultures have used horned helmets with ceremonial and religious motifs or have represented them in different formats to identify their heroes, kings and gods. A good example of this is the Akkadian Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, dated around 2250 BC.
Archaeologists have managed to find some of these helmets, and while experts were clear from the beginning that they had nothing to do with Vikings, the uninitiated, on the other hand, made the mistaken association. This same situation occurred with the splendid Viksø helmets in Denmark, discovered in a swamp.
They are adorned with curved horns. A projection and a pair of circular protrusions on the front simulate the beak and eyes of a predatory bird. The slots on the top suggest the possibility that feathers and a horsehair crest may have been added under certain circumstances. Again, all of this suggests a more religious and symbolic use rather than a military one. Furthermore, one of the helmets was found on a wooden tray along with traces of ashes, alluding to its final use as a votive offering.
From the beginning, experts placed the origin of these pieces in the Bronze Age, a period far removed from the Viking era. The latest dating confirms this hypothesis, establishing the year 900 BCE as the approximate date when the helmets were deposited in the Danish swamp.
The association of horned helmets with the Vikings is a popular invention that has nothing to do with what archaeology and history have discovered about the fascinating warriors of the north. It is one more of the many confusions, deliberate or not, that tarnish the history of the Vikings and their culture.
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Louvre (2023). Stèle de Naram-Sin [online] available in: https://collections.louvre.fr/en/ark:/53355/cl010123450
Metcalfe T (2022). Horned ‘Viking’ helmets were actually from a different civilization, archaeologists say. LiveScience [online] January 6, available in: https://www.livescience.com/horned-viking-helmets-from-different-civilization
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