Saturday, July 26, 2014

Top 10 Myths about Vikings

In the old days, you needed to know who your friends and enemies were. Tribes often distinguished each other by local or foreign hairstyles, types of clothing, or weapons. So for the real people its characters were based on, the world of History Channel's Vikings was no joke. Not only did Saxons and Vikings need to be able to tell each other apart (both used runes and spoke similar languages), but in many cases, Scandinavians of different locales often fought each other, twisted treaties, and switched sides. And plenty of them did not consider themselves "Vikings" and in fact viewed the term as an insult. If you made one mistake in telling who was who, you could find yourself disgraced, disowned, or with an axe buried in your face. Or perhaps even find your livestock and your entire family ill from a powerful runic curse.

In fact,  most of what you think you know about "vikings" is wrong. A few common myths follow (in the sense of modern superficial urban "myths", not actual metaphorical Norse myths).

Myth #10: Vikings were a single race, tribe, or nation.
We often hear about "vikings" as a single specific ethnic group or culture, descending on Europe, plundering, pillaging, drinking themselves silly, wenching and partying like animals, smashing everything in sight in the process. But the reality is quite a bit different. "Vikings" were not the mindless beasts portrayed in medieval Christian propaganda - they were highly organized and bound by oaths to one another and to the Gods, and what damage they did cause was often minuscule compared to the massive persecutions and mass-murders committed against their Heathen kin over centuries by Christian kings like Clovis and Charlemagne. And they were not a single group. The Vikings were ethnically Scandinavians for the most part: Norwegians, Swedes and Danes. But they were not a closed or static group; they did sometimes accept people of other backgrounds into their raiding parties and tribes. And the vast majority of Scandinavian people were not Vikings, and in fact may have despised the Viking way of life. To go Viking, or vikking, meant literally to go raiding. Scandinavians were originally farmers, and due to growing populations, lack of resources, local feuds, and hostility in Germany and Denmark sparked by Charlemagne's bloody wars of forced conversion, a small number decided to go raiding and seeking fortunes in foreign lands. Those people who stayed as farmers in Scandinavia often looked down upon career raiders or Vikings as mere criminals, and the last thing they would have wanted was to be labeled basically as "smash-and-grab pirates" - yet they did benefit from their "rogue" Viking kin in one big way - the Norsemen who left their homeland to raid mainland Europe often sent back great wealth, or at the very least, left for good and freed up more valuable farmland from unnecessary feuding.

Myth #9: The Horned Helmet (and the winged helmet)
Ever since Wagner's operas first premiered, particularly the iconic 4-part cycle of The Ring of the Niebelungs, the idea has spread that Vikings wore big heavy horned helmets. The concept spans from helmets affixed with cow horns, to big heavy metal horns that would have weighed down any warrior needlessly. In reality, any sort of horns on a helmet were impractical, especially in a battle at close quarters where oddly shaped helmets can get knocked off or stuck, and their threatening appearance would have been outweighed by their cumbersome nature. There's actually just one authentic Viking helmet that's ever been located, and it lacks horns, as well as being relatively light.

However this helmet is incomplete, and while having nothing for horns to attach to, does appear to have once had some chain mail curtains on the sides for added protection. A modern reconstruction is on the right.
Interestingly, this type of simple helmet with chain mail (with or without eye guards) was also common in more southern Aryan cultures, specifically Persians...... some of whose helmets actually WERE horned: 


Note the "Celtic" crosses on last horned helmet. This is a relatively recent Islamic-era helmet, yet you see an ancient pan-Aryan motif in them. It is rumored that the horns referenced Rustam, the hero of the colossal epic Persian poem Shahnameh, who slew the horned Div-sepid (white troll) and used its horned skull as a helmet. This troll is usually described as a shaggy creature of mountain glaciers, something akin to a frost-giant. The troll's face is on the last two helmets. The first helmet on the far left has a miniature of Rustam fighting the troll. Note the "Saxon/Viking"-style partial eye guards on the second helmet from the left.

Also common in popular "viking" stage costumes are winged helmets, largely of Wagnerian inspiration. There is no evidence that any Norse warriors stuck eagle wings or raven wings (ravens being associated with Odin) into their helmets as depicted in some romantic paintings of Norse mythology, or even metal replicas of them for that matter. These are more mythical than a stereotype, but have little basis either way. They are almost certainly a pure invention of Wagner and the Romantic Era. They do make nice stage props though.

However it turns out the concept of winged helmets, like horned ones, is also more Persian than Scandinavian. One does see winged crowns on Persian monarchs of the Sassanid dynasty, and on their coinage.

On the left, an unnamed Sassanid king with a "gothic" crown, both winged and horned. Center, Bahram II with a crown topped with wings and a globe. Right, Khosro "The Victor" II with winged battle crown.

HERE you can find several real Sassanid-era coins showing kings with winged helmets, for sale! Evidently this winged headgear was real, not just iconography. Each king's crown was unique, and not inherited by his successor.

Myth #8: Vikings used massive double axes as their preferred weapon.
This one is pretty self-explanatory. You often see pictures like this: very cheesy "RPG" vikings with both horned helmets and double axes (and impossibly huge amounts of thick spiky armor).

In reality Vikings did use battle axes, but they were much lighter, and never double headed. Furthermore, out of all the Viking artifacts so far uncovered across Europe, spears are far more common than axes.

Real Viking spear tips and axes found by archaeologists. Notice the axes are single-bladed and their blades are rather light and slim-rooted. These were light one-handed weapons, often thrown, which made them much faster and more dangerous than a clumsy giant two-sided axe.

Myth #7: Viking men had long braided hair.
This is yet another image cooked up by Wagnerian romantic performances, and further developed in the Dwarves of Peter Jackson in his interpretation of Tolkien's The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Wow, this picture almost looks real. Slim single-bladed axes, simple helmets without horns or wings, and lots of spears. The artist got almost everything right..... But my goodness, that big knotty mess of hair! Can't they get the last part right?

Real Vikings, according to Anglo-Saxon eyewitnesses of their invasions, had their hair shaved in the back, and moderately long at the front and sides. But there isn't real proof of it being extremely long and multi-braided, let alone their beards. That was probably not very practical for a warrior.

Left: illustration of typical Viking man's hairstyle. Right: Ragnar Lodhbrok and his son Bjorn, as portrayed in Vikings, both with most of the back hair shaved off. Bjorn's haircut is more historically accurate, but Ragnar's may also be plausible.

Myth #6: Viking armies were huge, as numerous as plagues of locusts.
This is a common tall tale used by people who find themselves at was with a more powerful enemy. Everyone from the Spartans at Thermopylae to the Hungarians at Mohi, tended to try to justify their losses by greatly exaggerating the number of their enemy. The reality is both more mundane, and more frightening. The Viking armies, judging by the size of their ships and the numbers of ships reported by Anglo-Saxon chroniclers, numbered only in the hundreds of men, not thousands. The largest Viking mass grave known so far is at Repton Church, England, which contains the remains of a extremely tall chieftain rumored to be Ivar the Boneless, and his infamous "great heathen army" who were eventually killed and mutilated by furious Anglo-Saxon locals. The Repton site contains no more than 500 bodies. This of course begs the question, what sort of intense and skilled warriors Vikings must have been, that so few of them could petrify an entire countryside with fear and leave it dumbfounded, pitifully trying to backwards-rationalize its loss with tall tales.

Myth #5: Vikings were exceptionally cruel and vicious.
The reality is that Vikings were no more cruel than any other invading army of their times. Their supposed brutality was often cited by Christian monks and priests to denigrate pagan/heathen peoples as a whole. But Christian armies of the time were arguably far more cruel, and may have actually provoked the first Viking invasions. Charlemagne was notorious for forcing Germanic tribes to convert to the Cross at the point of a sword, destroying their holy sites, and ordered the genocide of the Avars and many other tribes for their refusal. The early French kings of the Albigenesian Crusade who slew the Cathars in the Pyrenees were equally bloodthirsty, besieging and hacking up thousands of innocents. Chinese emperors were often known to execute three generations of any political critic's family, and efface the graves and names of the preceding seven from history, exterminating whole clans in the process. And the cruelty of the Umayyad Arab empire in slaying everyone from former Sassanid royalty to famine-stricken peasants to the family of the Prophet himself, is notorious in Iran and Iraq to this very day. The Vikings' excessively bad reputation in Western history is due almost entirely to biased records written from a Christian point of view by monks and priests, who tended to overlook or justify the tortures and murders of their own kings and inquisitors. The fact is, the times the Vikings lived in were full of brutal and savage characters, all over the world, in pretty much every culture and society. In this context, their actions in war weren't all that exceptional.

Myth #4: Once abroad, Vikings did nothing but murder, rape, and pillage "civilized" societies.
Another stereotype popularized by tacky Hollywood movies and biased histories. It's true that Vikings did plunder - that, after all is the meaning of the word Viking itself. However they did far more - remember, they may have been pirates, but they were also Scandinavians, and did not abandon or forget the good points of their culture. They settled and unified the warring Slavs into what we now call Russia, they established the first international trade networks between northern Europe and the Middle East, trading peacefully with many peoples along the river routes. They were great navigators and explorers, who peacefully colonized Iceland, Greenland, and the Canadian coast. In Iceland, they founded the Althing, the first truly democratic parliament, and a society of direct votes with no kings or slaves. It survives to this day, as the only national government in the Western world to wrest itself free of the international finance crisis and the parasitic global conglomerate banks which perpetrated it. Iceland itself is (and has been since Viking times) one of the most literate societies on earth, producing thousands of poets and sagas over the centuries, and an unusually high percentage of the population are published authors.

Myth #3: Vikings used the skulls of their victims as drinking cups.
This myth actually has a single, traceable source. It goes back to a manuscript called Runer seu Danica Literatura Antiquissima (Runes of ancient Danish literature) by Ole Worm, published in 1636 and reprinted in 1651. There the expression that the pre-Christian era Danes drank ór bjúgviðum hausa ("from the curved branches of skulls" i.e. from horns made of cow horn) was mistranslated into Latin as ex craniis eorum quos ceciderunt  ("from the skulls of those whom they had slain"). Clearly the author Mr. Worm was unaware that "branches" referred to horns from cow skulls - human skulls having neither branches nor horns. The Norsemen were well known for living a hard life with harsh winters and difficult soil for agriculture - they never wasted anything, including parts of a cow. Bone became tools such as needles and awls, skin became leather clothing, sinew became bowstrings, and horn sheaths nearly always became drinking horns. Cannibals, however, they were not.

Historical Viking drinking horns from York (Jorvik), England, and on the right, modern reenactment. 
Does this look even remotely like a human skull?

Myth #2: Vikings were unclean and didn't care for hygiene
This myth may be largely thanks to Arab diplomat Ahmad Ibn Fadlan's eyewitness account of the Rus, the Vikings who ruled what is now Russia - plus the general stereotype that all non-Romanized (i.e. "barbarian") European tribes were dirty, savage, and ignorant. Actually the opposite was the case. In England, because of their custom of bathing every Saturday, Vikings were considered unusually obsessed with cleanliness and were even described as "effeminate" by the locals for doing so (keep in mind this was a time where most Christian cultures in Europe hardly bathed at all, so once a week must have been a real pretty-boy shocker for them). Ibn Rustah, a 10th century Persian explorer, explicitly notes that the Rus were actually quite preoccupied with cleanliness when they weren't fighting (and remember, the Rus were primarily merchants who traded far more than they fought). Ibn Fadlan's more negative account has to be understood in context of his more xenophobic mindset - for Ibn Fadlan, the Vikings were "unclean" not because they didn't bathe, but because they bathed in tubs, not in running water (or kurr water) as is recommended practice in Islamic tradition. Splitting hairs, but apparently as an official emissary from Baghdad, Ibn Fadlan was more of a stickler for "my way or highway" than his Aryan counterpart. Islamic law is actually quite liberal on this point in any case: the Qur'an does allow one to even use sand or dust to remove impurities if no water is available, so Ibn Fadlan's obsession with it being running water seems a bit OCD. As for personal grooming, during excavations of Viking sites everywhere from England to Russia to Greenland, combs are often among the most common objects found, made of horn, bone, or walrus ivory. Vikings also used tweezers, razors, and little "ear spoons" to clean out their ears. They also produced soap, which is something that hot sweaty Romans never bothered to do.

Exceptionally well-preserved Viking combs from a site near Novgorod, Russia

Myth #1: Vikings were all Berserkers
This myth largely dates from Anglo-saxon accounts of Berserkers, Viking warriors who were apparently able to put on the skins of bears, wolves or other wild animals, and assume all of the animal's ferocity and superhuman power, going into a hyper-alert and hyper-strong state, becoming invincible in battle and immune to all pain. Popular propaganda among later Christian cultures spread the myth that all Vikings were Berserkers, and also that Berserkers, in turn, were savage, uncontrollable brutes who killed anyone and anything in sight. Actually most Vikings were very calculating military planners, with elected war chiefs and a great amount of political deal-making before and after every raid. Only a handful of actual Vikings are reported in the sagas and first-person histories as being Berserkers. And even in battle, their actions were more like those of professional special forces than chaotic and mindless brutes. The Viking Sagas show that Berserkers were organized into bands with a commander - something that markedly contrasts with the official Christian accounts of their supposed "mad rage against friend or foe". The behavior of these relatively few men outside of combat was apparently nothing to write home about in Viking society. Nonetheless it was also a lonely path to take in life, due to an innate bloodlust being a feature of the profession, and Berserkers often found themselves on the margins of Viking society (which itself was often already at the margins of Norse society in general). To be one meant to be a dedicated warrior, to love the fight for its own sake, rather than for gaining loot, land, or strategic objectives. It was a lifestyle with little social relevance outside of battle, and even less chance for advancement into leadership roles. Thus relatively few Vikings found the prospect of Berserks to be an attractive one.

Hey Olaf, ya think if we dress up like wolves, Sven will get spooked into finally returning all those horned helmets, double-headed axes, and human skull cups that I so foolishly let him borrow?


  1. Of all the cultures and people, I would have never guessed that Vikings were the ones that invented the comb.

    1. They didn't invent it. The Viking age was around 800-1300 CE. Combs have been found dating to 3200 BCE in Egypt, and there are some very old ones from China and the Caucasus as well - found mainly in the tombs of the wealthy and powerful. Even in Europe, Celtic and Germanic cultures had combs long before the Viking age, the Celtic Cuchulainn tales of Ireland even mention a legendary comb - and even before them, the Scythians and Sarmatians had some very ornate combs. It's not really clear which culture first invented the comb. But what made the Vikings different is that they were well-known for making them from common materials and using them in HUGE quantities, they were not only for the rich. The common man and woman in Scandinavian societies all had a comb, probably more than one.

  2. I love the painting of the Jral with his men. Where can I buy one for my office. I am related to kings Bluetooth and Gorm and it would mean a lot to me to have that painting in my office. Thanks

    1. It's definitely an impressive painting. You can tell that Jarl has been everywhere, and has the tan and the scars to prove it.

      The only issue is, it looks to me like a digital painting, and I don't know the painter (he did a similar one showing the Jarl in a front view leading a big army). My best guess is this is an artist from somewhere in eastern Europe as I keep seeing cyrillic fonts associated with that image in google images. It would be very nice to get it as a canvas print. I would probably call a local art print shop and see if they can do a custom print from this image, should be no problem as it doesn't appear to be copyrighted under either US or UK law.

  3. The pic is from the game, Mount & Blade Warband

  4. The pic is from the game, Mount & Blade Warband