Vikings: the great helmet hoax

horned helmetHow practical would it be sail on a cramped ship, to charge around forests with low hanging branches and to avoid detection by a wary enemy, with two large horns sticking out of the top of your helmet? Well, the fact is, it never was a problem for the Vikings because their helmets did not have horns.

The popular image of the Vikings with horned helmets was the creation of the nineteenth century Swedish artist Gustav Malmström. The idea was later seized upon by Carl Emil Doepler. He was the costume designer when Wagner staged his “Der Ring des Nibelungen” opera cycle in the 1870s. Doepler created horned helmets for the opera’s Vikings. The stereotype was born. A whole industry and tradition has developed based on the assumption that the Vikings could be identified by the round helmet with two horns, presumably cow horns, protruding from the top.

Helmet 900BCHowever, there is good evidence that helmets with horns on them were used for ceremonial purposes in Scandinavia around 900 BC, but this is at least 1500 years before the Viking age. One such bronze helmet was found in Viksø in Denmark. This helmet was far too thin and fragile to be worn in battle.

Yet, generally, all warriors wore some form of head protection. Even a glancing blow to the head could render a fighter ineffectual or unconscious. There was also the question of keeping his head dry and warm.

So what did the Vikings wear on their heads, if anything? It is a curious fact that only one Viking helmet has ever been found.

Viking helmet - no hornsIn March 1943, during World War II in Nazi-occupied Norway, the discovery was made of artefacts in a burial mound. The excavation on a farm at Gjermundbu in Ringerike, brought to the surface the burnt remains of two human males and 76 different objects. The artefacts were placed in a wheelbarrow and hidden from the Germans. Among the finds, which dated back to the 10th century, was a Viking helmet in good condition. It seems to have been the helmet of a chieftain as the ironwork is very intricate.

Viking fleet 11th C English manuscriptThere are clues as to what the Viking warriors wore on their heads. This is an 11th century English painting depicting Viking warriors. The sailors seem to have a round hat, perhaps made of leather on an iron frame. Interestingly, the painting gives some other clues about the Vikings. Their main armament is spears as they go ashore. While we are normally given to understand that the Vikings beached their ships when they attacked, here they are using “gang planks”.

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