Debunking the 7 most common myths about Vikings

When most people imagine a Viking, they think of an ax-wielding madman with a long beard and a helmet with pointy horns on both sides.

The fact of the matter is that most Norsemen were not Vikings, in fact, only those that went on raids were considered Vikings, and most were farmers, fishermen, and merchants. And the horned helmets? They never existed, they are simply the result of romantic imagery of Vikings from artists in the 1800s.

There are many myths surrounding the Vikings that are simply not true. In this article, we will bust some of the most common myths and misconceptions about the Vikings.

The Vikings had horned helmets

The belief that Vikings wore horned helmets is one of the most prominent myths about the Vikings. The fact of the matter is that there is no historical or archaeological evidence for the Vikings having horned helmets. 

depictions dating from the Viking age detail how the Viking warriors appeared either bareheaded or clad in simple helmets made of leather or iron.

In terms of archaeological evidence, there is very little evidence to consider given that there has only been one helmet found that is considered to be from the Viking era.

The 10th-century helmet was found in Norway in 1943 and featured a rounded iron cap, a guard around the eyes, and a nose without any horns insight.

But where does the myth of the horned helmets actually come from? The answer is that it likely dates back to the 1800s when painters and artists would depict the Vikings with horned helmets. 

A prominent example was when Wagner staged his “Der Ring des Nibelungen” opera cycle in the 1870s, costume designer Carl Emil Doepler created horned helmets for the Viking character.

All Scandinavians were Vikings

Whenever I meet people from outside Scandinavia and the Baltics I often get the compliment of being called a Viking as soon as they learn that I am Norwegian.

While this is only amusing, the fact of the matter is that not all Scandinavians were Vikings. In fact, the word Viking was both a verb and a noun in old Norse. 

A raider was known as Vikingr while a raid was simply called Viking. Also, the Anglo-Saxons had a similar word which was written as wicing which actually means pirate.

The vast majority of Vikings were young men who went on adventures and raids to make their fortune and explore the world before settling down into normal family life as farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, and traders.

Due to their adventures, exploits, and raids in Europe,  the word Viking became common word writers and historians at the time used to refer to men from the north, although Norsemen and heathens were also used.

The fact that the word Viking is associated with Scandinavians today comes from the romanticized picture of Vikings as noble savages began to emerge in the 18th century; this developed and became widely propagated during the 19th-century Viking revival, a movement reflecting a new interest in, and appreciation for Viking medieval history and culture.

All Vikings were savages that raped and pillaged

As mentioned previously, most associate Vikings with the romanticized picture of Vikings as noble savages which was propagated in the 18th century.

While it is true that Vikings were feared raiders who plundered and pillaged cities and towns, many were also explorers and tradesmen. Some also traveled to distant lands where they worked as mercenaries.

For example, the Norse explorer Leif Erikson is thought to have been the first European to have set foot on continental North America, half a millennium before Christopher Columbus. Here he is said to have established a Norse settlement which could possibly be the archaeological site of a Norse settlement in New Foundland known as L’Anse aux Meadows.

Many Vikings also traveled as far south as Constantinople in the Byzantine empire where they joined what was known as the Varangian guard. This elite force, known for being primarily composed of Norsemen from Scandinavia served as personal bodyguards to the Byzantine Emperors.

The Vikings also created settlements on new lands that they discovered. Some of them would develop into important trading posts and later grow into important cities. The most famous one is the Viking settlement of Dyflin on the eastern coast of Ireland which is Ireland’s capital Dubin today.

They burned their dead on ships

Based on depictions in popular culture, It is a common belief that Vikings cremated their dead by placing them In a ship that would be lit on fire. While this took place, cremation or burials were most common.

How the burial was carried out varied a lot depending on the social status of the dead. Archaeological findings show that prominent individuals of Viking society were buried along with numerous grave goods, including jewelry, weaponry, and even pets and slaves.

They were usually buried in a burial mound, which sometimes included ships. One of the most famous Viking graves was discovered just outside Tønsberg where one found a burial mound containing two female skeletons, several grave goods, and the well-preserved remains of the longship Osebergskipet.

All Vikings were fair-haired

Another misconception that stems from the 1800s romanticized picture of Vikings is that they all had blue eyes and long blonde hair (fair hair).

This is a stereotype that persists even to this day. And While it’s true that Northern Europe contains the most blue eyes and blonde hair of all populations, this myth is not true today and was likely not true back in the Viking age. 

The Vikings drank from the skulls of their enemies

There is a misconception that the word “skål” which is expressed when toasting in Norwegian, Swedish, and danish comes from “skull” because the Vikings drank from the skull of their enemies.

This misconception has its roots in the misinterpretation by a 17th-century Danish danish writer who translated old Norse poems into Latin. In it, he translated a Norse phrase describing  “drinking ale from the curved branches of skulls”, referring to a drinking horn, into “drinking ale from the skulls of the slain”.

The Vikings wrote in runes

Many believe that the Viking runic inscriptions were similar to that of a written alphabet. However, Runes are more similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs than the Latin alphabet.

 Archaeological records indicate that Runic inscriptions were very few in number and then they were mostly carved onto runestones often commemorating the deceased. 

In many cases, those runes were also engraved onto smaller objects many of which were personal items such as wood or stone articles. These inscriptions took on many forms such as love tokens and even other memos.

In fact, one has found at least two runic inscriptions in the marble parapets of Hagia Sophia. These are thought to have been engraved by members of the Varangian Guard in Constantinople during the Viking age.

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Erik is the creator and editor of Planet Norway. Born in Trondheim and currently living in Oslo, Erik knows the ins and outs of Norwegian History, society, and culture. His idea for starting planet Norway came about when helping his foreign fiance to settle in Norway.