For a moment, imagine what a Viking warrior looked like? I would assume that most of us have stereotyped them as blond and long-haired men with beards, wearing horned helmets, and looking to be always ready for war.

Let’s think about the prominent horned helmets we thought the Viking warriors wore. Did you know that this was only an idea from an 1876 production of an opera based on Norse mythology?

Where it all began

Viking statue. Justin6898 / CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

A production of Richard Wagner’s opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), was believed to have brought the idea and popularity of horned-helmet-wearing-Viking-warriors that we know today. In an article released by History written by Elizabeth Nix, the depiction “may have been inspired by 19th-century discoveries of ancient horned helmets that later turned out to predate the Vikings. They may also have taken a cue from ancient Greek and Roman chroniclers, who described northern Europeans wearing helmets adorned with all manner of ornaments, including horns, wings, and antlers. But not only did this headgear fall out of fashion at least a century before the Vikings appeared, but it was also likely only donned for ceremonial purposes by Norse and Germanic priests.”

Citing an excerpt from a ThoughtCo. article written by Robert Wilde, after the release of said production, “within just a few decades, the headwear had become synonymous with Vikings, enough to become shorthand for them in advertising. Wagner can be blamed for a lot, and this is one instance.”

“At Viking archaeological sites, evidence of horned helmets has never been found, and written accounts of Viking raids make no mention of horned helmets,” writes Doug Ray at The Franklin Institute.

What’s wrong with the horns?

VÍKINGR – Viking Age exhibition, an exhibition in the Museum of Cultural History of the University of Oslo (UiO Kulturhistorisk Museum). Wolfmann / CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Many archeologists believed that using horned helmets wasn’t a clever idea and an impractical one during combat. Here’s why.

It would have been even more likely to get entangled in a tree branch or embedded in a shield. There is another really important reason why Vikings probably did not wear horned helmets.  The Viking helmet had a chin that fastened under the chin to keep it from falling off.  Vikings also fought their foes in close combat, we are talking about a fight within arms reach of the other guy.  That other guy could grab hold of one of those horns in a fight and now he has control of the Viking’s head, to twist his head to receive the blow from an ax held in the other hand, or to pull the Viking’s helmet off or forward and down over his eyes.  Grasping the horned helmet from behind and pulled backward, you can now use the chin strap to strangle the Viking. So, in terms of combat, the intimidation factor of appearing to be some kind of scary goat or sheep would be badly offset by its liabilities in a fight.

What’s more, the horns would have added extra weight to a helmet. Viking warrior helmets were typically rounded or conical in shape and were designed to allow edged weapons to slide easily off the helmet, potentially saving the warrior’s life many times over, says an article from Warriors and Legends.  This type of helmet was not a Viking invention.  Just about all the armies of that him tried to employ a conical shaped helmet to deflect blows off the old Brain-Box since a hit there was pretty much lights out for the other guy.

Raising public consciousness

“The Vikings Begin” exhibit, Nordic Museum, Seattle, Washington, U.S. Joe Mabel / Wikimedia Commons

While the Viking warriors and their actual-non-wearing-of-horned-helmets might seem trivial if one would ponder on it, how much of what we know about mankind’s history is true?

Can we really say for certain that the Vikings didn’t wear horns on their headgear?

No, we can’t, and here’s why.

Most of what we know about the Vikings comes from two types of sources, the historical accounts written by their victims and the Norse Sagas written by the Vikings. The other source are artifacts dug up from Viking graves. The historical record gives scant evidence of horned helmets, but how important a detail is that to include in historical accounts and the Sagas? Probably not very important at all.   The graves tell us more actually.  We haven’t found a lot of helmets in Viking graves, in fact, they have found very few.  This tells us that the helmet was not typically part of the Viking burial, probably because they were pretty valuable. As such, the dead Viking’s best sword, armor, and helmet would have passed to a son and heir or good friend.  These items might even have been sold to pay for the cost of the funeral itself. In 1979,  they found 264 Vikings in a mass grave in Repton in the UK, the grave included just a single ax, a few knives, and five silver coins.  These bodies were part of the Viking Great Army or the “Great Heathen Army” as it was called by Anglo Saxon chroniclers. These Vikings pillaged and plundered England for some nine years 865 and 874 when it finally broke up.  This was an army that had plenty of weapons and yet these bodies were pretty well picked over by whoever buried them. And rather than conduct 264 elaborate Viking funeral send-offs to Valhalla, they just dumped them all in one hole and buried them.  They didn’t find one helmet either.

So this is the reason we can guess there were no horns on their helmets, by applying our own understanding of human behavior to the historical record and reasoning through the known facts, even as we admit that these are not all the facts that can be known to us later on.

Quite a lot of history works like that.  A depiction of Vikings in an opera written a thousand years after the Vikings lived becomes fixed as fact in the minds of the whole world and then the struggle begins to try and replace the made-up facts with the real ones if we can even find them.