Updated: Aug 1, 2020

What’s the first thing that pops into our collective minds when we hear the word “Viking”?

It’s game night and you are playing a drawing game with friends. You look at the word on the card and sigh in relief: “Viking”. Easy, right? All it takes is a stick figure with a horned helmet and you just scored a few more points for your team! Good for you you’re not playing with a horde of Vikings.

Apparently, as scary and cool as a horned helmet sounds, it wasn’t very common in your typical medieval warrior’s wardrobe. Although through the ages they were used for military parades and tournaments, when you think about it, the added weight and size didn’t do much for the practicality of the armour in combat, or were a good idea for riding across a forest with low tree branches. Many cultures around the world wore horned helmets, but it seems that most of them were used for ritualistic or ceremonial purposes, or by high-ranking officials (the kind that gave orders but rarely fought) to intimidate the enemies. From the Egyptians to the Celts, from the Japanese Samurai to the Persians, many wore headpieces decorated with horns, antlers, wings and even snakes. Just not commonly in battle.

So where did we get the idea that Vikings wore horned helmets?

Well, pop culture, of course. Or at least, the 1800’s equivalent to it. By then, romanticism was reaching it’s peak in Europe and artists were turning to the medieval times for inspiration, in opposition to the rise of industrialism. Painters like August Malmstrӧm were recreating scenes from epics and sagas, but unfortunately they didn’t have much of the archaeological and historical knowledge we have now. Also, the romantic movement highlights strong emotions like horror, terror and awe, so the first paintings of scary Vikings with big horned helmets appeared.

In 1876, German composer Richard Wagner premiered the first part of his four-opera cycle “The Ring of the Nibelung”, loosely based on characters from the Norse Sagas. Costume designer Carl Emil Doepler, inspired by paintings of artists such as Malmstrӧm, created the wardrobe with the famous helmets and set a stereotype that survives to this day. In case you are wondering why “The Ring of the Nibelung” sounds familiar, it’s probably because of the 1957 Merrie Melodies cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?”, where Elmer Fudd (Siegfried) sings praise to a suspiciously long-eared, buck-toothed Brünnhilde and tries to “kill the wabbit” as he wears – you guessed it – a horned helmet. And don’t feel bad if you only watched that one, most of us did.

But what about the Vikings?

Did they go to battle bareheaded? Surprisingly, this might not be unheard of. Depictions of the time show warriors going to battle either wearing no head gear or a simple helmet in the shape of a bowl with a nose guard. Since the available material was mostly bog iron, Viking smiths would have trouble creating a single piece big enough to make a bowl helmet, so these were made using several pieces of iron riveted together. This was called a Spangenhelm. The inside of the bowl would also need some padding since a blow to the head directly on iron would cause practically the same damage as without headgear, and from several archaeological findings it is assumed that there was a leather suspension system attached to the rivets inside. It is also likely that a cap of absorbent material was also worn, to provide additional padding and also to absorb sweat and prevent rusting on the inside of the helmet.

In fact, not one single Viking-era helmet adorned with horns was found by Archaeologists. The only complete Viking helmet found, is the Gjermundbu helmet, found in Norway in 1943 inside a burial chamber, and currently on display at the Museum of Cultural History of the University of Oslo. It is made of iron and consists of a rim and two crossed strips, where four metal plates were riveted, finished with a decorated eye-piece, that protects the nose. It also has a spiked crest, for charging head first against the enemy. Most helmets of this time also had a leather chin strap for holding them in place, since they would be very prone to falling off due to their shape. All other helms of the time were found in fragments, but with no evidence of horns as ornaments.

So, the next time you find yourself wanting to draw or describe a Viking, know your audience: do you want to win game night, or do you want do pass History?