Top Ten Wrong Ideas About Vikings

viking1. Vikings were a nation. Vikings were not a nation as such, but groups of warriors, explorers and merchants led by a chieftain. As often as not, in the expeditions to the West, Vikings were Norwegians, Danes and Swedes, but also anyone who joined them. The point is that the Old Norse word víkingr denoted not a nationality, but occupation: a Viking was anyone who took part in an overseas expedition.

2. Vikings wore horned helmets. Gjermundbu helmet, the only extant authentic Viking helmet, does not have horns. No depiction of Viking helmets dating to the Viking Age represents horned patterns. There are two or three representations of ritual processions where warriors wear helmets with protrusions ending with stylized bird heads or resembling to snakes, but even the ritual use of the horned helmets by Vikings remains unproven.

3. Vikings’ preferred weapon was a massive double axe. Vikings did use axes in battle, as the Lindisfarne tombstone graphically illustrates. However, they were of a very different type than suggested in the modern popular culture. It should be remembered that no double-headed axe has ever been found from early medieval Europe. Viking axes were light and used single-handed. The most common weapons found on Viking sites are spears.

4. Vikings had tresses. As for hairstyle, to proclaim their Viking roots, Norman men shaved the back half of their head entirely, behind a line drawn from over the crown from ear to ear. On the front half of the head, forward of this line, the hair was left to grow long. There is an 11th-century letter in Old English, which mentions “Danish fashion with bared neck and blinded eyes.” There is no historical evidence of Vikings wearing tresses.

5. Viking armies were huge. The sources cite wild numbers for the size of Viking armies. P. Sawyer noted that they could be more specific on the size of the fleets. On the basis of the archeological evidence for the size of the boats, he suggested that Viking ships may have held fifty to sixty men. It means that Viking armies have to be numbered in the hundreds, not even in the thousands.

6. Vikings were exceptionally cruel and bloodthirsty. Vikings indeed were sometimes very violent. However, the question is whether Christian armies of the time acted in any substantially different manner. For instance, Charlemagne, who was Vikings’ contemporary, virtually exterminated the whole people of Avars. At Verden, he ordered the beheading of 4,500 Saxons. Vikings certainly were not as bloodthirsty as many Christians of their time.

7. Abroad, Vikings did nothing except fighting and pillaging. Vikings did pillage many lands. However, plunder was only one among many other goals of their overseas expeditions. Vikings peacefully colonised Iceland, Greenland and many smaller islands. As explorers they crossed the Atlantic and reached America 500 years before Columbus. As international merchants of their time, they also peacefully traded with almost every country of the then known world.

8. Vikings used human skulls as drinking vessels. This misconception goes back to Runer seu Danica literatura antiquissima by Ole Worm, published in 1636 and reprinted in 1651. There the phrase saying that the Danes drink ór bjúgviðum hausa (“from the curved branches of skulls,” that is from horns) was translated into Latin as ex craniis eorum quos ceciderunt (“from the skulls of those whom they had slain”).

9. Vikings were unclean. In England, because of their custom of bathing every Saturday, Vikings had a reputation of excessive cleanness. Ibn Rustah, a 10th century Persian explorer, explicitly notes the eastern Vikings’ cleanness. During excavations of Viking sites, combs are among the most frequent objects found. Vikings used tweezers, razors and special “ear spoons” to keep their ears clean. They also produced soap.

10. Viking ship from Oseberg was a war ship. Oseberg ship is a very well preserved Viking ship found in a burial mound in Norway. In modern popular culture Vikings are often depicted crossing oceans and engaging in battles on ships that are copies of the Oseberg ship. However, her freebord is so low and the scantings so light that she could be nothing more than a ceremonial vessel that never left coastal waters.

Sketch by Repoort. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence.

87 comments… add one
  • Dean Bergeson

    A horned helmet would put the fear of the Gods into a foe, (and look great in an opera or a movie) but from a tactical angle it would worthless and probable add you to the carrion. Go ahead, thrust your sword skyward as you yell. Scary to your foe, but you just hit the horn and knocked off your helmet. Pick it up! Bring your shield up to block a blow, hit the horn and spin your helmet sideways. Turn it back! The helmets were conical to deflect a downward blow to the side, right into the horn, twisting off the helmet and breaking your neck. Pick it up, and your head while you’re at it! Popular history has turned the horned helmet into an icon, not historical accurate, but a fun icon nevertheless. Sorry, we are stuck with it! Real historians know that it’s fiction, just like the Vikings’ chances at winning the Super Bowl.

    • Aren

      Dean, that comment will continue to sting for generations, but will never sway me from them.

  • ste banks

    On the subject of axes: Vikings also used the Dane axe, a big single headed axe that you definitely needed 2 hands for.

  • Jan Olson

    Very interesting, thank you.

    • b

      The vikings didn’t actually have horns on their helmets!!! TRUE!!!

  • Thunor Odinson

    Thanks for your very informative and interesting site. I will be sharing it with like minded friends and my wife. Kudos again!!! And Keep it up :-)

    • Viking Rune

      Thanks for spreading the word!

  • Isa

    11. Vikings are actually Norse. Viking is a verb not a noun. Vik is a raid. To go Viking is to go raiding. Therefore, Norse are not Vikings. Basic language concepts here people.

    • Viking Rune

      Hi Isa. Both ON víking (raid) and víkingr (viking) are nouns. ON vík means ‘small creek, inlet, bay’. Yes, to go viking is to go raiding. Actually, a warrior of any nationality could become a viking, even though the most of them were of Danish, Norwegian or Swedish origin. Thus not all Norse people were vikings, even though the most of the vikings were Norse.

  • Jacob

    You are wrong about the part regarding hairstyles. No distinct hairstyle can be attributed to the Viking era. Remember that all writings of the time only refers to one single clan/encounter.

    • Viking Rune

      Hi Jacob. Yes, I remember that. I do not attribute any distinct hairstyle to the Viking Age. I just point to a fashion of the Norman men, which was mentioned in an 11th-century letter in Old English. More on this here: Viking Hairstyles: Is Ragnar’s Haircut Historical?

      • LaRue Foster

        It appears that the Normans adopted the hairstyle favored in the province of Aquitaine, which some writers indicate was noted for its unusual hairstyles. Regardless, that begs the question of why the Normans shaved the backs of their heads. One writer suggests it was to ensure a better fit for their helmets, but this seems unlikely since their chain mail coifs were worn under the helm–and chain mail could not have been comfortable pressing against the scalp.

        Probably the hairstyle has no greater significance than merely a passing fashion with no other reason. Still, I’d dearly like to know why. At the least, the style was ugly, but one could say the same of many hairstyles today.

        Any ideas on this topic?

        • Ben

          I would like to say something regarding the coif. I, as far as I have seen, have never seen anything pointing to Vikings wearing them. I have seen helms with mail Avantails, which are attached directly to the helmet. And any other sources I have seen have only mentioned only the single suit of chain mail, as well as knowledge as an amateur reenactor. But, don’t quote me directly.

        • RainboLight

          One idea: Getting long hair caught in your chainmail is painful and distracting. This fact might have been relevant to choosing a hairstyle amongst vikings.

  • keith

    I think you might have some things wrong like they colonized Iceland because on one certain expedition they returned to Norway to be turned away because of their acts of violence and they founded Iceland at that time and then later went in search of other land and found North America. The Vikings that founded Iceland were mainly from Norway.

    • Viking Rune

      Hi Keith. I agree that colonization of Iceland was a complicated process, but am not sure I see the point of your commentary.

  • G.M. Palmer

    #6 is a strawman.

    • Viking Rune

      Yes, indeed.

      • Marcus

        Some people forget that they weren’t the only people persecuted by wicked men claiming to be Christian. From the First Caliphate, to the Holy Roman Empire, to the church/state of England, everybody’s got problems


    • Frenchy

      That’s why the word “exceptionally” is so important. At that point in time, every civilisation was ‘bloodthirsty’ by today’s (Western Civilisation) standards. How much proof is there that the Vikings were any more bloodthirsty than any other civilisation who were conducting (for example) crusades at the same time? Despite being undertaken in the name of “God”, the crusades were as barbaric and bloody as any other form of warfare or genocide at the time.

      • prakash

        Recently I started reading a book titled “The Force of Christendom” by Tom Holland and on reading about Vikings and their legendary cruelty, I got curious to find out about the truth and came across several write ups, documentaries challenging the negative aspects of Vikings. I am now confused as to what to believe about Vikings. On one hand, so much is written and filmed (Hollywood of course) about them and their cruelty, on the other hand, their being not any worse than their victims-Christians, why, one wonders, the acknowledged historians have not come out with the truth?

        • Johann

          Because violence in film begets money. And you can’t have two opposing factions that are both flawed or equal, one has to clearly be the good guys firing the bad guys, because that requires no thought on the audience’s part. Most audiences don’t want to think.

        • ᛋᚨᚾᛞᛖᚱ

          I suggest a reading, Germania (Tacitus).
          In Germania Tacitus describes the “Germanic peoples” and you can see how much he admired that he was a Roman these people and see them in a better way than their own people the Romans. They had a balance to the different nature of the Romans who were promiscuous and wanted only to power.

  • agnerrah

    11. They would have won the Super Bowl if Anderson had made the field goal against Atlanta.

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