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
  • Someone

    I hate horned helmets.

  • rap and

    My ex partner has two vikings tattooed on his back.
    What do two vikings mean? What does it symbolize?
    They are fighting each other.
    Please inform me …

    • Viking Rune

      I think the tattoo symbolizes courage and readiness to fight.

  • Sigrun

    Thank you so much for all this info. I’ve shared it with many who still think vikings wore horned helmets and where a tribe and a nation. So many misconceptions….so little time… and the fact that still today we are learning, its websites like yours that help us get it right and motivates us to keep reseaching. Thank you.

    • Viking Rune

      Hello Sigrun. I am glad you found this article helpful. Thank you.

  • Randall

    Regarding Eric’s comment about the perception of vikings generally being referred to as Norsemen without apparent concern to the existence of Danish and Swedish vikings:

    The etymology of the word “norseman” effectively brakes down to mean “man from the north.” In addition to the place we know as Norway, the area comprising present day Sweden and Denmark is located to the north of the vast majority of the land mass which composes the rest of Europe. The Danish and Swedish vikings would have arrived from a place north of many of the lands they visited, making “Norsemen” an appropriate descriptor for them as well.

    • Viking Rune

      Thanks for the comment, Randall.

  • Eric Stoner

    From a BBC documentary on Vikings – It seemed (at least early one) that most Vikings were referred to as Norse, or Norsemen, despite the fact that Danish and Swedish Vikings were also known. I’m not sure how this came about, perhaps because the majority of these Viking Raiders were Norse.

    • Anibah

      Norse simply denotes someone from the northern lands. There were no borders back then like they are today. It is an easy thing to forget. Swedish vikings are often called Goths, Danes or Norse, Danish vikings were often call Danes or Norse and Norwegian vikings were also called all Danes as well as Norse. The Swedish went exploring mostly to the east and many became what was called Rus settled in today’s Russia, or as it is called in Scandinavia: Rusland or Russland (land of the Rus). They also went both south and north, as well as a little to the west. The Danish favoured the south and west since that was what was convenient for them. They made a lot of trouble in the lands south of today’s Denmark and their territories were a lot larger then. The Norwegian vikings went mostly west and south, and a little east, settling islands, Iceland and Greenland. No, not JUST Norwegians, but a lot of them were. In northern Norway, Sweden and Finland there were mostly Sami/Finns that did a lot of trading and mingling with the Scandinavian people.

  • thomas

    This is a very nice article.

    Reading #6 an article on the subject came to my mind.

    Coupland, S., The Vikings on the Continent in Myth and History, History Vol. 88 Issue 290, 2003, p. 186 – 203.

    maybe it is of interest for you, but probably you’ll know it already.

    • Viking Rune

      Thanks for the reference, Thomas.

  • alleykat

    This is a very interesting site.
    The Ukrainian Cossacks also had a similar hair-do, they apparently shaved it all, but left a bunch of hair grow long from the top of their head. Do you know of any connection here?

    • Dr. Demento 2000

      In regards to the Cossacks, you’re correct. That is known as a chupryet, or oseledet, depending on the dialect of Ukranian you use. (Northern and Southern, respectively.) That marked them as having been inducted into the Brotherhood of the Zaporozhye, the largest of the Cossack states. Those who rode with them but were not Cossacks grew it as they pleased. The style of Aquitaine is what is known as a Norman’s cut, or Norse cut. The servants of warriors, i.e slaves, wore this as a symbol of their low estate. This was because the Norse did not employ branding or ear piercing as a marker of slavery, as they cosidered them equals as warriors. Viking men generally wore their hair center-parted to the collar or the shoulder, depending on preference. Beards were common, often trimmed or put into one or two small braids about an inch or so in length. This was to prevent pulling in battle. Now, the Swedish raiders wore theirs considerably longer, put into braids. They would often be clean shaven or with a large moustache. Danes and Frisians (mainland Germanic Vikings near modern Holland) would look like your stereotypical types. It was all a regional thing. In fact, saying a man “had no beard” in many parts was like calling him weak or even gay.

    • Viking Rune

      It is not known if the Cossacks’ hairstyles is a continuation of the Varangian tradition.

  • Tapsa

    I was working one summer in my youth at a fishing factory in Norway. There the Norwegians used to test the sharpness of their knives cutting their hair at the back of their head, so their hair was much longer on the front side.

    • Viking Rune

      Thanks for an interesting observation, Tapsa!

  • Paul

    Excellent site. I, too am of Viking descent. Have you read Gwyn Jones’ single volume History of the Vikings? If so, I’d love feedback if that’s allowed. Gwyn also agreed with the absence of horned helms on the battlefields but they were ceremonially used along with winged helmets on the gods and Herr Wagner liked them and that, I think is why we see them today.

    • Viking Rune

      Hi Paul. Thanks for the feedback. Jones’ work is one of the best researches on Vikings I’ve ever read. As for the ceremonial horned helmets of the Vendel period, I wrote an article on that topic, entitled Odin as Weapon Dancer.

  • Ray Elkins

    As a DNA-proven Viking-Irish descendant, I do appreciate your site very much. Helps a lot in trying to figure out where I came from and who I am!

    • Viking Rune

      Thanks for the feedback, Ray.

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