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
  • brassnautilus

    6. Sawyer also said the great heathen army was 1,000 men strong.
    And his deduction was from 694 AD lawcodes, 200 years is a long time.

    by 1066, battle of hasting involved roughly 10,000 combined forces of Franks and probably the majority, Norman.

    • Viking Rune

      The exact number of Viking Armies is hard to ascertain. However, we may estimate if the numbers were exaggerated a lot.

  • Christian

    Re. Hair – as mentioned in the article, Danish Vikings at least are reported and portrayed as having that unfortunate long fringe, shaved nape look. Though it certainly wasn’t universal as suggested here – Brodir of Mann, for example, had hair tucked into his belt. I’m sure the Normans inherited this look from their Norse ancestors sans the moustache the Danes wore. I hadn’t heard the Aquitanian hairstyle theory before, but the Breton warriors in earlier centuries are recorded as having shaved heads.

  • James

    Maybe we are cousins, dotherobot. My mother’s last name was also Swain, and I heard about Swain’s Justice in the Outer Hebridies. Both sides of my family came from Denmark but lived in the UK for two or three hundred years.

    Some of my cousins were Finns, an entirely different people than other Scandinavians. One of my aunts was blond with slightly slanted eyes. A geneticist wrote that Sami and Finnish people are genetically close to our Cro- Magnon ancestors. Vikings must be close too.

    • Viking Rune

      Hello James. I think all humans are equally close to our Cro-Magnon ancestors.

  • dotherobot

    I carry the same name as King Otto Sweyn(swain)Forkbeard. My recently late great-grandfather William Otto Swain claimed that otto was a middle and first name passed down through every generation up to him. If you didnt know King forkbeard was a king of denmark and england and apparently set in motion one of the first forms of government in england in the mid 900s. He created the tax called the danegeld, and his ancestors were supposedly great clan chiefs that started the term “swain’s justice”

    • Thomas

      Well, Swain or Svend in Danish, was the son of Harald blåtand (Bluetooth), the king that christened Denmark, He died around 987, when his son Svend tveskæg (forkbeard) took over, Svend did try to conquer the last of Britain, but did not succeed and it was his son Knud, later called Knud den store or in english Canute the great or something like that, that finally married the english princess and in that way got the rest of Britain.

      Danegeld was something that was paid to rampaging viking from around the year 800, to leave the areas alone and in peace, but sometimes that was not enough and the vikings attacked anyway. It was also a tribute that was demanded by both Svend and Knud in their time of reign. So not entirely something that Svend invented.

  • Brian Bicknell

    Normans- The King of France was so tired of Viking raiders that he invited one of them to simply settle down and become his noble rather than sail away back to frigid Norway. Thus, Rollo the Walker (he was too big for a horse) became Robert, First Duke of Normandy. Rollo, according to his statue, looked like your typical Viking with a long beard and long hair. However, the French had taken on many Romanesque customs and hairstyle was one of them. Rollo had a son, William Longsword, who had a son, Richard the Fearless, and eventually down the line there came another William. To his fans, William the Conqueror and to his foes, William the Bastard. William was a far-cry different in appearance from Rollo.

    When William invaded Anglo-Saxon England he and his Norman knights had adopted more than just French names, they also took on a particular Frankish haircut as well. The Norman haircut was one where the back of the head and neck was shaved, while the front was kept short in a style similar to the Caesar-cut. Reasons for this haircut vary. For military purposes it is short and difficult to grab. The face is usually clean-shaven, or sporting only a moustache- also difficult grab compared to a large beard. Why the back of the head was shaved is debatable and reasons vary from it being a Christian-religious rite similar to how monks shave portions of their head, to being something practical and easy to manage. The style did not remain popular for long, and many of the Anglo-Saxon traditions of wearing long hair and beard were adopted by William’s kingly descendants.

  • Albert

    Vikings and Norman were travelers picking up other cultures and ideas they could have had many styles of hair. All we know is from saga and drawings.

  • Aaron

    I have Viking descent, related to Erick The Red, you have a very informative site. It’s good that there’s a site that allows us vikings to represent a bit! good work.

    • Brian

      How did you trace your blood line to Erick the Red?

      • Emil

        If this site is still active I’d like to know that too!
        I know I can trace my paternal history back to the viking age in such that they have lived in the same spot since time imemoriam and alot of vikingfinds has been made there along with my family history and tales beeing preserved from father to son as long as anyonecan remember, but saying that you have heritage back to Erick the red himself is to someone of the old blood as saying you are related to Odin himself.

  • wolfgar veirott

    one other note is its been found that, in medieval times being hung was actually a good way to go. because human hair layered on the back of the neck took mulitple strikes with the executioners axe which i believe would be most unpleasant. so it would make since vikings would have kept long hair and beards as to add to the defence of their necks?! just a thought and to eric. the phrase norsemen does pertain to pretty much all vikings meaning north man or men from the north i blieve what your thinking of is norn. men from norway. dane denmark. swed sweden.

    • Brian Bicknell

      You have to think off all the problem Viking with long hair faced that there shorter haired comrades did not.
      1 long hair get dirty and takes longer to clean.
      2. long hair can carry insect or even black death.
      3. long hair was seen as animal like by classical cultures.
      4. long hair can be grabbed during a batter.
      5. long hair would not stop a Ax being swung by a man with average strength. As long as the blade is sharp, and the user would depended on the sharpness of the blade so it would be until he chopped off a few heads, and limbs.
      6. long hair can get tangled in armor and cloths.

      The only real positive thing about long hair is it keeps you warm. The hair got cut if they moved away from home. The reason the Normans had the back of the hair cut off was because they sleep on the back of there head and lice was on there hay pillow and lice means Black Death for 1/2 of all Europeans. The Norman hair cut was used by the Romans Franks and Gauls to stay clean and alive. The Norse picked it up to show faith in the Frankish Crown but the Normans changed after the victory in England.

      Viking was Norse name for a raider. Like Pirate is used today, but back then the world seemed smalled so only Scandinavian’s were vikings and what ever cultures they mingled with.

  • wolfgar veirott

    its true horned helmets would be not only tactically impractical but overcumbersum and there has never been one unearthed so that idea they wore them is minimal but in few numbers plausible. i have heard from standing blood lines of viking families the braid was a symbol of strength but it could be single tribes ideologies. many hair styles/facial hair styles have become commmon ideas due to hollywood movies and the abundance of typical pictures portraying vikings as long haired men with breads and braided mustaches. since no viking has been discovered with hair still intact we wont know.

    • Andreas

      Hi Wolfgar.
      There has been unearthed a few horned helmets, like the ones found at Veksø and Grevensvænge in Denmark. These are from the Bronze Age though.
      “Viking family bloodlines” are nonexistant, and no traditions have been preserved unbroken and untainted in a family throughout the ages. Don’t believe anything you hear.

  • RulleOle

    Tak for denne hjemmeside, den var virkelig nyttig.

    • Viking Rune

      I am glad you found the website helpful, thanks!

Leave a Comment