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Why Viking Helmets Were Far Different From What You Think

Why Viking Helmets Were Far Different From What You Think

When you picture a Viking, you probably think of a helmet with two horns. However, the story of the Viking helmet is more complex. Many historians believe Vikings never actually wore those iconic horned helmets. In fact, so few Viking-era helmets have been found that it’s possible Vikings didn’t wear helmets at all. So, what did these warriors wear into battle? And how did the myth of the horned Viking helmet start?

What We Know About Viking Helmets

The Viking era lasted from about 800 to around 1050 C.E., during which Nordic warriors attacked cities and towns in Europe. These invaders were feared, but did they wear horned helmets? Sometimes, contemporary depictions show Vikings with simple round headgear, and other times without helmets at all.

In reality, hardly any Viking helmets, horned or otherwise, have been found. Only one preserved Viking helmet was discovered in Gjermundbu, Norway, in 1943, in a warrior’s grave along with chain mail. This scarcity suggests Vikings either didn’t often use helmets or didn’t bury them with their dead. Archaeologists have never found a horned helmet from the Viking age.

How Did the Horned Viking Helmet Myth Start?

The myth that Vikings wore horned helmets began with an opera. In 1876, costume designer Carl Emil Doepler created designs for Richard Wagner’s “Der Ring des Nibelungen” and added horns to the Viking helmets. Doepler tapped into the German fascination with Vikings and used ancient German traditions, like elaborate headdresses, in his designs.

Although Vikings didn’t use horned helmets, such helmets did exist in ancient Europe. Celtic horned helmets from between 150 and 50 B.C.E. were found in London, and horned helmets dating back to 900 B.C.E. were discovered in Denmark. These predate the Viking era by hundreds of years.

The Viking Helmet in Modern Times

The idea of Vikings wearing horned helmets has endured since Doepler’s designs. Popular comics and sports teams often depict Vikings this way, but these depictions are inaccurate. There is no evidence Vikings wore horns into battle.

If Vikings did wear horned helmets, it was likely for religious reasons. The Oseberg tapestry, found in a Viking ship, suggests the horned helmets represented the Norse god Odin. But in battle, horns on a helmet would be impractical and obstructive.

Despite the evidence to the contrary, the myth of the horned Viking helmet persists. Today, it’s hard to imagine Vikings without their iconic horned helmets. In reality, Vikings may not have worn horns, but they remain fascinating and mysterious.

To learn more about Viking history, you might be interested in the story of Viking shieldmaidens or how Erik the Red discovered Greenland after being charged with murder.

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