The Confusing Horned Helmets Depicted in the Oseberg Viking Age Tapestries
If you claim that Vikings did not use horned helmets, you are right. If you claim that Vikings used horned helmets, you may also be right. However, horned helmets were probably only used on very special occasions if we are to interpret images depicted on textiles found in the Oseberg Viking ship grave.
Historians and archaeologists do agree that Vikings did not use horned helmets, and that this is a myth created, among others, by Richard Wagner’s opera “Der Ring des Nibelungen” (The Ring of Nibelung) that premiered in 1876.
Costume designer Carl Emil Doepler got his inspiration from Germanic artworks, and in the opera he equipped the evil characters with horned helmets while the heroes got helmets decorated with wings made of feathers.
This is a monochrome photograph taken of Hoffman's 14 set designs (unknown number) for Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen opera in 1876. ( Public Domain)
Thanks to Wagner’s opera, horned helmets still are a powerful symbol representing Vikings and the Viking Age.
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From Richard Wagner’s opera “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, 1876 (Source: ThorNews)
In the autumn of 834 AD, two elderly women were buried inside a Viking ship in Vestfold, Southeast Norway. They were placed next to each other in a made bed inside a burial chamber placed right at the mast.
Ever since the excavation in 1904-1905, there have been put forward many theories about who these women were.
One dominating theory is that the oldest of the women was a powerful völva sorceress , while others believe she was a priestess of the Norse goddess Freyja – the goddess associated with love and fertility, but also with seiðr sorcery and death.
Inside the Oseberg ship grave there were, in addition to the beautifully decorated Viking ship itself, hundreds of objects for both everyday use and solemn occasions, including one richly decorated wooden cart probably used in religious ceremonies.
Wooden cart found at the Oseberg burial mound, Norway. (CC BY-SA 4.0 )
The grave also contained the largest collection of textiles and textile tools ever discovered in a single Viking Age grave, and all the beautiful and colorful fabrics are uniquely well-preserved due to the surprisingly good storage conditions inside the burial mound.
The hoard includes the famous tapestry showing a religious procession, the so-called Oseberg Tapestry, many other textiles such as exotic silk thread embroideries imported from Central Asia were found. There were also discovered several narrow tapestries thought to have lined the grave chamber.
They portray a variety of people, some obviously wearing a costume, along with wagons, animals and buildings, most likely representing different religious scenes.
The Oseberg Tapestry
The Oseberg Tapestry consists of two parts: a left and a right side, and the scene on the left side most likely represents a religious procession of three horse-drawn wagons followed by people on foot.
The Oseberg Tapestry – Left Side. (Watercolor Reconstruction: Mary Storm / Photo: Museum of Cultural History, Oslo)
The front panel of the ceremonial cart found in the Viking ship grave is decorated with intertwined animals, including cats, implying that the older woman may have been a priestess of Freyja.
It is tempting to draw the conclusion that one of the two persons in the wagon depicted in the Oseberg Tapestry, could represent the priestess herself.
It seems like the figure with the horned helmet is leading the procession. He is somewhat larger than the others, something that may indicate his high status. The figure is possibly portraying the god Odin.
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The Oseberg Tapestry – Right Side. (Watercolor Reconstruction: Mary Storm / Photo: Museum of Cultural History, Oslo)
The right side of the Oseberg Tapestry can also be interpreted in many different ways, but it is clear that the horse riders and the people walking with spears all are a part of the procession, and the building depicted to the left could possibly be a Norse temple.
The horned figure also appears in another textile fragment discovered inside the burial chamber. He is holding a pair of crossed spears in one hand facing a man wearing something resembling a bear skin.
Oseberg textile fragment: Horned figure (left) with crossed spears facing a person wearing bear skin. (Drawing / Photo: Museum of Cultural History, Oslo)
It is tempting to interpret the scene as Odin and a Norse berserker warrior (Old Norse: ber-serkir, meaning “bear-shirt”) who was said to be Odin’s special warriors.
The fragment also portrays a group of women bearing shields interpreted to be “shieldmaidens” (Old Norse: skjaldmær), women who had chosen to fight as warriors.
So far, there has been found only one complete helmet dating back to the Viking Age (c. 793 – c. 1066 AD), the Gjermundbu helmet , and it did not have any animal horns mounted. Neither the sagas nor other written sources from the time tell anything about Vikings wearing horned helmets.
Gjermundbu helmet, the only helmet found that dates to the Viking Age. ( CC BY 2.0 )
Besides, fighting with long horns on top of the head would be very impractical even for a highly skilled Viking warrior.
Nevertheless, depictions in fragments found in the Oseberg ship grave document that horned helmets were known in the Norse culture.
Maybe they were used during special religious ceremonies and as part of a costume portraying Odin?
Or, are the tapestries only telling tales with roots in Norse mythology where Odin the Allfather is depicted as the most powerful among gods and humans – highlighted by his increased size and horns?
Hopefully, future research will give us more answers about the exciting and still undiscovered Norse culture.
Top image: Section of tapestry discovered in the Oseberg ship burial mound showing a figure wearing a horned helmet. (Watercolor reconstruction: Mary Storm, 1940 / Photo: Museum of Cultural History, Oslo) (Source: Thornews)
The article ‘The Confusing Horned Helmets Depicted in the Oseberg Viking Age Tapestries ’ originally appeared on ThorNews and has been republished with permission.
I would tend to agree with the battle ready vs ceremonial dress. Even today, the military have what is called their dress uniform (for parades/ceremonies) and their battle dress uniform [BDU] (for battle obviously). This seems to be a mental hurdle for archaeologist and historians alike. I also believe both to be true; they had horned helmets at home, and hornless helmets for plundering.....er, I mean exploring.
We find depictions of vikings with horns, yet the viking helmets we have found did not have horns. How do we explain this?
The explanation is obvious: The horns grew out of their heads!
Just for clarification, I am proud of my viking ancestry, and this is an attempt at humor.
The most likely explanation is that horned helmets were occasionally used for ceremonial purposes, as among the Germans and Celts.
Horned helmets might look fearsome on viking warriors, but they would not be practical in battle. All an opponent would have to do is take hold of the horns, twist, and break the viking's neck.
I read that Vikings were such thieves they'd steal just about anything, and in those days everything was handmade and expensive. They'd even steal women's dresses so their own wives could unpick the stitching and make dresses of their own. Kitchen and houseware were taken along with workshop tools and goods like metals from blacksmiths, leather from sadlers and anything hard to get hold of in their northern homelands. Livestock and food was stolen to eat aboard ship or in camp.
They preferred quick hit-and-run raids then escape before local yeomanry could assemble, as putting people to the sword and houses to the flame took time, and that could be used for further raiding. They were not always the ruthless killers described by monks, who were still alive and able to document it.