Exposing the Roots of the Viking Horned Helmet Myth
Yes, some helmeted Vikings traveled around Europe, West Asia, and even North America raiding and pillaging. It is a myth, though, that their helmets were decorated with horns, antlers, or wings. But you can see from the featured image above that one of the type of helmets Vikings used looked pretty cool - even without horns.
Ornamented Viking helmets entered popular culture and imagination in the 19th century when writers and artists began depicting the Scandinavian marauders wearing them.
A stereotypical painting by Mary McGregor from 1908 of Leif Ericson landing at Vinland (Public Domain)
The Viking age lasted from the 8th to 11th centuries. Depictions of Vikings from that era show them either without helmets or with iron or leather helmets.
Danes invading England. From "Miscellany on the life of St. Edmund," 12th century. (Public Domain)
History.com says the roots of the stereotype may be in the 1800s, when Gustav Malmström, a Swedish artist, and Wagner’s opera costume designer Carl Emil Doepler both depicted Vikings in horned helmets.
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That does not mean no one in history ever wore horned helmets. Malmström, Doepler and others artists may have taken inspiration from archaeological discoveries of horned helmets that predated the Vikings, History.com suggests.
Ornamented helmets are not unknown, like this one on a Roman marble statue of the god of war (Aries/Mars). 2nd Century AD. (CC BY NC SA 2.0)
Also, some Greek and Roman writers told of northern Europeans with helmets that had horns, antlers and wings. But those apparently went out of style a full century before the Viking era. And even when they were in use, they were probably ornamental and used by Germanic and Norse priests, History.com says, adding:
“After all, horns’ practicality in actual combat is dubious at best. Sure, they could help intimidate enemies and maybe even poke out a few eyes, but they would have been even more likely to get entangled in a tree branch or embedded in a shield.”
Depiction of a horned helmet from Plate C of the Gundestrup cauldron (c. 150-1 BC). (Public Domain)
In fact, the Vikings made their helmets of several pieces of iron riveted together, says Hurstwic.org:
“Both before and after the Viking era, helmet bowls were made from one piece of iron, hammered into shape. However, during the Viking era, helmets typically were made from several pieces of iron riveted together, called a spangenhelm style of helm. It's easier to make a helmet this way, requiring less labor, which may be why it was used. The spangenhelm used a single iron band that circled the head around the brow, riveted to two more iron bands that crossed at the top of the head. The four openings were filled with riveted iron plates (right) to create the bowl. In some cases, hard leather may have been used to fill the four openings, rather than iron, to reduce cost. The nose guard was riveted to the brow.”
Something must have been inside the helmet to dissipate the crushing blow of a sword or mace stroke, Hurstwic.org says. If the metal part of the helmet rested on the Vikings’ heads, the force of the blow would have gone right to the skull.
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Diorama with Vikings at Archaeological Museum in Stavanger, Norway. (CC BY SA 4.0)
Hurstwic.org explains that a few helmets from the Viking era show rivet holes by which, possibly, a leather suspension system was attached. It’s also possible Vikings used absorbent materials such as sheepskin, with the wool still on it, to absorb the force of the blow. An absorbent material would also absorb sweat, which would make it more comfortable and also preserve the iron from rust.
The way many Viking helmets actually looked, with the band around the head to which the other parts are attached and the nosepiece. (Public Domain)
Iron helmets actually may have been relatively rare among Vikings, says Hurstwic.org. Iron was hard to make and so expensive that many people could not afford those type of helmets. The people who could afford them likely carefully repaired and preserved them and passed them down to subsequent generations for centuries, until the metal became too weak to provide protection.
A Viking artifact exhibition opening this week in New York City’s Times Square will include a helmet (without wings, antlers, or horns) and 500 other objects.
By Mark Miller