Were Norsemen Tattooed? Evidence of Ink on the Rugged Rusiyyah
Did the Norsemen of Scandinavia have tattoos? Did runic script adorn their arms as they sailed their longships down fjords? While material remains offer few clues, one piece of historical evidence says 'yes' - at least for those Varangians who plied the Volga with their trade goods, traveling throughout Russia, Central Asia, and even down to the Middle East.
The Norsemen (or Vikings, from the Old Norse víkingar) issued few literary works themselves, so we are forced to rely on outside accounts. Many come from Arab statesmen and chroniclers, who carried on extensive trade and cultural exchange with Norsemen in the 9th and 10th centuries. Arabic-language accounts are among the most numerous of the 9th-12fth centuries due to the intellectual and economic power of the Abbasid Caliphate.
The Invitation of the Varangians: Rurik and his brothers arrive in Staraya Ladoga, by Viktor Vasnetsov. ( Public Domain )
An Arab traveler, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a scholar of Baghdad, was sent by the caliph on a diplomatic mission to the Bulgars in the Middle Volga area of Russia. He first met the Norse warriors as he traveled across Russia's vast steppes, encountering them as they sailed their longships down the Volga river and looking to trade with the Arab world — by far the wealthiest civilization in Western Eurasia, particularly as Europe struggled to consolidate in the centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire. While there in 921 AD, he met a people called the Rus - Swedish traders, who had brought slaves to sell at the local markets.
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Nicholas Roerich "Guests from Overseas". From the series "Beginnings of Rus'. The Slavs." 1901. ( Public Domain )
Historical Descriptions of Norse Tattoos
Ibn Fadlan describes the Rus in his travel chronicler. He called them the “Rusiyyah,” now commonly known as the Vikings.
“I have never seen bodies as nearly perfect as theirs,” he wrote. “As tall as palm trees, fair and reddish, they wear neither tunics nor kaftans. Every man wears a cloak with which he covers half of his body, so that one arm is uncovered. They carry axes, swords and daggers, and always have them to hand. They use Frankish swords with broad, ridged blades.”
Modern interpretation of a Viking-style tattoo. Image Source: Tattoos by Peter Madsen
At one point, he mentions that all the men were tattooed from the tips of their fingers to their necks. The tattoos were dark green figures of trees and symbols. It is likely, however, that the tattoos were probably dark blue, a color that comes from using wood ash to dye the skin. While Ibn Fadlan describes the tattoos as trees, he could have seen the Rus trademark of a gripping beast or other knotwork patterns of which the Vikings were fond. To him they resembled the women's neck rings of gold and silver.
Knotwork and runes are seen on ‘Runestone U.’ ( Public Domain ) The tattoos may have been made up of knotwork patterns - of which the Vikings were fond.
But we can't fully take Ibn Fadlan at his word. The description of tattoos may have been less an eye-witness description than a rhetorical device to depict the savagery of the Norsemen. The Arabs considered them with a combination of horror and fascination. Ibn Fadlan saved his harshest words for their hygiene: “They are the filthiest of God's creatures," he observed. Although he acknowledged that they washed their hands, faces, and heads every day, he was appalled that they did so "in the dirtiest and filthiest fashion possible" in a communal basin of water. This was an ancient Germanic custom that caused understandable revulsion in a Muslim who typically performed ablutions only in poured or running water.
Ship burial of a Rus chieftain as described by the Arab traveler Ahmad ibn Fadlan who visited north-eastern Europe in the 10th century. Henryk Siemiradzki (1883). ( Public Domain )
This is rather slight evidence on which to state categorically that the Norse tattooed themselves. The Arabic word used in the original text for “tattoo” was more commonly used to describe mosque decorations rather than actual tattoos— a fitting description considering similarities between a mosque's geometric patterns and those of a runic Norse tattoo. Also, tattoos are not mentioned in any of the contemporary sagas or poetry, although these literary works describe many other physical characteristics such as scars or hair color.
Viking Dragon Stone at the Viking Center of Ribe, Denmark. (Terence Faircloth/ CC BY NC ND 2.0 ) Tattoo designs may have used similar geometric patterns.
Exhumed Rus Tattoos
While human skin does not survive centuries of burial, archaeology can offer perhaps better evidence than history to the question of Norse tattoos. A Scythian chieftain was found in Siberia who had been buried circa 500 BC. He had been buried beneath the permafrost, so his skin and tattoos survived. While this find predates Norse traders in Russia by 1300 years, it is possible that the Norse could have met the descendants of the Scythians while on trading missions in Russia and learned the tattooing art from them. If Norse did have tattoos, it is likely they would have used Norse designs and symbols found in their other artwork on bone carvings or jewelry.
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The Siberian Ice Maiden, a Scytho-Siberian woman who lived on the Eurasian Steppes in the 5th century BC. Note the tattoos on her arm. ( Public Domain )
The popularity of such designs has trickled down to today. Many tattoo artists have designed Norse tattoos, particularly the compass tattoo, called the Vegvisir. This symbol is not from the Viking Age, however; it dates to the 17nth century from an Icelandic book on magic. Another popular design is the Helm of Awe or aegishjalmur. This symbol allows the wearer to strike his enemies with fear and confusion. It is also thought to grant magical powers to its wearer.
By Scott Rank
Scott Rank is the editor of History on the Net , which features articles on everything from Ancient Near East civilizations to 20th century global warfare. He is also host of the History Unplugged Podcast and talks with book authors about Mongol invasions, Hitler's occult practices, and US presidents who gave their best speeches while drunk.
Rym Ghazal “When the Arabs met the Vikings: New discovery suggests ancient links” The National , May 6, 2015.
Judith Gabriel, “Among the Norse Tribes: The Remarkable Account of Ibn Fadlan,” Saudi Aramco World November/December 1999: 36-42.
James E. Montgomery, “Ibn Fadlan and the Rusiyyah,” Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 3 (2000): 1-25
“Siberian Princess Reveals Her 2,500-Year-Old Tattoos,” The Siberian Times , August 14, 2012