Did Vikings Wear Horned Helmets?

Did Vikings wear Horned Helmets?

It’s perhaps a curious thing that the Vikings are associated with horned helmets. How did this come about? A simple search online returns a lot of information which includes the terms “myth busted” and “no evidence”.

History Extra writes, “There is no evidence that the Vikings wore horned helmets, and nothing like this has even been discovered in any archaeological dig.”

The History Channel laments that, “Despite years of searching, archaeologists have yet to uncover a Viking-era helmet embellished with horns.”

The Smithsonian Magazine sets out that, “Viking society only developed in the 9th century CE, and there is no sign that the Vikings really wore horned helmets.”

The National Museum of Denmark is less forthright and begins more reservedly, “The popular image of the Vikings is one of fearsome warriors wearing horned helmets. Many depictions of the Vikings display this particular attribute. However, there is only one preserved helmet from the Viking Age and this does not have horns.” (This quote predates the find of a second helmet in Yarm, England.)

For us here at The Knutti Store, we wanted to approach the design of a Viking cartoon character with a degree of knowledge and understanding. To an extent, we also sought authenticity while weighing up the need for the character to be quickly recognisable as a Viking.

Common sense told us that a Norseman did not charge into battle wearing a horned helmet on the grounds that it would have been dangerous for the wearer: his opponent could have readily grabbed hold of the horn to yank the helmet away from him, and it would likely have been bulky and unstable when running.

So, why is the association of a Viking with a horned helmet so prevalent?

Some internet articles touch on Richard Wagner’s operas. The Wagner Archive bears out that the composer did want the actors to have wonderful costumes as they performed as Nordic mythical characters on stage. The world of entertainment, whether it be in a late nineteenth century opera house or on our Netflix screens today, require embellishment. But again, why horned helmets? There has to be something more concrete going on.

The Wagner Archive

Looking into the Wagner Archive, we discovered a letter that Wagner’s costume designer Emil Carl Doepler wrote to Wagner. It describes how Doepler wished to draw inspiration from historical artefacts from Scandinavia, and to that end decided to view the Scandinavian exhibits available at several German museums. A short footnote adds that he had found interesting objects including horned helmets. Now we’re beginning to make progress.

What objects had Doepler found in the history museums of Germany in 1875? This we could not uncover, but many horned helmets have already been discovered in archaeological digs at that time.

Dating artefacts to the Viking Age (not a day before, not a day after)

We researched further to see what other information would come to light. For us, it was curious that, as historians and contributors wrote internet articles about horned helmets in the pursuit of “myth busting” activity, they were quick to state that if something was not discovered in an archaeological dig that dates to the Viking Age, then it could never have existed in a Viking context (we paraphrase).

The question becomes: what exactly was the so-called ‘Viking Age’? Scandinavian historians date the period to 790-1050 CE. In Britain, it is perhaps better dated to the landing on Lindisfarne on 8 June 793, and ending with the defeat of Harold Godwinson on the battlefield facing down William of Normandy on 14 October 1066. This is period of 273 years, 4 months and 7 days. 

If we zoom in on the year 790 (or 793), there was no great change in empire or political system in the Scandinavian region. This is a date that has been assigned as the “year 1” of the Viking Age by reference to the practice of Norse people boarding long ships and beginning to raid the coastlines of the Baltic Sea, North Sea, and later the Mediterranean Sea.

Our point is this: society did not change dramatically in 790; it was much the same as in 789 or 779, or even 700. Cultural and religious practices don’t easily die out overnight. Have horned helmets or artefacts that depict horned head-wear been found in Scandinavia or Britain that belong to periods earlier than the 'Viking Age', and what do we know about them? The answer is an unequivocal yes, and a lot.

Erroneous myth-busting practices

While articles abound in the action of distancing Norse people from horned headwear, we uncovered two surprise facts. Firstly, we learned to our surprise that, as of the date of this blog, only two Viking Age helmets have ever been found in the whole of Europe. Two. We let that sink in. Two historical objects is seldom enough to make any categoric statement about any society in the past. 

Secondly, we discovered for our next surprise that a Viking ship burial site at Oseberg, Norway, revealed a multitude of objects, including chests full of tapestries. One such tapestry shows the funeral procession for the two females who had been given the honour of the ship burial. Leading the procession was a figure in, you guess it, a horned helmet (or horned head-wear). This tapestry has been firmly dated to the Viking Age, so becomes irrefutable evidence that horned helmets were indeed a part of Viking society. 

And suddenly, the historical context for horned head-wear in Viking society changes

In fact, our research took us back into Scandinavian history, uncovering ancient sites of religious activity that were in use in the decades immediately preceding the Viking Age right back into the Stone Age. This is the pre-Christian history of Scandinavia. And it seemed to us that there is a lot of primary evidence out there that supports the existence of horned helmets, or perhaps better, horned head-wear, in the Viking Age. 

It is a fact that horned head-wear is depicted on a multitude of historical objects from the region where Vikings had their society. The Vikings enjoyed story-telling and sharing stories about their creation stories and mythical figures. These same myths have their roots in more ancient religious beliefs that are much evidenced across Scandinavia still today.

We learned so much, that we decided to write a short booklet for us to share the story of horned head-wear and why it would have been recognisable to a Viking man, woman or child. 

Frankly, we don't know for sure if horned head-wear existed in the so-called Viking Age or not, but we think it was used in religious ceremonies (explaining the funeral procession at Oseberg).

Our character Knutti wears a horned helmet based on two principles: our research, and the fact that the horned helmet has troped the Viking for over a century. We did not set out to create a character that would fit every need of a Viking Age purist, rather to create a character that is fun and invites a healthy discussion about a period that changed our country forever.

Back to blog