What did Vikings really look like?

The cliched image of Vikings as a horn-helmeted warrior race of snarly Scandinavian marauders is so indelibly cemented in our psyches that we intuitively know it couldn't possibly be true — which inevitably leads to the question: What did they actually look like?

Intrigued by this question, Irene Berg Sørensen of ScienceNordic decided to address the issue once and for — and by virtue of doing so, has dispelled the Five Myths of Viking appearance.


To get a sense of all the popular fallacies surrounding Vikings, Sørensen informally surveyed a number of Facebook users about their favorite myths. She discovered there tend to be five prominent misconceptions about Vikings and what they looked like:

  • Vikings were dirty and unkempt
  • Vikings wore horned helmets
  • Vikings looked like we do today
  • Vikings' clothing style was admired throughout the world
  • Vikings' appearance was marked by battle wounds

Next, Sørensen asked various experts about the accuracy of these popularly held beliefs — and as it turns out (and hardly surprisingly), most of us are quite a ways off from knowing the real picture of Viking life.

For example, archaeological finds have revealed tweezers, combs, nail cleaners, ear cleaners, and toothpicks from the Viking Age — a strong indication that they were cleaner (and possibly far daintier) than we tend to give them credit for.


It also turns out that Vikings were about 8-10 centimeters shorter than the Danes of today, they had hair color of all sorts, and that Viking men and women had very similar faces — and if anything, men were more feminine looking in their features than the other way around. In fact, archeologists tend to have a hard time telling male and female Viking remains apart.

And as for all those visions of horned helmets, Sørensen explains:

When you see a Viking in cartoons, games or in movies, he's often depicted with a horned helmet on his head. But real Vikings did not wear these horned helmets.

It wasn't until the end of the 19th century that people started drawing Vikings wearing horned helmets because the villains in a popular Wagner opera wore such helmets.

From picture sources we know that the Vikings had well-groomed beards and hair. The men had long fringes and short hair on the back of the head.

In a real combat situation the horns wouldn't be very practical as they could easily get entangled in anything that came their way.

When in combat, real Vikings used iron helmets for protection, and they were armed either with ordinary tools or actual weapons such as swords and lances.


There is a lot more over at Sørensen's ScienceNordic article as she takes apart each myth one by one, so be sure to check it out.

Top image via Everett Collection/Shutterstock.com. Inset images via Annie Dalbera/ScienceNordic.


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