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Did Vikings really wear horned helmets?

Did Vikings really wear horned helmets?


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Forget almost every Viking costume you’ve ever seen. Yes, the pugnacious Scandinavians probably sported headgear when they marched into battle, but there’s no reason to believe it was festooned with horns. In depictions dating from the Viking age—between the eighth and 11th centuries—warriors appear either bareheaded or clad in simple helmets likely made of either iron or leather. And despite years of searching, archaeologists have yet to uncover a Viking-era helmet embellished with horns. In fact, only one complete helmet that can definitively be called “Viking” has turned up. Discovered in 1943 on Gjermundbu farm in Norway, the 10th-century artifact has a rounded iron cap, a guard around the eyes and nose, and no horns to speak of.

The popular image of the strapping Viking in a horned helmet dates back to the 1800s, when Scandinavian artists like Sweden’s Gustav Malmström included the headgear in their portrayals of the raiders. When Wagner staged his “Der Ring des Nibelungen” opera cycle in the 1870s, costume designer Carl Emil Doepler created horned helmets for the Viking characters, and an enduring stereotype was born.

Malmström, Doepler and others may have been inspired by 19th-century discoveries of ancient horned helmets that later turned out to predate the Vikings. They may also have taken a cue from ancient Greek and Roman chroniclers, who described northern Europeans wearing helmets adorned with all manner of ornaments, including horns, wings and antlers. But not only did this headgear fall out of fashion at least a century before the Vikings appeared, it was likely only donned for ceremonial purposes by Norse and Germanic priests. 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.


Horned helmet

Horned helmets were worn by many people around the world. Headpieces mounted with animal horns or replicas were also worn, as in the Mesolithic Star Carr. These were probably used for religious ceremonial or ritual purposes, as horns tend to be impractical on a combat helmet. Much of the evidence for these helmets and headpieces comes from depictions rather than the items themselves.


Helmets with horns?

Depictions of an Iron Age date exist featuring people with horned helmets/heads, such as upon the Golden Horns. Similar images are also known from the Viking period itself.

In the Oseberg burial from Norway, which dates to the early Viking period, a tapestry was found on which horned helmets are also depicted. Does this prove that all Vikings wore the famous helmets with horns? The answer is probably not. However, there is some evidence to suggest that certain warriors wore such headgear. The horned figures on the Golden Horns are berserkers. These were wild warriors, who threw themselves into battle in a trance-like fury. We are also familiar with them from the Icelandic sagas, in which they are amongst the most feared of all Vikings.

It is also possible that such headgear was worn for display or for cultic purposes. In a battle situation, horns on a helmet would get in the way. Such helmets would also have caused problems on board the warships, where space was already at a premium. In addition, none of the contemporary sources mention Vikings wearing horned headgear.

Copy of a helmet and chain mail from the warrior’s grave at Gjermundbu in Norway. Photo: Jacob Nyborg Andreassen.

How Many Helmets Were Found from Viking Age?

As we mentioned earlier, there were very few discoveries of Viking helmets. More precisely, out of a total of three found helmets, only one was well preserved, while only rusty remains were discovered of the other two.

The only complete Viking helmet was the "Gjermundbu helmet," named after the eponymous farm where it was excavated (northern Norway). It is believed that this helmet was created around 970 AD and was made of iron.

As for the construction, this helmet consisted of a horizontally placed metal hoop, to which two vertical metal strips were attached (one from ear to ear, the other from forehead to nape). Four metal plates were attached to this helmet, forming the shape that would probably completely protect a Viking warrior's skull. An interesting part of the "Gjermundbu helmet" was the shield (plates) that protected the warrior's eyes and nose. Besides, on top of this helmet was a spike, which could serve as a dangerous weapon in war, whether for an attack or self-defense.

Today, the "Gjermundbu helmet" is on display at the Museum of National Antiquities (Oslo, Norway).

In the other two discoveries, only rusty fragments of Viking helmets were unearthed. The first discovery was in the municipality of Tjele (Denmark), and the second in the parish of Lokrume (island of Gotland, Sweden).


Did Vikings really wear horned helmets? - HISTORY

Myth: Vikings warriors wore horned or winged helmets.

To date, there is no evidence that any Viking warrior wore a horned helmet and there is significant evidence that they didn’t wear such impractical headgear. So how did this myth get started?

A probable source is found in romanticized versions of the Vikings appearing around the mid17th century to 18th century, and popularized in the 19th century. In these works, the Vikings were often depicted as violent adventurers who wore winged or horned helmets. It is thought that early romantic artists and writers depicting them as such were going off of ancient Greek and Roman texts, which describe certain Northern European groups’ practice of wearing various headgear, including the heads (and sometimes full bodies) of animals. The ancient Greeks and Roman literature on this was well before the Viking’s time and wasn’t specifically referring to any group that would necessarily eventually become the Vikings. But even then, it is thought to be unlikely those groups wore this type of elaborate and heavy headgear during battle.

In the earliest paintings of Vikings wearing these types of elaborate head gear, the artists actually depicted them with winged helmets, drawing from these Ancient Greek and Roman texts. The Ancient Celtic priests, among other peoples of the world, are known to have worn winged helmets during certain religious ceremonies and it is likely this is where the Ancient Greeks and Romans got the idea for winged helmets.

The image of the Vikings wearing horned helmets, rather than winged, is thought to have been inspired by the small Grevensvænge figurines discovered in the 18th century and which date back to around the 800-500BC (around the Nordic Bronze Age). During the 18th century, when romanticizing Vikings began to pick up steam, these artists and writers attributed these figurines to the Viking Age, which came much later (generally considered to be between the 8th-11th century, or about 1000 years after these figurines were made).

Actual archeological evidence indicates that most Vikings went bareheaded or wore leather headgear, sometimes reinforced with wood. Those who did have metal headgear, usually the chieftains or other wealthy Vikings, wore simple round helmets, typically made of iron and bronze. This makes sense as the Vikings often fought in close quarters (aboard ships, in homes, etc.), which would have made elaborate horned or winged helmets very cumbersome and even dangerous to wear.


What did Viking helmets really look like?

Just like other aspects of Viking life that have turned out to be more practical, if not mundane, than myth and legend typically portray them, the helmets worn by the Vikings were very purpose-built. Scholars seem to agree that as far as Viking helmets go, the emphasis was on function over aesthetics, the former being head protection during combat and the latter being purely decorative features like horns.

Based on the Gjermundbu helmet, the only fully intact specimen ever recovered, along with depictions believed to be accurate in their representation of helmets worn by the Vikings, these are the known attributes of the helmets that the Vikings actually wore:

  • Viking helmets were dome-shaped and likely covered the entire upper half of warriors’ heads to protect them from blows from enemy weapons like swords, axes, arrows, and spears
  • Built-in plates or ridges were incorporated into the front of the helmet to protect the eye and brow areas
  • The Gjermundbu helmet also featured a vertical finger-like piece dropping down from the forehead to protect the bridge of the wearer’s nose [6]

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.

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.

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.

Featured image: A modern statue of a Viking with the mythical horned helmet ( CC BY NC ND 3.0 ) and a real Viking helmet. ( NTNU Vitenskapsmuseet/CC BY 2.0 )


On average, Viking men and women looked more alike than we do.

Examining the skeletal remains of Vikings had led to lots of breakthroughs in figuring out how the Vikings actually looked. One of the most surprising findings was that Viking men and women probably looked more alike than men and women do today.

While determining the sex of a person from their skull can sometimes be easy, it's more challenging when examining Viking skulls. On average, female Viking skulls have a bigger jaw and brow than what you would normally find.


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The horned helmets sometimes show up when Vikings are depicted in popular culture. Although most people probably know that the horned helmets belong to the world of myth, today. But was is the origin of the myth?

Neither written sources nor archaeological findings from this period in the history of Scandinavia testify of warriors with horned helmets.

In depictions dating from the Viking age—between the eighth and 11th centuries—warriors appear either bareheaded or clad in simple helmets likely made of either iron or leather.

Archaeologists have yet to uncover a Viking-era helmet embellished with horns. In fact, only one complete helmet that can definitively be called “Viking” has turned up. Discovered in 1943 on Gjermundbu farm in Norway, the 10th-century artifact has a rounded iron cap, a guard around the eyes and nose, and no horns to speak of.

To date, Viking helmets have been excavated from only three sites: Gjermundbu in Norway, Tjele Municipality in Denmark and Lokrume parish on Gotland Island, Sweden. The one from Tjele consists of nothing more than rusted remains of a helmet similar to the Gjermundbu helmet, the same goes for the one from Gotland. It is possible that many of the Viking helmets were made from hardened leather and iron strips, since many Icelandic stories and Scandinavian picture stones tell and show warriors with helmets.

In practical terms, it would also have been a bad idea to attach horns to the helmets because it would have made them less durable. So how did this misconception actually occur?

Modern replicas of Viking helmets, based on archeological evidence.

The horned helmets began to emerge in the 19th century romantic depictions of the Vikings. Art often depicted the Scandinavian Iron Age Warriors with imaginative elements that brought thoughts to the world of the sagas.

Swedish sculptor Gustav Malmström (1887-1980) had horned helmets in his portrayals of the raiders. When Richard Wagner (1813–1883) staged his “Der Ring des Nibelungen” opera cycle in the 1870s, costume designer Carl Emil Doepler (1824–1905) created horned helmets for the Viking characters.

These artists and designers didn’t just make up the idea of horns on helmets, though. Inspiration may well have come from the horned helmets found in bronze ages from other parts of Europe. Many helmets predating the Vikings by at least a century were adorned with antlers, wings and animal horns. These helmets were religious or political power symbols – and the horns had no practical function.

Celtic horned helmet (150-50 BC), found in the river Thames at Waterloo Bridge, london ( British Museum )

A pair of bronze horned helmets, the Veksø helmets, from the later Bronze Age (dating to c. 1100–900 BC) were found near Veksø, Denmark in 1942. Another early find is the Grevensvænge hoard from Zealand, Denmark (c. 800–500 BCE).

A depiction on a Migration Period (5th century) metal die from Öland, Sweden, shows a warrior with a helmet adorned with two snakes or dragons, arranged in a manner similar to horns. Decorative plates of the Sutton Hoo helmet (6th century) depict spear-carrying dancing men wearing horned helmets, similar to a figure seen on one of the Torslunda plates from Sweden. Also, a pendant from Ekhammar in Uppland in Sweden features the same figure in the same pose and an 8th-century find in Staraya Ladoga, in what is now Russia.

Bronze Age horned helmets from Brøns Mose at Viksø (Veksø) on Zealand, Denmark. Now in the Nationalmuseet (National Museum of Denmark) in Copenhagen.

Also, Greek and Roman chroniclers often describe northern Europeans wearing helmets adorned with all manner of ornaments, including horns, wings, and antlers. These were likely only donned for ceremonial purposes by Norse and Germanic priests.


It started with the vikings themselves.

Helmets with horns?

Depictions of an Iron Age date exist featuring people with horned helmets/heads, such as upon the Golden Horns. Similar images are also known from the Viking period itself.

In the Oseberg burial from Norway, which dates to the early Viking period, a tapestry was found on which horned helmets are also depicted. Does this prove that all Vikings wore the famous helmets with horns? The answer is probably not. However, there is some evidence to suggest that certain warriors wore such headgear. The horned figures on the Golden Horns are berserkers. These were wild warriors, who threw themselves into battle in a trance-like fury. We are also familiar with them from the Icelandic sagas, in which they are amongst the most feared of all Vikings.

It is also possible that such headgear was worn for display or for cultic purposes. In a battle situation, horns on a helmet would get in the way. Such helmets would also have caused problems on board the warships, where space was already at a premium. In addition, none of the contemporary sources mention Vikings wearing horned headgear.

Viking helmets

The idea that all vikings wore these horned helmets is a more recent invention.

The popular image of the strapping Viking in a horned helmet dates back to the 1800s, when Scandinavian artists like Sweden’s Gustav Malmström included the headgear in their portrayals of the raiders. When Wagner staged his “Der Ring des Nibelungen” opera cycle in the 1870s, costume designer Carl Emil Doepler created horned helmets for the Viking characters, and an enduring stereotype was born.

Did Vikings really wear horned helmets?

You can blame the early ages of archaeology when differences between the different northern cultures and time periods were not well understood.

Horned helmets did exist in the bronze age, the Vikso helmets from Denmark an obvious example though these weren't known when the early depictions of Vikings with horned helmets were made. Mycenaean helmets judging from art from the period also had horns, possibly actual animal horns if the helmets made of boar tusks are any indicator.

Such helmets likely derive from early societies where horned animals were venerated. A series of deer skulls with antlers, modified to be used as hats were discovered at Star Carr in Yorkshire dating back to the stone age. Some had holes drilled into them in front of the antlers, presumably as eye holes.

Horned helmets of heroes or gods appear in Anglo-Saxon art such as on some of the panels on the Sutton Hoo helmet. They also appear in later Norse art.

Horned helmets appear in the Iron Age where Samnite and Celtic warriors wore them, probably an archaism from the earlier Bronze Age. They also appear in Celtic art and Roman depictions of Celtic warriors as well as Etruscan art.

There are also Bronze Age helmets from Greece with bronze wings of the Chalcidian type.

So helmets with horns or similar decoration are well attested.

My guess is that the classic Viking horned helmet is based on finds like those from Bronze Age Crete - the Horned God and Ingot God. Both have headresses/helmets with bulls horns. The examples from Viking art tend to have balls on the ends of the horns whereas these Cretan statues have sharp horns which is what we see in the classic Viking depiction.

I suspect the horned helmets depicted on the Golden Horns of Gallehus are actually horned entities similar to the Celtic Cernunnos. One is holding a circle which is similar to the torc Cernunnos holds and both are next to a collection of animals which Cernunnos is also associated with. There are two warriors nearby holding shields showing that the circle held by the horned figure is not a shield but an empty circle.