Horned Helmets in the Viking Age

In public presentations, I am frequently asked why people think that Viking age helmets had horns. I used to joke that it was the fault of a costume designer for a 19th century Wagnerian opera until I recently learned that there may be a germ of truth to that notion.

Vikso bronze helmet
However, there is a more likely explanation. Good evidence exists for horned helmets in Scandinavia during the Bronze and early Iron Ages, well before the start of the Viking era. Stone carvings and sculpture (right) survive, showing these helmets, and bronze helmets found at Viksų in Denmark date from around the year 900 BCE (left), about 1500 years before the Viking age. man with horned helmet

These ancient bronze helmets are thin and far too fragile for battle. Almost certainly, they were used only for ceremonial purposes. In contrast, surviving Viking-age iron helmets and helmet fragments are robust, and show clear signs of damage from weapons.

One bit of evidence from the Viking-age that might support the use of horned helmets is an image that appears on a tapestry found in the Oseberg ship burial. The burial dates from the middle of the 9th century. The tapestry shows one figure wearing a horned helmet that appears similar to the bronze helmets that predate the Viking age. Does the figure represent contemporary practices from the era when it was buried, or does it represent a legendary figure from days gone by? There is no clear answer.

Oseberg tapestry helmet

Common sense suggests another argument against wearing horned helmets in battle. Putting conveniently-placed handholds strapped to your head for your opponent to grab and manipulate doesn't seem like the wisest choice of headgear. But perhaps practical considerations were outweighed by other considerations of which we in the modern era are not aware.

Given the limited evidence available, I think it unlikely that Viking-age warriors wore horned helmets. Perhaps during the Romantic 19th century Viking revival, this early bronze-age evidence was misinterpreted, and the notion that Vikings all wore horned helmets became established.


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