• Imagining History

Did Vikings Wear Horns On Their Helmets? - Myth-Buster For Kids

Updated: Jun 7

Let’s all be honest, when somebody mentions the words “Viking Helmet”, there’s one important question that immediately pops into everyone’s minds. So, let’s get it out of the way straight away:

The Gjermundbu Helmet

Did Vikings wear horns on their helmets?


And the answer is:


Nobody knows for certain. But probably not.


Only one fully preserved, complete Viking helmet has ever been found (at the burial site of a Norwegian warrior at Gjermundbu, near Oslo, if you were wondering) and this was a basic peaked helmet made from 4 iron plates. No horns to be found here.


Whilst there are a small number of people portrayed wearing horned helmets from images dating back to the Viking era, the majority of depictions from this time show Vikings wearing simple iron or leather helmets, or no helmets at all, when going into battle. Because of this, historians argue that horned headgear was probably only worn for important ceremonies, if it was worn at all.


Vikings Doing Battle. Courtesy of George Hodan

Either way, horns definitely would not have been sported on helmets worn into battle. The additional weight would have made an iron helmet very heavy and imbalanced (and that’s just the helmets made from iron – could you imagine trying to attach horns onto a helmet made from hardened leather?). Not to mention the fact that horns make for a very handy grab point for your opponent – making it much easier for them to jerk your head around and probably dispatch you pretty quickly. And Odin-forbid you get tangled up in a low-hanging tree branch – how embarrassing! It's safe to say, wearing horns into battle was not practical or sensible.

Replica Viking Helmets. Courtesy of Helgi Halldórsson

Horned helmets would also have been a silly idea when sailing on a Viking Longship. The biggest Viking Longships were approximately 23 metres in length (that’s about as long as a Bowling Lane) and filled with up to 120 Viking warriors. This made for very cramped conditions and space was a rare commodity. Now imagine the chaos that would ensue if each of those 120 warriors were wearing horns on their helmets; getting hooked around one another’s headgear, poking each other in the eye, hitting your friends in the face whenever you turned your head – what a mess!


Brunnhilde in Wagner's opera "Ride of the Valkyries"

And before you ask, no, Vikings didn’t have wings on their helmets either (unless you’re Thor that is. But he can get away with it. He is a Viking God after all).


So where did the myth of horned helmets actually come from?


There are a number of theories as to where the enduring myth of Vikings wearing horned helmets originated.


The most likely source of the myth dates back to the 1800’s (around 800 years after the Viking era ended) when horned helmets were included in various popular pieces of Scandinavian artwork depicting what the Viking raiders might have looked like. Also during this time, Wagner staged his opera “Der Ring des Nibelungen”, in which the costume designer, Carl Emil Doepler, added horns on to the helmets of the Viking characters.

The Golden Horns. Courtesy of Nationalmuseet

Other theories include:

  • Terrified Christian Anglo-Saxon monks describing the Vikings as being horned demons after being victims of a Viking raid.

  • Ancient Greek and Roman texts describing European traditions that pre-dated the Vikings by a century or more – these traditions included decorating helmets with wings or antlers.

The Waterloo Helmet. Courtesy of Ealdgyth
  • Other horns or horned helmets, such as the Golden Horns or the Waterloo Helmet, that were originally thought to belong to the Vikings but were later discovered to date back to eras before the Vikings. The Golden Horns are a set of two horns created around 400AD (around 400 years before the Viking era) decorated with Nordic and Roman designs. The Waterloo Helmet is actually a pre-Roman Celtic helmet made from bronze and dates back to around 150BC (over 900 years before the Viking era began).


No matter where the myth began, horned helmets are now a common feature in modern day representations of the Vikings. The fact that the Vikings very rarely buried their dead warriors with their helmets, like they did with their swords or spears, doesn’t help matters either. Apart from the Gjermundbu helmet mentioned above, only broken pieces and part sections of Viking helmets have ever been found by archaeologists, meaning there is very little hard evidence to bust the horned helmet myth for good.



 

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