Myths and Misconceptions about the Vikings 2017-02-02T15:46:16+00:00

Myths about the Vikings

The Vikings wore helmets with horns

This must be the biggest myth about the Vikings; there are no records of such helmets having ever existed. All depictions of Viking helmets dating to the Viking age, show helmets with no horns and the only authentic Viking helmet that has ever been found does not have them either.

An explanation for the helmet with horns myth is that Christians in contemporary Europe added the detail to make the Vikings look even more barbarian and pagan, with horns like Satan’s on their head. It should be noted that the Norse god Thor wore a helmet with wings on it, which do look somewhat similar to horns.


“Museum of Cultural History, Oslo in Norway”


“Irish Gael attack a viking raiding party” by Angus McBride

The Vikings pillaged as their only way of living

It was actually only a very small percentage of the Vikings that were warriors; the majority was farmers, craftsmen and traders. For the Vikings who took to the sea, pillaging were one among many other goals of their expeditions.

The Vikings settled peacefully in many places such as Iceland and Greenland, as explorers they crossed the Atlantic and reached America 500 years before Columbus. As international merchants of their time, they also peacefully traded with almost every country of the then known world.

The Vikings were unusually bloodthirsty and barbarian

The Viking raids were indeed very violent, but it was a violent age, and the question is whether non-Viking armies were any less bloodthirsty and barbarian; for instance, Charlemagne, who was the Vikings contemporary, virtually exterminated the whole people of Avars. At Verden, he ordered the beheading of 4,500 Saxons.

What really made the Vikings different was the fact that they seemed to take special care to destroy items of religious value (Christian monasteries and holy sites) and kill churchmen, which earned them quite a bit of hatred in a highly religious time. The Vikings probably enjoyed the reputation they had; people were so scared of them that they often fled from their cities instead of defending them when they saw a Viking ship coming near.


“Ragnar, Rollo and Bjorn from Vikings”


“Guest from Overseas” by Nicholas Roerich (1901)

The Vikings were hated everywhere

One could imagine that the Vikings were hated everywhere because of their raids, but it seems that they were also respected by some. The French King Charles the III – known as Charles the Simple – gave the Vikings the land they had already settled on in France (Normandy), and he even gave his daughter to the Viking chief Rollo.

In return, the Vikings protected France against wilder Vikings. Also in Constantinople the Vikings were acknowledged for their strength – so much so that the Varangian guard of the Byzantine emperors in the 11th century was made up entirely of Swedish Vikings.

The Vikings lived only in Scandinavia

The Vikings did originate from the Scandinavian countries, but over time they started settlements in many places, reaching as far as North Africa, Russia, Constantinople, and even North America. There are different theories about the motives driving the Viking expansion, the most common of which is that the Scandinavian population had outgrown the agricultural potential of their homeland.

Another theory is that the old trade routes of Western Europe and Eurasia experienced a decline in profitability when the Roman Empire fell in the 5th century, forcing the Vikings to open new trading routes in order to profit from international trade.


“Reconstructed Viking House at Trelleborg in Denmark”


“Viking swords displayed at the Wikingermuseum in Hedeby”

The Vikings used crude, unsophisticated weapons

Vikings are often shown with crude, unsophisticated weapons such as clubs and crude axes, but the Vikings were actually skilled weapon smiths. Using a method called pattern welding, the Vikings could make swords that were both extremely sharp and flexible.

According to Viking Sagas, one method of testing these weapons was to place the sword hilt first in a cold stream, and float a hair down to it. If it cut the hair, it was considered a good sword.

Vikings preferred weapon was a massive double axe

Vikings did use axes in battle, however, they were of a very different type than suggested in the modern popular culture. It should be remembered that no double-headed axe has ever been found from early medieval Europe. Viking axes were light and used single-handed. The most common weapons found on Viking sites are spears.


“Vikings season 2 episode 1: brother’s war”


“Viking Drinking Horns”

The Vikings drank from skull cups

This misconception goes back to Runer seu Danica literatura antiquissima by Ole Worm, published in 1636 and reprinted in 1651. There the phrase saying that the Danes drink ór bjúgviðum hausa (from the curved branches of skulls that is from horns) was translated into Latin as ex craniis eorum quos ceciderunt (from the skulls of those whom they had slain).

The Vikings were all dirty, wild-looking people

To this day, Saturday is referred to as laugardagur / laurdag / lørdag / lördag, or “washing day” in the Scandinavian languages, though the original meaning is lost in modern speech in most cases. However, “laug” does still mean “bath” or “pool” in Icelandic.


“Hagar the horrible”


“Viking settlements in the 8th – 11th century”

The Vikings were a nation

The Vikings were not one nation but different groups of warriors, explorers and merchants led by a chieftain. During the Viking age, Scandinavia was not separated into Denmark, Norway and Sweden as it is today, instead each chieftain ruled over a small area.

Viking is not something you are, but something you do

Viking was a verb used to describe a temporary lifestyle. Most Norsemen would stay in their villages for all their lives, but some young and adventurous farmers would go “Viking” or raiding for some months or for some years to earn their living on piracy. Therefore, all Vikings were Norse, but not all Norsemen were Vikings.


“Rollo from Vikings”


“Ragnar Lothbrok and Lagertha from Vikings”

Vikings had tresses

As for hairstyle, to proclaim their Viking roots, Norman men shaved the back half of their head entirely, behind a line drawn from over the crown from ear to ear. On the front half of the head, forward of this line, the hair was left to grow long.There is an 11th-century letter in Old English, which mentions “Danish fashion with bared neck and blinded eyes.” There is no historical evidence of Vikings wearing tresses.