Some myths are so appealing that people refuse to drop them – and so it is with Viking horns. From singers in a Wagner opera to a souvenir shop in Copenhagen to the Minnesota Viking Football team logo, Viking warrior helmets are commonly adorned with a pair of large bovine horns that invoke fierceness and intimidation. This image fits well with the Viking warrior’s reputation of raids, pillage and general ruthlessness.

But archeologists say warriors were not horn-adorned. Rather, fighters who could afford headgear at all wore simple leather or iron skullcaps without any bumps. Most men went bare-headed. But over the centuries, the horned-helmet lore developed – helped by a Swedish artist and a costume designer for Wagner operas – and the imagery stuck.

That’s not to say horned helmets are entirely a myth – a handful have been unearthed in Denmark, such as in Viksø, and rock carvings in western Sweden show men with this type of gear on their head. It’s just that they date back at least as far the Bronze Age, which ended more than 1,000 years before Vikings arrived on the scene. And rather than for military purposes, these helmets were symbolic and linked to religious rituals.

But whether tourists, sports fans and opera theaters will opt for less dramatic replica Viking helmets in favor of historical accuracy is an open question.


References

Drawing titled “Barbarians Invading England,” about 1130 AD. From Life of St. Edmund, folio 24 of MS 736 of the Pierpont Morgan Library, courtesy of Creative Commons, Wikimedia

Photo of Viking helmet replica, courtesy of Creative Commons, by menloinnovations.com

AskHistory: Did Vikings really wear horned helmets by Elizabeth Nix

The Viksø helmets [Bronze Age] National Museum of Denmark

DanmarksHistorien.dk Myth: Did the Vikings have helmet horns? (in Danish)