Saturday, March 31, 2012

Vikings and horned helmets

The hilarious stereotypical image of Vikings
Being of Swedish descent (and a bit of a history nerd) I have often laughed at how the vikings are always depicted with horned helmets.And as if that where not enough they are often half naked with only some piece of leather covering their private parts!Even the average Scandinavian think this is the correct description of a viking.

Nothing could be further from the truth! No need to explain the idiocy it would be having horns on a helmet in a time where sword fighting where the main technique used for battling an enemy! A powerful blow at one of the horns would most likely break the neck of the wearer! Fact is there are much evidence that suggests that they did not use any type of metal helmets at all!

The Viking Age lasted for nearly three centuries, from mid 800's to early 1000`s. and from this period only one Viking age helmet has been found in all of Scandinavia. And since it is one of a kind this helmet must surely have been of ceremonial use or maybe it belonged viking chief

However this is not the case in the period of 550-800 AD ,Lots of helmets have been found in Swedish graves from this time period, some of them are decorated with small bronze plates with human and animal figures. Strangely enough some of these characters carry helmets with large horns,looking very much like Bronze helmets dated to about 500 years earlier that have been found in Sweden.Which most likely where used by shamans or chieftains of the time period.It is highly unlikely that these helmets was part of the equipment of the warrior cast. It is also out of the question that these richly decorated helmets would do any good as protection in combat
The only Viking aged helmet ever found

Where are all the Viking helmets? In Norway alone there is well over 1000 weapons that has been found in Viking graves. As often as helmets are mentioned in the sagas one would expect that helmets was a common object found in graves. And certainly they should at least be found in Sweden, which has preserved so many wonderful helmets from the centuries before the Viking Age. But the fact is that only one single helmet dated to the Viking age has been found in all of Scandinavia.Pretty strange since countless helmets is found in graves dating a few generations before the Viking Age

Is there any explanation for this? Perhaps helmets for some reason were not placed in the tomb along with weapons and shields. Could it be that helmets were too expensive to be buried in a grave in this way? It seems unlikely. Many graves contain far more expensive items than helmets. In the Island of Birka in Sweden, a man was found buried together with two horses and a series of weapons, an expensive and elaborate hat of silk and silver but no helmet. In Norway, people have even been buried together with fully-equipped long ships. Conclusion must be that the reason for the absence of helmets in graves can hardly be because they where too expensive to be laid in the tomb with the dead.

Could it be that the helmet was only used by the upper class, and perhaps inherited as a symbol of power, like a kings crown? Such a tradition would be expected to have been mentioned in the sagas, but there are no such reports.

Suggested look of a leather head protection
 The most reasonable theory is that the helmets were not made of metal at all, except for maybe some small parts, but was primarily manufactured out of an organic material, such as thick leather. This would explain why they have not survived the test of time buried in the ground.It is not a bad theory at all since new more durable stronger metal where being introduced.The old helmets would offer an insufficient level of protection against a steel weapon. and to make helmets of the same steel would make them costly and also heavy and limit your mobility. A head protection made by thick layers of leather would offer good protection against cuts and reduce damage of the most kinds of battle related head injuries, and in the same time not effecting the warriors mobility

Who is responsible for the perception that the Vikings used a steel helmet?
The many accounts of helmets in the sagas have obviously helped to produce such an impression. One can not simply rely on the sagas as historical sources. They are written down several centuries after the events happened, and is probably colored by the era they were written in. Also the sagas almost exclusively describe upper-class people, who may very well have had helmets, but that is not representative of the rest of the population. The fact that the only Viking helmet was found in a very rich grave,give some support to this theory

The myth of the horned helmet can somewhat be traced back to ancient historians. Plutarch (46-127 AD) wrote that the "cimbreans" a Germanic tribe according to the Romans.that resided in Denmark and wore animal horns on their helmets.
the horned helmets were taken up again by the Romantic artists in the 1800s. In the 1820s Vikings horn where featured in several illustrations and books some was published in several languages,and the myth was born


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