I’ve been making my way through the Vikings series on the History Channel (I know, I’m late, I’m sorry) and those people are ATTRACTIVE. As Ragnar smirks at everyone just begging for them to look at his abs, I sometimes wonder – how accurate is this, exactly? What was Viking culture really like?
Before you go sharpen your pitchforks, let’s just establish that I am fully aware of the historical problems with the series – many historians can’t even watch it because of its glaring inaccuracies. But surely there are some slices of Viking life portrayed accurately. Haircuts? Clothes? Blonde hair? Ripped abs? Let’s find out!
Were Vikings Dirty?
When we think of Vikings (or any Medieval people, for that matter) we think of gross, stinky, sweaty warriors and peasants with black teeth and flies swirling around their unwashed hair. We talked about this myth in a different article, but I’ll just go over it again in case you missed it: Vikings were actually pretty clean.
They may have actually been the most meticulously clean of all Germanic Bronze Age ale drinkers. If they weren’t the cleanest, they were a close second. Archaeologists have found ear cleaners, nail cleaners, tweezers, combs, and toothpicks. What’s more, there’s evidence that they valued hygenic tools so much they made them into jewelry and asked to be buried with them so they could take them to the afterlife.
As explained by John of Wallingford in 1220, “they were – according to their country’s customs – in the habit of combing their hair every day, to bathe every Saturday, to change their clothes frequently and to draw attention to themselves by means of many such frivolous whims. In this way, they sieged the married women’s virtue and persuaded the daughters of even noble men to become their mistresses.” Well now, that certainly seems to support the point that Viking men were attractive.
Vikings also kept very well groomed beards and hair, which we can tell based on artwork from the era. Most of the time heads and necks were shaved in the back with long hair in the front to match their well-kept beards. One even called this hairstyle “the Danish fashion with a shaved neck and blinded eyes,” as in eyes covered by long hair in the front.
Women would have been similarly clean, probably with their long hair knotted in a bun and decorated with colorful ribbons, of which the Vikings were very fond.
If the Vikings didn’t wear horned helmets, what did they wear?
In cartoons and pop culture, Vikings often wear helmets with horns on their heads, but there’s no evidence of that being the fashion. The source of confusion is a 19th century Wagner opera where the villains wear horned helms. They DID however drink out of horns, of course.
In combat, horn helms would be silly. Have you ever seen a bull get stuck in a fence? Would you want that to be you?
Where do Vikings come from? Did all Vikings culture come from the same country?
Many would argue that since the word “Viking” is Old Norse for someone who voyages on the sea, Viking is a job and not a culture. I’m going to respectfully disagree – the way of life of a Viking was distinctive, they lived in geographical groups, and had a uniquely defined society. They weren’t, however, all from the same country.
Scandinavia wasn’t Denmark, Norway, and Sweden back then. Instead, it was a region that held loosely affiliated tribes ruled by local chieftains.
Did all Vikings carry weapons?
Despite how difficult it is to believe that everyone had access to weapons, the series often insists that even slaves are able to arm themselves to the teeth should the need arise. If we’re to believe what we see, there are just swords growing up from the ground for anyone to take.
In reality, swords were pretty rare. To have been buried with one, you needed to be kind of a big deal. Ordinary peasants may have been buried with an axe or a knife, but it’s unclear sometimes whether they were weapons or tools.
Did everyone hate the Vikings?
Lots of people probably did hate the Vikings. Besides being culturally different, they were also pretty aggressive – sometimes. The truth is, however, that only a small fraction of Vikings were pillagers, and many more were farmers, craftsmen, and traders. They settled peacefully without any raping or pillaging in many places, traveling and trading peacefully with almost every country they could find.
In one famous example of diplomacy, the French King Charles the III willfully handed land over to the Vikings, and let his daughter marry Viking chief Rollo. In exchange, that band of Vikings helped defend France against worse enemies.
Yep, that’s our Rollo, who was actually probably a more important figure to English history than the real Ragnar. He was the first ruler of Normandy, and his descendents were at the very least Dukes of Normandy, and occasionally became kings of England. No big deal.
Did Vikings look like us?
More specifically, did Vikings look like Travis Fimmel and Katheryn Winnick? Unfortunately, no.
While their bodies and faces were similar to ours, they were significatly shorter – their average height was 3-4 inches shorter than ours.
Their bodies would have shown the strain and hardship of life’s exceptional difficultures, but they would also be much more muscular. Osteoarthritis and dental problems were very common.
Vikings would have likely been more nutritionally healthy than other more sedentary cultures, as their travels would have brought them into contact with many different types of food.
Even so, they would have been much less healthy than their modern Scandinavian counterparts are today. That may also dispel the myth of the “Viking diet” being superior to our own.
Poorer nutrition of the age overall was likely a factor in the height disparity. Children would have grown slower.
Did Women Have Feminine Facial Features?
No, not really. While we all love Lagertha, the typical Viking woman looked nothing like her. Instead, women were so masculine that it’s pretty tough to determine whether a skeleton is male or female. This isn’t true in all cases, but it is for most.
Were all Vikings blonde?
No, fraid not. Here’s where ancient people actually closely resembled modern people – there was a pretty good mix of blonds, redheads, and brunettes. There are more blonde people in northern Scandinavia than in Denmark, though.
While we’re at it, let’s dispel the myth that all Vikings were Nordic. They weren’t – there was a good mix of many different cultures from all over the known world in Scandinavia at the time.
Were Viking clothing black, grey, and other neutral colors?
Vikings actually loved red and blue, and were quite into fashion. We don’t know exactly what they looked like, but we knew they were attracted to color, patterns, and decorative embellishments like ribbons.
According to pictures painted at the time, women wore long dresses or skirts. Buckles found on the clothing of entombed women Vikings indicate that they wore a style called the harness dress, which is also sometimes called an apron dress.
The clothing of both men and women were double layered with warm, hearty wool on the outside and softer, cooler linen on the inside.
Unlike the depictions of Vikings wearing furs, typical Viking men would have been more likely to have work a wool coat or cloak and wool trousers that looked like pantaloons and only reached their knees. They usually wore hats, and women usually wore head scarves or bonnets.
Vikings were also well known for their leg wraps, bands of cloth wrapped from foot to knee which provided protection from the cold and underbrush.
It seems pretty interesting that Viking pants have been found which have sewn in socks, like my daughter’s little footie pj’s.
What myths are most irritating to you? Tell us in the comments.
Sources: Hurstwic.org, Sciencenordic.com, Listverse.com