Tuesday, 22 October 2013

How Did Vikings Get Their Horns?

We all know the story by now: those cool horned helmets Vikings have in the films are LIES. They never even had those! Go home, Kirk Douglas!

Hum. My quick google suggests Kirk Douglas didn't actually wear a horned helemt during this film. That's disappointing. Oh well, here's John Cleese

But for a cultural myth that pervasive, it has to come from somewhere, right? And how do we explain these bad boys?

 Look at them! It's like they have eyes! AND EYEBROWS!

What gives, archaeologists? Have you been lying to us THIS WHOLE TIME? Those are OBVIOUSLY VIKING HELMETS!

Alas, no. These are from Denmark, Viking territory, but are from the Bronze Age. They were found in 1942 near Veksø, dating c. 1100- 800 BCE. There was also a hoard found at Grevensvænge, with seven figurines, thought to date to 800- 500 BCE. Thse are lost now, but here's a drawing of them by a chap called Schnabel. 

File:Grevensvaenge Schnabel.jpg

So... how did the Vikings come into it? Well... there's a tiny bit of overlap with the Viking Age (793-1066 CE) in Germany, but there's absolutely no reason to suppose that Vikings wore them.

So how did it happen?

Well, my friend went to the National Museum of Denmark, and the tour guide was an archaeologist. You know what she said? "Vikings were cool, these helmets were cool... the 1940s archaeologists just thought: why not?"

It's a proper academic discipline. Honest.

Burns Throughout History #7

 Is this a burn? There were once two Athenian Politicians. Themistocles and Aristides. Themistocles was a bit of a wheeler dealer, and Aristides was referred to as "The Just". The Athenians had just discovered a silver seam, and were trying to decide what to do with the money they now had. Themistocles wanted to spend the money on warships and Aristides wanted to distribute it to the people.

At this time, the ostracism vote came round. It was apparent to everyone that either Themistocles or Aristies would be exiled. It was a tipping point in Athens' history.

The story goes that an illiterate farmer came up to Aristides, clutching his ostrakon (a sherd of pottery to be written on). He did not recognise the famous man, and said: "Here, can you write 'Aristides' on this pottery for me?"

Aristides looked at him and said: "But why?"

The man replied: "I'm sick of hearing him called "The Just" all the time".


Aristides took it, dutifully wrote "Aristides" on it, and handed it back. Had it been Themistocles, he would have charged him three Obols, then written "Aristides" regardless of what the man had asked him.

(In case you wondered, Aristides was exiled. The money was spent on a navy, which proved very useful in the Graeco-Persian wars)


  1. for the record, theres also zero evidence to suggest they DIDNT wear these horns. So the archaeologists in 1940 saying they did wear them are just as correct as most archaeologists today saying they didnt.

    1. I suspect you're one of my history friends trolling me, but here goes:

      There's actually a whole lot of evidence that Vikings didn't wear them, as long as you'll accept negative evidence. There are times when negative evidence isn't much good, but since positive evidence here would be something like a diary entry saying "Vikings raids today- very disappointed they didn't wear their horned helmets", we'll proceed.

      Descriptions of Vikings, such as those in early Christian texts do not mention horned helmets (though they do mention the distinctve longships). You'd think that's the kind of thing you'd put in the "distinctive" column.

      Images of Vikings, both their own, such as on ship carvings, and in other parts of Europe, such as on the Bayeux Tapestry, do not show them with horned helmets. These are the sources that experimental arcaeologists and reenactors use for their reconstructions.

      Finally, and this is the least compelling part of the evidence, we've found lots of bits of Viking armour, and three Viking helmets have been found in excavation. Guess what? None of them have horns.

    2. Just for it being the 40s, I'd take it with a grain of salt. Wouldn't any sane person?