What Did the Vikings Look Like?

vikinghjelmenThe world’s only existing Viking Age helmet, from Gjermundbu in Ringerike. Exhibited in  Historical Museum. (Photo: Museum of Cultural History)

The Viking Age is the term for the period in European history, especially Northern European and Scandinavian history, spanning the late 8th to 11th centuries. Scandinavian (Norse) Vikings explored Europe through trade and warfare. The Vikings also reached Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, and Anatolia. Additionally, there is evidence to support the Vinland legend that Vikings reached farther west to the North American continent.

In England the Viking Age began dramatically on 8 June 793 AD when Vikings destroyed the abbey on Lindisfarne, a centre of learning famous across the continent. Monks were killed in the abbey, thrown into the sea to drown or carried away as slaves along with the church treasures.

The Vikings who invaded western and eastern Europe were chiefly pagans from Denmark, Norway and Sweden. They also settled in the Faroe Islands, Ireland, Iceland, Scotland (Caithness, the Hebrides and the Northern Isles), Greenland, and Canada.

There are very few descriptions of how the Vikings looked like (both men and women) with the exception of certain characteristics given in sagas as Heimskringla, a history of the Norwegian kings that begins with legendary material in Ynglinga saga and moves through to early medieval Scandinavian history. The Icelandic writer, Snorre Sturlason (1179 – 23 September 1241 AD), based the sagas on oral sources. Some kings were given nicknames such as King Harald Hårfagre (Harald Fairhair, ca 850 – 933 AD) that would not cut his hair until Norway was united into one kingdom.

The closest we get a good description of how the Vikings might have looked like, is given by 10th century Arab Muslim writer Ahmad ibn Fadlan:

The Rus (Note: Swedish Vikings) appear as traders who set up shop on the river banks nearby the Bolgar camp. They are described as having bodies tall as (date) palm-trees, with blond hair and ruddy skin. They are tattooed from “fingernails to neck” with dark blue or dark green “tree patterns” and other “figures” and that all men are armed with an axe and a long knife.

Ibn Fadlan describes the Rus as “perfect physical specimens” and the hygiene of the Rusiyyah as disgusting (while also noting with some astonishment that they comb their hair every day) and considers them vulgar and unsophisticated. In that, his impressions contrast those of the Persian traveler Ibn Rustah.


Text by: Thor Lanesskog, ThorNews

Categories: Culture, Vikings

1 reply

  1. What was a viking after battle? Just a little Thor

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