There are a few wild misconceptions out there about Viking culture. I’d say the first one that really gets hardcore Viking buffs riled up is the horn on the helm thing. We don’t know everything about Vikings, but we do know that we’ve found a lot of very well-preserved helms, and they did not have any hint of a horn. The other huge misconception is that Vikings were generally filthy (and loved it).
It’s easy to see how these misconceptions perpetuate themselves – our modern pop culture notions of Vikings are much better documented than the actual Vikings. But we’ve suspected for awhile that Vikings weren’t as disgustingly unhygienic as we once presumed, and new evidence seems to be supporting that claim.
NewsInEnglish.no reported last week that Jen Molter Ulrikeson, a researcher from Norway’s Museum Sydøstdanmark, “can’t find a single image from Viking times of a Danish, Swedish or Norwegian Viking who isn’t very well-groomed.”
“All indications are that they were among the best of their times in keeping themselves clean and their hair trimmed.” -Jen Molter Ulrikeson of Museum Sydøstdanmark
She adds that large numbers of combs have survived since the Viking era, which were used for both hair and beards.
In another source, The Viking Answer Lady also discusses Viking hygiene in her blog, describing how fastidiously well-bathed Vikings of all ages and genders would have been. According to the complaints of English cleric John of Wallingford, they bathed every Saturday, changed their clothes often, and combed their hair every day.
Why would he complain? Because the Vikings were so clean he was concerned about the virtues of maidens who may be seduced by them. They also washed their hands before eating. Heathens!
Grooming was so important to the Vikings that men were almost always buried with their comb and women often wore their grooming tools on a chain dangling from a brooch.
So how did they wear their hair?
According to the Viking Answer Lady blog, there wasn’t any one specific way that Viking men styled their hair, but the most common was probably to wear it at or near shoulder length as only slaves wore their hair short. Warriors would have worn it in whatever way kept it from being grabbed during a fight. Interestingly, Vikings in some regions were documented as coloring their hair red using a soft, very basic soap where lye would act as bleach.
Other accounts suggest that Vikings (at least in certain regions) shaved part of the head, leaving some hair unshaven – probably at the back. That means that Ragnar’s hair on Vikings may not be very accurate and Bjorn’s hair is much more historically accurate (probably).
Unmarried girls would wear their hair long and loose, and married women would wear it in a bun on the back or top of the head, sometimes covered by a cap, kerchief, or hood.
What other Viking misconceptions have you encountered? Tell us in the comments!