Did Vikings Really Wear Horned Helmets?

Slate's Culture Blog
April 19 2010 4:00 PM

Did Vikings Really Wear Horned Helmets?

More

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Advertisement

this past weekend for

How to Train Your Dragon

, the 3-D, animated tale of a boy Viking who befriends a winged serpent. On Friday, one reader who had seen the film wrote in to the

and asked, "Did Vikings REALLY wear helmets with horns jutting from them?  If so, why? Cows aren't that threatening."

It's a great question, and one we were ready to investigate. It turns out we didn't have to: A detailed account of Viking haberdashery appeared on the Web back in 2004, under the aegis of the Explainer's arch-nemesis, Cecil Adams. That article from the Straight Dope certainly merits reading in full , but here's a summary for anyone who's pressed for time:

No, Vikings did not wear horned helmets. According to TSD, "contemporary Viking era artwork shows roughly half of Vikings in battle bareheaded, while the rest wear unremarkable dome-shaped or conical helmets." The idea that Nordic invaders of the ninth and 10 th centuries wore headgear festooned with ox horns developed a thousand years after the fact, when a Swedish artist illustrated them as such for a poem based on an old, Icelandic saga .

Helmets with horns or wings do seem to have been used for ceremonial purposes by Germanic and Celtic people in the centuries before the Viking Age . Thus the horned headgear in early stagings of Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (based on a Celtic legend) or the winged hats worn by his Valkyries. But there's no reason to think the Vikings themselves indulged in the practice.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Learns That Breaking Up a Country Is Hard to Do

Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Can Never Remember Anything

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

There’s a Way to Keep Ex-Cons Out of Prison That Pays for Itself. Why Don’t More States Use It?

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Sept. 19 2014 1:56 PM Scotland’s Attack on the Status Quo Expect more political earthquakes across Europe.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 12:09 PM How Accelerators Have Changed Startup Funding
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Why Men Never Remember Anything
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Movies
Sept. 19 2014 2:06 PM The Guest and Fort Bliss How do we tell the stories of soldiers returning home from war?
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 12:38 PM Forward, March! Nine leading climate scientists urge you to attend the People’s Climate March.
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 12:13 PM The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola  The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.