Did Vikings Really Wear Horned Helmets?

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April 19 2010 4:00 PM

Did Vikings Really Wear Horned Helmets?

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Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

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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.

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