Here’s Why Vikings Didn’t Actually Wear Horned Or Winged Helmets

A common stereotype about the Vikings is that they allegedly worn horned or winged helmets. In reality, archaeological discoveries and subsequent historical research reinforce the fact that the Norsemen didn’t wear horned or winged helmets at all.

This misconception has been considerably backed up by the artistic license of Richard Wagner’s staged opera ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’, when costume designer Carl Emil Doepler made up horned helmets for the characters, or by the Swedish artist Johan August Malmström who often depicted the Norse raiders with unusual headgear in his paintings. Nonetheless, the Norsemen didn’t wear any winged or horned helmets during the Viking Age, this being ultimately nothing more but a mere misconception stemming from several 19th century Romantic artists.

Photograph depicting a typical horned helmet supposedly used by the Norsemen during the Viking Age. Image source:

Even though it can be quite complicated to thoroughly analyse the Norsemen’s way of living during the Viking era (which took place between the 8th and 11th centuries in Europe and overseas) clinging only to the Norse sagas or to the skaldic poems of the Middle Ages, a near complete Viking Age helmet was excavated in 1943 on the site of a farm called Gjermundbu from Ringerike, a municipality located in eastern Norway.

According to the archaeologists who discovered it, the artefact dates back to the 10th century, being thus entirely made of iron. Furthermore, the helmet has a rounded cap and a guard around the nose and eyes, which aesthetically formed a mask (in addition to the defending purpose of its design). No wings or horns were attached to it though.

The helmet discovered in Ringerike, Norway likely pertained to a Norse nobleman and was excavated from his tomb. However, in terms of its design, the helmet worn by this Viking Age chieftain was one of the most complex of its kind, given the fact that some of the runestones tell us how the Norsemen wore far simpler crafted helmets. The simpler helmets would often feature caps with an ordinary nose guard.

Photograph depicting the only surviving and authentic Viking Age helmet discovered in Ringerike, eastern Norway in 1943. Aside from the helmet proper, there have been discovered three additional swords, an almost intact maille, three axes, three spearheads, four bulges from shields, a riding equipment, several game pieces as well as some dices from the burial mound where the burnt remains of two male Norsemen were found. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Aside from the excavation which took place in eastern Norway, archaeologists sought for Viking Age helmets in the Tjele municipality from Denmark and in the Lokrume parish on the island of Gotland, Sweden. One helmet was discovered in each of the aforementioned locations but, unfortunately, both are incomplete, consisting solely of rusty materials.

In the end, there is no scientific proof according to which the Norsemen could have used helmets with either horns or wings in the battle as part of their military equipment during the Viking Age. If anything, it’s equally indicated to mention the Viksø helmets which were found in 1942 in a swamp west of the small town of Veksø on the island of Zealand, Denmark, but these artefacts were dated circa 900–1100 BC (corresponding as such to the Bronze Age timeframe) and were certainly used for ceremonial purposes, rather than in warfare. Additionally, their design is considerably different from that of the stereotypical Viking Age horned helmet.

One of the two Bronze Age helmets discovered in a swamp near the small town of Viksø, Zealand, Denmark. Image source:

Then, what could be the conclusion regarding this stereotype and its contemporary relevance? Similarly to the many other misconceptions which rose to prominence in the popular culture as of the cause of various 19th century European Romantic national movements, the myth of the Viking horned helmet was passed on to Hollywood-like productions and copious false merchandising around the globe. This is why historical accuracy seems always likely to lose ground when faced with commercial approaches.

Documentation sources and external links:

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6 Responses to Here’s Why Vikings Didn’t Actually Wear Horned Or Winged Helmets

  1. Erik Roth says:

    Vikings didn’t use double bladedaxes either. Canadian lumberjacks did.The ariicle assumes that only special individuals hd the full set f spears ,swordsm spear and helmet but Norwegian law ca, 1066 specifies that every crewman on a warship should have those weapons when called up for a compulsory attack. Viking Sweden also had such a law.

  2. Svein says:

    1. The Fact that we dont find ANY Helmets among hundreds of graves etc, proves only you have a huge problem saying anything of wht type of Helmet they had
    2. From saga we read that they had a common understanding that you could easely split up a Helmet in a single blow. Thst is impossible with Iron Helmets. But not with fake Helmet made up from other materials. Materials that would not last 1000 years but do save your skull from at least 1 direct blow. (after tht you run).
    3. We find masks. You want to enter the battle with as many men as possible. Helmet or no Helmet. And since you constantly lack men, you use women and men. Mask some men and all women. It works. It decoy your Enemy
    3. Fighting with horned Helmets is not a problem either. Ramsees III depiction of the invading sea People nearly 3000 years befor any viking age (he nearly lost to them) shows at least one tribe attacking with horned Helmets.
    4. The Fact tht Wagner used them too or any other civilization at some point have had some type of horned Helmet proves tht its both cool looking and cool looking.. 🙂 and if you can fight with it.. Why not?

    5. Many art and depictions from viking era has people with horns. Thor has horns. The god of rage. His chariot has goat and ram. Hardest scull with horns. Scull tht fits perfect as a Helmet to a human scull from 800 AD.

    Conclusion: So there is evidence all the way tht can easely depicting early pagan viking raider as ppl wearing horns to battle, as tht may make totally sense to them.

    They was not rich, but needed Helmet and greater numbers on the battlefield.

    “shining armour” came centuries later and it was normal to paint your armour. But this also camuflages the lack of proper armour.

    But tht part of history will not leave you with any physical evidence after 1000 years. Only written accounts

    • Victor Rouă says:

      Thank you very much for your comment and readership. You have made some very interesting points indeed and some historical ones are very correct as well, particularly the one regarding the fact that the plate armour came later on (thereby taking the place of the chain armour, if you will). I respect your points of view, but I’d still like to stay with mine regarding the Viking Age helmets. All the best!

  3. Patrick M Freeman says:

    My suspicion is that the horns and wings added to the ‘outlander’ look of the costume designed by Carl Emil Doepler. As an added benefit, when the two Vikings made comment to each other, the oversize headgear drew the audiences attention – even in nose-bleed section.
    Regarding battle, they’d be counterproductive. A sword or axe blow what glanced off to to the side of the rounded helmet could catch on the horn or the metal fitting connecting the horn/wing to the helmet. At combat velocities, this is going to sharply pull the helmet to one side, stunning or disorienting the wearer. Might even knock him out, a bad day anyway you look at it. (I am by no means an expert – “It just seems to me…”

    • Victor Rouă says:

      Hello, Patrick! Firstly, thank you very much for your time and readership on The Dockyards! Secondly, your presumption is absolutely correct according to my turn of mind as well. As for your brief analysis, you are also very right! All the best, much health, and a wonderful Christmas! 🙂

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