Statue of a Viking in Gimli, Manitoba (Canada).
© By Magickallwiz (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The idea that Vikings had horns, or sometimes feathers, on their helmets like on the statue above, is one of the most popular misconceptions that people have about them.
Why do people think this? If you go into any museum that has Viking artefacts, you won’t find any actual helmets with fancy extras.
Despite this lack of evidence, the myth of the horned helmet continues.
It makes for such a dramatic picture, vicious warriors with fearsome headgear riding into battle as in this painting from Watford Museum called Viking Warriors Charging.
Dramatic it may be, but if Vikings really wore these why haven't archaeologists found any?
This is another painting, this time, the subject is a Viking funeral. It is by an artist called Sir Frank Bernard Dicksee and it was painted in 1893. You can find it at the Manchester Art Gallery. Again, we can see lots of horns on those helmets.© Manchester Art GalleryEven if these horned helmets were only used by people who had a high status in Viking society, then isn’t it strange that archaeologists didn’t find any examples even at places like Sutton Hoo?
Historians have been searching for the possible source of the horned helmet myth and they have a theory that it all started at the opera.
In 1876 there was a famous performance of a German opera by Wagner called Der Ringes des Nibelungen which has a very well-known score called The Ride of the Valkyries. You can listen to it being played by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, below.
The opera features lots of Vikings, and an artist called Carl Emil Doepler created the costumes, many of which featured helmets with horns.
The opera was very popular and has been re-staged many times. It seems that the costumes have become just as iconic. Historians think that the popularity of the opera and the costumes have led to people thinking that all Vikings had horns on their helmets.
Doepler was an illustrator as well as a costume designer. This is one of his illustrations showing the Viking gods – lots of them have very fancy helmets.© By Carl Emil Doepler (1824-1905) [Public domain], via Wikimedia CommonsThere will probably always be people who think that the Vikings had horns on their helmets, but now, you know why they might think that.
- The idea that Vikings had horns, or sometimes feathers, on their helmets like on the statue above, is one of the most popular misconceptions that people have about them.