When you think about the Vikings, you probably imagine fierce blond warriors clad in metal armor, boasting larger-than-life nicknames. Guess what: This mental picture isn't 100 percent historically accurate. Here are seven commonly believed falsehoods about the Nordic warriors, debunked.
1. NORSE RAIDERS CALLED THEMSELVES "VIKINGS."
Today, historians use the word "Vikings" to refer to the seafaring Scandinavians who plundered, explored, and settled much of northern Europe from the late 8th century to the mid-11th century. But when these warriors were alive, they never actually identified by this name—nor did they even consider themselves to be a unified people.
Vikings came from all walks of life and hailed from numerous chieftain-led tribes around modern-day Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Nobody quite knows how the word “viking” originated, or when we adopted it to describe Nordic raiders as a whole. Historians think "Viking" stems from the Old Norse word vik, meaning "inlet” or “bay," and that it refers to the pirates who used these bodies of water as raiding bases. Ancient Scandinavians used the phrase "to go viking” to describe the act of going exploring, or searching for an adventure.
2. VIKINGS WERE TRAINED WARRIORS.
Many Vikings had no special combat training or military prowess, and were simply ordinary farmers, fishermen, and peasants looking to make an extra buck. If they wanted to join the roving bands, they were required to supply their own weapons and armor—and since the seafaring pirates typically plundered and raided coastal villages, they didn’t always engage in hand-to-hand fighting.
But there is some truth in this myth: Some Vikings were deadly forces on the battlefield—particularly a sect of fierce, elite warriors called “berserkers,” who worshipped Odin, the god of war and death. These men reportedly fought so hard that they slipped into a trance. Today, the etymology of the English word “berserk” can be traced back to them.
3. VIKINGS WORE HELMETS WITH HORNS.
Contrary to popular belief, Vikings didn’t actually wear helmets with horns. In terms of archaeological evidence, only one surviving Viking helmet is known to exist—and sure enough, it’s a simple piece of iron armor with nary a pointed embellishment.
Experts believe that the Vikings either donned protective head coverings made from leather or iron or simply went without them. (Back then, only the very wealthy could afford to own a helmet.) But during the 1840s, costume designer Carl Emil Doepler created stage outfits for Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (1848), an epic music drama loosely based on Norse and German sagas. He designed helmets with horns, and lo and behold—a new stereotype was created.
4. VIKINGS WORE CHAIN MAIL ARMOR AND CARRIED SWORDS.
Most movies and TV shows depict Vikings swinging a sword (or magic hammer) on the battlefield, clad in heavy chain mail armor. Some Vikings did wear coats of mail, but it was expensive, and often only given to high-status individuals to honor their service in battle. When raiders wore protective coverings, they were likely made from leather, bones, quilted fabric, or animal hides.
As for weapons, only the wealthiest Vikings owned swords. Their main weapons were spears, short or long axes, long knives, bows and arrows, and wooden or leather shields.
5. VIKINGS WERE DIRTY AND UNKEMPT.
Vikings led a rough lifestyle, but they didn't let it affect the way they looked (or smelled). Archaeologists have unearthed artifacts like tweezers, combs, nail cleaners, toothpicks, and ear cleaners, indicating that the Nordic raiders had good personal hygiene. They also bathed weekly; styled, groomed, and bleached their hair with lye; and wore eyeliner (yup, even the men).
6. ALL VIKINGS WERE FAIR-HAIRED.
Many blond Vikings lived in Sweden, and Denmark tended to be filled with redheads, but plenty of seafaring raiders had dark hair, too. Nordic raiders took slaves from foreign nations, intermarried with people from (or settled in with) other cultures, and brought people from faraway countries back to Scandinavia with them. This intermingling of ethnicities led to a variety of physical appearances.
7. VIKINGS ONLY HAD FIERCE-SOUNDING NICKNAMES.
Viking sagas are filled with figures whose notorious escapades and bloody battle feats earned them intimidating (if not slightly hyperbolic) nicknames: Thorfinn Skull-Cleaver, Haldar the Unchristian, and Eric Bloodaxe, to name a few. But not all Norse monikers were selected to strike terror into the hearts of enemies. They often described appearances, personalities, and actions—and they weren’t always complimentary.
One (relatively) peaceful warrior was nicknamed “Ǫlvir the Friend of Children” because, unlike his fellow warriors, he refused to skewer captive children on the point of his lance. A famous 11th century Viking king earned the name Magnús Barefoot, or Barelegged, because he traveled to modern-day Scotland, adopted the kilt as his favorite fashion statement, and later introduced the garment to Norway. (Magnús Barefoot's sartorial statement ultimately killed him when his bare legs received a fatal wound during battle.) And we’ll just have to use our imaginations for Kolbeinn Butter Penis.
Additional Source: Guts and Glory: The Vikings, Ben Thompson