Modern culture identifies different ideas and interpretations of what the Vikings looked like. These perspectives are influenced by modern films and literary works. Notably, most of these perceptions do not accurately describe what the Vikings looked like back then. So, we are left with the question: what did they really look like? Read on to find out!
- 1. Where did the Vikings come from?
- 2. What did the Vikings really look like?
- 3. How tall were the Vikings?
- 4. Viking facial features
- 5. Viking Hair and Beard
- 6. Viking Hygiene and Beauty
- 7. What color of eyes did Vikings have?
- 8. Viking Lifespan
- 9. The Vikings in Movies
- 10. Appearance
- 11. Outfits
- 12. What did Vikings look like in real life?
- 13. Vikings DNA Discovery
- 14. Viking Jewelry
Where did the Vikings come from?
The Viking Age, which lasted between 793 and 1066 AD, was the period during the Middle ages when seafaring men from Scandinavia, alternatively known as Vikings, undertook colonizing, large-scale raiding, trading and conquest throughout Europe, and successfully reached North America. The Vikings originated from Scandinavia, which is present day Norway, Denmark and Sweden. At the time, these 3 countries as we know them today didn’t exist until the 11th century, which was the end of the Viking Age.
Wherever Viking settlements existed, the Norsemen shared common features such as jewelry, house forms, well-stocked fishing grounds, cultivated farms, and tools. Some Scandinavian literary works also claim that there were Estonian, Finnish, and Saami Vikings as well. What made them different, rather the common ground to set them apart from the Europeans that they confronted and raided was that they were uncivilized, foreign, and were not Christians.
There are several reasons why Vikings left their original homeland to explore parts of Europe and North America. Some researchers claim that some Vikings were looking to settle and start life in new places because their original homeland was overcrowded. Other academics claim that the Vikings were looking for riches, not settler land. By the 8th century, Europe’s economy was growing exponentially, with wealthy trading centers, such as London, Quentovic, Hamwic and Dorestad being established. When the Scandinavan seafaring warriors learnt about this and the inter-state conflicts in Europe, they saw it as an opportunity to embark on fortune-seeking activities.
What did the Vikings really look like?
Today, when we come across tales, movies, and other Icelandic literary works about Vikings, the first thing that runs through our minds is that Vikings were these super tall, violent, and dirty beings with horned helmets on their head. Additionally, we are convinced that Vikings were a group of rowdy and malicious warriors who attacked anyone they came across. While raids and surprise attacks defined the Viking age, it does not define the physical appearance of Vikings. This train of thought leads us to the question: What exactly did the Vikings look like?
How tall were the Vikings?
Currently, the expected average height of a healthy population should be about 176.5 cm for men and approximately 163 cm for women. However, the expected average height of a Viking was about 8-10 cm shorter than humans today. The skeletons discovered by the archeologists at the time show that a woman had an average height of 158 cm and the tallest man was about 172 cm tall.
Several factors determined height in Viking culture, and each of these factors are no different from the ones that determine height in other cultures. The main factor that determined height was genetics. The other factor was the environment that a Viking grew up and lived in. Just to expound on this a little further, food was an important factor that determine the Vikings overall height and health. Care was also another factor that determined overall wellness and height of a Viking. Additionally, shelter and safety played a role in determining a Viking’s overall health and were contributing factors to height. In summary, Norsemen who had access to more or better food and a better lifestyle in the Viking Age were considerably taller than the average Scandinavian.
Also, several literary sources claim that the Viking body size and height was an advantageous in battle as they may have been taller than their opponents.
Viking facial features
Today, there are great differences between the facial features of men and women. However, back then during the Viking features, the facial features of men and women were almost similar. Men had a more feminine face with brow ridges and a less prominent jaw. These features are completely different from the ones on men today. Norse women, on the other hand, had more prominent brow ridges, which are actually a masculine feature. Because of these facial features, it was very difficult for the archaeologists to differentiate between male and female-based skulls. In that regard, the archaeologists and other Scandinavian researchers had to look at other features such as pelvis and height to determine gender. Men were often taller and had a completely different pelvis from women.
Viking Hair and Beard
Most movies and series today tend to show that Vikings had long blonde locks, or locks of any color really, and long beards. But, is that really the case? Not necessarily.
Several studies on Vikings claim that not all Vikings were blonde. There were dark-haired Vikings, blonde ones and redheads. The Vikings, however, considered blonde hair very attractive, which is why they chose to bleach their hair using Lye soap. In addition to that, there wasn’t a specific hairstyle that defined the hairstyle and size of beard. Vikings changed their hair and beard to match their role, time period, and location they were in.
Most Viking men preferred to wear long beards, however, there were some who had shorter beards and others who shaved it all off. According to different Icelandic literary works, Viking men had a variety of beard styles from braided, to long and flowing ones to simple moustaches or very short goatees. Everyone had their individual preferences. No matter how any Viking chose to wear their beard, the beard played an essential role in Viking culture and associations.
Some Vikings were nicknamed based on their beard style, which is why you would come across nicknames such as Gold Beard, The Red, Silk Beard and Fork Beard, in different Norse sagas. Also, you will realize that lacking a beard was a problematic concept. There is an Icelandic saga that describes how the Hero Brunt Njal was often mocked because he was old and beardless.
When it comes to their hair, both the Norse women and men wore their hair long. They would adorn their hair with beads and other hair decorations, and would tie their hair back. However, Viking men would cut or shave their heads at the back.
Viking Hygiene and Beauty
Most people often assume that Vikings were unwashed, rough Scandinavian warriors with mouths filled with froth. Also, you will come across several sources that describe Vikings as filthy beings; however, that wasn’t really the case. Nearly all the archaeological finds in regions where Vikings settled have revealed ear cleaners, combs, tweezers, nail clippers, and toothpicks among other hygiene-related tools. In that regard, we can deduce that the Vikings took pretty good care of themselves and had good hygiene.
Around 1000 AD, there was a Spanish Arab who visited Hedeby. During his visit, he learnt that the Norse men and women often wore make-up to look more attractive and much younger. They used the eye kohl, which when used made them appear 5 times more attractive than usual. Up to date, most women use the eye kohl to enhance their beauty. Moreover, the Vikings were in the practice of filling well-drawn horizontal lines in the enamel of their front teeth, which they would afterwards paint with red raisin. To them, it was an unmatched beauty standard.
In addition to that, most literary works documenting the Viking age openly claim that Viking men looked good, smelled good, and were very clean, which is why they were very attractive to the local women in England. They had a regular grooming routine. The men took a bath every Saturday, which was more often than the English men. This explains why the word Saturday in Norse culture meant washing day. According to John Wallingford – the English chronicler, the Viking men changed their clothes frequently, bathed every Saturday, and used frivolous whims to draw attention to themselves. This is how they managed to have several mistresses and wives. Norse men and women also carried a comb in the pouches found on their belts and ensured that their hair was kempt every day.
Neglecting oneself was considered poor grooming and bad behavior among the Vikings. In fact, bad grooming was associated with factors such as grief and homelessness. This belief came from the life of Odin after Loki killed his son, Baldr. Odin was so devastated that he refused to comb his hair and couldn’t even shower. The same would happen to any other Norsemen. When grieving, they barely looked after themselves and broke nearly all the expected social norms. However, when they recuperated, the first thing they would do is shave, comb their hair and take a long bath.
What color of eyes did Vikings have?
As mentioned earlier, we tend to have different perceptions on what the Vikings look like based on popular literary sources and films. Just as most of us would assume that all Vikings were blonde, we tend to hold the assumption that all Vikings were blue-eyed. However, data acquired through comprehensive DNA sequencing of several Viking Skeletons has revealed that not all Vikings/Norsemen were blue-eyed. Matter of fact, most scientists, researchers, and archaeologists claim that a considerable number of Vikings had dark-colored eyes, mostly hazel and some were black or dark brown.
The Viking skeletons discovered in Ireland and other places show that most of the skeletal remains were easily traced to the Norwegian lineage. Supposedly, the hair and eye colors were more of brown than blonde and blue. While Viking eye colors include brown and other dark hues, we can also affirm that blue eyes are the dominant eye color in the Scandinavian.
According to a detailed survey of nations with the highest percentage of people with blue eyes, 70% of Sweden’s population has blue eyes, 50% of Norway’s population has blue eyes and 50% of Denmark has blue eyes, and 90% of Iceland’s population had blue eyes. Based on these statistics, we can affirm that most of the Vikings had blue eyes.
Back then, it was very rare to find an old Viking because most of them lost their lives in battle. Additionally, the average life expectancy in the Viking Age was much lower than it is currently. A woman had the shortest life expectancy in the Scandinavian region and was expected to live until she was 38 years old. Men, on the other hand, had a higher life expectancy and could live until they were about 40-50 years old. The main reason why women had a lower life expectancy than men in the Viking Age was because of the dangers associated with giving birth to a child. Most women died before, during, or after childbirth.
50 was often considered old among the Vikings, however, there are some who lived until they were about 70 years old. There was one woman at the time who lived until she was 80, however, she developed arthritis which entirely compromised her wellbeing. She was buried in the Osenberg Ship Burial- the vessel which is celebrated as one of the most interesting finds in the Viking age.
It was common for men to die in battle because they their opponents had more advanced weapons. Also, the Vikings believed that dying in battle was honorable and their souls would be sent to Valhalla (Odin’s hall). The Vikings also believed that fallen soldiers would get a chance to fight in Odin’s special army during the Raganarok (battle at the end of the world).
During the Viking age, most people didn’t want to live until they were old and weary because it had no benefits. They believed that the elderly were among the dishonorable dead and would have to spend eternity in Helheim. So, to evade this, the men would join battle and the women would sometimes serve in war.
The Vikings in Movies
There are several Viking movies that have all the sci-fi action and historical drama that we all yearn for. These films, in one way or another, showcase stories about fictional Norsemen or more of a realistic, the roles Vikings played back then and the history of Vikings. Some of them are Outlander, Valhalla Rising, Vikings, the 13th Warrior, and Pathfinder among others. But we are still left with one question: how do the Vikings look like in the movies?
In most of these films, Viking men and women have very long and ruffled hair. Sometimes, their hair was braided in a unique style while others were simply done. Some men tie their hair neatly to the back of their head, while others have their hair braided into small curls. Some women, on the other hand, tend to decorate their hair with beaded or sparkling accessories, while others use simple flowers as hair decorations.
The Viking men flaunt their beards and took care of their beards very well. Viking warriors preferred to have long beards. Some Viking men liked their beard shaggy; others loved short beards, while another group of Viking men preferred to shave their faces clean. There is always another group of Vikings, say the classy and stylish ones, who braid their beard in different styles depending on their preference. We also cannot forget the ones that dye their hair and beard regularly to maintain the looks.
As we all know, nearly all the Viking films are about battles, wars, and fighting. In that regard, all the main characters are often warriors and kings. This explains why the characters ear armors made from tough materials such as iron or bronze metals. In some movies, you will also realize that the Vikings have a horned-helmet on every time they would go to war. In cartoon-based movies, the Viking men are displayed as hat-lovers and pirates with a pegged leg and an eye patch.
The Viking women, on the other hand, wear very long dresses with sleeves. There is a cut-out line on the collar of each dress to slightly reveal the tender breasts of the women. This often made a woman more attractive to a man.
What did Vikings look like in real life?
In terms of height, the Vikings were about 3 to 4 inches shorter than we are today. As we mentioned earlier, women had an average height of 5.1 feet and the average height of a Viking man was 5.6 feet. Also, we cannot forget to mention that Norsemen who had access to a better lifestyle and better nutrition, were always taller than those in lower classes.
Most Hollywood movies give us the idea that Vikings were these muscular men with blonde hair and an unkempt beard. It is also from these movies that the Vikings had a loud voice and unruly life. Well, none of these are accurate in real life. Vikings actually loved their beards and hair very much and took good care of them. One of the most famous hairstyles worn by Viking men was the reverse mullet. The women, on the other hand, had braided hair or wore their long hair as is. The women also decorated their hair using headwares and other hair accessories such as headbands, flowers, and jewelry.
Aside from that, movies show that all Vikings wore armors at all times. However, Viking outfits were determined by class. The Jarls, who were in the highest social class, wore fancy outfits. The Karls, who were in the middle social class, wore clothes made of decent materials and had vestments for important events , while the Thralls, who were the poor, had no choice but to wear mediocre clothes.
In addition to that, the men are depicted as muscular in movies. Well, we do not disagree with that. However, it is important to note that the Viking men back then had more feminine features with smaller brow ridges and a less prominent jaw. The women, on the other hand, who seem fairer in movies, had more masculine features back them. They had more prominent ridges.
To summarize, the differences between Vikings in the movies and in real life aren’t that big. The main thing we need to keep in mind, however, is that the real life Vikings looks much friendlier in real life than they do in movies. To confirm this, you can look through scientific-based documents, take a trip to the Norse world, or visit museums that showcase Norse historical moments.
Vikings DNA Discovery
For the longest time, we have thought that Vikings were blondes and had blue-eyes because that is what legend and pop culture has led us to believe. According to a new and comprehensive study on the DNA of several hundreds of Viking remains, most Vikings had dark-colored eyes and dark hair. These Viking remains dated between 2400 BC and 1600 AD were found from Viking-inhabited areas such as Greenland, Northern Europe, and Italy.
The remains were found buried with a variety of Viking artifacts and material possessions. Also, the genetic study revealed more genetic diversity than what were previously thought. They aren’t just people who came from the land of ice and snow. They were actually a scattered group of Norsemen sea-faring for exploration, trade, and conquest across Europe and the Americas. These are the factors which made them settle far and wide during the Viking age.
Not only did the genetic study prove that Vikings weren’t blue-eyed or blonde, but it also revealed that the Vikings weren’t a distinct ethnic group. Instead, they were a mix of various other groups tracing their ancestry to farmers, hunter-gatherers, traders, and other populations form the Eurasian steppe.
Additionally, the results from the DNA examination state clearly that being a Viking was mostly a concept of culture and belief. They were bound by their Norse beliefs, the activities they pursued, and how they socially interacted with each other. In simpler terms, their identity wasn’t really genetic, but it was social. This explains why a significant amount of individuals in Norway were buried and remembered as Vikings, however, their genes identified them as another tribe (the Saami) who were genetically closer to East Asians and Siberians than to the European population.