The first thing to say about Viking helmets is that they probably didn’t bear much resemblance to whatever you are currently visualising. You know, something with horns protruding from either side.
Unfortunately, the iconic Viking helmet that we all know from popular culture — think the Skol beer branding or the Hägar the Horrible comic strip — is actually a fantastical confection dreamt up by the costume designer Carl Emil Doepler.
It was Doepler’s designs for an 1876 production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen that first showcased the sort of horned Viking helmet with which were are now so familiar.
The origins of the Viking “brand”
Scholars have pointed out that the iconic Viking “brand” owes rather a lot to German nationalism. At the time Doepler conceived of his Viking costumes, Norse history was popular in Germany as it offered a classical alternative to Greek and Roman origin stories, helping to define a distinct sense of German identity.
In the process of shaping this Romanticised Nordic identity, some sort of stylistic hybrid seems to have emerged. This hybrid intertwined elements of Norse and medieval German history to arrive at, among other things, Vikings wearing the sort of horned helmets more typical of Germanic tribes from the Migration Period (375 AD–568).
So what did Vikings really wear on their heads?
Evidence suggests that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Vikings generally favoured something simpler and more practical than a horned helmet. There are only five Viking helmet remains to go on, most of which are just fragments.
The most complete example is the Gjermundbu helmet, which was discovered — alongside the burnt remains of two males and many other Viking artefacts — near Haugsbygd in southern Norway in 1943.
Made from iron, the Gjermundbu helmet was constructed from four plates and had a fixed visor to provide facial protection. It is thought that chainmail would have provided protection for the back and sides of the neck.
The helmet of choice for the average Viking
The fact that only one complete Viking helmet remains — itself reconstructed from fragments — is striking and suggests that many Vikings may have fought without a metal helmet.
Archaeologists have suggested that headgear like the Gjermundbu helmet would have been beyond the means of most Vikings so may only have been worn by high-ranking warriors.
It is also possible that such helmets were simply regarded as heavy and impractical by many Vikings, who may have favoured leather helmets instead. These would have been less likely to survive the centuries.