So … About Vikings and Their Helmets

By Göran R. Buckhorn

What do the Minnesota Vikings, the comic Hägar the Horrible, and Nordic soccer fans have in common? If your answer is “horned helmets,” you’re correct. So did the old Vikings from present-day Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland really have horns on their helmets? Answer: Never!

In the 1840s, a mass emigration to the United States started from European countries, especially from Great Britain, Ireland, and Germany. Among the Nordic countries, Norway and Sweden also saw many of their citizens leaving for America for what they hoped would be a better life. Finns and Danes followed in the 1880s. Many Scandinavians settled in the eastern Mid-west, where the land of Minnesota was good and cheap for the European immigrants.

During a time of Romantic nationalism in the late 18th and 19th centuries, the Norsemen received a revival. The German composer Richard Wagner was strongly influenced by Norse mythology, which can clearly be seen in his Des Ring des Nibelungen, a cycle of four epic music dramas. The Ring is based on characters from the Norse sagas and Nibelungenlied, which is an epic German poem from around 1200. The first performance of The Ring opened in 1876 with costumes designed by Carl Emil Doepler, who was a German costume designer, painter, and illustrator. He had designed winged helmets for the characters in Wagner’s opera series. Some years later, Doepler published a book on Germanic gods and heroes, now also with horns on their helmets. The horned Viking helmet was born.

Fast forwarding seven decades, in 1951, American short-story writer and novelist Edison Marshall published The Viking, which in 1958 was turned into a swaggering, star-studded film, The Vikings [sic], with Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, and Ernest Borgnine. Among other places, the movie was filmed on a Norwegian fjord. To form two crews of rowing Vikings for the film, 125 top Nordic oarsmen from rowing clubs were gathered: 60 Norwegians, 64 Danes, and one Swede – the latter was this article writer’s rowing coach. No helmets with horns were used in this movie!

In 1954, the Swedish author Frans G. Bengtsson’s two-volume novel The Long Ships was translated into English (published in Sweden in 1941 and 1945). The novel became an instant success and neither the Swedish nor English editions have ever been out of print. Jumping on the success, a film with the same name as the novel was made in 1964, staring Richard Widmark, Sidney Poitier, and Russ Tamblyn. It has to be mentioned that this Anglo-Yugoslav film is very loosely based on the great novel by Bengtsson. In short, the film is terrible.

With a new Viking revitalization, it was not strange that in September 1960, a professional football team based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, took the name Minnesota Vikings to recognize the rich Scandinavian-American culture in the state. Already from the start, the Vikings’ logo was the profile of a blond Norseman with a helmet with horns, which was designed by Karl Hubenthal, a cartoonist at the Los Angeles Examiner.

Two years later, the fictional superhero Thor, based on the Asgardian god of thunder, appeared in comic books published by Marvel Comics. Created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby, Thor looked like he had just stepped out of Doepler’s sketch pad, a giant of a man, or god, carrying his mighty hammer Mjolnir and with a winged helmet on his head. In the enormous popular 2010s Thor movies by Marvel Comics, the superhero can, at times, be seen wearing a helmet, not with wings or horns, but with some odd-looking metal pieces sticking up like a large, double-sided cell phone attached to his headgear.

In 1973, a new character in a comic strip saw the light of day, Hägar the Horrible, created by Dik Browne, and later continued by Browne’s son, Chris. Hägar, often also Hagar, is a red-haired, overweight, scruffy-looking Norwegian Viking with a horned helmet. As a matter of fact, Hägar’s whole family, including a dog and a duck, are wearing horns on their helmets, except his sweet daughter, who is dressed as a young Valkyrie with a winged helmet. According to numbers from 2010, the Hägar comic strip is published in 1,900 newspapers in 56 countries.

So, how about the Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, and Icelandic soccer supporters, why are they wearing Viking helmets with horns? First of all, coming from the countries of the Vikings, the fans should know better. Are the helmets making them look fierce or even berserk-like in the eyes of their opponents? No, not really. Google “Swedish soccer fans” on the internet and the images you get are of people with happy, blue-and-yellow-painted faces – and horned helmets. Could it be that the only Viking helmets that are around to purchase in toy stores and souvenir shops in the Nordic countries are helmets with horns? It is very likely…

Going back to the Viking age: wouldn’t it be terribly impractical for Viking warriors to wear helmets with horns or wings in a battle? Wouldn’t it be easy for an opponent to knock off the helmet by hitting the horns sticking up? And walking on the deck of a longship, wouldn’t the horns on the helmet rip the sail?

There are no sources suggesting that Viking had horns on their helmets. Yale professor Anders Winroth rejects the Viking horned helmets in his fascinating book The Age of the Vikings (2014). If you are visiting one of the two latest installed exhibitions at Mystic Seaport Museum, The Vikings Begin: Treasures from Uppsala University, Sweden, which opened on May 19, among the beautiful helmets from the 7th century, not a single one has horns. That should tell you something.

Göran R Buckhorn is editor of Mystic Seaport Museum Magazine.