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Vikings wearing helmets with horns has been stereotyped by cartoon shows and animated depictions of vikings. Vikings are also portrayed as beasts and savages who looted and raided innocent shrines and institutions. But archeological evidences prove that vikings wore plain helmets and traded a fair bit as well. So where did this pre-conceived notion come from?

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    You are using Viking with a capital V to refer to Norse or Scandinavian persons. Dark age persons from Scandinavia were ethnically either Danish, Swedish, or Norwegian. There was an occupation called viking, not Viking. The viking occupation was that of pirate or sea raider. So by definition all vikings were savage, barbaric, criminals. Other persons in Scandinavia could have been, and sometimes were, good people, but anyone who joined a viking crew was beastly and savage and probably worse than the stereotype. – MAGolding May 27 at 16:11
  • @MAGolding Why are the vikings referred to as having conquered territory or having superior boat/navigation technology? Are they more synonymous with privateers/conquistadors sanctioned by the local Scandinavian authorities, or an independent faction--a psuedo nation? – donlan May 28 at 11:52
  • @MAGolding damn I can't find it now but I read a post denying that – WendyG May 28 at 16:29
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It started with the vikings themselves...

Helmets with horns?

Depictions of an Iron Age date exist featuring people with horned helmets/heads, such as upon the Golden Horns. Similar images are also known from the Viking period itself.

In the Oseberg burial from Norway, which dates to the early Viking period, a tapestry was found on which horned helmets are also depicted. Does this prove that all Vikings wore the famous helmets with horns? The answer is probably not. However, there is some evidence to suggest that certain warriors wore such headgear. The horned figures on the Golden Horns are berserkers. These were wild warriors, who threw themselves into battle in a trance-like fury. We are also familiar with them from the Icelandic sagas, in which they are amongst the most feared of all Vikings.

It is also possible that such headgear was worn for display or for cultic purposes. In a battle situation, horns on a helmet would get in the way. Such helmets would also have caused problems on board the warships, where space was already at a premium. In addition, none of the contemporary sources mention Vikings wearing horned headgear.

Viking helmets

The idea that all vikings wore these horned helmets is a more recent invention...

The popular image of the strapping Viking in a horned helmet dates back to the 1800s, when Scandinavian artists like Sweden’s Gustav Malmström included the headgear in their portrayals of the raiders. When Wagner staged his “Der Ring des Nibelungen” opera cycle in the 1870s, costume designer Carl Emil Doepler created horned helmets for the Viking characters, and an enduring stereotype was born.

Did Vikings really wear horned helmets?

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    While it would be quite impractical to wear horns into battle, that is theoretical and soldiers aren't always rational in how they decorate for battle. There is very scant archaeological evidence en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gjermundbu_helmet either way. That the Viking revival indeed brought about the fixed stereotype is not refuting actual Viking practice. – LаngLаngС May 27 at 11:00
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    The modern stereotype is probably because it looks cool, and it's also a distinctive way to portray them. – Barmar May 27 at 19:02
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    I'd love to think that some Vikings "glued" horns on their helmets just before battle, but those horns would come unstuck and fall off if struck or whatever (so offer little impediment to the wearer). Reasons for doing so are obviously to instill fear in their enemies, but with modern hindsight, also to confuse archaeologists and historians ;-) Sadly, I doubt my wild fantasies have any basis in fact :-( – Ralph Bolton May 28 at 8:28
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    @Barmar That is indeed a part I feel is underrated. Any visual design is a form of communication. You can put horns on the helmet and everybody will understand immediately. With exceptions, anytime a designer would not use this easy sign and instead goes for something more complicated, it's a worse design. If it's correct or not doesn't matter as much as that the designer can't stand next to each poster to explain what it means. – R. Schmitz May 28 at 9:23
  • @R.Schmitz Some creators feel they're making an important point by making things more historically realistic rather than following old tropes. I also find it annoying when English-language shows have foreign characters speaking in their own language (I frequently have to pause to read the subtitles), but I understand the artistic intent. – Barmar May 28 at 14:42
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You can blame the early ages of archaeology when differences between the different northern cultures and time periods were not well understood.

Horned helmets did exist in the bronze age, the Vikso helmets from Denmark an obvious example though these weren't known when the early depictions of Vikings with horned helmets were made. Mycenaean helmets judging from art from the period also had horns, possibly actual animal horns if the helmets made of boar tusks are any indicator.

Such helmets likely derive from early societies where horned animals were venerated. A series of deer skulls with antlers, modified to be used as hats were discovered at Star Carr in Yorkshire dating back to the stone age. Some had holes drilled into them in front of the antlers, presumably as eye holes.

Horned helmets of heroes or gods appear in Anglo-Saxon art such as on some of the panels on the Sutton Hoo helmet. They also appear in later Norse art.

Horned helmets appear in the Iron Age where Samnite and Celtic warriors wore them, probably an archaism from the earlier Bronze Age. They also appear in Celtic art and Roman depictions of Celtic warriors as well as Etruscan art.

There are also Bronze Age helmets from Greece with bronze wings of the Chalcidian type.

So helmets with horns or similar decoration are well attested.

My guess is that the classic Viking horned helmet is based on finds like those from Bronze Age Crete - the Horned God and Ingot God. Both have headresses/helmets with bulls horns. The examples from Viking art tend to have balls on the ends of the horns whereas these Cretan statues have sharp horns which is what we see in the classic Viking depiction.

I suspect the horned helmets depicted on the Golden Horns of Gallehus are actually horned entities similar to the Celtic Cernunnos. One is holding a circle which is similar to the torc Cernunnos holds and both are next to a collection of animals which Cernunnos is also associated with. There are two warriors nearby holding shields showing that the circle held by the horned figure is not a shield but an empty circle.

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