Everybody is familiar with the visual image. Horned helmets mean you’re looking at a Viking. Horned helmets and long ships, it’s their thing.
Only without the horned helmets.
I know, I know, is nothing sacred?
This is a real Viking helmet:
Viking Helmet. Gjermundbu, Norway. 10th century.
Yes, I know it’s a little beat up looking, but it’s over a thousand years old. Cut it some slack. Notice something lacking? No horns. And no, the horns didn’t fall off. They were never there in the first place. Vikings wore smooth, somewhat cone shaped helmets with eye and nose guards that were designed to be worn while fighting – something where extra flourishes and handles such as wings and horns would be a serious disadvantage.
So where did the idea come from?
A lot of it seemed to have been plain and simple confusion. The Ancient Greek and Romans had records telling of the the “Barbarians to the North” wearing horned helmets. But those helmets were for ceremonial purposes only, not to wear in battle. It was also way before the
Viking era, since the Greek and Roman records are from before the 8th century. It was also talking about the “Barbarians” in the area that is now southern Germany and France, not Scandinavia. To make it even more fun, it’s the area that is now Germany and France back before it was populated with Germanic people – it belonged to the Celtic tribes back then.
Even then, the confusion would have probably sorted itself out if not for opera; more specifically, Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. The opera is based on the historical epic, the Nibelungenlied (which if you don’t speak German means The Song of the Nibelungs. It’s an epic poem in Middle High German about slaying dragons). So it’s a German opera about a Germanic Middle Ages epic poem. You can read it HERE here if you’ve got some free time.
Yes, I’m getting to how this gets to the Vikings, don’t worry.
See, this is the kind of costumes they wore in Der Ring des Nibelungen:
Manly man is manly.
Pretty fantastic, eh? Wagner was writing his Operas during a movement called the Romantic period. Wagner’s costume designer went all out on this latest art fashion and pulled all sorts of motifs from Germanic and Celtic and Classical themes and smashed them together -- which is how the play ended up with costumes with women with armored tops, flowing gown bottoms, and helmets with wings and horns on them.
1897 Illustration from Wagner's Die Walkure.
Really, how could that be anything other than historically accurate?
So, it’s not that Wagner thought about going out and creating a mythology of people wearing horned helmets, it’s that it was the style at the time for mythically themed plays. If he did it today, they’d probably be wearing unikilts and ironic hipster beards. And you have to admit, the quasi-Classical/Germanic/Celtic thing was a good look. It was incredibly popular in advertisements. It was everywhere.
Most of the people at the time (just like now) didn’t really have a very good knowledge of history or even when “the Viking” age was. Most people at the time actually considered the ancient Germanic tribes and the Celtic tribes to be the exact same thing. There were also some pretty strong ideas floating around that the Scandinavians were a “purer” group than many of the people who lived in Germany at the time because of intermixing with people from neighboring countries like France, Spain, and Italy (the Nazis are kind of famous for taking this idea and running with it to the extreme). [*]
Thanks to such Nordic cheerleading (especially though groups such as Geatish Society), the Scandinavians in popular imagination became the vanguard of the Nordic ways and the imagery of the armored warrior in a fancy horned helmet Viking was born.
Incidentally, modern research suggests that those ancient ceremonial Celtic and Germanic horned helmets were more than just a fancy helmet -- the horns were to represent that the wearer was representing a god or supernatural being.
Avengers fans, eat your hearts out.