The Debunker: Did Viking Helmets Have Horns?

by Ken Jennings

On May 11, 1963, a Los Angeles couple named Ron and Phyllis Patterson held a weekend-long radio station fundraiser they called a "Renaissance Pleasure Faire," giving birth to a whole new entertainment industry based on corsets, meat pies, and stilted faux-Shakespearean English. This month, to celebrate the 55th anniversary of Ye Olde Renaissance Festival, we've asked Jeopardy!'s Ken Jennings to drop by and give us the scoop on what really went on during the Middle Ages. He's going to get medieval on your ass…umptions.

The Debunker: Did Viking Helmets Have Horns?

The horniness of Vikings is well beyond the purview of this column, but I am willing to take on the horniness of their helmets. After all, the big spiky horns are the one things that everyone knows about the fashion stylings of medieval Scandinavian raiders. They show up everywhere from Bugs Bunny cartoons to Capital One credit card ads. But it's all a lie. The only Viking helmets that ever had horns on them were Minnesota Vikings helmets. And those were historically inaccurate too.

The Debunker

The tradition of animal-like horns on helmets goes back to the Bronze Age, but they were mostly used on ritual headwear, as they seemed impractical for combat. (Don't give your enemy big handles to grab onto you with! It's the same reason nobody in The Incredibles wears capes!) All artwork of Norse sailors from the period depicts them in simple iron or leather helmets, and the one surviving Viking helmet we have (unearthed on a Norwegian farm in 1943) is hornless. Earlier Germanic soldiers and barbarians may have used horns and antlers to intimidate adversaries, however, and that's what led to the confusion. As with so many of society's ills, the culprit here…is opera.

In the mid-19th century, the Romantic movement was big on a gorgeous, idealized version of the glories of Europe's past. In particular, Scandinavian artists put the Vikings in much fancier headgear when they illustrated new editions of the Norse sagas. When Richard Wagner's Ring of the Nibelung opera cycle was first performed in the 1870s, costume designer Carl Emil Doepler put Germanic horns on the Norse heroes and valkyries, creating a popular association that refuses to die. Of course, Germany's fascination with tying itself to a bold, romanticized Nordic past also produced Hitler, so inaccurate helmet bling isn't the worst thing we got out of German Romanticism.

Quick Quiz: Where have Viking 1 and Viking 2 been since 1976?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.