The popular image of the Vikings is one of fearsome warriors wearing horned helmets. Many depictions of the Vikings display this particular attribute. However, there is only one preserved helmet from the Viking Age and this does not have horns. It was found in the Norwegian warrior’s burial at Gjermundbu, north of Oslo, together with the only complete suit of chain mail from the period.
Parts of helmets have been found in Denmark, including “brow ridges” to protect the warrior’s face in battle. The lack of helmet finds may also be partly due to the fact that no tradition existed of placing them in graves. In addition, helmets were not sacrificed like spears and swords, so we do not come across them in this context either. It is also possible that relatively few Vikings wore helmets and therefore only a small number are found today.
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.