by Paul Atherton
They came wearing horned helmets; they raped, they pillaged and they conquered. At least that’s what everyone thinks.
We all love those Vikings horned helmets the historians tell us there weren’t any! Only one helmet has been found: a tenth century article with an iron cap and a face guard, but no sign of any horns. Only a king could afford to wear something as expensive and even that had no horns. Horned helmets have a separate history. They were German. The first horned helmet made its appearance at the 1876 Bayreuth Festival for a performance of Wagner’s The Ring; it was made by an imaginative dramatist by the name of Carl Emil Dopler.
So how do we know anything of the Vikings? The Icelandic sagas were written far away and two centuries after the events they describe. Nice stories but they are less like contemporary evidence than contemptible evidence. Snorri may have been a good poet but he is also described as a politician, which probably means we can’t believe a word he said.
A real shame, as he reveals a complex and fantastic culture. OK, his description of Valhalla was a bit violent. Odin and Thor gathered armies of the dead to spend all day fighting and slaughtering each other but in the evenings they came back to life again and chatted nicely over a horn of mead. Then after two horns they argued, then after three …… well, normal service was resumed. Think of it as like the average rugby club on Saturday night, with extra ravens, and you’ll soon get the idea.
Perhaps the nicest thing about Valhalla was the chance to encounter a pretty blonde Valkyrie, who could pamper you and allow you lie back comfortably while you emptied your horn. This is where it differs from the rugby club. Most of their boys are happy to empty their own horns.
Can we be sure about any of this evidence when Viking history is so obscure? They left almost nothing in writing. Just a few gravestones with runic scribbling on them. A complex and interesting people, but barely a single literate person among them. All contemporary records of their actions were written by their enemies, who might have been trying to understate just how very nice they really were.
We can read a lot about them; they feature a lot in drama and film. Few can forget the immortal words of the great bard: “A Norse, a Norse, my kingdom for a Norse.”
When it really comes down to it we are lucky that the Vikings made so many films. There is even one with Kirk Douglas, that most famous of all Scandinavian warriors. I am delighted to say that he does have a horned helmet. The film ends with his body being burnt in his longship as it drifts across the sea, another thing the historians are agreed never happened. So there you are! Complete and unarguable proof that the historians are not always right.
When you think about it, if the Vikings had not worn horned helmets they would have missed a big opportunity to terrorise, intimidate and subdue their enemies. They could charge with their heads down and impale all of their opponents, no weapons needed. If they did not wear them then they should have. So let’s forget about the views of those boring, geeky old historians and go with the dramatists on this one.
Vielen Dank für den Hörnern, Herr Dopler !