Viking Age hairstyles were significant for a number of reasons. To the modern eye, these styles might seem impressive and fashionable, but there's a world of meaning and purpose behind them.
Hair is always an important aspect of Viking depictions. Whether you see them depicted on the History Channel or on ancient engravings, you'll notice the myriad ways that these individuals styled their hair in different situations.
We're going to take a deeper look at the hairstyles of Vikings today, giving you a clear insight into the look and meaning of Viking hairstyles. The ideas below might even inspire you to take on a new look of your own!
Let's get started.
Viking History & What It Means for Hair
The Vikings were an incredibly prolific and well-traveled people. The Viking age, lasting from around 750 to 1050, was a short period marked by expansion, trade, travel, and even colonization.
Vikings interacted with most of Europe, including Iceland, Greenland, and even Newfoundland (in modern Canada) by the end of the Viking Age. They'd also made their way to Northern Africa and areas of the Middle East surrounding the Caspian Sea.
We mention this travel because it implies cultural infusion. The collision of two cultures is bound to result in a give and take from each group. Different groups of Vikings might have had African influence on their hairstyles, whereas others might have infused a Russian style with their original Swedish or Norweigian look.
Further, it took a long time to make these journeys and establish settlements. As a result, groups of Swedish and Norwegian Vikings spread around Europe and the surrounding areas soaking up various nuanced cultures. Individuals might have been born in the Middle East and brought up with Viking culture, but influenced by the hair, language, and attitudes of Middle Eastern peoples.
The result was a wide-ranging selection of different hairstyles. When we think about Viking hair, we have to remember that the styles were enmeshed with other cultures, refined, and incredibly diverse. You can see a glimpse of this by watching the show the History Channel's Vikings, wherein Ragnar, Loki, and other characters are constantly changing hairstyles.
Hair is almost always an integral aspect of different cultures. Each respective culture places a unique significance upon hair, the way it's done, and how a person's hair reflects their standing in society. So, while Vikings might have had original styles in Scandanavia, it's important to remember that there was a constant influx of new styles and ideas entering the Scandinavian Peninsula.
One obstacle in understanding Viking hairstyles is that they were a predominantly oral culture. We can take queues from writings about Vikings from different cultures, however. It's also useful to look at Viking-themed pieces of ancient art, which we will do in this article.
The Meanings of Hair in Viking Society
Vikings expressed a lot of meaning through their appearance, both in terms of personality and societal status.
Clothing and jewelry were of high importance, and Vikings had intricate crafts, possessions, clothing, and pieces of functional art. By functional art, we mean things like combs, weaponry, cookware, and more.
Each possession that a person used could be used in honor of the gods, as a representation of their place in society, and more. This article by Natural Hair Mag describes the spiritual and cultural significance of hair across cultures.
While it's hard to estimate the exact meanings of different aspects of most Viking hairstyles, we can assume that all hairstyles were intentional and infused with meaning. Also, as we'll learn, Vikings were exceptionally interested in grooming and keeping their hair a certain way.
People who were concerned enough to keep combs as "universal possessions" certainly viewed hair with a lot of importance.
There are a couple of common views of Viking hairstyles. We see both of them in equal measure in media and art.
The first, more primitive image is that of the dirty-looking barbarian. We can imagine someone with a filthy mess of tangled hair and a long beard rife with debris and knots. This is the type of person you imagine ambushing your shores, emerging from a dragon-engraved ship, and raiding your town.
Like all cultural stereotypes, this one is deeply inaccurate when we're thinking about Norse culture. The image of the barbaric Viking is, in all likelihood, the result of ancient propaganda.
Cultures that were affected by Viking raids would have deeply feared these people, and it was in the best interest of those in power to paint an unsavory picture of them. It's a lot easier for communities to rally against the "dirty savage" than the sailor who's looking to find wealth for his family.
Add the fact that these men and women had been sailing for weeks or months to reach foreign shores. It would have been a lot harder to stay well-groomed while sailing on a crowded ship. They were sailing across Europe to raid towns and villages, so it was justifiable to be afraid of the Vikings.
That said, they probably looked a lot different than they seem in modern depictions of "barbarians." In reality, Vikings took a lot of pride in their appearance. They might have even been more clean-shaven and clean than many people in places like England or France.
High Grooming Standards
One account from a man named John of Wallingford cites the impact that a group of Viking men had on English women. He says,
"[d]anes made themselves too acceptable to English women by their elegant manners and their care of their person. They combed their hair every day, bathed every Saturday, and changed [their garments] often."
That account was made sometime in the 11th century. It's important to note that different cultures ebbed and flowed in terms of wealth and that likely corresponded to the level of cleanliness and hygiene that enjoyed. Vikings certainly placed a high value on personal grooming, but that isn't to say that they were always more cleanly or well-groomed than other cultures in that area.
Our point in saying this is that the myth of the "dirty savages" is untrue. Again, Vikings incited fear because of their sailing and raiding practices, prompting different cultures to produce fearful images of them.
Also, there were many different cultural groups isolated within Viking culture. These groups were more or less wealthy and would have enjoyed different levels of personal hygiene. Viking men and women famously carried combs everywhere they went!
Viking people were often buried with their combs, showing how important these objects were to daily life.
These were very similar to modern combs as well. The teeth were fine, small enough to weave through rough patches of hair, and even had ornate cases.
These carrying cases, along with the combs, were made of wood, antler, bone, stone, and more. They would even have runes engraved on them or different images, according to the beliefs of the individual. According to Neil Price in his book Vikings: Children of Ash and Elm, combs and carrying cases would have been "universal possessions" to most Viking peoples.
The Hair of Viking Women
Viking women wore their hair long in most cases. Long, well-kept hair was valued in the face of all the hard work that these women had to do.
These women often had more freedom and responsibility than most women in Europe at that time. They held roles similar to men in many cases, owning land, managing businesses, and even fighting in battles. Simultaneously, they held down the primary roles and responsibilities of the household.
Things like tending to animals, preparing food, and crafting the family's clothes would have been extremely time-consuming. Long, draping hair hanging over your face while you're weaving a family's-worth of clothes would be an inconvenience. As a result, women adjusted their hair to be tidy and out of their faces.
There are many depictions of women wearing buns and tight braids, often tied into a knot. The use of braided hair was extremely common for Viking women. Braids of various styles ranging from loose and draping to extremely tight would have been common.
An ancient carving of a Viking shieldmaiden depicts a woman ready to enter battle. Her hair is woven into fine, extremely tight braids that run down to the ends of her long hair. Then, you see the long hair knotted (literally, tied into an actual knot) at the very back of the head.
This might have been a common style, while it also could've been the way it was traditionally worn when entering battle. Women would have enjoyed a lot of different hairstyles. They might have even shaved their head in some areas and left other areas long.
The reverse mullet could have been a style for both men and women. Further, married women might have had different hairstyles than single women, and the same could be said for those who were regularly going into battle!
Textile research also shows that people in the Viking Age would have had evolving fashions using colors and various styles that diverged from the norm. In a society that values fashion and personal hygiene, it's natural to think that men and women would both enjoy a wide variety of hairstyles.
Hats and Bonnets
It's easy to imagine that Viking women wore clothes in the "barbaric" style that Viking men are depicted in.
While these simple clothes might have been common in some areas, remember that Viking people spread across the breadth of Europe, soaking up various cultures.
As a result, Viking women adopted the practice of wearing caps and bonnets in some cases. The upper-class "Jarl" women and middle-class "Karl" women would have experimented with different hats according to their positions in society.
Upper-class women, much like those in England and France, might have worn traditional bonnets. Middle-class women would have been more inclined to wear a simple wool cap.
Evidence of Equality: The Birka Warrior
One of the great examples of females in Viking Age culture is the Birka Warrior.
While it's contested slightly, most research agrees that the remains of a warrior in Birka, Sweden are female.
It was thought to be male for more than 140 years after its discovery. The possessions and arrangement of the body indicate high social status and significance as a warrior. Further, the grave was marked by a massive boulder atop a hill in a culturally significant area.
From 1878 on, the remains were always thought to have been an incredibly important person, even a great leader of Swedish Vikings. The individual was wearing silk clothing, accompanied by a number of battle weapons and the remains of two horses.
It was only after the discovery that this was not a Viking man that individuals questioned the importance of the person. These concerns come in light of a commonly held belief that women weren't as important in Viking culture, although the remains suggest a much different reality.
"Viking culture" encompasses many of the groups of Northern Europe. Vikings lived in many different ways. So, just because one woman could have led a group of Vikings doesn't mean that other Viking groups or Germanic tribes would have accepted this.
That said, the Birka Warrior shows that women had upward mobility, respect, and likely had the ability to do their hair as they pleased.
Viking Men Hairstyles
Viking expectations for hair length and hairstyles were pretty loose. There weren't strict requirements for men to adhere to. A man's hair might have been shaved down to a nub, woven into a man bun, or arranged in intricate braids that ran down the length of his back.
Vikings looked very different from individual to individual. Shaving, trimming, and braiding hair in different ways was very normal. In most cases, though, Viking men would have had their hair at around shoulder length.
Some would have had their hair cropped short or enjoyed very short hair in particular places of their head. Hairstyles often involved combinations of shaved heads and long hair, organized in unique ways.
If someone was going into battle, they might have trimmed or shaved their heads to streamline themselves. Braiding beards and hair would have served this purpose as well.
Some accounts even state that Viking men would bleach their hair. Using a combination of beech wood ash and animal fat, they would lighten their hair. The result would be a reddening or whitening. Roman historian, Pliny the Elder, stated that "the men more than the women" would take part in this practice.
Sources and Historical Artifacts
Vikings were a predominantly oral culture. There aren't many written accounts of their histories.
Their primary form of writing was the runic alphabet. Runes are symbols that serve as letters and are typically used to tell stories or indicate significance.
While this is certainly a form of writing, Viking cultures didn't have particularly detailed written histories or texts to work with. Most of the runic writing we find is engraved on stones, etched onto personal artifacts, or described from other cultures.
In fact, the earliest instance of the Danish runic language is found on a comb dated to around 160 A.D. This fine-toothed comb looks a lot like the ones that we have today. It's etched with runes that are thought to say wither "warrior" or "comb."
Historians also say that this runic writing implies a history of at least 100 years of writing. That is to say that these people had been writing in the language for at least 100 years before the comb was made.
The fact that a 1,800-year-old comb is the oldest artifact ever found with runic symbols says something about the culture that it came from. Personal hygiene was a huge priority even before the Viking Age, which started around 750 A.D.
Runic writings leave a lot to be desired when it comes to learning about the nuances of the culture. There aren't descriptions saying "Viking women did this" or "Viking men did that." Instead, there's a lot of detail about mythology which we can use to infer different cultural details.
Unfortunately, most of the other primary sources found in history are secondhand accounts of Viking encounters. We also find numerous cravings and pieces of art that depict Viking warriors.
As we mentioned above, secondhand accounts of cultures, especially ancient cultures, are bogged down with stereotypes and misperceptions. Some dutiful historians of old have done their best to leave some traces of Viking hairstyles, though.
"Bare Neck and Blinded Eyes"
There are a couple of primary sources that historians interpret in their attempts to understand Viking hairstyles. The difficulty with these sources is that they're shrouded in history, open to interpretation, and one could have been written second-hand more than 20 years after the particular encounter occurred.
The first source comes from Aelfric of Eynsham, an English abbot living from 955 to 1010. While he's held in extremely high regard as a Benedictine abbot and grammarian of Old English, it's worth noting that ancient Christians and Vikings didn't have the best relationship!
In fact, Vikings would sometimes target monasteries and coastal churches in their raids because they were often unprotected. As a result, old Aelfric might not have thought so kindly of Vikings and their "pagan" ways.
In his Letter to Edward, Aelfric addresses a man who has adopted a few Viking traditions in favor of his old English ones. He says, "you do something unrighteous abandoning the English customs... and loving the customs of the heathens... dressing yourself as a Dane, with bare neck and blinded eyes." [emphasis mine]
It's the last sentence that gives us a little insight. This sentence implies that a "bare neck" and "blinded eyes" are traditional styles of Viking culture.
These descriptions are clearly coming from a place of frustration and exaggeration, however. It's not as if Vikings actually blinded their own eyes.
Instead, this passage is believed to mean that Edward had shaved the back of the head and grown the front of his hair out long. Imagine reverse mullets.
Images of Viking men often show them with the neck and back of the head completely shaven. These depictions show the front of the head with some amount of hair, although it's not always draped over the individual's eyes.
Leo The Deacon's History
Leo the Deacon was born around 100 years before the end of the Viking Age.
In his account of a meeting between a highborn Viking and a monarch concerning a truce, he says that the Viking had a completely shaved head aside from a lock of hair that fell down to one side.
The passage states "[h]is head was shaven clean. Some of his hair fell on one side of his head, showing the high rank of his kin."
The original Greek text uses a word for "one side" that could also mean "both sides." This is an operative word that, unfortunately, confuses the sentence to those of us reading it 1,000 years later! That said, we know that this man either had hair falling down to one side or to both sides of his head, with the surrounding areas completely shaven.
This excerpt gives us a look at the hairstyles of highborn Viking men. That isn't to say that all Viking nobility would have had this style, though.
It's also worth noting that it's unknown if Leo the Deacon was present at this meeting and 20 years had gone by between the encounter and the writing of the book! The details of the account are very specific, but memory can fail a person after that amount of time, especially if it's a secondhand account of a personal grooming description.
The Oseberg Ship Burial
The Oseberg ship burial discovery is one of the best-preserved discoveries from the Viking Age.
The ship, found with the skeletons of two females and a number of artifacts, was discovered inside a massive burial mound. The ship is pieced back together in excellent condition and contains numerous beautiful engravings dating back to roughly 800 A.D.
One of the artifacts inside the Oseberg ship burial was something called the "Oseberg Tapestry." This ancient tapestry depicts dozens of people riding horses, wearing helmets, and wearing their hair in the ways described above.
We see women wearing buns, a few instances of braided hair long on the sides of shoulders, and a few other instances of shoulder-length hair. Most of the people in the tapestry are wearing colorful hats and helmets, however, so we don't see their hair.
That said, the Oseberg tapestry is a great artifact that gives us direct Viking insight into what these people would have worn and how they would have done their hair.
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