Greg Lake once sang the song titled ‘I believe in Father Christmas’: here’s what I believe.
From the Minnesota Vikings’s emblem to children’s toys, in popular culture today the Vikings are known and celebrated for their horned helmets. I celebrate and support them in both popular culture and think we need to rethink their position in the early medieval past. Here’s why.
One of the most unpleasant things about Viking Age archaeology is the gleeful zealotry one encounters among some scholars and students who are keen to discount the reality of horned helmets in the Viking Age. We only have one helmet from the Viking Age, and it has no horns, ergo, there were no horned helmets. Wikipedia denies the horned helmet from the Viking Age, for example. Here’s another example. And another. And yet another.
Yes, it does bugs me slightly to see horned helmets in the last season of Doctor Who. Yes, we need to question and critique popular perceptions of the Viking Age through our academic research. However, rather than celebrating the debunking of a ‘myth of the horned helmet’, I suggest this approach takes us nowhere fast and here’s why:
- mythbusting offers only a hollow victory; if all archaeologists can offer is enthusiastic dismissals of popular icons of the Viking Age, we distance ourselves from one of the key visual dimensions popularly associated with the Vikings to engage people in the early medieval past;
- dismissing horned helmets might be seen as a strategy of exclusion; used by those who know very little about ‘the Vikings’ to exclude those who know even less. Even worse, when used by experts of the Viking Age, the impression delivered is one of effete snobbery rather than ‘putting the record straight’.
- mythbusting is a rhetorical tool open to abuse, allowing those narratives or portrayals without horned helmets in film, media, re-enactment and scholarship to suddenly assert claims of authenticity about the Viking era when they might be equally speculative or constructed with modern agenda at their heart.
- dismissing horned helmets does nothing to create richer appreciations of early medieval societies and their variability through space and time which zillions of archaeological studies have provided over the decades; there are simply plenty other exciting research questions about Viking Age costume and material culture that are positive rather than negative;
there are plenty more insidious uses of the Viking Age in today’s society than horned helmets! Put the horned helmet fatwa aside and let’s focus on these. Recently in parts of Scandinavia, neo-nazis have patrolling the streets claiming to be brothers of Odin, while mass murderers sieg heil in court and claim to be Odinists. The far right in Sweden march through the streets. We wallow in gruesome portrayals of Viking Age ‘heroic’ violence through many TV series which celebrate their historical integrity, all safe and accurate because we have dispatched the horned helmets. In a recent BBC show, Dan Snow fondly characterised murderous exiles like Erik the Red as ‘pioneers’ and ‘entrepreneurs’, and such fond hero-worship is achieved without horned helmets. So do we really think we are challenging abuses of the past by extremists, fantasists and popularists by simply discounting the historicity of horned helmets? Wake up and smell the horrid reality of the 21st century Viking receptions in popular culture and politics!
- while horned helmets of Viking Age date are currently not known, there is plenty of visual evidence for horn-like headdresses in the art circulating in the 7th/8th-centuries AD Scandinavia and England. Some of these are later and arguably ‘Viking Age’. The Uppakra figurine is regarded by Michaela Helmbrecht as made in the 8th/9th centuries. Horn-like headgear, with avian terminals facing each other, could very well have been a key dimension of early Viking Scandinavia as these motifs continued to circulate in art. This might have been just a motif denoting the god Odin, but it isn’t outrageous to speculate that full-sized versions of horned headdresses were used by ritual specialists during ceremonies and perhaps even in the battlefield. Especially so if one or more deities were presenced in the real world through role-playing in ritual and war.
Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; I think a horned headdress will one day be discovered, if not a helmet per se. But then why not a helmet? Reenactors can assert how ludicrously impractical they might be in warfare, and we can argue quite clearly that helmets were usually simpler or not employed at all. Still, it is ridiculously emphatic to deny their possibility, especially when early medieval warfare was all about intimidation and display to help affect the balance in drawn-out, brutal face-to-face stand-offs.
Still not convinced? Well nay-sayers, here is a genuine horned helmet from the Manx Museum!
It might have been manufactured in the 1960s, but it remains a true and accurate 20th-century ‘Viking horned helmet’. Viking horned helmets of the modern era should be regarded as a legitimate subject of archaeological research themselves, even if they didn’t exist (or we currently have no evidence for their existence) in the Viking period itself! The illustrious Manx Museum sees that, why can’t Viking Age scholars?! For accession number: 2006-0340/2 of the museum, visitors can learn:
In Peel in the 1960s a group of enthusiasts formed a re-enactment society, and sought to revise a tradition from the 1930s in which replica Viking longships were built in Peel. Each summer a Viking festival saw Viking encampments on the beach and other attractions for visiting tourists. Chief among the organisers of the revived event was George Cowley of Peel. Cowley regularly posed in Viking costume, including this helmet, and featured in the publicity of the Millennium of Tynwald in 1970 as an archetypal Manx Viking.
Put this all together and it is clear what I believe. Greg Lake of course didn’t believe in Father Christmas in the context of his song. Instead, his song tells us the opposite. Likewise, I don’t believe in horned helmets, but I don’t believe their dismissal is a secure victory for Viking ‘fact’ over Viking fantasy.
Indeed, I don’t need to ‘believe’ or not believe’ in them at all, because there is plenty of evidence that horned headdresses were a familiar artistic motif and might well have had full-sized equivalents in the centuries leading up to the Viking diaspora. However, popularising through mythbusting is a very negative strategy for popular engagement and the assertion that archaeologists dig up ‘real Vikings’ is an insidious discourse on many levels.
To adapt the song by Greg Lake’s final line might help as a fresh starting point for popular engagements with the Viking Age. Let’s move beyond peddling myths and let’s step away from mythbusting too. Instead, let’s write rich and exciting stories about the late first millennium AD from its archaeology.
The Vikings you get you deserve!
I brought back a superb souvenir from the Isle of Man. Here it is!