I’ve said it before: I believe in horned helmets.
Yet the two concurrent television dramas set in the 9th century – Vikings (now completed 5 seasons) and The Last Kingdom (now 3 seasons in) have been at pains to purge horned helmets from their costumes. This helmet-purge doesn’t stop them deploying all manner of imaginative artefacts, fabulous textile and leather clothing, hairstyles, guy-liner and tattoos, many of which are not convincingly attested in the historical or archaeological record. Yet somehow the absence of horned headgear serves a triple symbolic purpose for these shows.
First, it allow lead actors to be readily identified in battle scenes, and so Uhtred and Floki and all those in between wander around on the battlefield without any protection for their fragile crania: not even hard leather skull-caps.
Second, it serves as an ‘ethnic marker’ – it allows the flowing locks of the male and female Norse warriors to be shown off, and helps visually articulate the fatalistic battle bravado of the Vikings as opposed to their foes who are more sensible, cautious and therefore even the bravest of the Saxon and Frankish warriors wear helmets.
Third, and most importantly I feel, despite all other outrageous costume choices made by these shows – the absence of horned helmets among the Norsemen serves to demonstrate to the audience that the dramas are ‘serious’ about authenticity. No silly horned helmets here: these are real Vikings!
Now, Franks, Saxons and others can don all manner headgear, but ‘Danes’ and ‘Northmen’ must be bare-headed, perhaps fearing that horns might spontaneously sprout from any head-covering they sport for combat purposes.
In regards to recent TV, only in the Norwegian comedy Norsemen do we find horned helmets deployed in jest.
Turning to Vikings, one can spot the occasional helmet in Season 1 to denote foreigners (Swedes at the wedding of Earl Haraldson and Siggy’s daughter) and ritual specialists (a winged helmet worn by the giantess/Angel of Death at Earl Haraldson’s funeral). A few warriors wear modest helmets in the background in battle scenes in Season 1 and the start of Season 2, but they are very rare. Moreover, helmets are completely absent in most of Season 2 and cannot be found on the Northmen for much of seasons 3 and 4 of Vikings. In stark contrast, throughout these seasons, the Northumbrians, West Saxons and Franks get to wear some fabulous fictitious headgear into battle.
What’s fascinating is that the near-complete ban on helmets is subverted to create a distinctive persona for one of the lead characters: Ivar the Boneless. Crippled from birth, Floki builds him a chariot and gives him a unique non-horned helmet for battle in Season 4 part 2. You can tell Floki designed it: it looks like an up-turned longship landed on Ivar’s head.
He wears it into battle when invading York, for example, as depicted in the gif above.
Season 5 part 2 brings two further additional helmet uses, and again they are both associated with Ivor the Boneless and his rise to power.
First, Ivar becomes king of Kattegat and claims he is divine, setting up an idol to himself in the centre of the town. This bears the distinctive helmet… set on a gold-masked visage and bearing a shield with his sun-emblem as wielded by all his warriors. The distinctive helmet defines Ivar as warrior, king and god.
This fictitious helmet is joined by the show’s mass reproduction of a famous archaeological discovery. As a despotic and barely sane king, and self-deluding wannabe diety, Ivar needs a discernible set of henchmen to commit all manner of dastardly deeds, mainly involving burning people alive and slaying rival lead characters. For this role, the cat-eyed Gjermundbu helmet – our only Scandinavian Viking-period helmet – is evoked as a uniform kit for Ivar’s bodyguard, giving them a distinctive and formidable appearance. Here they are guarding the seer’s hut.
And earlier on, here they are leading a torch procession to make a human sacrifice.
If there was one visual cue that Ivar is evil, it is the hidden faces of his henchmen. Helmets therefore take on a fourth function, and one common across TV and film: the elite bodyguard of the ultimate bad-guy protect their skulls and conceal their identities with helmets!