In a previous post, I explained why I believe in horned helmets. I explored how they are today a widespread and (in many cases) inclusive global popular cultural phenomenon associated with the ‘Vikings’, and perhaps ‘barbarians’ more broadly. In this regard, they are a legitimate focus of investigation and analysis for academic researchers interested in the Viking period and its varied reception down to the present. I also made a range of points about how Viking horned headgear might well have been a dimension of Norse ceremonial practice, if not martial gear. Furthermore, I explored various ways by which it is detrimental and distracting to public engagement and scholarly discourse to focus consistently on debunking a relatively harmless popular myth about Viking clothing rather than focusing our energies and attentions on combating more insidious tropes and dangerous appropriations of Old Norse culture.
I wish to follow this up with a further point for you. My parents recently found and posted to me the Ladybird ‘Great Civilisations’ book called The Vikings. I had forgotten I had read this book as a child (image above). I subsequently bought David Wilson’s The Vikings and their Origins when I was about 8 and I went on to specialise in early medieval archaeology as an undergraduate. The rest is archaeology, as they say. So this book hardly stemmed my interest, and one could argue it stimulated my engagement with the Viking world, including its archaeology. This copy of the book has the original 1976 publication date (i.e. when I was 3 turning 4). I did not possess a copy of subsequent reprints which were updated to have the offending horns removed!
So what? Well, my point is simple, I guess. Did my childhood ownership of a book depicting a Viking warrior on the cover with horns on his helmet cause any lasting intellectual damage to me? I suspect not. After all, there’s not a single image within the book where the horned helmets appear. Conversely, did children suddenly have an enhanced and enriched understanding of the Vikings from the moment (I’m not sure when) in the late ’70s or early ’80s when Ladybird replaced the image on the cover with the horns removed? I strongly suspect not!
We can repeat this basic argument for many other venues and fields where Vikings have been depicted with horned helmets – from tourist’s souvenirs to art – and where archaeologists, historians and others roll their eyes and both denounce and shun this ‘lie’ as evidence that it shows a poor understanding of ‘true’ Viking practices and beliefs. I would actually suggest there might not exist a clear and coherent correlation between the depiction of horned helmets and poor research. Conversely, there might be a correlation between horned helmets and a passionate enthusiasm for the myths, legends, history and archaeology of the Viking world. This is something we should (generally) celebrate, rather than castigate!
Let’s take some recent examples from televisual portrays of the Vikings to extend this point. In a science fiction context, Doctor Who has horned helmeted Vikings as recent as 2015 in The Girl Who Died. Does that ruin that episode and make it implausible in its representations of Old Norse culture? The answer is unquestionably ‘no’. This episode has many fascinating themes and material cultures linked to the 8th-11th centuries AD in Scandinavia, and the story-line is inspired (crudely) by Norse myth, including aliens posing as Norse deities and themes of death and regeneration.
Conversely, does the absence of horned helmets in The Last Kingdom and Vikings serve as an assurance that costume and sets were rigorously researched and authentic? Repeated blog-posts on Archaeodeath should make clear that, while I value and appreciate many aspects of these shows, they are riddled with problems too in the absence of horned headgear. Indeed, I’ve surveyed how both shows deploy helmets as an aspect of their evolving story-lines, sometimes effectively, sometimes unsuccessfully. So again, the answer is surely ‘no’, as many costumes and sets are without an archaeological basis, and some are deeply problematic.
Again, I contest the constant academic ‘woke war on horned helmets’ waged seemingly by anyone wishing to exercise their sense of superiority and expertise is both distracting and dumb. While there remains no coherent evidence that helmets of the period with horns actually existed to the best of our knowledge, there are simply far more important and dangerous dimensions of the Vikings in contemporary popular culture we must endeavour to analyse and evaluate, critique and challenge.