How the Viking got his horns

Roberta Frank has shown how the ‘traditional’ horned helmet came to be associated with the Vikings. Carl Doepler was the costume designer for Wagner’s first Bayreuth production of Ring des Nibelungen in 1876, and he created a simple horned helmet for the production. The fate of the horned helmet was sealed. Where previously it had been the preserve of the Ancient Briton or Gaul, now it was firmly associated with the Viking brand in the popular consciousness. Nowadays we know better. Vikings did not have horns on their helmets. Nevertheless, Vikings are still depicted as wearing horned helmets in many places, especially in advertising, as a quick trawl of Google for Viking-related business names shows. It is an immediately recognisable brand that can be used for a range of products to indicate various attributes of that product. I do struggle to understand the reasoning behind Viking Scaffolding, but Viking River Cruises and Viking Taxis do make some sense.

Archaeology does not support this horned image either. No Viking Age helmets have been found that feature horns. However, I have another theory that leads me to believe that Doepler may have had greater knowledge of Viking headgear than is generally credited. It occurred to me that Vikings fought a lot. Fighting is a thirsty business and requires a Viking to carry a lot of gear. He has axes, swords, spears, knives, shields and armour to carry with him when he goes to war, so a Viking must have had his hands full. We know that Vikings drank from horns, so it occurs to me that they must have taken those horns with them too. With all that war-gear to carry the Vikings had their hands full, but they were not stupid. Clearly they must have found a way to affix horns full of mead to their helmets, leaving their hands free for the important stuff like big axes and swords and spears. Presumably they would detach the horns, drink the ale or mead, and discard them before battle, which is why no helmets with horns have been found. And that is how the Vikings invented the beer hat.

Now all I need is a research grant to look for horn middens near Viking Age battlefields.


Frank, R., “The Invention of the Viking Horned Helmet” (2000)

About ruarigh

Historical consultant, archaeologist and peripatetic berserkerologist. My PhD was a cognitive analysis and textual archaeology of the Old Norse berserkr in popular culture from the early medieval period to the present day.
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