The Truth About Viking Hairstyles! What Did They Really Look Like?

FEBRUARY 8, 2021


Setting the Record Straight: 

First of all, let’s just be clear, there were no cameras in the year 700, so nobody really knows what in the heck Viking hairstyles looked like. However, that doesn’t mean that people haven’t tried with great success, to reproduce them. The show “Vikings” for one make a living from painting a beautiful and tumultuous image of the Scandinavian people, complete with what are assumed to be authentic Viking hair styles. …but are they? Who knows!? Though the evidence does suggest that they probably aren’t.

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Looking at Etchings and Imagery:

So, like I said above, there were no cameras in the Viking era, but that doesn’t mean we had no visual record at all. While the Vikings themselves never thought about anything but their gods, when it came to carvings, other cultures who interacted with them tended to find no better subjects to paint than the mysterious Vikings and their demonic ships.

On rare occasion, we do see later carvings depicting heroes and kings, though their actual appearance may be somewhat stylized with symbolic meaning. One such artwork is the expertly preserved decorative carving found etched into the hull of the Oseberg, which is a Viking ship found in Norway, and was thought to have been buried around the year 834.

Kratos reads runes - God of War

In this particular relief carving we do see three figures depicted at the top center and their hair styles are plainly visible. Though the left figure is well worn, the central figure facing left has a visibly shaved head, with the top kept longer above the level of his ears. The right-most figure of the three depicted has a his hair kept similar to the central figure, but with knotted rows being depicted, possibly to show stylized braids akin to cornrows, being all knotted together at the back.

The important detail here, which we will be talking about in later sections is, the fact that both of the visible characters have hair that is longer on top, with shaved sides, back, and neck all exposed. These styles are far from the reverse mullet with long draping hair swept off to one side or the other, and even the character with braided hair, though obviously long enough be braided, is bound up above the back of the head and neckline. This is much more a depiction of a man-bun than the stereotypical Ragnar ponytail of the show, ‘Vikings.’

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Evidence 02:

Runestone from Hagby, Sweden

Another evidence of the actual traditions in Viking hair-wear is a small metallic carving of a shield maiden, currently held in the British museum.

In this small miniature, no bigger than your thumb, the hairstyle can be plainly seen, and should be noted as a pretty good indicator of what at least an “idealized” battle-ready female’s hair would likely look like. We can see the same small linear braids across the scalp as those of the male Viking in the relief carving. However, the difference is that there is very little shaving of the sides of the head or neck depicted. The front view also shows a distinctive part at the center of the scalp, and remember, these were not created as a modern cast mold, so no, that is not a seam. Every grove and detail of this engraving was intentional, or it would have been left out.

Another distinctive feature is how the hair is knotted at high on the back of the head. I would appear to be at the center of the back of the head, but the side view shows us that the figure is actually looking slightly upward, meaning that the knot’s placement is higher on the scalp than it may appear at a glance. Examining the line from the edge of the eye to the ear, it is plain to see that the knotted bun of braids is actually placed near the crown of the head.

The final detail in this exquisite engraved statuette, is the fact that the hair is not bound by chords or straps of leather, not is it pinned in place. And yes, Vikings did have brooches, so the idea of a hairpin is not out of the question. No, it is tied in a knot; an actual knot! And though we can’t tell if the braids run the full length of the hair, this engraving does give us more than enough to assume that they might. However, looking at the way the figure’s skirt is also tooled with the same linear markings, the ponytail past the knotted bun may just as likely be unbraided, with lines merely representing the flowing nature of the hair. With stylized art, it is always hard to tell exactly what it was the artist was intending to represent.

Evidence 03:

Kylver Stone photo

Another piece of visual evidence is the Bayeux Tapestry, which is often sited as a ‘flagship,’ pardon my pun, of what Vikings really looked like. I mean, it is a tapestry that depicts an actual raid, that really happened in 1066. How could it not be accurate?

Well, not to poke holes in such an expensive potholder, but we don’t actually know how old this is, or who made it. If we hold it to the same standard as Illuminated Manuscripts, which were all authored and painted by persons far removed and typically long after the fact, we may need to be a bit skeptical about exactly whose vision of Vikings we are really seeing.
Jelling stones photo

However there is a figure or two to make note of here, as they look too strange to really pass up, and maybe… just maybe… we’ll see them again later in this blog (spoiler… we totally will).

I mean look at this guy. His head is shaved all the way up the crown of his head, with some sort of hair long over the brow, and some Forest Gump-style sideburns coming down in front of his ears… Remember folks, this is a tapestry, not a doodle. Every single needle-point was individually placed and was put where it was put on purpose! Look familiar? Yeah, well I didn’t say every hairstyle in Vikings was inaccurate, because this one certainly was common, as we will find out later in the blog.

Evidence 04:

God of war rune puzzle

Our 4th piece of evidence is one that I may have actually wanted to leave out, because, as you can see… well, it kind of defies the general “Shaved Head & High Bun” trend that we have been working so hard to establish. But, I just bring you the facts ladies and gentlemen, and here they are.

I could say that this cast figure is a depiction of a female and save a little face, but the truth is, many scholars in Scandinavian history actually agree that this little bauble is in fact a representation of a male Viking figure, despite the long and ornately flowing robes. The Vikings did wear capes, so this could be the side view of a long cloak, and not a dress. Who am I to deny the possibility?

While cloak or cape is most certainly still up for debate, one thing that does win the argument that this is definitely a male is the face. Like I said before, stylized art is a tricky topic, but this figure most certainly wears a fine beard, in addition to long braids and a very low knot, binding them all at shoulder length. That’s pretty hard to deny.

Viking Hair in the Icelandic Epics and other Written Accounts:

Contrary to popular belief, while there are very few descriptions about the Viking’s actual hair styles in the historical record, there are a few… though, what they actually say is up for a bit of debate, even today.

We know the names of Danish legends and historic characters like Sweyn Forkbeard and Harald Fairhair, who likely had forked beards and fine hair, respectively, but this really tells us next to nothing about what the Vikings really looked like. These two examples where after all, the merely the social monikers of a select group of royals, and even if we did know what made Sweyn’s beard so notably forked, or Harald’s hair some remarkably fine, we still can’t say these were traits held by the average Scandinavian.

However, there are some accounts that do attempt to describe the actual styles of hair warn by a couple of Vikings themselves, but before I transcribe the passage for you, let me remind you that much of what was written in language of old is still open to interpretation and hot debate, even by the most classic of scholars.

Deacon’s History: Circa 990AD

From Leo the Deacon’s book, History, we find the following inscription in the original Greek:

τὴν δὲ κεφαλὴν πάνυ ἐψίλωτο· παρὰ δὲ θάτερον μέρος αὐτῆς βόστρυχος ἀπῃώρητο
“He shaved his head completely, except for a lock of hair that hung down on one side.”
This line in particular, out of the entire text, describes a meeting with the prince of Keivan Rus and it is the only one that describes a hairstyle related to age of the Vikings. However, even with such a clear translation from the Greek, given the loss of cultural nuance over time, the translation could just as easily read something more along the lines of:

“He shaved his head completely, except for locks of hair that hung down on either side.”
Looking at the linguistics of it, even in modern English, words like “either” are completely ambiguous as to whether they refer to one, the other, or both. “Either side” in this passage could just as easily mean ‘one side or the other,” or “both sides.” It is impossible to tell which, but there are a few other texts that may shed a bit more light on the mystery for us.

Ælfric’s Letter to Brother Edward: Circa 1000AD

Jelling stones photo

From Ælfric’s letter, we find the following passage in its original Latin:

“…tysliað eow on Denisc, ableredum hneccan and ablendum eagum.”
“…you dress yourself in Danish fashion, with bald neck and blinded eyes.”

This passage is much more direct with its description of hair styles, as it is a scathing critique from one brother to another, so as we should expect, there were no efforts made to conceal exactly what it was that Edward was doing to offend his brother so much.

In this case though, we start to draw a bit of a connection between some of the carvings and even tapestry work we saw earlier in the blog. Specifically looking at the “bald neck” and the “blinded eyes.” Remember our little “son of Ragnar from earlier? Well now we have one more detail to point out in this image, which may be much more accurate to life than anyone had previously assumed.

1st off, we see the “balled neck” which was reported by Ælfric to be of Danish fashion, as well as the “blinded eyes.” It is easy to see in this image that this person’s hair protrudes well past the brow, out nearly to the tip of the nose. This is likely a stylization of the fashion, but does clearly denote long hair on top with the back of the head cleanly shaved, nearly to the crown of the head.

Traditions Carried Forward:

Jelling stones photo

Just as the tradition of a grandfather packing a his favorite pipe is passed down within a family, cultural traditions a passed down from generation to generation, even when the people passing them on forget where they came from.

Looking at the Kozak traditions, which are seen as traditional if not ancestral, we find hair styles similar to what was described through relief carvings, texts, and tapestries, still practiced today.

Men with such amazing style were not the playboys of old, but heroes and amazing fighters with sword and spear. They were warriors of a forgotten time and as you can see, they also fit the descriptions of Viking hairstyles found in both Leo the Deacon’s History from 990AD and from Ælfric’s letter to his brother Edward in the year 1,000AD.

The Kozak style may seem far removed from what we picture of the Vikings, as we fondly imagine them today, with huge braids and blood-smeared faces, but it may not be that far removed from the archaeological record.

The “Osterby Man” is one of many bog bodies found across eastern Europe. This one in particular dates back to between the year 70 – 220 AD, and still proudly wears its profoundly red Seubian Knot. While it isn’t a “large lock” and there is no trace of the Danish “bald neck,” the one remarkable feature of this Germanic mummy is that fact that its single knot (braided lock of hair) is most certainly above the ear AND set off to one side.
Jelling stones photo

Closing Thoughts:

We have looked back into the face of history, and seen the gruesome face of the Osterby Man, and gazed upon his gloriously vibrant red hair. We have looked 2,000 years forward into the present to see the modern Kozak style of the Warrior, and we have inspected carvings and weavings from the 1,000 years between. We have done all of this to answer the question of what Vikings really looked like, and I think we have found an answer.

Our Viking brethren wore their hair high and as we know, they let the length and health of their hair reflect their own honor and status. Shorter hair for boys and longer hair for men of power and wealth. They braided their hair and wore it in the Danish fashion, which was one of a cleanly shaven and bare neck, leaving the length of the Vikings hair to be knotted above the hairline, or tossed gracefully forward, ‘blinding’ the eyes.

Whether we can say this of all Scandinavians who would call themselves “Vikingr” or not, who can say, but this inspecting all of these evidences as they evolved and changed over time, we certainly have a reasonable cause to say some mix of these traits was common enough at the time.

To all my modern Vikings, live long and stay strong!

       Cody Dees, Ph.D.
       “Resident Viking”
       Norse Tradesman
       The guess of the wise is truth. -Grettir Saga, c.31

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