Did Vikings Have Tattoos

Did Vikings have tattoos? The truth about Vikings and tattoos

Did the Vikings have tattoos? The simple answer is, we’re not sure for certain. The more complex answer is “probably”, based on the information archeologists and scholars have gathered. The connection between Vikings and tattoos is often explored in popular culture and mainstream media.

Countless films and television shows depicting Vikings show them with painted skin and what we would imagine to be Ancient Nordic tattoos. However, it’s difficult to know for certain just how common tattoos might have been in the Viking culture.

There are a number of historical accounts which suggest Vikings did often have “prominent markings” on their skin. Such accounts come from documents like the Helm of Awe, and Vegvisir, among others.

But we can’t say conclusively whether these markings were equivalent to modern day tattoos.

Here’s what we do know about Vikings and tattoos, from various theories emerging over the years…

Vikings and tattoos: What we know so far

Unfortunately, scientists have yet to discover a body from the Viking era so well preserved that the skin is still in-tact. Since even the most barbaric inking practices wouldn’t leave markings on the bones, archeologists can’t answer the question “did Vikings have tattoos”.

The Vikings themselves also didn’t maintain any comprehensive written records of their activities. Mostly, Viking cultures were focused on storytelling, and passing down knowledge verbally through the generations, so we don’t have any clear insights into their tattooing practices in this way either.

However, other societies present throughout the Viking age were more prone to maintaining records. While the authenticity of these accounts is hard to determine, they can provide a useful insight into what Vikings might have looked like, and the practices they engaged in.

One of the most famous records highlighting the possibility of old Viking tattoos came from an Arabic diplomat in the 10th century, called Iban Fadlan. During his travels, Iban came across Vikings in Russia, engaging in trade from Scandinavia.

Fadlan described the Nordic people as being “tall like palm trees”, and having markings like trees, figures, and other depictions covering their skin. Iban’s account suggests these “tattoos” went from the tips of the Viking’s fingers, all the way up to their necks.

This description has led many people to assume Vikings were heavily tattooed, however, there’s no precise mention of whether these markings are permanent or not.

Notably, Iban also described the markings as being dark green in color, which would have been an unlikely hue for a tattoo at the time. Tattoos were more likely to be grey, black, or dark blue. This could indicate the markings were simply a form of paint or makeup.

Did Vikings Have Tattoos

Did the Vikings have tattoos? The theories

Since evidence of historical Viking tattoos are limited, answering the question “did Vikings have tattoos?” has led to the development of a number of theories, based on the actions and activities of Vikings over the centuries.

For instance, many people believe it’s likely Vikings had tattoos because they travelled frequently across Northern Europe, where tattoos were commonplace. Indeed, various bodies of European people have been recovered with enough skin intact to discover the presence of tattoos.

Vikings also visited England during 763 AD, at a time when the Anglo Saxon people were extremely well-known for being tattooed. Exposure to this culture may have encouraged the Vikings to tattoo themselves as well, as though it’s difficult to know for certain.

We do know Vikings were highly creative people, who often wore war paint, and created ornate shields, swords, and accessories for themselves. Vikings were also highly concerned with their appearance, and used combs, toothpicks, and soap to keep themselves looking their best.

With this in mind, it’s safe to say they may have wanted to tattoo themselves too.

Based on discoveries of Viking skeletons, we also know this culture wasn’t particularly opposed to some more extreme forms of body modification. Some Vikings filed their teeth and filled the gaps with dye to scare their enemies during battle.

There are also other historical recordings outside of those from Iban Fadlan which indicate Vikings and tattoos may have gone hand in hand. A man named Al-Tartushi reported seeing tattoos on the arms and chests of Vikings, which depicted animals, patterns, and trees.

How did Vikings get tattoos?

How exactly Vikings tattooed themselves is uncertain. The chances are they used many of the same methods adopted by other medieval tattoo artists of the time. Usually, a needle or sharp implement would be dipped into ash or another substance, and embedded into the skin.

According to Caesar’s account of the Gallic wars, Anglo Saxons would commonly tattoo themselves with “woad”, which would produce a blue shade of ink.

This might have been what Iban was referring to when he mentioned dark green markings, as the deep blue and dark green colorings could have been confused with one another at a distance.

Tattooing in various forms has been around for a lot longer than many people realize. Various dyes and inks placed under the skin using sharp implements have created a host of tattoo designs throughout the centuries.

Even the ancient Egyptians were thought to have tattoos.

What would traditional Viking tattoos look like?

So, if the answer to “did Vikings have tattoos?” is yes, what exactly would these markings look like?

Once again, this is a difficult question to answer for certain. However, from the depictions we have from Arabic travelers over the centuries, the tattoos are likely to have included images of various patterns, trees, and animals.

Some examples of ancient Viking tattoos may have included:

Did Vikings Have Tattoos

Yggdrasil

If trees were common in Viking tattoos, then a depiction of Yggdrasil was probably a popular choice. This Norse tree of life was said to have enormous branches, holding the nine realms of the Viking heavens, including “Asgard” which is where the Gods like Thor, Odin, and Frigga lived.

Did Vikings Have Tattoos

Vegvisir

The Vegvisir is a symbol commonly associated with Icelandic Vikings. It’s a type of compass which was said to “show the way” to a person’s destiny. This tattoo is actually quite popular today among people from Iceland.

This image may have appeared as one of the unusual patterns the Arabic travelers reported seeing.

Did Vikings Have Tattoos

Animals

Various depictions of Viking tattoos included images of animals. Since Vikings often believed in the concept of spirit animals, there’s a good chance many had images featuring the animal they most resonated with.

For example, an owl could be used as a reference to Frigga, while a raven might symbolize Odin.

Ancient Nordic tattoos might have also referenced various famous pieces of weaponry. For instance, the Aegishjalmur pattern was similar in style to Vegvisir, and was intended to symbolize protection for those who wore it.

Mjolnir, the magical hammer of Thor may have also been a prevalent symbol among Viking warriors, as a symbol of strength and determination. Gugnir, the mighty spear of the All Father, Odin, could have been another popular choice.

Other possibilities for ancient Viking tattoos

Based on the rich creative lore of the Viking people, it’s not outlandish to assume many may have sought out tattoos which referenced their unique beliefs. Some Vikings may have embraced a tattoo of the “Triskelion”, which was the triple horn of Odin, said to symbolize wisdom.

The Valknut symbol is common throughout Viking archeological findings too, which could indicate it was also a popular tattoo choice. While there’s no solid definition of what this symbol meant, many scientists and specialists associate it with the cycle of life and death.

The “sun wheel” tattoo, which is also known as the Swastika, may have also been common among Viking people. In the Old Norse landscape, this symbol was a talisman of good luck, prosperity, and power. Of course, this tattoo is less likely to be a common choice today.

Since many depictions of Viking tattoos also include a reference to unusual patterns, there’s also a possibility that Vikings used Runes as tattoos too. Runes are an old form of Old Norse language, which were thought to have specific powers.

For example, some runes were designed for protection, prosperity, or good luck.

Were historical Viking tattoos popular?

Ultimately, the question “did Vikings have tattoos” is a difficult one to answer with any real clarity. There are no real Viking tattoos on display in any museums for us to learn from.

Until we find a perfectly preserved, frozen body of a Viking somewhere in Scandinavia, we may never know what actual Viking tattoos looked like, or whether they were commonplace.

However, historical records, depictions of Vikings, and a general understanding of the nature of this community all give us some theories on the connection between Vikings and tattoos.

While there’s no clear proof that Vikings did tattoo themselves, the evidence seems to suggest that they did.

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