What Did The Vikings Look Like

What did the Vikings look like? Envisioning Viking traits

The question “what did the Vikings look like?” is relatively common among those interested in Viking history and culture. In popular culture and stories, Vikings are commonly portrayed as uncouth, unwashed, and violent warriors, covered in dirt and the blood of their victims.

However, archaeological, and academic discoveries throughout the years paints a different picture of Viking life. The more we discover about Viking history, the more we learn about how Vikings looked, and how they presented themselves to others.

While records of Viking grooming and dress codes are limited, as the community rarely tracked their own history, we have begun to develop a clearer idea of Viking appearance over time.

Today, we’re looking at some of the top Viking traits and characteristics, to help you envision what the Vikings of old were really like. 

What did Vikings look like? Common myths

Let’s start with some of the common myths surrounding Viking culture and appearance. When asked “what did Vikings look like?” most people would suggest they were disheveled, wild, and untamed individuals.

Obsessed with battle and adventure, it’s easy to imagine the Vikings as a somewhat unhygienic individual.

However, several archaeological finds have contended this belief. Indeed, many scholars have found ear cleaners, combs, nail cleaners, tweezers, and toothpicks, all from the Viking age. This indicates this group was a lot more well-kept than we originally thought.

Other commonly mis-held beliefs about Viking appearance include:

  • All Vikings were blonde with long hair.
  • Many wore dirty ripped garments.
  • Vikings were tall and burly.
  • Vikings always had blue eyes.
  • Many Vikings were covered in blood and tattoos.
  • Vikings had scraggly beards and battle-worn features.
What Did The Vikings Look Like

What did Vikings actually look like?

So, what did the Vikings really look like?

Evidence suggests cleanliness meant a lot to the Vikings. Written records and evidence collected from across the decades indicate these individuals were a lot more well-kept than we originally imagined.

Although they may not have had the hygiene standards we know today, they were committed to looking after themselves — perhaps more so than some other communities.

Vikings frequently combed and washed their hair, cared for their teeth, and even used various utensils to clean their nails. They had a habit of bathing every Saturday, and regularly changed their clothing — something not true of European Christian communities at the time.

History shows Vikings were attractive enough to grab the attention of pretty women all across Europe, and many communities often lamented how good they were at seducing females.

While what we know about Viking appearance is still limited, the evidence suggests they:

  • Were well-groomed and well dressed.
  • Had a range of different hair colors.
  • Had many different eye colors.
  • Made their own clothing.
  • Were shorter than expected.
  • Came from a mix of ethnicities.

Viking traits and common Viking characteristics

Since we have no photographs or detailed accounts of Vikings taken from the Norse community itself, most of our knowledge about Viking traits and characteristics comes from archaeological discovery.

This means we’re limited in knowing for certain exactly what Vikings looked like.

However, we do have some general insights into the appearance of Vikings, thanks to the extent of scientific discovery over the years.

Here are some useful answers to the question: “what did Vikings look like?”

Viking facial features

Mainstream media tends to portray Vikings as brutish creatures with battle-worn features, scars, and scraggly beards. However, scholars have collected insights from numerous skeletal remains taken from Viking settlements.

According to these academics, Vikings had more gender-neutral faces than the Scandinavians we know today.

In general, females had slightly stronger jawlines, while men had slimmer features than their modern Nordic counterparts. Some female Vikings had ridges above their eyes, giving them a slightly more pronounced bone structure and masculine look.

At a glance, some scientists have suggested it may have been difficult to tell the difference between male and female Vikings, if it weren’t for the presence of beards, body structure, and varied clothing preferences between the genders.

What Did The Vikings Look Like

Viking hair color

Viking hair is something many experts have struggled to define for some time, as hair is not as well preserved over time as skeletal remains. However, the discovery of Viking artefacts like combs and soap indicate many of these individuals had well-groomed locks.

Despite common belief, Vikings weren’t entirely blonde. Though the lye-based soap they used did tend to lighten their hair, many Vikings had a range of different hair colors. Indeed, some evidence indicates Vikings hailing from Denmark were more likely to be dark-haired, or have red hair.

Norsemen from the more northern parts of Scandinavia were more likely to have blond hair. The Vikings from the region which would become Sweden may have been the ones most likely to have fair locks, just as Swedish people are more likely to have blond hair today.

Though not all Vikings were blond, there appeared to be some preference for lighter hair colors among Viking men and women. This may be why Vikings used so much lye in their bathing routines, to help naturally bleach their hair over time.

Viking hair styles

When it comes to how Vikings actually wore their hair, we once again need to return to the archeological findings of the age, as well as inscriptions and letters.

Viking sculptures and engravings often depict these individuals with a long hair or beard, often carefully shaped, tied back, or braided to help preserve good vision. However, the Oseberg Cart from 800 CE also depicts some Vikings with shorter haircuts, with shaved necks.

This indicates different groups of Vikings may have preferred different hair styles, similar to modern people today.

Interestingly, an Old English letter described Vikings as having “shaved necks” and “blinded eyes”. Scientists believe this indicates some Vikings wore their hair short in the back, with long fringes which almost covered their eyes.

Female Vikings are often depicted in carvings and sculptures with braided hair. One of the most common styles shown is the “Valkyrie knot”.

In general, most scientists believe Vikings took good care of their hair, thanks to the presence of numerous combs and grooming utensils found at burial sites. Some records from throughout the centuries also indicate long hair may have been a symbol of status for the Vikings.

Many Jarls had long and elaborate hair styles, while slaves (Thralls) had shorter, shorn hair.

Viking beards

Beards are perhaps the most common feature to emerge when people ask the question “what did Vikings look like?” Vikings throughout popular media are often shown with long, scraggly bears.

However, the combs and grooming utensils we’ve discovered throughout the decades, along with various records from the age, suggests something different.

While many Vikings may have had full, and long beards, others kept their beards short and well-groomed. Vikings may have even braided their beards, to help keep it out of the way during battle.

Historians believe many Norse men had facial hair, and for Vikings, the bear might have been a source of pride. Some sagas written in Old Norse indicate a man could kill another for insulting their beard in some communities.

Interestingly, recent DNA studies also show people from Scandinavia are more likely to have a specific gene which allows for greater hair growth than average. This could be part of the reason why Vikings were so likely to have full beards.

Height of Vikings

When answering “what did Vikings look like?” the question of height is easier to answer than some other queries, thanks to skeletal remains. Many depictions of Vikings over the years show them as larger-than-life, intimidating individuals, with towering physiques.

However, it’s worth remembering perceptions of what is “tall” among human beings have changed over the years. Scientists believe the Vikings were actually somewhat shorter than written accounts depict them to be.

Studies into skeletal remains indicate Viking men were around 5 foot 7 on average, while Viking women were around 5 foot 2.

While this might seem extremely short, people in general were often far shorter centuries ago, thanks in part to their less nutritious diet. As such, the Viking men, in particular, were considered quite tall for the regions they encountered.

What Did The Vikings Look Like

Viking eye color

Our understanding of Viking eye colors comes mainly from DNA sequencing strategies used on hundreds of Viking skeletons. Just as we’ve discovered that most Vikings weren’t necessarily blond, we’ve also learned not all of these individuals had blue eyes.

While the traditional image of the Viking in mass media depicts a blue-eyed, blond-haired Norse warrior, scientists believe many Vikings had darker colored eyes. However, there is still some evidence blue eyes may have been slightly more common among certain groups of Vikings.

For example, while Norwegian lineage Vikings may have been more likely to have brown eyes, groups from further North in the Scandinavian region may have been more likely to have blue eyes.

This makes sense when we consider the number of blue-eyed people in the Scandinavian landscape. People from Norway, Denmark, and Sweden today are all more likely to have blue eyes than any other color.

Around 75.15% of people in Iceland have blue eyes too.

Viking body type

If you commonly picture Vikings as stocky, muscular people, you’re not alone. Discoveries suggest Vikings were generally stronger, and a little larger than many people today. Archeological research indicates Vikings weighed around 140kg on average, and were stronger than most.

Many Vikings were also named after their strength or general appearance. For instance, Gǫngu-Hrólfr was said to be too big to ride a horse, while Thorkell the tall was best-known for his height.

In general, the larger, and more muscular body type of the Vikings is commonly linked to the eating habits of the group. Many Vikings had a full diet of bread, fish, and pork, as well as berries and other foraged produce from the areas they visited.

Average Viking hand size

Viking hands have earned some attention over the years due to the presence of a specific disease known as Dupuytren’s contracture, or “Viking disease”. This is a condition wherein one or more fingers are progressively bent in a fixed position, as though gripping a sword.

This condition is linked to the Vikings because it was often recorded among people of Nordic descent. For instance, in Norway, around 30% of men over the age of 60 have this condition. Comparatively, only around 5% of men in the US experience the same issue.

We can also gather insights into Viking hand size by looking at the sword grips created for Jarls in the community. Many Viking swords had a relatively short grip, which could indicate Vikings had slightly smaller hands than expected.

However, archeologists suggest hand size likely varied across communities, as there have been many different types of swords and weapons discovered over the years.

Average Viking foot size

Once again, depictions of Viking feet, or average “shoe size” are varied. In 2009, researchers discovered the outline of two feet carved into planks on the Gokstad ship. The right foot is around 22 centimeters long, which corresponds with the size 4 shoe size.

Although Vikings were discovered to have a lower average height than men in the Scandinavian region today, experts believe this doesn’t correlate with a much smaller foot size. Rather, most scientists think the carvings were of the feet of a young man or boy.

Still, it’s fair to suggest Vikings may have had slightly smaller feet than some of the men we know from Scandinavia today, based on their height. Proportionally, a 5 foot 7 Viking is more likely to have an average shoe size of between 6 and 9 (EU sizing).

Male Viking makeup and female Viking makeup

Many of the more modern depictions of Vikings we see in the media today indicate they often wore makeup to enhance their features and make them appear more daunting. Obviously, the makeup worn by Vikings in centuries past is unlikely to be anything close to the cosmetics we know today.

Though the use of makeup isn’t generally mentioned in Norse sagas, and archeologists haven’t found evidence of tools for makeup at dig sites, there are some historical accounts which indicate the use of face paint was common.

According to one account from an Arab emissary in 950 AD, both men and women in the Viking race typically wore dark and permanent makeup around their eyes. Scientists believe this medieval cosmetic was a form of “kohl”, which was common in Africa, and the Middle East.

Viking war paint and face paint was likely created from a combination of different ingredients, such as ochre, ash, and burned almonds.

Aside from striking fear in the hearts of their enemies, and sometimes even enhancing their appearance, this makeup may have also been worn to help reduce glare from the sun, similar to how football players use black face paint today.

Research has also discovered Vikings occasionally carved their teeth and filled the gaps with different pigments, as part of an attempt to frighten their enemies.

Viking tattoos

Similar to using makeup, Vikings were also thought to enhance their appearance with the use of various permanent markings and etchings, similar to the tattoos we know today. Currently, there’s limited evidence to indicate whether Vikings regularly wore tattoos or not.

However, reports and records held by other communities who encountered the Vikings over the centuries suggest tattoos may have been relatively commonplace. An Arabic scholar named Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, wrote a description of Vikings which highlighted the presence of tattoos.

According to Ibn Fadlan, these Norsemen had markings which began at their fingertips and continued up their body, across their arms and necks.

Though these tattoos are often described as being “dark green”, they are more likely to have been blue in color, due to the availability of wood ash for inking.

It’s difficult to say for certain exactly what Viking tattoos may have depicted. However, many believe they may have included patterns, runes, trees, and animals.

What Did The Vikings Look Like

Viking clothing

So, what did Vikings look like from a fashionable perspective?

The clothing worn by Viking men and women is likely to have been quite varied. Experts believe Vikings wore home-made garments, designed to be durable enough to withstand the strain of the physical labor involved in life throughout Scandinavia, as well as the harsh temperatures.

Many men’s garments found throughout the centuries were made from wool, to provide additional warmth, while inner clothing layers were more likely to be fashioned from linen.

Female Vikings were most likely to wear apron-style dresses, defined by two large straps on each shoulder. These straps may have been fastened by clasps or ornamental broaches, depending on the status and wealth of the Viking female.

Like their male counterparts, Viking women were also likely to wear woolen cloaks during the winter months, to protect against the colder weather of Scandinavia.

Both men and women typically wore woolen socks, known for their warm and durability, alongside boots or shoes made from animal hides like goat skin.

What did Vikings look like?

Answering the question: “what did Vikings look like?” isn’t easy. The fact Vikings rarely recorded their own history makes it difficult to get a reputable insight into their appearance. However, we do have some assumptions drawn from archeological discovery and scientific research.

Perhaps above all else, the discoveries suggest the Vikings weren’t nearly as messy and uncouth as they’re often depicted to be in mass media. These individuals cared about their appearance, looked after themselves, and paid attention to how they looked.

Vikings were bold individuals, with a variety of hair styles, eye colors, and clothing choices. They were practical with their clothing, and committed to staying clean.

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