The Franklin Institute

7 Misconceptions About The Vikings That Might Surprise You

modern photo of individual wearing horned helmet

The Vikings ruled the seas of Northern Europe for more than two centuries from 793 CE through 1066 CE, during an era now referred to as the Viking Age. Historians and archaeologists have, through written records and archaeological digs, been able to learn quite a bit about the Scandinavian traders and raiders that are featured in the exhibition "Vikings: Beyond The Legend" on view at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia from October 13, 2018 through March 3, 2019.

Despite scholarship helping us to better understand these individuals and their lives, some common misconceptions still exist about The Vikings and some might surprise you.

1. Horned Helmets are a Terrible Idea and Vikings Did Not Use Them

Ask someone to describe what a Viking looked like and, chances are, you will inevitably hear about long hair, blonde beards and, of course, the iconic Viking helmet decorated with animal horns. At Viking archaeological sites, however, evidence of horned helmets has never been found and written accounts of Viking raids make no mention of horned helmets. This makes sense in an era dominated by close combat -- horns on warriors' helmets would make them much easier to remove, either by grabbing the horns or as targets for weapon blows to the head. It is believed that the idea of horned helmets originates from an 1876 production of Richard Wagner’s opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), a set of plays that was partially based on Norse mythology.

2. A Unified Viking Empire or State Never Really Existed


Thor’s Hammer from Vålse
The National Museum of Denmark


Unlike other historic empires, the Vikings were never really centrally organized into a single state. Viking settlements and trading routes took the Scandinavians throughout Europe and into parts of Asia, Africa and even to North America half a millennium before Christopher Columbus landed in the Caribbean. Norse peoples shared a common culture and religion, had similar languages and often followed similar lifestyles, but were usually governed on a much more local level.

3. Being a Viking was More of a Career Choice

Leiv Eirikson discovering America
Christian Krohg / National Gallery of Norway

If you were a young person living in Scandinavia one millennium ago a life on the seas raiding, trading and exploring as a Viking was just one of a few career paths that one could follow. While narratives of the age are dominated by stories of the Vikings and the term Viking does get applied pretty broadly to Nordic peoples of the age, not all Norse people were Vikings but nearly all Vikings were indeed Norse.

4. The Vikings Were Not (All) Savage Barbarians

Animal Head Weight
The National Museum of Denmark

Today, Vikings in our collective consciousness are best remembered for their raiding, and they most certainly did do at lot of raiding, but Vikings were ultimately much more interested in establishing new trading routes through their conquests, particularly as the Viking Age (793 CE to 1066 CE) progressed. Viking raids often targeted monasteries because they were usually well stocked with supplies and valuable objects and not particularly well protected. During Europe’s Middle Ages, monasteries were also places where literacy was fairly common, so, unfortunately for the Vikings, many of the records of their attacks were written from the perspective of those most vulnerable to those attacks. The Norse performed all kinds of trades from farming to blacksmithing and many were not at all involved in raiding voyages.

5. Norse Mythology is Even Weirder than the Comics and Movies

Statue of the Norse God Thor

Through the Marvel comics and movies, a new generation of people from around the world have be introduced to Norse mythological figures like Thor, Loki, Odin and Surtr. The stories of Thor and his in the superhero universe are some of the most far out, but the actual mythology is often even weirder. Loki, for example, depending on the retelling, is father to, among others, a giant wolf and a serpent that encircles the Earth in addition to being the mother to an eight-legged horse.

6. Not Many Vikings Were Given “Viking Funerals”

Excavation of the Oseberg ship
Viking Ship Museum / Vikingskipshuset

You’ve probably at some point or another had a friend express, perhaps in jest, that when they die, they would like to be buried like a Viking and set adrift in a flaming ship floating gently towards out to sea. Vikings had a variety of funerary rituals that would differ depending on factors such as status in society, gender, age and more. Viking ships were expensive and time consuming to produce and so, it was not at all a common practice to send corpses out to sea in flaming boats. More often, the Norse would either bury their dead in large burial mounds with a cache of their possessions (and, rarely, even with a ship to help ferry their spirit to the afterlife) or the corpses were cremated in funeral pyres.

7. The Vikings were Mostly In Scandinavia

Scandinavia at Night, 2015

From their homes in present day Norway, Sweden and Denmark, the Vikings and their descendants traveled throughout the known world from what is now Canada to what is now Iran. Vikings were integral to the establishment of several modern states outside of Scandinavia including Russia, the United Kingdom and Iceland.


"Vikings: Beyond The Legend" is on view at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia from October 13, 2018 through March 3, 2019.

August 21, 2018, 11:38am