(About): The Viking Helm Descended from the Armies of Rome
Like most Northern Germanic people, the majority of Viking arms and armor were directly descended from Late Roman forms that had percolated out from Gaul and Germania during the ‘barbarianisation’ of the Roman armies. Although it may not appear so at first glance, the Imperial Gallic helmet or galea, what you immediately think of when you read the words ‘Roman helmet’, is the direct ancestor of this form of historically accurate Viking helmet. The galea was frequently beaten from a single piece of iron until it was raised to a dome-shape: later Germanic smiths (including Viking smiths and the armorers that they bought or stole their armor from) would raise the dome of the helmet to a central point, sometimes with a ridge running from brow to nape. This gave significantly better protection from downward-slashing blows, especially of the kind delivered by large hairy Northern Europeans wielding large axes – and it is precisely the design that the master-armorers at Darksword Armory have painstakingly replicated.
Something Every Viking Nose
Our Authentic Viking helmet is of the type called a ‘nasal helm’, after its wide projecting nose-guard. This design is perhaps most famous amongst the warriors depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, the enormous 225-foot-long embroidery made by William of Normandy to commemorate his seizure of Anglo-Saxon England and his coronation as William I the Conqueror. Almost every Norman pictured is wearing a pointed nasal helmet – and this is no coincidence, since the Normans were themselves the direct descendents of Scandinavian raiders, led by the legendary Rollo, who had occupied north-western France two centuries before, bringing with them their own styles of arms and armor.
Peerless Battle-Ready Construction
The master-smiths at Darksword Armory have made our Authentic Viking Helmet from hefty 14-gauge carbon steel, hammered and shaped until it is 2mm thick – this means it is a perfect analogue for the extremely small number of historical Viking helms that have survived up until the modern age. The nasal-guard projects down from the circlet band, which is attractively hand-riveted around the whole skullcap. Viking helmets likely had suspension systems to lift the helmet up away from the skull and spread the impact of blows – these may have included stuffing the dome with sheepskin or moss, whilst rivet holes found on some surviving examples hint at more advanced leather suspension systems. Our helm is lined with soft and comfortable leather, featuring Darksword’s unique suspension system which keeps the helmet firmly on the head whilst remaining comfortable for extended periods of wear, mirroring the historical originals. Vikings and Normans of significant wealth would have likely worn the nasal helmet over a chainmail coif that protected the neck and throat – so why not pair our Authentic Viking Helmet with our Chainmail Coif for extra defense and historical authenticity. It is held in place with a wide, robust adjustable leather chinstrap with a secure buckle that won’t pull at your properly combed, braided beard. In short, it’s a fantastic re-enactment-grade helmet that is rated for light combat and the rough-and-tumble of roleplay and Renn Faires.
As well as being a fully authentic reproduction of a historically accurate Viking helmet, it is also more than suitable for a whole host of other roles: for the helmet of a Norman-style High Middle Ages knight, or for a fantasy soldier or town guardsman.
(Curiosity): Viking Mythbusters!
Popular culture has not been kind to the Viking helmet. Nineteenth-century Viking revivalists, who took a somewhat creative attitude to things like ‘history’, did quite a number on our perceptions of who the Vikings were – there was a preponderance of focus on bare-chested, barbarian-esque warriors with unkempt greasy hair, rippling muscles and strange pagan ways. This was all very much in line with the colonialist ‘noble-savage’ ideology which was all the rage at the time, and which very conveniently made them feel less bad about subjugating other people’s countries. These ideas can be seen all overlapping at once in Frank Dicksee’s 1893 painting ‘Funeral For A Viking’ – it centres around a ship-burial of a wealthy Viking being set ablaze and pushed out to sea by a horde of swole Nords, replete with mucky hair and horned helmets.
A Good Fantasy Ruined
Except, we’ve never found a single sunk Viking ship with evidence of ritual burial – Viking longships were staggeringly enormous investments of time and materials (one estimate concludes that a village would have taken 40 years to weave enough sailcloth to outfit a boat), and so the tiny handful of ship-burials that we have so far discovered are all on land. There’s also no reason to believe that the painting’s buried Viking would have been a king: the most spectacular ship-burial we have yet found is the Oseberg Ship, within which were entombed two women – possibly Queen Åsa of the Swedish Yngling dynasty. Viking men were actually very well-groomed for their time-period, the sagas emphasising regular bathing and personal cleanliness, and vast amounts of personal grooming equipment like beard-combs have been found in association with Viking settlements and burials.
She’s Got Horns On The Sides of Her Helmet
And, finally, those horned helmets. No matter how darn cool those Vikings looked with horns and even wings on their helmets, there’s vanishingly little evidence that such a thing ever existed at any point from the pre-Viking Vendel period onward. The most cast-iron proof that this was even a concept in Viking society comes from the Oseberg Ship burial (that of the putative resting place of Queen Åsa) – amongst the staggering material wealth of the burial had survived some fragments of very fine tapestry. One of these shows a figure wearing what appears to be a horned helmet – it is clearly visible in the upper-left corner of the restored tapestry. The image of a ‘horned figure’ is more common throughout Scandinavia and Viking-influenced areas like eastern Anglo-Saxon England, and it is frequently associated with the iconography of the Viking father-god Óðinn (or ‘Odin’). It is not beyond the realm of possibility that the ‘horned head-gear’ could have been a real item of apparel, worn by shamans or witches on ritual occasions – and its lack of appearance in the historical record could be attributed to its taboo status, or its loss before the Viking successor cultures began writing down oral histories from the 12th-century CE onward. However, the depiction of Óðinn in general was clearly not taboo – he crops up all over the place, even referenced in the ‘Valsgarde 8’ helmet which has one bright eye-garnet and one dark eye-garnet to imitate Óðinn’s one remaining eye. We might expect theoretical objects such as Óðinn-related ‘horned helmets’ to be attested to in some form, be it materially in high-status burials, or in contemporary descriptions. Yet none are forthcoming. Thinking practically, a horned helmet would be wildly impractical for anything other than ceremonial usage (certainly not for pushing boats off from shorelines as in Dicksee’s painting) – thus we have to park the idea of Vikings wearing horned helmets firmly in the ‘busted’ box.
(History): Viking Helmets – From Ore to F(ore)head
Much of Viking society was conditioned by the fact that Scandinavia was, even for the most hardened early-medieval Norse, not a very easy place to live. It’s mostly very cold, with only a small amount of fertile land in coastal locations, and it has comparatively little in the way of useful mineral wealth. The combination of these environmental factors, along with resulting demographic impacts, was likely one of the prime motivators of the explosion of Viking raiding and colonisation which took place from the middle of the 8th-century CE – and in terms of material culture, this produced a specific desire for the exotic, acquired through trade and through the sword. We see this most strongly in the acquisition of highly sought-after swords from the Upper Rhine, which were likely bought or stolen from Frankish or Anglo-Saxon settlers and traders – but we also see the same dynamics playing out in the realm of Viking helmets too.
If You Go Down To The Bogs Today
The majority of Viking arms and armor was probably low-status and comparatively disposable, functional objects made from local materials. Although there were some small deposits of mineral iron ore in Scandinavia, most of the Vikings’ local iron sources were so called ‘bog iron’. Rather than a sedimentary mineral, bog iron is formed in-situ in by iron-rich groundwater springs coming into contact with boggy conditions. The iron dissolved in the groundwater is oxidised by the oxygen-rich surface water – or it is precipitated by special types of bacteria that feed on the iron – and it forms claggy, impure lumps of crumbly ferric material. A sort of dowsing craft evolved to be able to track and locate this material amid the bog, involving looking out for withered grass and the characteristic oily slick created by the iron-oxydising bacteria – known in Iceland as the jarnbrák. The sources also tell us that the Vikings considered this a renewable resources, harvestable once each generation.
In order to make the iron pure enough for use, the bog iron had to be smelted to drive off the impurities as slag – this was done in carefully-constructed conical clay bloomeries, attended painstakingly to get the right mix of bog iron, air, charcoal and heat over the course of many hours. The result was a spongy ‘bloom’ of low-carbon iron, slag and charcoal, which could then be hammered by hand to drive out the scale, leaving surprisingly pure iron. However, due to the low-quality of bog iron and the labor-intensive methods available to the Vikings, they were only ever going to able to create small amounts of useable iron for helmets.
These helmets were likely beaten out of the iron when it had cooled, work-hardened on a stone anvil. Astonishingly, there is still a Viking stone anvil that literally appears in an Icelandic saga, still in place where it is mentioned in the 800-year-old text. The Egils saga, which tells the story of a farmer, details an early settler in Iceland, the smith Skallagrímur Kveldúlfsson, father of the titular Egil, who founded a farmstead at Rauðanes. The legend tells that he could not find a suitable stone for his anvil, and so went out into the bay, diving to the bottom to fetch an enormous curved stone. The selfsame stone remains by the shoreline at Rauðanes, replete with the old smith’s hammer marks, next to the ruins of his smithy. One wonders how many helmets he beat, and if our historically accurate Viking helmet would impress him!
The Viking’s response to these adverse conditions of scare metallic resources was one of the most reproduced historically accurate Viking helmets: the spangenhelm. Technically, the spangenhelm was more a general type of construction rather than a specific type of helmet, and it significantly predates the Vikings. Weirdly, many of the Roman-influenced techniques of helmet manufacture which caught on amongst the pre-Viking Germanic tribes in Northern Europe seem to have come to the Romans from the Middle East: Iran and Scythia in particular. So Viking helmet-manufacture in the 9th-century would have been fairly comprehensible to a 2nd-century Sarmatian. Regardless, the dominant technique seems to have been the use of riveted metal braces, or spangen, to unite a tall helmet dome made from multiple smaller plates – usually two or four. Even fragments of Viking helmets are incredibly rare to find; either they were not placed in burials often, or they were simply comparatively rare objects – but fortunately the only near-complete Viking helmet, known as the Gjermundbu Helmet, is constructed with this technique. Historians theorise that the spangenhelm construction was so popular was because it was very simple to manufacture, and could utilise inferior bog iron to make smaller plates, rather than the superior-quality metal required to make one-piece skullcaps. Thus, we can presume that a wearer of our Authentic Viking Helmet was already a cut above the rest – marked out by their fancy polished one-piece skullcap. There’s posh.
Another late-Roman style of helmet that survived well into the Viking period was the ridge helmet. Again, this is another Middle Eastern style that seems to have spread westward in the Late Roman period. The increasing reliance on ‘barbarian’ troops to police the Roman Empire’s borders meant the percolation of non-Roman styles of arms and equipment into the Roman military, accelerated by the physical movement of locally-raised troops over great distances when pressures demanded it. There are records of Eastern-European and Middle-Eastern cavalry units being posted in Northern Europe in the Late Empire, and so it seems that they may well have brought their distinctive helmets with them. A variation on the spangenhelm, the ridge helmet was often made from two hemispheres, united by a distinctive characteristic ridge, which was often highly decorated. The most famous of these is of course the Sutton Hoo Helmet, a truly spectacular face-masked helmet that was discovered in a barrow in Southern England that might have belonged to King Raedwald of East Anglia (or one of his close kin). But there are other magnificent examples of this style – such as the fantastic Vendel 12 Helmet from the period immediately preceding the Vikings.
It appears that the ridge helmet was often sought after by the highest-status individuals. The lesser-known Staffordshire Hoard, which remains the largest-discovered hoard of wealth yet discovered from the Anglo-Saxon period, consists of over 11 lbs (!) of gold – and within it were fragments of a helmet that outstrips even Raedwald’s helmet. The surviving cheek-piece, made from silver gilt and decorated in counter-relief with the most exquisite vegetal Northern European styles, gives the observer an impression of near-unimaginable wealth. The helmet itself has been painstakingly reconstructed to create a historically accurate Viking helmet unlike any other. It should be noted how strikingly Roman it is in shape: with riveted hanging cheek-guards and a flat neck-guard at the back (this is accentuated by the striking centurion-style red horsehair brush, which has proved controversial amongst archaeologists!). It seems possible that these particular styles, adopted from powerful and dominant Roman military forces, acquired a regal air, which powerful post-Roman warlords sought to emulate and reproduce in order to maintain their social position.
A Nasal Whistle
So – it seems that this whistlestop tour of Viking helmet manufacture has placed our nasal helmet as one of intermediate wealth. Likely, it would have been made elsewhere in Europe, or else by a Viking smith using imported ore, since Viking bog ore was probably too poor in quality to produce a stable one-piece domed helmet. Yet, at the same time, it was not so outrageously ostentatious as the regal ridge helmets we have examined. Thus, it seems likely that it would have belonged to a prosperous and successful jarl, a raiding leader or a well-armed trader: functional, well-made, and sturdy. See if you can incorporate all that we have learned into your re-enactment impression or your Viking-inspired LARP outfit!
- Material: 14-gauge carbon steel
- Secondary materials: Leather
- Sizing: Adjustable suspension system