Debunking a Lifelong Myth

Forget almost every Viking costume you’ve ever seen. The popular image of the strapping Viking in a horned helmet dates back to the 1800s, when Scandinavian artists like Sweden’s Gustav Malmström included the headgear in their portrayals of the raiders. When Wagner staged his “Der Ring des Nibelungen” opera cycle in the 1870s, costume designer Carl Emil Doepler created horned helmets for the Viking characters, and an enduring stereotype was born. The 19th-century discoveries of ancient horned helmets later turned out to predate the Vikings. Europeans did wear helmets adorned with all manner of ornaments, including horns, wings and antlers, but not only did this headgear fall out of fashion at least a century before the Vikings appeared, they were likely only donned for ceremonial purposes. After all, the horned helmet practicality in actual combat could help intimidate enemies and maybe even poke out a few eyes, but it would have been even more likely to get entangled in a tree branch or embedded in a shield.