The Vikings were seafaring people originally from Scandinavia who raised hell across Europe and beyond from the late eighth to the late 11th centuries. Image credit: DanieleGay/Shutterstock.com
Viking-inspired tattoos with Norse imagery and runes have become somewhat in vogue in the era of Pinterest-inspired body art, but did the Vikings actually have tattoos? There’s no solid archaeological evidence that tattoos were common in the Viking age since it's rare for skin to remain intact for centuries. Nevertheless, we know from written sources that some Norsemen may have been fans of body art.
What did Viking tattoos look like?
One of the best accounts of inked-up Norsemen comes from Ahmad ibn Fadlan, a 10th-century Muslim traveler who was sent from Baghdad to make contact with the king of the Volga Bulgars, an area of modern-day western Russia and Ukraine. Around this time, the area was home to a group of people known as the Volga Vikings, conquerors and traders who had settled in the area from Scandinavia.
In his description one of of these tribes, known as the Rus, Fadlan wrote:
"Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife and keeps each by him at all times. The swords are broad and grooved, of Frankish sort. Every man is tattooed from fingernails to neck with dark green (or green or blue-black) trees, figures, etc."
According to the sagas, the Jomsvikings were a band of Norse warriors based in Jomsborg, which means ‘Jom Fortress’. It was called after its location on the island Jom, somewhere on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea in Pomerania (either modern-day Germany or Poland), described as ‘Wendland’ in Old Norse sources.
The Jomsvikings were originally from Denmark, and Jomsborg was a sort of Danish colony, which makes sense since the distance between the two is short by sea, but Vikings from all over Scandinavia and the North Sea eventually joined in.
The sagas agree that Jomsborg was the base of a fearsome Viking army, but one saga in particular – the Saga of the Jomsvikings (Jómsvíkinga saga) – depicts it as a highly selective warrior band which subscribed to a more stringent set of rules than other groups.
Chris Hemsworth plays Thor in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Photograph: Marvel Studios/Sportsphoto/Allstar
In the lands of the north, where the black rocks stand guard against the cold sea, in the dark night that is very long, the men of the Northlands sit by their great log fires and they tell a tale … ” So began each episode of the 1950s and 1960s children’s TV programme The Saga of Noggin the Nog – one of countless iterations of old Norse myths that have filtered down to us, from the early 13th-century versions written down by the Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson all the way to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, via Jacob Grimm, Richard Wagner, JRR Tolkien, Narnia, video games and death metal.
Greek myths may be having a moment in modern fiction, but The Norse Myths That Shape the Way We Think reminds us that Thor, Asgard, Valhalla and the Valkyries are as much a part of western literature and legend as are Athena and Achilles. As a professor of medieval European literature at the University of Oxford and a translator of Snorri’s texts, author Carolyne Larrington is an expert guide to the origins of the stories and an opinionated interpreter of their modern descendants. She explains how an incorrect translation of “drinking horns”, via Latin, resulted in the “madly impractical” idea that Vikings drank mead from their enemies’ skulls, and fulminates about HBO’s decision to have the villainous Euron Greyjoy slay a dragon in Game of Thrones: “An outrageously subversive recasting of the greatest of heroic achievements.”
Larrington takes the myths a theme at a time. Main characters such as Odin and Thor have a chapter to themselves, explaining how depictions of them have evolved from original sources into modern retellings such as Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. Loki and his monstrous children get another, which celebrates their recent starring roles in books by Joanne Harris, Francesca Simon and others, and explains quite convincingly how Loki’s current reputation as a gender nonconforming queer icon is rooted in the early texts.
The oldest example we have so far of humans writing the word 'Odin'. This suggests that the Nordic god was already a central part of the cult in the fourth century. Credit Photo: Arnold Mikkelsen, National Museum, Denmark
The Vindelev treasure was discovered where there had been a farm consisting of several longhouses and fences. For this reason, it is assumed the treasure belonged to a local chieftain or perhaps king, who buried it inside or near the house. In the 4th and 5th centuries, wealthy individuals wore gold medallions to show their status and wealth.
Studies of two 1,600-year-old gold medallions that are part of the treasure led to the discovery of very long runic inscriptions in which the name of the supreme god of the Aesir, Odin, appears.
Runologist and script researcher Lisbeth Imer and linguist Krister Vasshus from the National Museum in Denmark made this incredible discovery.
On the gold medallion, there is also a portrait of an unknown king or great man, who may have had the (nick)name "Jaga" or "Jagaz," and it is precisely here that Odin's name comes into play. Next to him, it says that he is "Odin's man."
Scales and elaborately decorated weights were found in the Viking grave. Credit: National Museum of Scotland
Ellen Lloyd - AncientPages.com - Generally speaking, one must say that all Viking boat burials are rare because most of the notable burial finds throughout the Viking world are cremations. Archaeologists have unearthed Viking ship burials, but not in large numbers. Most unearthed Viking boat burials have been reported from Scandinavia and occasionally UK islands. Viking funeral traditions were complex, but based on archaeological evidence, it seems that the funeral boat or wagon was a practice that was reserved for the wealthy.
What makes the Viking boat burial at Kiloran Bay in the Inner Hebrides exceptionally unique is that it remains Scotland's single richest male Viking burial site to be found so far.
The Viking boat burial on the coastal meadow, called machair, at Kiloran Bay in Colonsay was discovered in 1882 "after rabbits, digging in the soft machair, scooped up some boat rivets." 1
Based on the large number of Viking graves in Colonsay, it is evident the region was important to Norse warriors.
Painting of a fleet of Viking ships crossing the sea by Albert Sebille c1930. (Image credit: Chris Hellier via Alamy Stock Photo)
The Vikings explored, raided and traded across a vast area stretching from North America to the Middle East between roughly the late eighth and mid-11th centuries.
In Old Norse, the language the Vikings spoke, "a Viking was a sea-borne raider, and to go-a-viking was to undertake sea-borne raiding," Angus Somerville and Russell Andrew McDonald(opens in new tab), both professors at Brock University in Canada, wrote in their book "The Vikings and Their Age(opens in new tab)" (University of Toronto Press, 2013). "The word is a job description but it applied only to a small minority of the population," as many people in Scandinavia would not have taken part in raids.
Among those who did raid, "being a Viking was a part-time job since Viking expeditions were undertaken seasonally by small farmers, fishermen, merchants, chieftains, and aristocrats as a means of supplementing their income and winning fame," Somerville and McDonald wrote.
An excavation in the waterfront Bjørvika neighborhood of Oslo has unearthed the remains of a long section of a wharf believed to have been built by a medieval king of Norway. More than 26 feet of the foundations of the pier have survived in excellent condition under the thick clay of the Oslofjord seabed.
The wharf foundation was built by interlacing massive logs into bulwarks that were then embedded into the seabed. Impressions of barnacles and mussels on the logs indicate they were left exposed in the water. The structures built on top of the foundations over time pressed them deeper into the clay where they were preserved even when the surface structures were lost.
A small mystery is that inside the bulwark there are several layers of dung, food waste, fish bones and sodden peat.