Minnesota can sit on a fig

So!  You may be aware that a historical event will be happening this Sunday.

Personally, I am biased, as you may know.  My Christmas gifts last month included three Saints t-shirts (which means now I can get through a whole work week in loyal fashion) and a Saints-snuggie.  But the upcoming game against the Vikings also gives me the impetus to write about something I’ve been meaning to cover for months now — the sadly-perpetuated myth of the horned helmet.  Check out this post on Uni Watch for a particularly extreme example from the Vikings – Cowboys game.

BOO I SAY BOO

To be fair, I actually think it’s a pretty cool logo.  Walks the line between simple and detailed, and the mustache echoes the horns visually.  I’m not even going to get into that clean-shaven chin though…

This is not really a necessary post, to be sure.  Plenty of websites, from the Straight Dope to Answers.com, are quick to tell you that viking (doesn’t need to be capitalized; it’s a job, not a race) helmets didn’t have horns.  But spirits are high this week, so I thought I’d jump in anyway.  Sadly, I’ve been unable to scrounge up an electronic copy of Roberta Frank’s definitive chapter on the matter, “The Myth of the Viking Horned Helmet,” so I’m basically going off of memory from what she said in class.  If nothing else, she insisted we leave knowing that much.  I’ve also been able to reconstruct it a bit from quotations, which is rather a medieval hobby in itself.

We can say with a great deal of confidence that viking raiders didn’t wear horns on their helmets.  Shoot, a fair number of them probably didn’t wear helmets at all; keep in mind that “going a-viking” was a way to make some money, not professional soldierdom.  And sure, horns may be intimidating, but folks were scared of them already, and any psychological advantage would, I imagine, be negated by the unwieldiness that comes with giant cranial protrusions.  Whether it meant someone could yank on your head unexpectedly (just ask Troy Polamalu how fun that is) or just that you couldn’t go through a door as easily as you’d like, it seems not worth the trouble to take horns, which are perfectly lovely drinking vessels, and stick them to your head.  I don’t go around with a wine glass on my noggin.  Not even a Mardi Gras cup!  Not often, anyways.

So if it’s not historical, wherever did this idea come from?  Well, it seems to have some grounding in tribes from way back, like B.C. way back.  Plutarch, in his Life of Marius describes the Cimbri (it’s unclear if they’re of Germanic or Celtic stock) as having “horsemen, fifteen thousand strong, [who] rode out in splendid style, with helmets made to resemble the maws of frightful wild beasts or the heads of strange animals, which, with their towering crests of feathers, made their wearers appear taller than they really were…”

Could he be describing something like these Danish Bronze Age helmets?  Perhaps, but keep in mind the considerable time difference — like a millenium at least — between this time period and the Viking Age.  There’s a good chance this is religious headwear; I like the Pope’s hat, but I wouldn’t strap it on for war.  And it’s worth considering that it might be less of a problem for cavalry to wear elaborate helmets, if you’re worried about folks grabbing on, although that’s just me speculating.

In the first-century Germania, on the other hand, Tacitus says that very few of the Germans have armor or helmets at all.  Perhaps this is a German/Celtic distinction, but it’s hard to say.

It’s worth mentioning the Thames helmet, an artifact of pre-Roman Celtic Britain, but it’s likely another example of religious headwear, too fragile to fight in.  And those are more like traffic cones than aurochs’ horns.  Still, it reinforces that a horned head is meaningful — connections to Cernunnos, a horned Celtic god, are posited.

“Now, wait!” you might say.  “What of the 9th century Oseberg tapestry?   I heard it has a fellow with horns, and you can’t tell me that’s not Viking Age!”  True, but again, it’s probably religious significance; after all, of all the folks in that procession, he’s the only one.  It’s hardly a ravening horde.  Perhaps the Norse were familiar with the idea of attaching a horn to a hat, but it wasn’t a sign of being a warrior, and they’re not the Minnesota Pagan Priests.  Warrior helmets, for those who had them, were probably relatively simple, with the Gjermundbu spectacle helmet (that’s a reproduction) representing something higher-end.

So if the main evidence is one tapestry that, let’s be fair, we didn’t even know about until a couple minutes ago (and I’m including myself there) and some artifacts from unrelated cultures, how is it that the horned helmet became so irrevocably attached?  How is it that when the Vikings went to pick something to put on their helmets, it wasn’t an axe, or a raven-bannered ship, or a town burning, or a bunch of farmers meeting in a democratic fashion, but a horn?

Professor Frank attributes it to European Romanticism, particularly in the case of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and Ring cycle.  His costume designer played fast and loose with his research, perhaps even drawing on objects like those above.  Considering the Romantics’ interest in the overwhelming and intense, for nationalistic folklore, for Celtic and Germanic paganism, it’s perhaps not surprising that realism wasn’t the watchword, particularly as Wagner’s characters weren’t meant to be your average viking, but gods, valkyries, and legendary heroes.  Wings (think Marvel’s Thor) began to appear on the helmets of the Valkyries, the female warrior-psychopomps, although since then horns have become the standard for them.  A couple of sources report that Hunding, a male hero, also wore horns.  Wagner’s imagery forged the association that then came to define how regular ol’ viking warriors were imagined, not to mention becoming an operatic icon.

Come on, sir.

Oh come on, little plastic warband.

Oh come on, Nebraskans!

OH COME ON

All this is, I suppose, meant to bring us to the point that the Vikings aren’t dressed like fearsome seafaring raiders.  They’re dressed like opera singers.  Female opera singers to boot. [Nothing wrong with that, of course; I’m a big fan of Converse College athletics, or I am since finding that link anyways.]

Not that scary.  And you always have to like a Saint on a Sunday.  Bring the Wood.  Finish Strong.  Who Dat.

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7 Comments

  1. mordicai said,

    January 21, 2010 at 5:28 am

    It is pretty cool though; You have to give them that.

    • January 21, 2010 at 5:09 pm

      As a piece of graphic design, it’s better than most logos. Even the horned helmet is striking. It’s just wrong.

      • January 21, 2010 at 5:24 pm

        By horned helmet, I mean to say the purple football helmet that pretends to be a war helmet rather than having, like, a picture of a dog on it.

  2. Meggy said,

    January 21, 2010 at 7:38 am

    This made me laugh really hard.

  3. Carol said,

    January 21, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    It’s been a long, long time since I’ve enjoyed a blog post this much.


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