Viking Tattoos: Were the Vikings even Tattooed?
This post continues delving on the topic of tattoos and specifically focuses on the Vikings and Viking Tattoos. One of the most relevant ancient cultures in human history.
Who were the Vikings?
The Vikings were a group of people from the Scandinavian countries of Norway, Denmark, Iceland, and Sweden, who for over 300 years, from the 8th to the 11th centuries sailed the seas. They were commonly seen as fierce, ruthless pirates that would often take over communities killing the inhabitants of the place and looting businesses. Since they would arrive to the places they attacked by boat and leave quickly, it was almost impossible for the people of the damaged communities to fight back.
Almost ironically, Vikings were not only seen as barbarians. They were also considered tactical warriors, clever traders, adventurous explorers, and great poets and artists. Vikings had very superior ships and it is even said that they arrived in America 1,000 years before Columbus did. They managed to travel so far away that their remains have been found as far as eastern Russia.
Vikings also used to live in well-ordered, civilized societies. These were divided in social classes: the economically powerful elite, a general assembly known as the Ting, and slaves with little to no rights. Women held an important position in society and were in charge of farming while men were abroad. Women were not forced into marriages, unlike other cultures at the time.
The influence of Vikings and Norse culture, in general, has become very relevant nowadays. Norse literature constantly influences science fiction and modern literature. There’s even manga depicting events of Norse literature such as Ragnarok (like, for real).
So… Did the Vikings even have tattoos?
There is no physical evidence that Viking tattoos existed since the body of a Viking with well-preserved skin has never been found (only ash and bones have been found until now). Nevertheless, Arab men had extensive trade with Norsemen. An Arab named Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, who was on a diplomatic mission in what today is Russia, once encountered some Norse warriors. He described as follows: “I have never seen bodies as nearly perfect as theirs. As tall as palm trees, fair and reddish, they wear neither tunics nor kaftans. Every man wears a cloak with which he covers half of his body so that one arm is uncovered. They carry axes, swords, daggers and always have them to hand. They use Frankish swords with broad, ridged blades.”
At some point, he also mentioned that the Norsemen had dark green tattoos that went from their necks to their fingers. According to him, these tattoos formed trees and symbols. It is now believed, however, that the tattoos he mentioned were probably made from ash dye thus making them dark blue rather than green. Furthermore, the shapes he described as trees were most likely Viking trademarks such as the gripping beast, a motif with animal paws around its borders or other designs featuring knot-work patterns.
In addition, well-preserved tattooed bodies from members of other cultures that were in contact with the Vikings have been found in different areas. For instance, a Scythian leader buried beneath ice around 500 B.C. was found in Siberia. His tattoos were well preserved. It is likely that the Vikings could have met the descendants of the Scythians while in Russia and got the art of Viking tattoos from them. Another example is the Pazyryks, a nomadic group of people that used tattoos as a method of personal identification. They believed that tattoos made it easier for people from the same family to find in other in the afterlife. If Vikings had tattoos though, they must have most likely had Norse symbols and designs.
Designs of Viking Tattoos
Modern artists have designed Viking tattoos that include a number of Norse symbology and depictions of mythology. These tattoos include, among other designs:
- The Vegvisir: an ancient Icelandic symbol that was supposedly used by the Vikings as a solar compass. This very same symbol acquired a mystical significance later in history. During the Middle Ages, it was featured in a book of magic named Galdrabók. According to the book, the Vegvisir, if taken with a person or tattooed on someone would allow the person to never get lost in storms.
- The Helm of Awe or aegishjalmur: This symbol is thought to give magical powers to its wearer while helping them to frighten and confuse their enemies. It also expresses superior might and protection.
- Valknut: The Valknut is made up of three triangles intertwined with one another. This symbol is either associated with Odin, or death, the latest which Viking venerated instead of fearing. Some other scholars believe the symbol actually represents the nine worlds that comprise the Yggdrasil in Norse mythology.
- Ouroboros: This symbol consists of an animal, oftentimes a snake that is eating its own tail while forming a circle. The Ouroboros symbolizes the eternal cycle of things: life, death, and rebirth, which leads to immortality; the eternal effort, or eternal fight or struggle.
- Valkyries: The Vikings had an appreciation for female warriors, Valkyries. These entities chose who would die on the battlefield and who would live.
- Loki: The God of Mischief. A man usually depicted with skeletal features and horns is sometimes portrayed as a helping hand to the gods, while sometimes he’s seen as a malicious entity.
- Web of Wyrd: Also known as “The Matrix of Faith”, the Web of Wyrd is a set of intertwining lines that represent a mixture of all the Viking runes. It symbolizes how past decisions and current actions affect our future state. In ancient mythology, the Web of Wyrd was supposed to be woven by the Norns, three female beings that control the destiny.
- Troll Cross: Also written as trollkors, is an amulet worn by early Scandinavians as a protection against trolls, elves, and other malicious creatures.
- Hugginn and Muninn: These are two ravens laying opposite to each other. They’re associated with Odin, Huggin represents “thought”, while Muninn represents “memory”. They were said to be sent to gather information at dusk and would then go back to Odin at dawn to tell him about the news of the day.
Viking Tattoos Today
Vikings have sparked fear, passions, and overall curiosity for centuries. Whether tattooing was a common practice during the Viking era or not will remain a mystery unless a well-preserved Viking body is ever found. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Norse symbols and folklore currently play a relevant role in the tattooing scene. Examples of this include tattoo parlors in places such as Iceland doing souvenir Norse tattoos, tattoo parlors in Denmark specializing on Viking-age tattoos, and people even branding viking runes into themselves: