Even Vikings had hair issues!
By Damien Fegan
DNA analysis of Viking remains suggest a mix of European hair colours. However the Irish described Vikings as being either Dubgaill or Finngaill (dark foreigners or fair foreigners) which may actually be a way of distinguishing the Danes, who had darker hair from the Norwegians who tended to be more blonde. The popular association of Vikings with blond hair however does have some evidence to back it as the soap they used had a bleaching effect on hair. An Arab writer who met with Viking traders in Russia during the early 900’s, Ibn Fadlan, thought that Viking men coloured their beards with saffron!
Males commonly wore their hair collar or shoulder length and evidence suggests the women of the household regularly washed and trimmed the hair of the men. However there is no evidence for Viking men wearing their hair in long plats, though we do have evidence for some Viking men wearing their hair very short at the back and growing their fringe down over their eyes. Beards and mustaches were normal wear for men and carvings show them neatly groomed and occasionally platted and possibly even sculpted and waxed.
Washing of face and hands was usual when getting up in the morning and before meals and full bathing at least once a week appears to be quite normal. In areas where there were thermal springs the Vikings appear to have taken full advantage of them and as often as possible.
Less is known about Viking women’s appearance though we do know that they used cosmetics. Women’s hair was worn long, sometimes in plats or worn up in a topknot or ponytail. Longhair was so prized there was even a law in Iceland forbidding women from cutting their hair short like a man. After the spread of Christianity women appear to have followed the standard medieval practice where married women covered their hair and young unmarried girls did not.
Some Viking men were also tattooed and Ibn Fadlan mentions that the ones he met were covered in designs from their toes to their necks. However this may have only been a local fashion as none of the other writers mention tattoos; and it is definitely something that the Christian writers, who were definitely not pro-Viking, would have mentioned to make them seem even scarier!
Maybe it’s Maybelline
The use of eyeliner by Viking men and women is possibly hinted at by the Jewish writer Ibrahim Al-Tartushi, who visited Scandinavia in 950: “there is also an artificial make-up for the eyes, when they use it beauty never fades, on the contrary it increases in men and women as well.” Many writers have assumed that he is referring to kohl which is still used as eyeliner in many parts of the world. Certainly some of the characters in Vikings are wearing enough eyeliner to make any 80’s Goth proud! The problem is Al-Tartushi was a native of Moorish Spain where kohl was a common eye make up for men as well as women. If the Vikings he met were wearing kohl, which he may have been wearing himself, he would have just said so. It is possible that they were using drops made from Belladonna to dilate their pupils giving them a wide eyed, almost Japanese Anime character look. Warning: don’t try this at home as Belladonna is also highly poisonous!
We do know that Vikings took great care of their clothing, which included regular washing and even ironing! They loved bright coloured clothing and archaeological excavations have revealed fragments of embroidered and woven trims, fine wools, linens and silks and even gold embroidery on clothes of both sexes! Finely made jewellery was a common accessory for men and women and was an important sign of social status.
So in short, the average Viking looked less like Hagar the Horrible and much more like the bearded hipster at the local cafe!
Now that you have some good information about how Vikings looked, why don’t you get your Viking costume ready and join us for some authentic hands-on Viking family activities! Booking tickets to the Abbey Museum’s Kids Dig it! Viking family fun week, January 8-12 here!