Editor's Note: While this article focuses on whether or not Vikings wore tattoos, there is no surviving skin artifacts from the Viking age. For the sake of images in this article, we offer some of our own personal favorite, modern day inspirations of Viking related tattoos.
Did Vikings have tattoos?
Ask many Viking enthusiasts, and you will get an enthusiastic "Yes!" Vikings and tattoos just seem to go together, and there is historical proof, right? Well ask other more cautious reenactors or historians, and you may receive answers of "maybe" or even “no."
So, what exactly does the historical record really say about Viking tattoos and/or Viking age body art? What kind of proof is there, and what are the sources of controversy? This article will investigate these and other questions to draw a better picture of what Viking skin art may have looked like.
Tattooed Vikings in the Historical and Literary Record
Arab diplomat, Ibn Fadlan, gives us the most overt statement on Viking body art, based on his direct experience with them along the Volga River system around the year 922.
“From the tips of his toes to his neck,” Ibn Fadlan writes, “each man is tattooed in dark green, with designs and so forth.” (Lunde & Stone, 2012, p. 46).
Other translators have rendered the statement “each man is tattooed with green trees, designs, and so forth.” This is an interesting variation because (if it is correct) it describes what Viking tattoos looked like. These "trees" may refer to Yggdrasil (the World Tree). Or it could be describing the organic flow of Viking art, which most resembles the intertwining of branches and vines (read more on Viking Art Styles here).
The word "green" here in the original Arabic could mean green, dark blue, or black. These colors would be consistent with known traditional methods of tattooing, using a needle and rubbing in coloring compounds made chiefly of ashes.
So, here we have a direct eyewitness account of Vikings being heavily tattooed. So, how could there be any controversy? But there are a few objections, or at least "grains of salt" to Ibn Fadlan’s testimony.
Foremost, Ibn Fadlan’s statement is the only overt mention of Viking tattoos that survives. There are no mentions in the Norse sagas or in the western European chronicles. Some Eddic poems, like Sigrdrifumal, mention “carving” magic runes on the body, which could be a reference to tattooing. It could also mean literally cutting them (“razor tattoos”), painting them, or just be metaphorical language. But these “maybe” references are basically all we have, aside from Ibn Fadlan’s account.
So, if Vikings were heavily tattooed from their toes to their necks, wouldn’t someone else mention it? Well, not necessarily. While Eddic poetry enjoys wild elaboration, Norse sagas are plot-driven. They rarely indulge in physical description unless it is relevant to the story.
Likewise, the chronicles of Wessex, Ulster, or the Carolingian courts are histories that seldom spare more than a couple paragraphs on life-changing events. The clerics who wrote them assumed their readers would know what Vikings looked like. It did not occur to them that 1,000 years later, people would be combing their works searching for tattoo references.
Another reservation some have about accepting Ibn Fadlan’s account of Viking tattoos is that he was describing the Rus Vikings. These were Vikings largely (but not exclusively) of Swedish origin who had been operating in the Volga and Dnieper river systems of Eastern Europe since at least the 840s. This means that by Ibn Fadlan’s time, they had been vigorously interacting with Slavs for a few generations. Slavs (including southern Slavic cultures with minimal contact with Vikings) have a vibrant tattoo heritage that goes back centuries – but no one knows how many centuries. So, was tattooing a Viking tradition, or was it a Slavic one? Or was it both? No one can authoritatively say.
Tattooed versus Painted
There is yet another point of caution when investigating the historical accuracy of tattooed Vikings. The word “tattoo” only entered the English language in the 19th century. In ancient Greek, the word "stigma" (from whence we get our words "stigma" and "stigmatize") meant tattoo or mark. Overall, though, peoples of the past were imprecise in the way they described tattooing, even though many of them were doing it. Languages like Latin and classical Arabic did not have a word that specifically meant "tattoo," even though the concept was well known to them. Roman geographers and historians, for example, refer to Gauls, Picts, and other Celtic and Germanic tribes “dying” themselves in blue woad, covering themselves with designs, or “wearing” symbols. But it cannot be known from the language whether these peoples practiced tattooing or were simply using war paint.
Similarly, Ibn Fadlan uses the same word for tattoo as Arabs of his age used to describe the painted ceilings of mosques. Some have taken this to mean Ibn Fadlan’s Vikings were not tattooed but had merely painted or stained their skin. However, in our opinion, this seems unlikely. Ibn Fadlan’s Vikings were well-armed at all times, he says, but they were trading, not making war. Other Arab travelers of that age have remarked that the Vikings’ clothes were “always clean." But how could anyone keep their clothes clean if they spent all summer traveling the river while covered in paint?
Moreover, the ceilings of mosques are also etched with designs (and not always merely painted), and these designs are of a spiritual nature. So, arguably, Ibn Fadlan recognized the tattoos were etched on the Vikings he met, and may have had a spiritual nature. So, he used this word to describe them.
Tattooing has been around for a very long time and can be found all over the globe. Of course, to be studied today, we need mummified remains, not the skeletal or cremated remains that the Vikings have left us. The oldest known tattoos were found on “Ötzi the Iceman,” the corpse of a murdered middle-aged man preserved by ice in the Alps. Ötzi, who had at least 61 tattoos arranged in 19 lines, lived over 5,500 years ago.
In 2018, an infrared analysis of several mummies in Egypt revealed tattoos. One 5000-year-old Egyptian priestess had over 30 tattoos, which included many complex designs and symbols.
Kurgans (burial mounds) on the Ukok plateau of Siberia (near the modern border of Russia, Mongolia, China, and Kazakhstan) held human remains that had been naturally preserved below the permafrost. Two Scythian (Pazyryk) warriors and a “princess” (high-status young female) were found to have extraordinarily detailed tattoos of animals and other shamanistic designs.
These finds predated the Vikings by many centuries and belonged to cultures that had no direct relationship to Vikings (or to each other). However, they make it clear that the technology and the impulse for tattoos have long been present.
It would help make the connection stronger if any of the "bog men" (mummified corpses preserved in peat bogs) of ancient Scandinavia, Germany, or Ireland could be found to have tattoos. However, even if these individuals did have tattoos, their stained skin would make them difficult to detect.
Like tattoos, make-up has been around for millennia. However, the only reference we have to Vikings wearing make-up comes from another eastern traveler, Ibrahim Ibn Ya’qub. Trading in Schleswig (now in Germany but at the time in the land of the Danes) around the year 965, Ibrahim remarks, “Both men and women wear a certain indelible cosmetic to enhance the beauty of their eyes.” (Lunde & Stone, p. 163).
Piercings are not very practical while fighting or sailing in ships with a lot of moving rigging. So, it should not be surprising that very few earrings or other evidence of body piercing have been found amongst the Vikings. However, some ear jewelry was found in a few Viking treasure hordes. But these artifacts appear to be imported from the east and are usually the type of ear ornament that wraps around the ear rather than goes through it.
However, the 10th-century Byzantine diplomat Leo the Deacon describes Viking Rus leader Sviatoslav wearing one large earring with a gem and two pearls. So, while piercings probably were not common in the Viking world, they were not completely unheard of.
Other Body Art and Body Modifications
Perhaps the most bizarre – and the best documented – of all Viking body art was the practice of filing their teeth. This was not the shaping teeth into fangs, as seen in some movies. Instead, it was the practice of filing horizontal or chevron-shaped grooves into the enamel of the teeth most visible when the Viking spoke or smiled. This would undoubtedly give a Viking a disquieting appearance.
This fearsome grin may have been enhanced when Vikings colored these grooves with resins. Carving and coloring is a common practice in various Norse crafts, including rune stones. So, it is not unlikely that Vikings may have added coloring to their filed teeth as well. Some speculate the nickname "Bluetooth" may have referred to King Harald's blue-colored filed teeth and not a discolored, decayed tooth as has often been proposed.
Filed teeth have been found in 5-10% of male graves, clustered especially at known Viking ports and trade routes. Considering that many Viking burials were cremations, the percentage could be higher and the distribution broader, but we will never know. Most of these teeth belonged to men who died before they were 40 years old. Archaeologists have determined that these grooves were added to over time and varied considerably between individuals.
The practice of teeth filing endured for more than 200 years. This suggests that it was more than just a fashion impulse but rather that it meant something significant. Unfortunately, no one knows what that may be. Like tattoos, teeth filing is not overtly mentioned in the sagas or chronicles.
However, the impression that emerges is that these young men, with their distinctive grills, were self-identifying as part of a group or groups. Images of elite brotherhoods spring to mind, like the famous Jomsvikings. Or perhaps these men were marking themselves as berserkers or ulfhednar (“wolf warriors”). Or could it have been something much more mundane than any of that? We will never know.
Which image of the Viking is accurate? The rugged and capable but unpretentious sailor/farmer of the Icelandic sagas? Or the exotic, tattooed, decorated savage of the Arab accounts? Or are both equally valid for different people at different times, or does it all come down to point of view? Some things are clear, though. Vikings came from an honor culture that placed great value on personal presentation. They also came from a culture that embellished and decorated everything, from their clothes to their tools, from their weapons to their ships, from their homes to their graves. We have evidence that some took these impulses further and expressed their self-worth by embellishing their bodies through grooming, clothing, jewelry, or even dental modifications and maybe tattoos. It was all part of standing out – and stand out the Vikings definitely did.
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To learn more about Viking history, we recommend our 400+ page, self titled book that is available here.
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- The Russian Primary Chronicle: The Laurentian Text. Translated by S. H. Cross & O. Sherbowitz-Wetzor. Medieval Academy of America. Cambridge, MA. 1953. https://www.mgh-bibliothek.de/dokumente/a/a011458.pdf
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- Siberian Princess Reveals her 2500-Year-Old Tattoos. The Siberian Times. August 14, 2012. Siberian princess reveals her 2,500 year old tattoos (siberiantimes.com)
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- Daley, J. Infrared Reveals Egyptian Mummies’ Hidden Tattoos. Smithsonian. December 5, 2019. Infrared Reveals Egyptian Mummies' Hidden Tattoos | Smart News | Smithsonian Magazine
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