Viking Hygiene by Rob Shackleford
For more on Vikings, check out the links of previous Viking Blogs below:
So Vikings weren’t the unwashed heathens our popular media likes to engender.
Archaeological finds of grooming items from the Viking period show that such equipment has not significantly changed over the years. In “the toilet bags” of the Vikings, we find beautifully patterned combs, ear picks and tweezers. Wear marks on teeth also indicate that tooth picks were used.
Items used for grooming were ornately decorated and, as evidenced by holes drilled in them, were probably worn on a chain either attached to the belt, hung around the neck or worn as brooches. At times, Vikings also carried combs in boxes, attesting to their importance.
Make-up can also be added to the list of beauty items. A Spanish Arab who visited Hedeby around the year 1000 described how both men and women in the town wore make-up to look younger and more attractive.
In England, Viking men reportedly had envious success with the local women. The Viking males were apparently clean and pleasant smelling, as they took a bath on Saturdays, combed their hair and were, compared to the local Saxons, well dressed.
The hair and beard were of major importance to the Viking man. This can be seen in royal bynames like Sweyn Forkbeard, whose beard was probably divided in two, and Harald Fairhair, who must have had a fine head of hair. The numerous finds of combs show that people combed their hair regularly.
Writings from the Viking Age indicate men cleaned themselves to some extent each morning. Daily washing most likely included one’s face and hands.
According to one poem, “Reginsmol,” men needed to comb and wash each morning, “for unknown it is where that eve he may be.” Similarly, Hávamál, also known as “The Words of Odin the High One,” states that men should be “fed and washed” when venturing out for the day.
However, the Norse were not content merely to be neat and tidy. Ibn Fadlan also noted the Rus- Viking traders who occupied what is now modern Russia-favored bleaching their beards to a saffron yellow, using a strong lye soap.
This method was probably also used on the hair of men and women. Norse women would have been particularly keen on achieving the long, fair, shiny hair that was the feminine ideal, although the white skin that men also coveted was probably only managed by the wealthy. Men also favored long hair, as only slaves wore their hair close-cropped. Figurines show Viking men wearing their hair trimmed and their beards well groomed- either styled to a point or shaped as a goatee.
Cleaning wasn’t something done throughout the day according to some observers. Tenth-century Arab Muslim diplomat Ibn Fadlan commented the Viking group known as the Rus “do not clean themselves after excreting or urinating or wash themselves when in a state of ritual impurity (after sex).”
“Every day without fail they wash their faces and their heads with the dirtiest and filthiest water there could be. A young serving girl comes every morning with breakfast and with it a great basin of water. She proffers it to her master, who washes his hands and face in it, as well as his hair.”
The attention to hair is clear, but what Ibn Fadlan described next horrified him:
“He washes and disentangles his hair, using a comb, there in the basin, then he blows his nose and spits and does every filthy thing imaginable in the water. When he has finished, the servant carries the bowl to the man next to him. She goes on passing the basin round from one to another until she has taken it to all the men in the house in turn. And each of them blows his nose and spits and washes his face and hair in this basin.”
There may be some truth to what Ibn Fadlan saw but he was an Islamic diplomat and Viking practices contradicted his own sensibilities and beliefs about cleanliness, so he may have exaggerated in his account.
But compared to many of their neighbours, the Vikings were clean and neat.
Keep in mind, very little is actually known about what Vikings looked like. There are no pictures, no photographs or selfies. All is according to comments from other peoples, from carvings and the scant little evidence left to be interpreted by archaeologists.
Because Vikings are currently popular in the media and are seen to be glamorous – there is also a lot of speculation.
Next we talk about Viking clothes.
Some links to help your Viking research
About the author:
Hi, I’m Rob Shackleford. I am author of a number of novels, though so far only Traveller Inceptio and Traveller Probo have been officially published. As Traveller Inceptio looks at the fates of modern historical researchers sent to the early 11th Century Saxon world, Vikings do feature.
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