Vikings – The Ginger Connection by Rob Shackleford
Were Vikings Redheads?
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We see them on TV – tall, barrel-chested fellows wielding an axe and intent on plunder.
They were tall, blonde and terrifying.
But was everything as it seemed?
Genetic studies show that Vikings were really descended from a variety of genetic lines, many originating from the steppes of central Asia. There was a healthy mix of blonds, redheads and dark-haired people, just like today.
There were, however, more blond Vikings in northern Scandinavia in the area around Stockholm, Sweden, while there were more redheads in western Scandinavia, which is currently Denmark.
So, did Vikings from some regions have Red Hair?
In northern Europe, it’s speculated that the M1CR mutation which causes red hair was brought to the mainland from the Viking raiders of Norway. Though it’s a cliché, the greatest concentration of red hair is found in Scotland and Ireland and the coastal areas where the Vikings settled show the highest number of gingers.
One of the oldest Norse documents, the Prose Edda, has an interesting little bit of redhead history. In it, Odin the All-Father, ruler of the gods of Asgard, is described as being a wise and thoughtful ruler with blonde hair. His son Thor, though, is possessed of a full head of red hair, an enormous bushy red beard, and a temper quick to flare.
But the M1CR mutation didn’t start in Norway or Denmark. Jacky Colliss Harvey’s “Red: A History of The Redhead” tracks it back to the steppes of central Asia, 3,000 or 4,000 years ago. Those early redheads had a genetic advantage when they moved north as their pale skin synthesized more vitamin D from the weak sunlight.
Red hair was also the mark of the Thracians and the Scythians, two loosely-organized tribal groups that harried the borders of ancient Greece. Considered uncivilized, they actually had advanced art and literature, but without political consolidation they never built an empire and were eventually subsumed and enslaved by the Persians. In Greek art from that time, they’re depicted with vivid red hair, engaged in fierce and brutal battle.
When Rome tried to expand their empire to the North, they came into conflict with the ruddy Celts who presented some of the most vicious resistance they’d yet seen. That furthered the connection between martial strength and flame-coloured hair. Yet many Romans were red-haired with names like Rufus – meaning red – a common cognomen or nickname.
Maybe Vikings can’t take all of the credit for red hair. In recorded history, the ancient Greeks and Romans described the pre-Viking Celtic and Germanic people as redheads and the distribution of red hair in Europe today matches the ancient Celtic and Germanic worlds – with the highest frequencies in areas that remain Celtic-speaking to this day or until recently, places such as Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany.
The 45th parallel north, which runs exactly halfway between the Equator and the North Pole, appears to be a major natural boundary for red hair frequencies. Under the 45th parallel, UV rays become so strong that it is no longer an advantage to have the very fair skin associated with red hair, so redheads become increasingly rare.
But did the far-northern distribution of red haired populations correlate with Viking expansion?
Many Vikings were red-heads and were doubtlessly enthusiastic distributors of the genetic trait, but the ancient European Germanic and Celtic peoples were also red heads before them. If you are a ginger, especially from Scotland or Ireland, there might still be a good chance that a Viking might be somewhere in your family line. Even our beautiful Brazilian surfer friend Bruna below, might be able to attribute her red hair through her Northern Italian heritage to Vikings.
For more articles on Red Heads and Vikings
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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