Were Vikings Inked? – Vikings and Tattoos Part 2 by Rob Shackleford
Did Vikings have tattoos?
Nobody really knows. Now, with popular media we want Vikings to have had tattoos, but did they really?
Unfortunately, except in unique circumstances, human skin does not survive centuries of burial.
Add to that, few Viking literary works survive, so we are forced to rely on outside accounts. Many come from Arab statesmen who carried on extensive trade and cultural exchange with Norsemen in the ninth and tenth centuries.
One Arab traveler, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a scholar of Baghdad, was sent by the Abbasid Caliph on a diplomatic mission to the Bulgars in the Middle Volga area of Russia. He first met the Norse warriors as he travelled across Russia’s vast steppes, meeting them as they sailed their longships down the Volga River and looking to trade with the Arab world — by far the wealthiest civilization in Western Eurasia, particularly as Europe struggled to consolidate in the centuries following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of the Eastern Roman Empire of the Byzantines. While there in A.D. 921, he met a people called the Rus, Swedish Viking traders, who had brought slaves to sell at the markets.
Ibn Fadlan describes the Rus in his travel chronicler. He called them the “Rusiyyah,” now commonly known as the Vikings. The name is the origin of the Russians.
“I have never seen bodies as nearly perfect as theirs,” he wrote. “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.”
He goes on to record, “They are dark from the tips of their toes right up to their necks – trees, pictures, and the like.”
Historians seem to generally accept that this account by Fadlan might indicate that the Vikings were indeed tattooed. But this is rather slight evidence on which to state categorically that Vikings tattooed themselves. The Arabic word used in the original text for “tattoo” was more commonly used to describe mosque decorations rather than actual tattoos— a fitting description considering similarities between a mosque’s geometric patterns and those of runic Viking tattoos. Also, tattoos are not mentioned in any of the sagas or poetry, although these literary works describe many other physical characteristics such as scars or hair colour.
Across Northern Europe, tattooing was quite a common practice and indeed there have been numerous finds when burial places have been uncovered and the skin has been intact. No Northmen though.
The problem is that body-painting was also popular.
Tattoos and the Britons and Picts
As Caesar wrote in his account of the Gallic Wars, “All the Britons dye themselves with woad, which produces a blue colour, and makes their appearance in battle more terrible.” Such was the effect of their appearance that they became known throughout Europe as the Pretani, a Celtic word meaning the ‘painted’ ones. From that, the name Britain was eventually derived.
Herodian, a Greek historian serving Rome, wrote of the picts, “They ‘draw figures of animals or symbols on their skin by pressing hot iron onto their limbs, causing great pain, and over this they rub the sap of a plant’. The sap of the woad plant created the blue colour and stain that never goes away.
Around 600 AD, the Spanish Bishop Isidore of Seville wrote that the Picts derived their name from their practice of “decorating their bodies by rubbing the sap of local plants into pricked designs.” The word “Picts” is believed to be derived from the Latin pictus meaning “painted.” Isidore wrote that it was the Pict warrior elite that distinguished themselves from the rest of the population by their vivid, colourful tattoos and that the Scots also tattooed themselves.
Some argue that the Britons were only painted, not tattooed. Yet, later Roman scholars were convinced that what Caesar saw was ink. “That region is partly held by barbarians who from childhood have different pictures of animals skillfully implanted on their bodies so that as the man grows, so grow the marks painted on him,” wrote Gaius Julius Solinus in the 3rd Century. “There is nothing more that they consider as a test of patience than to have their limbs soak up the maximum amount of dye through these permanent scars.”
Roman Soldiers and Tattoos
Roman soldiers based at the frontier’s Hadrian’s Wall also had a military tattoo. The 4th century Roman chronicler Vegetius recounted that recruits to the legions would have to earn their tattoo once they had been tested by physical exercises. The symbol could have been an eagle or the symbol of the soldier’s legion or unit.
The 6th century Roman doctor Aetius recorded that soldiers sported tattoos on their hands and detailed the method they used to create them, noting how leek juice was used as an antiseptic to wash the area to be tattooed.
Tattoos in Early Medieval Europe
But tattoos weren’t popular with some populations. When Norwegian and Swedish crusaders returning to their homeland travelled through a remote village, they were shocked to find the population decorated with pagan ”’demons”’ tattooed on their skin. The people were slaughtered and a new church built. We can suppose tattoos definitely did not conform to the Christian ideals.
Both the Frankish and Anglo Saxon law books that have survived talk of outlawing tattooing as it encouraged paganism. This might mean our ancestor’s tattooed symbols of the Gods on their skin. It may also mean tattoos that referred to our ancestors were popular as any kind of ancestor veneration was strictly outlawed by the new Christian ideas.
When the Normans conquered England in 1066, they too would discover the British fondness for tattoos. In the 12th Century, the chronicler William of Malmesbury described how tattooing was one of the first practices the Normans adopted from the natives, who were then the Anglo-Saxons. it is recorded that after the English defeat at the Battle of Hastings King Harold, the last true King of the English, was only identified by the tattoos on his body.
Vikings and Tattoos
Because of the Anglo-Saxon contact with Vikings, there is an expectation that Vikings might have also adopted the custom from the land they eventually conquered and settled.
Christianity marked the end of tattooing in Europe for many centuries. Especially in the north as tattoos that referred to Gods and ancestors were strictly forbidden and taboo.
While there is indeed a chance that Vikings might have been tattooed, there is no real evidence. Unless archaeologists are lucky enough to find a frozen tattooed Viking somewhere in the mountains, we will never have definitive proof. To this day, there has only been found skeletons or ash, which leaves no evidence of whether Vikings were tattooed or not.
If the Vikings had or didn’t have tattoos is still an unanswered question. Were they tattooed, or painted? Future excavations and better technology to conduct these excavations by the archaeologists might one day solve this riddle.
Some additional links for your own Viking historical research:
Interested? For more on Vikings, check out the links of my previous Viking Blogs below:
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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