Did the Vikings Paint Their Faces?


Vikings are Scandinavians who lived between the 8th and 11th centuries. In many depiction of Vikings in popular culture, they are shown as militant strong men with lots of body art and painted faces. But is this true? Did the Vikings really paint their faces?

There is some evidence to suggest that the Vikings painted their faces. Why exactly they painted their faces is less understood, in part, because the Vikings didn’t leave any written records. While some historians believe their face paintings was for appearance only, others suspect that the practice may been reserved for seers.

The information below explains what is known and known about the Vikings painting their faces in Scandinavia during the Middle Ages.

Viking man black face paint
Face paint may have had practical purposes like preventing sun glare

Evidence from English writings

Many historical discussions about the appearance of Vikings refer to the writings of Ibrahim ibn Yaqub (also known as Al-Tartushi) who visited the Viking town of Hedeby around the year 965 A.D. [1]

Yaqub mentioned in his writings that Viking men and women used some kind of indelible cosmetic to “enhance the beauty of their eyes.”

A lot of people wonder what the Vikings looked like, including how they wore their hair. See Did Vikings Have Long Hair? to learn more.

Some interpretations of the texts show that Ibrahim mentioned that the Danish Vikings at Hedeby, a town on the southern tip of the Jutland Peninsula in northern Europe, lined their eyes with Kohl, which is black powder, usually antimony sulfide or lead sulfide, used as eye makeup. [2]

Yaqub’s note suggests that it was conventional for Vikings to add a foreign substance to their face to change or enhance their appearance. It is difficult to say if modern depictions of Vikings with painted faces are historically accurate because there are no pictures from the Viking period.

Danish Evidence

The grave of a suspected “seeress” that dates from around 980 was found in Fyrkat, Denmark. [3] The remains showed that the woman was fairly rich or had access to riches. She was buried with fine clothes and some jewelry that would have been rare in the Scandinavian region at the time.

She was also buried with a box-brooch, which contained lead carbonate.

Also known as “white lead,” ancient Greeks commonly used lead carbonate. However, they didn’t know about its toxicity.

Many historians believe that the Fyrkat woman was using the white lead as some makeup. However, this belief is hard to substantiate as no trace of the woman’s skin was discovered in the remains.

Do modern depictions of Vikings reflect the actual clothes the wear? See The Viking Dress Code: What They Wore and How to learn more.

It’s also unclear why the woman would have used white lead as makeup. Since other items discovered in the grave suggested she was a seeress, it is not clear if the lead was used to paint her face as part of her rituals to communicate with the dead. [4]

Some wonder if the lead could have been used to create a concoction with the henbane seeds and ointment discovered in the grave. That would, however, be a poisonous mixture.

Looking at the evidence that is often cited when discussing whether Vikings painted their faces, like the examples above, leads to the conclusion that there are many unanswered questions.

Until more evidence is uncovered, Yaqub’s writings seem most reliable.

Viking woman with face paint
Viking woman with face paint

Did Vikings paint their face for war?

There is little evidence to support the idea that the Vikings painted their faces when going to war. Because this is “an argument from silence” having little or no evidence isn’t irrefutable proof that the Vikings didn’t do this. There just isn’t any evidence they did.

Many historians seriously doubt the Vikings would paint their faces for war. Some suggest that the Vikings would have to have had a way to identify other Vikings in the middle of a battle, and individual face paintings would have made it difficult to do this. 

Moreover, if the Vikings did paint their faces some wonder what would have prevented their enemy from taking advantage of this by replicating the painting and confusing them?

Could the Vikings have been influenced by others?

In Julius Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul, he mentioned that the Britons dyed their bodies with woad, a mustard-like herb, making them look more terrifying in battle. [5]

Some historians speculate that the Vikings may have picked up painting their faces when going to war from Britons.

Some people groups in Medeival times had tattoos, but did the Vikings? See How Vikings Got Tattoos (and why) to learn more.

The Truth About the Appearance of Vikings

More than 500 skeletons from the Viking era have been found to date. While none of them provide definitive proof that Vikings painted their faces, they reveal information about their overall appearance.

Contrary to some ancient legends and modern-day stories, the Vikings were not giants. They had a physical build that looked much like modern Europeans, yet they were probably more muscular due to the difficulty of the physical work they did. 

The face shapes of Viking women were often more masculine than today, while the face shapes of Viking men were sometimes more feminine when compared to today’s norms.

Genetic research has shown that Vikings had red or blonde hair depending on whether they were from West or North Scandinavia.

Viking man blue face paint
Face paint designs likely had symbolic significance for the Vikings

Popular culture’s impact on the perception of Vikings

Many stories have depicted Vikings as ruthless and dirty warriors. Historically, this portrayal is overly simplistic and based in part on stereotypes of what people in the Middle Ages were like.

Combs locked away in boxes have been found in many Viking graves, showing that they took their grooming seriously.

English Cleric John Wallingford, prior of St. Fridswides, wrote how Vikings took a bath on weekends, and changed their woolen garments frequently, seducing high-born English women in the process.

As mentioned above, the one historical document that gave the impression that the Vikings were dirty is from Yaqub’s writings. He wrote about how Vikings spit and blow their nose into bowls, then pass it to the next man.

Some historians suggest that Yaqub may have been exaggerating, considering his Islamic beliefs on how to wash the body.

It is possible that the bowls were emptied before they were refilled for use by another person—which would have still been deemed dirty by Ibrahim Yaqub.

Apart from Yacqub, almost all other sources say that Vikings were among the cleanest people across Europe in the Middle Ages.

They took their baths in lakes, streams, and bath-houses in the summer, and bathed in heated bath-houses in the winter. They also washed their hands and faces daily on rising from the bed.

The misconception about Vikings painting their face when preparing for war comes from television shows like “Vikings.” However, many parts of that story are fiction and not based on history.

More evidence needed

Viking man painted face
There is evidence that Vikings painted their faces

The most widely trusted evidence of the Vikings painting their faces comes from the writings of Yaqub, the Arab traveler that reached Hedeby in 965.

His writings suggest that Vikings lined their eyes with Kohl, but it doesn’t talk about other types of cosmetics.

Archaeologists are constantly unearthing Viking related artifacts, but to date, none of these has been able to provide irrefutable evidence of Vikings painting their faces.

So, did the Vikings paint their faces? It is probable. The use of Kohl as noted by Yaqub is yet to be corroborated by other source texts, but the historical reliability of his writings, while not flawless, is relatively high.

Nevertheless, since it’s been established that Vikings took grooming and personal appearance seriously, so its possible that they used foreign substances on their faces for enhancement and symbolism.

References

[1] http://www.amazon.com/Ibn-Fadlan-Land-Darkness-Travellers/dp/0140455078

[2] https://sites.nd.edu/manuscript-studies/2019/10/18/viking-eyeliner-from-sea-to-sea/

[3] en.natmus.dk

[4] Academia.edu

[5] https://www.britannica.com/plant/woad

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