People with dreadlocks are found in a variety of cultures and geographical locations. Men and women have worn their hair in rope-like strands for centuries and people all around the world still wear them today. Popular culture sometimes depicts Vikings with dreadlocks, but modern portrayals aren’t always accurate. So did Vikings wear dreadlocks?
It is believed that some Vikings did wear dreadlocks. While the Vikings didn’t keep written historical records, the people they encountered often did. Roman writers describe the appearance of the Vikings, including their hair. Their records mention some Vikings having long hair arranged in different styles, including dreadlocks.
Historically, dreadlocks appear in many cultures and during different periods of time. In the modern world, hairstyles are often thought of as a matter of choice and mere appearance.
Yet in some cultures, including some ancient ones, certain hairstyles, including dreadlocks, may have been worn more for practical reasons than stylistic ones. But what about the Vikings?
Many people know that the Vikings lived in ancient Scandinavia. But were they all white, as often depicted in popular culture? Please see Were the Vikings Black? to learn more.
Were Vikings dreadlocks special?
Contrary to certain modern stereotypes, historical evidence shows that physical hygiene was important to the Vikings in the Middle Ages. Caring for their hair was seemingly part of their hygiene routine.
Based on written records, like the Roman writings mentioned above, as well as some hair care artifacts, like combs, that Scandinavian archaeologists have discovered, there is reason to believe that the Vikings valued managing their hair.
This doesn’t imply that caring for their hair was about appearance only; they could have managed it out of necessity.
Some historians believe that the Vikings may have had a distinct way of braiding their hair or arranging and growing it into dreadlocks.
Even though people in different places and at different times in history wore dreadlocks, that doesn’t mean the hairstyles were exactly the same.
The texture, length, and thickness of hair, as well as other attributes, can vary from culture to culture based on the genetic makeup of certain people groups or environmental conditions, which impact hair differently.
The clothes Vikings wore were partly practical and partly fashionable. See The Viking Dress Code: What They Wore and How to learn more.
Did the Vikings invent dreadlocks?
Dreadlocks are mention in multiple ancient sources from a variety of places around the world. From religious writings in India to depictions on art from ancient Greece, dreadlocks are clearly evident in ancient civilizations.
Why? There is an array of opinions about why this is the case. Ancient writers and artists weren’t just interested in dreadlocks, but recorded, drew, sculpted and painted different hairstyles, which were sometimes even emphasized.
One reason why this was so may be so is because some cultures associated women’s hair with femininity and men’s hair with masculinity.
Highlighting someone’s hairstyle was then a way to suggest something about their nature as people.
So did the Vikings invent dreadlocks? No. According to Roman records, the Celtic people, Germanic tribes, and the Vikings, may have worn their in rope-like strands.
Even early Christians were believed to have worn their hair in dreadlocks as a tribute to Samson, who had seven locks of hair.  (Also see What Hairstyles Did the Vikings Have?)
Historians have uncovered that the hairdo was common among the people in ancient Egypt, Pacific Islanders, the New Guineans, as well as the Somali and the Maasai, apart from many other tribes, including the Vikings.
Historical records indicate that Vikings had markings on their skin. See How Vikings Got Tattoos and Why to learn more.
Viking dreadlocks and Celtic elflocks
In the Middle Ages, the Vikings occupied northern Europe, the region known today as Scandinavia.
The Vikings neighbors to the south were the Celts and being in close geographical proximity, they influenced each other in different ways.
“Elflocks” or “fairy-locks” are a hairstyle of tangles and knots similar to dreadlocks.
Did Celtic elflocks influence Viking dreadlocks?
Descriptions of elflocks are found in ancient Celtic folklore. These stories survived through oral transmission as opposed to written records.
Storytelling, art, and songs were common ways to transfer stories from one generation to the next.
In Celtic folklore, it was told that elves appear at night to tie knots in people’s hair; hence, the term “elflocks.” It is also said that combing out these knots brings bad luck.
There is no irrefutable evidence to suggest that Celtic hairstyles influenced Scandinavian hairstyles. Both forms of locks may have been simply the result of practical necessity or the lack of regular combing or brushing.
Were dreadlocks important to the Vikings?
Vikings were known to place great importance on personal hygiene, and that even extended to their hairstyles.
The importance that they placed in these matters can, in part, be seen in the story about Odin when the Norse god was distraught after the death of his son and refused to wash or comb his hair for days. This detail implies how serious the Vikings were about these matters.
It is also believed that the hairstyles were also indicative of the person’s designation and that it may have also carried religious and other culturally symbolic meanings.
Cultural Significance of Dreadlocks Among the Vikings
It is believed that unmarried Viking girls sometimes wore dreadlocks and heavily braided to mark a festival or formal occasion. Sometimes their hair as further accessorized with a decorative circlet that matched their clothing.
Hairstyles among the Vikings may have been an indicator of the social status of individuals. Slaves mostly wore their hair cropped, which was a sign of servitude and loyalty to their master. Married women wore their hair in a knot at the top of their heads. (Also see Here’s How the Vikings Proposed and Got Married)
The Viking men who traveled to distant lands in order to fight and loot often wore their hair in long braids and sometimes dreadlocks.
Some believe that this was done to create an even more imposing persona and thereby intimidate their enemies. Others believe the hairstyle was practical and served to keep their long hair out of their faces when raiding. Both may be true.
Are you curious about what the Vikings looked like? See What Did the Vikings Look Like? to learn what scientists believe about what their faces, hairstyles, clothing, skin color, and more.
Is There a Difference Between Braids and Dreadlocks?
Some historians make a distinction between braids and dreadlocks. But are they the same thing?
- Braids: Some note that braids are intentionally formed by taking three or more strands of hair and weaving them one on top on another until it reaches each strand’s ends.
- Dreadlocks: On the other hand, are more naturally formed as a result of hair matting together over time.
While braids can be taken out quite easily, it is not the same with dreadlocks, which are for all practical purpose, permanent.
Braids require much less maintenance compared to dreadlocks. Having dreadlocks means that there is a need to take additional care to preserve the look and maintain hair health.
Dreadlocks and braids are also different because of the impact they have on hair. Braids can be taken out without causing significant hair damage, whereas dreadlocks need to be teased and matted if they are to be untangled, which may lead to hair breakage.
That is why many people who would like to stop wearing dreadlocks often opt to shave their head.
Where does the word “dreadlocks” come from?
The etymology, or word history, of the term “dreadlocks” is uncertain. Some believe it has European origins, but others associate it with Rastafarian language and culture:
“Some authors have speculated that the “dread” component could refer to the reaction of British soldiers upon encountering Mau Mau fighters who had this hairstyle.
Dreadlocks are also worn by some Rastafarians, who believe they represent a biblical hair style worn as a symbol of devotion by the Nazirites, as described in Numbers 6:1–21.” 
Dreadlocks likely had practical and cultural purposes
The fact is the Vikings were one of several ancient people groups to have worn dreadlocks, along with the ancient Gauls, Celts, Indians, and many more. The reasons the Vikings wore dreadlocks isn’t clear, but to was likely due to practical and cultural reasons.