Did Vikings Have Red Hair? Get the Facts


Of all the legendary figures that have come and gone through the many chapters of human history, the Vikings rank among the most celebrated and perhaps infamous. They have been described as fearless combatants and depicted as rugged people from the north who took Northern Europe by storm during the Middle Ages. But as it turns out, the archetypal image of Vikings is wrong, starting with their hair.

Not all Vikings fit the mold of the prototypical blond-haired, blue-eyed Scandinavian with rugged good looks. In fact, a recent genetic analysis of Viking remains recovered throughout Northern Europe has conclusively revealed that a significant number of these Norse warriors were actually redheads.

Centuries after the Viking Age came to a close, Norsemen are enjoying a resurgence in popularity and are a regular fixture in modern pop culture, including film and television. Based on scientific evidence, casting directors and makeup artists on television and movie sets may need to rethink their approaches, and actors in Ireland and Scotland may want to stay by their phones and get those headshots ready. Keep reading to learn why.

Did red hair originate with the Vikings? See below

Is Red Hair from Vikings?

The Vikings had a significant influence on social and cultural conditions during their heyday, and there are many facets of life in Northern Europe that are attributed to or blamed on them. For instance, there is a widely held belief that the Vikings are responsible for the presence, and in certain cases, prevalence, of red-haired people in areas where they exerted dominion or sway. (Also see What Did the Vikings Really Look Like?)

It is a scientific and historical fact that there were red-haired Vikings. Genetic analysis of Viking remains has shown that while Norsemen from the northern reaches of Scandinavia (modern-day Stockholm, Sweden) were predominantly blond, Vikings from the western parts of Scandinavia, most notably the area that is now Denmark, were more often than not, red-haired. [1] (Also see Did the Vikings Wear Dreadlocks?)

The people from the north certainly did bring many of their customs and practices to areas that they conquered and later settled. To say that red hair originates from the Vikings, however, is inaccurate. Centuries before the Vikings took to their longboats and left their native Scandinavia in search of wealth and opportunity, various civilizations encountered people with red hair, and these run-ins were well-documented:

  • Over 1,000 years before the dawn of the Viking Age, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle commented about fishermen from northern regions having red hair and reasoning that their exposure to cold and moist conditions was the root cause of their hair color
  • The ancient Romans also had run-ins with red-haired people, including the likes of Gauls, Germanic tribes, and Celts, and considered them to be hot-tempered and dishonorable (Also see Did the Vikings Ever Fight the Romans?)
  • The women of ancient Rome, however, found red hair to be very appealing and quite fashionable for the era, forcing Roman wig fabricators to bring in red hair from Northern Europe [2]

If we know that the Vikings had red hair, it follows that we would want to know if their beards were also red.

Did the Vikings dye their hair? See below

Did Vikings Have Red Beards?

It is apparent that one physical feature that depictions of the Vikings through the centuries (including modern pop culture) have gotten right is the prominence of facial hair among the Norsemen. Regardless of hair color, beards were an important feature of male Viking faces, as evidenced by beard-centric nicknames [3], including the likes of:

  • Fork Beard
  • Silk Beard
  • Gold Beard

Although there were certainly Viking men that were clean-shaven, it is safe to say that most Norsemen had beards. And given what is known about the prominence of red-haired Vikings from western Scandinavia, it can be assumed that those of the ginger persuasion had red beards to complete the look.

Interestingly, scholars have long believed that Vikings with dark-colored hair who aspired to achieve the blond look that was seemingly in fashion during the Viking Age used soap containing lye to bleach their hair and beards to the desired shade. (Also see How Did the Vikings Wash Their Hair and Brush Their Teeth?)

Not to be outdone, Celtic men employed the same strategy to transform their hair to the red color that must have been the rage in their region of the world. [4]

Did Vikings Have Freckles?

To many, red hair and freckles go together like blond hair and blue eyes. As geneticists can attest, the science behind freckles and which people have them and why involves the study of particular genes and genetic markers and can be quite complex to understand. Suffice it to say that there is a greater prevalence of freckles among redheads than brunettes and blondes. [5]

With scientists having established that there were a significant number of red-haired Vikings, it is safe to assume that a healthy portion also had the attribute that goes hand in hand with red hair, namely, visible clusters of melanocytes in the skin, more commonly known as freckles. (Also see Were There Black Vikings?)

Indeed, the English word freckles itself comes from the Old Norse term freknóttr, which means “speckled.” [6] This is a very strong indication that the Vikings were not only familiar with these brownish specks of pigmentation but perhaps coined the term through firsthand, personal experience.

Did the Scots and Irish Get Red Hair from Vikings?

On the topic of redheads, two particular nations in northern Europe come to mind, Scotland and Ireland. With good reason, the Scots and the Irish are associated with red hair more than any other people on the planet. Globally, less than 2% of the world’s population have natural red hair, but 13% of Scots (#1 worldwide) and 10% of Irish (#2 worldwide) are redheads, and even more carry the ginger gene. [7]

As far as explaining why these two northern European countries have the highest numbers of redheads per capita in the world, there are two popular theories, and both involve the Vikings.

Vikings Brought Red Hair to Scotland and Ireland: One theory advanced by some scholars is that in conquering areas of Scotland and Ireland during the Viking Age, red-haired Norse warriors brought with them the genetic material responsible for ginger hair to their adopted homeland, and the rest, as they say, is history. Also see What Hairstyles Did the Vikings Have?)

In support of this view, proponents point to certain historical circumstances that, at least on the surface, appear to be quite convincing:

  • There is a prevalence of red hair in Scandinavia and a historical association with the Vikings
  • Mapping areas of higher-than-average occurrence of red hair in Europe coincides closely with known Viking trade routes
  • Pockets of Ireland where there is a high occurrence of red hair among the local population are areas that were settled by the Vikings centuries ago
  • In the Scottish Orkney Islands, where there are many redheads, the DNA of as many as 60% of the local males has been found to be Norwegian in origin, indicating a strong genetic connection to the Vikings who settled the area as they swept through northern Europe [8]

So does that mean that the Vikings were the ones responsible for all of the red hair around northern Europe?

There were Redheads Before the Vikings Arrived

There is an opposing view that there were redheads in Scotland and Ireland well before the Vikings ever set foot in these countries. [9] According to scientific studies, there are strong parallels to be drawn between areas where there is a high prevalence of red-haired populations and areas where ancient Celtic and Germanic civilizations once lived and thrived.

This is where the Vikings enter the picture. There is an argument to be made that it was not the Vikings who brought ginger genes to Scotland and Ireland. Rather, the genetic material was already there, and the Norsemen unwittingly brought them back to Scandinavia when they returned to their homeland with Irish and Scottish slaves (who had the Celtic genes responsible for red hair) in tow. [10] And once again, the rest is history.

Conclusion

Contrary to popular belief, not all Vikings were blond-haired; in fact, quite a few were redheads with red beards to match.

References:
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