It should be obvious. Vikings were barbarians, fitting of the description of “Noble Savages” who would have sported long, flowing locks of hair and immensely dense beards. Or were they?
Recent revisions to Viking history have painted a starkly different picture of what life was like for Scandinavians during the Viking Age. We’ve since learned that they were cleanliness-oriented, bathed weekly, and paid particular attention to their appearance. We know now that women decorated their clothes with colorful beads among other shiny objects, and the men groomed their beards daily. So with all of this new information available to us, the question stands: how did Vikings wear their hair?
Contrary to popular belief, long hair and a thick beard was not the universal style among those who betook themselves a-viking (to go a-iking). In fact, long hair was well known to be a hazard during combats, and was difficult to keep clean during long sea voyages. Historians have noted that very short hair may have been reserved for slaves, but there exists evidence to show that styles varied greatly among individuals, and that even some notable figures chose to wear short hair. Evidence from the archeological record—which includes statues, statuettes, and picture stones—shows men with many variations of hair cuts. Some may have worn their hair shoulder-length. Others may have had bowl-cuts. Many may have trimmed and groomed their beards into goatees. It appears that, precisely as it is today, hair styles may have been a form of self-expression.
What is most important to understand is that the Viking Age lasted for over three centuries, and in that time fashion and hairstyles changed. Early in the Viking Age, it seems, the evidence does point to men with long hair and thick beards. As time progressed, it seems, hairstyles changed, along with many parts of Scandinavian culture.
Various stones represent early Viking Age Scandinavians in varying fashion. For example, the Tängelgårda stone (pictured below) depicts men who have long hair and beards. If you look closely, there is a man on the lefthand side, below the horse, who does not have long hair and is presumably a slave.
The Story Hammers Stone (pictured below), one of the most celebrated relics of the Viking Age, also depicts varieties of hair styles. Some have long hair and beards, others short, and for others still it is unclear, or the stone is damaged by the wear of time.
While evidence for hairstyles remains sparse for the early Viking Age, a few valuable finds have indicated the variations among different people. A head carving from the Oseberg Ship Burial (pictured below), for example, shows a man with a well trimmed beard and a well-fitting coif, indicating that the long hair and free flowing beard were not everyone’s first choice. This evidence dates to the early 9th Century.
Mid-Viking Age Evidence
The breadth of evidence changed as the Viking Age progressed and the raiders of the early 9th Century became the conquerors of the 10th Century. Below is a coin from Dublin, depicting the king Sihtric of Dublin, who neither has long hair, nor a beard. And yet, he is considered to have been a Viking.
What this coin represents is the tendency of Vikings abroad to adapt to the culture they intended to conquer. This happened most prominently in Ireland first, then England, and Normandy after that, culminating in a sharp divide between Viking groups by the end of the Viking Age.
Late Viking Age Evidence
By the end of the Viking Age, the Christianization of Scandinavia imposed rules surrounding vanity, ending the varieties of hairdos among Scandinavians (for a while). The Bayeux Tapestry shows us that military men during this period wore short hair, particularly in the back (pictured below).
How did the Vikings Wear Their Hair?
Ultimately, the evidence points to a culture that allowed self-expression. This may be a hard pill for some to swallow, but it appears the eccentric hairstyles fashioned by the Vikings in the History Channel’s series of that name may be closer to reality than the idea that they all had long, free-flowing hair. It also appears that styles changed with time and by location. Particularly, Vikings’ hairstyles met the demands of their profession, which was to raid, pillage, and later, conquer.