Were the Vikings tall and tatted or is this just Hollywood hoo-ha?
By TOM HALE
Viking-inspired tattoos with Norse imagery and runes have become somewhat in vogue in the era of Pinterest-inspired body art, but did the Vikings actually have tattoos? There’s no solid archaeological evidence that tattoos were common in the Viking age since it’s rare for skin to remain intact for centuries. Nevertheless, we know from written sources that some Norsemen may have been fans of body art.
What did Viking tattoos look like?
One of the best accounts of inked-up Norsemen comes from Ahmad ibn Fadlan, a 10th-century Muslim traveler who was sent from Baghdad to make contact with the king of the Volga Bulgars, an area of modern-day western Russia and Ukraine. Around this time, the area was home to a group of people known as the Volga Vikings, conquerors and traders who had settled in the area from Scandinavia.
In his description one of of these tribes, known as the Rus, Fadlan wrote:
“Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife and keeps each by him at all times. The swords are broad and grooved, of Frankish sort. Every man is tattooed from fingernails to neck with dark green (or green or blue-black) trees, figures, etc.”
“I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blonde and ruddy,” he added.
Although the rest of the description was less flattering, describing the Rus as the “filthiest of God’s creatures”.
There is some debate around whether the Arabic translation of the word “tattoo” is accurate or whether it describes some other form of body decoration. Nevertheless, it’s safe to assume that many Rus men would decorate their bodies with some kind of dark green and blue pigment that depicted figures, just as the Arabic account explains.
It’s also important to remember that the Rus were just one group of Vikings and there’s no telling whether they were representative of the whole culture. Since they were largely separated from the predominate Viking cultures of Scandinavia, it’s far from certain.
As for physical evidence, there is next to none. Skin degrades very easily once a person dies and rarely survives centuries of burial unless it’s preserved under very certain conditions, such as mummification or being frozen in permafrost.
Unfortunately, no Vikings have ever been found in such conditions. However, there are a number of examples of people in Europe from the distant past who have been discovered covered in tattoos.
In 1991, the body of a 5,300-year-old glacier mummy was discovered by hikers in the Ötztal Alps near the Italian-Austrian border. Named Ötzi, researchers quickly realized that the 45-year-old man’s body was caked in over 60 tattoos. It’s believed the skin inks had some kind of spiritual or medicinal intention, designed to ease all kinds of ailments.
Ötzi, of course, was not a Viking. However, this one-off discovery does possibly hint that the practice of tattooing in pre-modern Europe is long and broad. Paired with the written account by Fadlan, it could suggest that the image of Vikings being tall, tatted warriors perhaps wasn’t far wrong.
This article was originally published on IFLSCIENCE on March 17, 2023.