Ritual Painting of Face and Bodies in Viking Culture
by Thomas Baurley, 9/6/2017
It is a controversial and well debated subject whether or not the Vikings painted their faces and bodies. The Vikings were certainly exposed to the practice from their contact with the Britons, Celts, and Arabic Cultures. As early as 55 C.E. Julius Caesar wrote about the natives in Britannia about their usage during his conquest of the region, stating “All the Britons dye their bodies with woad, which produces a blue colour, and this gives them a more terrifying appearance in battle.” Perhaps it was adopted by the Vikings once battling the Brits. Hollywood definitely portrays this practice, but it could have no more validity as horned helmets being worn by Vikings.
There is evidence from the writings of “Ibrahim ibn Yaqub” who in 965 C.E. visited the Viking village of Hedeby reporting that many of the Vikings in the village, both male and female had enhanced their eyes with some sort of paint. This discovery leads many academics to believe it was strictly cosmetic in use. Some believe they painted themselves with complicated symbols, runes, and/or trees in symbology. Tools, materials, and dyes have been archaeologically excavated from sites in Northern Europe that even pre-dated the Vikings, so its not hard to believe they had the ability and knowledge to do so.
There were also found pieces of art depicting Vikings with painted faces discovered in archaeological excavations. The Fyrkat Denmark grave goods dating from 980 C.E. depicts a gilded box-brooch with a hinged lid, inside of which was contained very white lead carbonate often used in cosmetics and paints dating as far back as the Ancient Greeks. This had led scholars to conclude was used as white makeup (albeit lead being poisonous in such application over time).
Obviously Hollywood and the film industry have jumped to this conclusion and it has become commonplace in media, film, and photos with some very dynamic artwork produced called “Viking” influenced. Some of these can be seen here on pininterest: https://www.pinterest.com/explore/viking-makeup/?lp=true. My first and only time I went to a authentic Viking festival in Norway, I was allowed to be a Viking bodypainter, having had to create clay-based coloring, woad, and other herbal based paints, using horse-hair brushes I styled in ancient paintbrush style, and painted Runes on my customers, it went over well and was very popular.
References and extended research:
- Ceasar, Julius n.d. “The Conquest of Gaul”
- Fadlan, Ibn; Lunde, Paul; Stone, Caroline “Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North”. USBN: 9780140455076, Amazon books.
- Handford, S.A. 1951 “Cesar: The Conquest of Gaul” translation, Penguin Classics.
- Pentz, P 2009 “Mannering U: Kong Harolds volve”. Nationalmuseets Arbejdsmark, pages 215-232.
- Perabo, Lyonel – Quroa 2016 “Why did the Vikings paint their faces”. Website referenced 9/6/17 at https://www.quora.com/Why-did-the-Vikings-paint-their-faces.
- Petersen, Irene Berg 2012 “What Vikings Really Looked Like”. ScienceNordic. Website referenced 9/6/17 at http://sciencenordic.com/what-vikings-really-looked.