Of course, the Vikings did more than just tackle the British Isles. One Viking leader, Rollo, became forefather of the Normans (who would eventually conquer England after the Battle of Hastings), and they led several raiding parties throughout Russia (especially along the Volga river), and as far West as North America (called Vinland by the old Norse people). The Vikings interacted with a vast number of different cultures throughout the centuries, with archaeological findings showing that they travelled as far south as Baghdad and enjoyed a peaceful (and at times not so peaceful) relationship with the Caliphate. When they weren’t raiding, they traded with most, offering furs, slaves, tusks, and other goods in exchange for gold, silver, and treasure.
Being so well-travelled, it’s highly likely that the Vikings encountered several individuals with tattoos and interacted with cultures that are likely to have taught them how to tattoo. But does that mean that they did, indeed, wear tattoos? And if so, what kind?
What we do know about Viking tattoos
There are only two accounts by travelers from other regions that specifically make mention of the possibility of Viking tattoos. Both come from historians and diplomats, the most famous being Ahmad ibn Fadlan, an emissary of the Abbasid Caliph, sent to the king of the Bulgarian Volga, with the mission of assisting him with his conversion to Islam.
Along the way, ibn Fadlan made note of his travels in a detailed journal, the most famous entries describing Rus Vikings who were trading in the area at the time. Among many of their practices (including human sacrifice during the cremation of a chieftain), he also made note of their appearance describing them as:
“I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Itil. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor kaftans, but the men wear a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free. Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife, and keeps each by him at all times. Each woman wears on either breast a box of iron, silver, copper, or gold; the value of the box indicates the wealth of the husband. Each box has a ring from which depends a knife. The women wear neck-rings of gold and silver. Their most prized ornaments are green glass beads. They string them as necklaces for their women.”
Additionally, ibn Fadlan notes that each man is painted or tattooed from “the tips of his toes to his neck”, with dark blue or dark green designs of trees and fantastical creatures. These ‘trees’ might have been Norse knotwork, or runes. Given the color mentioned in his account, it is likely that they used a specific kind of ash to pigment their tattoos, much like the Picts used woad.
Important to mention is that there is some controversy around the validity of these accounts regarding the practices of Scandinavian people, given that the Rus could have been another people altogether, and some of their practices could be paralleled to peoples who weren’t Viking. Either way, it’s the best account we have of what they looked like.
The only other account comes from the Jewish explorer Ibrahim Ibn Yacoub Al Tartushi, who hailed from the city of Cordoba, in the at-the-time Muslim kingdom of Spain.
Al Tartushi had many harsh words for the Danish Vikings he met, including complaints about their singing (“I never heard any more awful singing then the singing of the people in Schleswig. It is a groan that comes out of their throats, similar to the bark of the dogs but even more like a wild animal.”) and mention of dark eye shadow makeup that both men and women wore. While Al Tartushi makes note of the fact that this eccentuated the beauty of both the men and the women, it’s likely the Danes wore it for practical reasons – to prevent snow blindness. It is also unlikely that this was a form of permanent makeup, but it is the only other mention of Viking markings.
The Vikings probably didn’t care too much about tattoos
Most of what we know about what the Vikings looked like is based on what was observed about them by other cultures. While the Vikings did have a writing system, and there are plenty of variations of Futhark runes both before the Viking Age and after it, they didn’t use said runes to make much note of their personal appearance or day-to-day lives.
Generally, runestones scattered throughout Britain, Germanic regions, and Scandinavia were raised in commemoration of the fallen, great achievements (raiding voyages), and journeys (such as meeting new cultures).
Aside from runestones, most of knowledge of the old customs and traditions of the Viking era and older Norse cultures stems from folk stories and poems collected and preserved in old codices, such as the Icelandic Codex Regius (the King’s Book, containing the Poetic Edda, compiled sometime around 1270), and books like the Prose Edda (compiled at some point around 1220).
These poems and stories contain many passages describing the stature and appearance of various gods and heroes, but never are tattoos mentioned.
Then again, we can’t know
It’s important to note that Christianity had a considerable effect on the Norse population at that point, and the Prose Edda itself opens up with a Christianized version of the Norse creation myth. It is likely that, given centuries of exposure to Christiandom, the Viking tradition of tattooing had largely been quelled at that point, or reduced in numbers.
While there are examples of Christian tattoos in history (particularly the 700-year-old tradition of the Razzouks in Jerusalem, as well as examples of Christian tattoo art among the Egyptian Copts), it was not very common.
Unless we are lucky enough to stumble upon the preserved remains of pre-Viking Norsemen, and women or early Viking era individuals, we won’t have any definitive proof as to how widespread the practice of tattooing was.
Given that tattooing had been known and applied generally throughout continental Europe at this point (as evidenced by Ötzi and several prehistoric artifacts depicting humans and human-like figures painted with lines and patterns), and given that it was also a widespread practice among the Scythians, Thracians, and other cultures the Vikings interacted with regularly, it’s very likely that at least some Viking warriors and explorers were tattooed, regardless of how commonplace the practice was.
Viking symbols are common modern tattoo motifs
While we have very little concrete information on whether the Vikings tattooed themselves or not, there are plenty of Viking symbols that have since become incredibly popular among tattoo enthusiasts, Viking era enthusiasts, and practitioners of Asatru (Scandinavian neopaganism). Sadly, some of these symbols also have extremely negative connotations.
Despite such ideological pollution, many Viking symbols continue to bear their original meaning: particularly specific runes, some of which are older than Viking culture, and some of which are younger. The Vikings also had many fantastical tales about their various gods, with the most worshipped being Thor, their god of strength, thunder, mankind, and the mighty oak.
His trusty enchanted hammer Mjolnir is a common motif as well, popularized by the more modern adaptation of Thor in Marvel Comics. While Mjolnir can only be moved by the worthy in the comics, the original hammer was simply inhumanly heavy, and Thor had to wear an enchanted belt that doubled his already tremendous strength to make use of it effectively.
While Odin was indeed also a member of the Norse pantheon, and a very important Aesir, he was not widely revered but usually feared. The Allfather was the patron god of the politicians, schemers, and men with power – not the common folk. Characterized by a pursuit of power and knowledge, Odin the One-Eyed Wanderer is an old god with numerous variations throughout Germanic culture, and old texts claim that he is the euhemerized ancestor of various Germanic royal families. Common motifs surrounding old Odin include his all-seeing ravens, Huginn and Muninn, as well as his wolf companions, Geri and Freki.
In mythology, he also oversaw Valhalla, the great hall where half of those who died in combat could feast and train as Odin’s einherjar until the end of days, when they would be called to battle (the other half when to Folkvangr, the Vanir equivalent of Valhalla). Picking warriors out of the battlefield to enter Valhalla were the Valkyries, who served Odin.
While the Vikings might not have worn many tattoos, Europe is chockful of cultures where tattooing was a more common practice, and the Norse and Germanic cultures have countless great motifs for breathtaking, meaningful tattoos.