The horned helmet
The first time we see Vikings wearing horned helmets is in the inaugural production of Wagner's Ring Cycle at Bayreuth in 1876. Carl Doepler, the creative director on the production, chose to adorn the helmets with horns.1 Before this time, Viking helmets had wings, while horned helmets were the preserve of barbarians instead. After this production, horns quickly came to adorn all Viking helmets, until relatively recently. We now know that Viking helmets did not have horns on them, but still the horned helmet is a signifier of Vikingness to the extent that it is still used regularly to associate brands with Vikings. See the exhibit on Vikings as a brand for examples of this.
The reality is that Vikings did not have horns on their helmets. Horned helmets are known from earlier periods, such as the Viksø helmets from Denmark. They are also known from other cultures, such as the Waterloo helmet. However, these are not Viking helmets.
The only Viking Age helmet found in Scandinavia, the Gjermundbu helmet shown here, clearly does not have horns. Fragments of helmets from Denmark include brow ridges like those on the Coppergate and Sutton Hoo helmets, suggesting similar types might have been in use in Denmark. These do not have horns either.
There is actually a significant lack of helmets from Viking Age Scandinavia. This suggests that helmets were either considered not to be an appropriate part of a burial assemblage, or that metal helmets were not that common in the Viking Age. Vikings may have worn leather helmets instead, but leather does not normally survive well in archaeological contexts so we have no evidence to prove this.
1. Roberta Frank, 2000. ‘The Invention of the Viking Horned Helmet’, International Scandinavian and Medieval Studies in Memory of Gerd Wolfgang Weber.
The Horned Helmet
Although it is not historically attested, the horned helmet is a ubiquitous badge of Vikingness in modern times. It speaks to an image of the Vikings that lives in western culture and carries with it connotations of adventurousness, strength, and vitality. As such, it is a signifier of a brand more than it is a historical identity. These days it seems unlikely that many people still believe that Vikings wore horned helmets. So, is it even worth busting this myth? Howard Williams thinks not. It is likely that the horned helmet is here to stay. People will continue to use it while knowingly winking at the historical reality.
The ubiquity of the horned helmet is readily demonstrated in the examples below which have a geographical range from Denmark to Ireland to the United States. None of these uses are intended to be historical. However, in the case of the US Army badge, the horned helmet signifies the connection of that unit to Minnesota, a place with a significant level of Scandinavian immigration.