Tattoos were always a significant part of human social practices. Their styles, symbolism, and meanings may vary from one culture to the other, but they universally represent the same thing – a desire to improve our minds by decorating our bodies with the things we hold dear. Despite many swings that occurred in various social climates, tattoos somehow managed to swim in the ocean of contemporary trends.
According to some historical sources, tattoos were a huge part of the Viking culture as well; according to the others, there is no real evidence for us to believe so. Truth be told, unless we find a well-preserved frozen Viking deep in the mountains of Scandinavia, we will never be able to say which side of historians to join.
In this article, we will try to shed light on this not enough talked about topic, providing both sides of the argument equally. We will talk about Viking morals, beliefs, and preferences that may have introduced them to the world of tattoos. So if you wish to find out more about the origin of tattoos, their purpose, and their impact on Viking society, there is no better place to be.
WHERE DID TATTOOS ORIGINALLY COME FROM?
It is not really known when humans started tattooing themselves, but we can say with absolute certainty that tattoos are almost as old as humanity itself. The oldest example of tattoos found was a body extracted from an ice glacier in the Alps. It was almost covered in tattoos (it numbered 61 tattoos). It was concluded that the body died somewhere around 3250 BC, which would make it 5000 years old. At the same time, tattoos emerged as a strong cultural tradition of Austronesian people, where it remains a popular art style even today. In Europe, the strongest culture of tattoos was among Welsh and Picts during the iron age in Great Britain. In ancient China, tattoos were considered barbaric, so they used tattoos as a method of humiliation (they used them to mark prisoners and slaves with tattoos on their foreheads as a symbol of captivity or as a sign of ownership).
On the other hand, unlike China, Japan had a very strong culture of tattoos. There, it often symbolized the social status of one person. That practice ended at one point, and from the beginning of the 17th century until the mid-19th century, tattoos in Japan were primarily worn by firemen, prostitutes, and manual workers as means of mutual identification. Also, they started using it in a similar way as the Chinese, for marking the prisoners by tattooing the symbol for a dog on their foreheads. In 1868, tattooing in Japan was outlawed, and it created a large subculture of people who had tattoos and were hence stigmatized by the rest of society. That often led them towards the criminal life and created the fertile ground for the creation of Yakuza, a gang that is active today and has a huge tattooing culture as well as tattoo artists of its own.
Yakuza girl with tattoos
When it comes to Europe, it is important to say that Picts and Welsh weren't the only ones fond of tattoos. Greeks and Romans initially used them in a similar manner as Chinese, as a method of humiliation. Later on, tattooing soldiers even became a regular practice, a practice that still lives today. Of course, tattooing was also widespread among Vikings, but more on that a bit later.
The popularity which tattoos have in modern western culture has started after James Cook's voyage to the South Pacific. However, it is would be wrong to think that this voyage was the only reason for the rise of tattoo popularity. On the other hand, Cook's voyage was definitely the reason behind bringing the word "tattoo" to Europe. The word "tattoo" comes from the Tahitian word "tatau." But aside from that, there are plenty of sources that undoubtedly confirm that tattoos were very common throughout history amongst early Europeans. They were also quite common even among the pilgrims in America who had a lot of contact with tattoos through the Native American community.
DID THE VIKINGS HAVE TATTOOS?
If it wasn't for a man called Ahmad ibn Fadlan, a famous Arab traveler from 10th century AC, we probably wouldn't have a reasonable doubt to even think whether or not did the Vikings have tattoos. He wrote about many people he came in touch with, but in one of his travelogues, Ibn Fadlan describes the Rus, which are commonly known as Vikings. Although this well-known Islamic scribe had little to say about the good body smell and hygiene of the Vikings, there was nothing but words of admiration for the rest of the ways of life Vikings led.
You mustn't forget that regardless of their backgrounds, Medieval scribes wrote in a poetic rather than informative fashion. So, for example, instead of stating that the Norse men are probably the tallest humans he met in his lifetime, Ibn Fadlan expressed his admiration lyrically and said that the Vikings are as tall as palm trees, fair and reddish. As you probably guessed, the other part of that verse refers to their light skin complexion and rosy cheeks due to the harsh climate of Scandinavia. Ibn Fadlan continues his praise, saying: "Fair and reddish, they wear neither tunics nor kaftans. Every man wears a cloak with which he covers half of his body so that one arm is uncovered. They carry axes, swords, daggers and always have them to hand. They use Frankish swords with broad, ridged blades."
Some of you may wonder why are one man's impressions of the Vikings, of such great importance for answering the question: Did Viking tattoos really existed is a Viking tattoo just a part of Norse mythology? Well, Fadlan continued his observation of the Vikings with a sentence that will cause arguments among historians for many centuries to come. Namely, during one of his visits to the Viking homeland (Scandinavia), Fadlan claimed that their bodies were completely tattooed from the tips of their fingers to their necks and that Viking tattoo was of dark green and dark blue tones, which indicated that the tattoo ink was probably made of wood ash.
Despite the fact that Fadlan was a prominent Medieval figure and that his words were valuable among both his contemporaries and the later day historians, it would be fair to wonder: How come no one else wrote about this noticeable fact regarding the ink used for Viking tattoo? How come Viking literature covered every aspect of their daily lives (including hairstyles, fashion, and jewelry) but never mentioned that the symbols, designs, and Norse gods valued the most weren't only written on stones and weapons but were tattooed on their own skin?
MOST COMMON VIKING TATTOOS
Tattooed Viking warrior
According to modern-day historians who were guided by Fadlan's claims and their own understandings of Viking mentality, old Norse tattoos were most likely no different than the Viking symbols they carved into objects. So in this segment of the article, we are going to talk about the most often used symbols used for tattoos during the Viking age.
Having known that Norse mythology played such a huge role in the daily lives of Vikings, it is hard not to think that its stories weren't some of the most popular tattoo motifs during the Viking era. In high likelihood, Norse gods, especially Odin, were oftentimes the main subject of Viking tattoos that were portrayed on Vikings' skin. Various Norse mythology symbols, such as Valknut and Sleipnir, still manage to stay relevant in the world of tattoo art. Let's take a look at some of the most popular Viking tattoos nowadays.
YGGDRASIL - THE TREE OF LIFE
The symbol of the Nordic sacred tree of life, Yggdrasil, was probably one of the most popular tattoos during the Viking age. Most of us are familiar with the fact that, among many Viking symbols, Yggdrasil is first mentioned in Snorri Sturluson's Poetic Edda during the 13th century. Sturluson describes Yggdrasil as a giant ash tree, placed in the middle of the cosmos, whose branches could touch the heaven, and whose roots were deep in the Earth. The symbol of Yggdrasil represented the cycle of life, as its nine roots stood for nine realms of existence. So if you are lacking tattoo ideas and want to pay homage to your Viking ancestry with something with a deeper meaning, Yggdrasil would probably be the right choice.
VALKNUT - THE TRIPLE KNOT OF THE SLAIN WARRIORS
Another popular Viking symbol that you might want to take into consideration when choosing the proper image for your new tattoo would undoubtedly be the symbol of Valknut, the triple knot of the slain warriors who are ready to be greeted by Odin. Because of its simplistic design, Valknut would be the right choice for all of you that want to keep their tattoos subtle yet meaningful. The symbol of Valknut consisted of three interlocking triangles that probably also represented the heart of Hrungnir, a brave giant made of stone. Therefore, we can surely say that Valknut's meaning is connected to fearlessness when it comes to accepting death as nothing but the natural part of life.
VEGVISIR - THE NORDIC COMPASS
Many tattoo artists still find inspiration for their art in various Viking designs. The symbol of Vegvisir, commonly known as the Nordic compass, is undoubtedly one of them. Vegvisir is believed not only to be the symbol of travelers and seafarers but the symbol of guidance and shelter during hard times. Vegvisir wasn't most likely used by Odin (see our Odin tattoo style hoodie), the mightiest of the Norse gods, who was a traveler himself, but thanks to his magical compass, he never got lost.
HELM OF AWE - VIKING TATTOO FOR THE MOST COURAGEOUS ONES
Helm of awe
When talking about the Viking tattoo history and art, it is difficult not to mention the ancient Norse symbol of Aegishjalmur, or as we know it today, Helm of Awe. Although its design very much resembles the Viking symbol of Vegvisir, its meanings are quite different. Helm of Awe was worn mostly by warriors, for the Vikings believed that its image could instill terror to the enemies and great courage into the one who wore it. And if you sometimes feel that you need some protection on the battlefield of life, we surely recommend you getting a tattoo of nothing but Helm of Awe.
RELATED: Viking Warrior Tattoo Style Sweater
SLEIPNIR - ODIN'S STALLION
Whether you consider yourself an animal lover or not, it hard to believe that you wouldn't like Sleipnir, an eight-legged stallion of Odin, who is considered to be the fastest of all creatures on Earth. So if you sometimes feel like you cannot manage to do it all by yourself, get a tattoo of Sleipnir and sleep peacefully, knowing there is someone who will carry you whenever your legs get tired.
MJOLLNIR - THE HAMMER OF THOR
According to Norse mythology, there was no more powerful weapon than Mjölnir, the notorious hammer of Thor. Mjölnir could cause storms, earthquakes, floods, and wars in just several minutes. So who wouldn't like to have such a powerful weapon when dealing with everyday hurdles as their tattoo?
WHAT DO VIKING TATTOOS REPRESENT?
As you can see, Viking tattoos are mostly based on some of the most prominent Norse symbols and mythical stories. Its designs weren't picked randomly, for they meant to provide protection and guidance to every man individually. As a Viking, you could know everything there is about one's life just from seeing their tattoos. Various styles of runes and symbols (see our Viking runes charm beads for your beard) could tell you about where a certain Viking was from. Tattoo placement, its design, and meaning could tell you about his profession, family, and most importantly, about the Norse gods he honored the most.
Viking tattoos were meant for much more than just aesthetic appeal. They were oftentimes believed to have magical powers that could, for example, help you achieve more wealth, success in war, or overall prosperity. Historians assume that getting the first tattoo during the Viking age was also a ritual of initiation when young boys and girls would be welcomed into the world of adulthood. This ritual was probably followed by getting your first ale, arm ring, and right to be considered an equal member of society.
We hope that after you've read this article, you realized what a common misconception is that Viking tattoos are only meant for those of Scandinavian descent. You don't have to be a biological heir of Odin to proudly carry some of his symbols with you at all times. All you really need to possess in order to treat yourself with some of the many awesome Viking tattoos is love and appreciation for Norsemen, their culture, and tradition. And being such a faithful VikingsBrand reader, we have no doubt that you already have all virtues of a true Viking.
Until our next Viking meeting,