The question is, did Vikings have tattoos? – The answer to this question is much more complicated than it seems. Different people are aware of the Vikings through different mediums. For an individual who knows about Vikings through theatrical interpretations, this might be true.
For any of us who have been obsessed with the show Vikings, we know that the various characters are heavily tattooed, and they try to portray these people as nearly as possible. But as far as we know, their knowledge is also limited to the sources available.
However, the people who know the Vikings through the archaeological evidence might differ from this opinion. Each artifact attached to the Viking age has a different story to tell, and to a certain extent, the answer lies in our interpretation of the pieces of evidence that lay in front of us. The Viking tattoos are quite famous among the crowd.
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Since the human body is mortal and “for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” we lack solid proof of the reality. However, historians have backed upon the journals of the rulers, travellers, and merchants of those times, to infer the truth.
Iban Fadlan is one among those Arab travellers, an emissary of the Abbasid Caliph, sent to the king of Bulgarian Volga, with the mission of assisting him with his conversion of Islam. On his way, he made accounts of the Rus Vikings he encountered. He called them “Russiyyah,” now commonly known as Vikings.
He said, “Never have I seen people with a more perfect body than them. They are tall like palm trees, with blond hair and ruddy skin. From fingertips to their neck, each of them has a collection of trees, figures to their neck; each of them has a collection of trees, figures and their like.”
Historians generally accept these statements indicative of the positive side of the argument. But it is unclear if these “figures” could be termed as tattoos as he describes them as dark green and dark blue. The color of these figures tells us that they were drawn using wood ash to dye their skin. The diplomat not necessarily mentions them as tattoos.
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These Norse tattoos were most of the time used by Arabs to associate the Vikings with the savagery. As a result of an eye-witness, these accounts are less likely to happen and most probably could be considered a rhetorical device used by them.
However, we are aware that the Vikings were accustomed to the idea of adorning their skin with marks. As another Jewish explorer, Al-Tartushi wrote that both men and women wore dark eye shadow makeup. Also, there are indications for them to paint their faces and getting them marked with ashes. According to him, this accentuated the beauty of both men and women.
Around Northern Europe, historical shreds of evidence have proof that tattooing was a prominent culture, and Vikings have a history of visiting these lands because of their explorations and trades.
Scandinavians were unaware of the tattoo art, as, from the Bronze Age, tattoo needles were found. And there are also proofs of their encounter with other cultures under the influence of this art, such as the Celts and Picts. It is quite possible that this might have been a subculture of the Viking age.
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Although this is unclear if Vikings applied tattoos but their symbols in modern times have majorly been patterns that people get inked on themselves. The meaning and symbolism of these patterns are what have driven people to get them as tattoos.
Some of the famous Viking patterns as tattoos are The Yggdrasil Tattoo; this consists of a huge Ash tree, central to Norse Mythology, that great mythical creatures reside within the tree and it connects the nine worlds.
The other is Vegvisir Tattoo; the name itself means “That which shows the way.” It tends to guide the bearer on the right path. In a so-called Huld manuscript, it is mentioned about the symbol that “If this sign is carried, one will never lose one’s way in storms or bad weather, even when the way is not known.”
Next is quite famous because of its theatrical prosperity -The Hammer of the Thor, which signifies power and fear. Thor was the son of the mythical God Odin. And his hammer was believed to be so powerful that it could level mountains.
The others were the Valknut Tattoo – to do with life and death, with Odin’s sprinkling for good measure, the Triskelion Tattoo- the symbol of wisdom, the Sun Wheel tattoo – associated with luck and prosperity, etc.
As we know of our knowledge of the Vikings that they were a curious society who intended to explore and travel around the world following every religion they encountered on their path, which moved them. They adopted what they found intriguing, and so could be the case with the tattoo culture.
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As far as the modern definition of the tattoo goes, it is described as body modification, an indelible mark made by inserting ink or other pigments under the skin’s layer. The particular patterns of the Viking not exactly fit under this definition of a tattoo. However, we must keep in mind that the knowledge that we have of tattoos were not always as evolved as it is now. It also underwent various phases of evolution.
It can be a possibility that the patterns Vikings had, were a different form of tattoos or their version of the tattoo culture with its characteristics, most correctly termed as just the ‘Norse tattoos.’
The riddle, though, remains unsolved. However, the best way that I could find to conclude this argument was by considering the Norse tattoo as a separate entity altogether, then what the mainstream tattoo culture constitutes. We cannot deny the fact that tattoos did exist among the Norsemen; however, not in the form that we are expecting it to be.
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