Vikings were Scandinavians living in the 8th through 11th centuries. Most people know them from history books where they went into battle all the time through Iceland, Norway, England, and other European areas.
The Norse culture focused on them having tattoos, and the women and men had paint on their bodies. In most depictions of the Vikings in popular culture, they’re shown as militant and strong with painted faces and various body art, but you may question that and be curious. Did the Vikings actually paint their faces?
There’s evidence to suggest that these Vikings painted their faces, though the reason for it isn’t well understood. Primarily, the Vikings didn’t have written records. Some historians believe the face paint was only for appearances and to make the women appear sexy while the men looked striking in contrast. However, others wonder if the practice was reserved for the observers.
Below, you learn everything there is to know about the Vikings painting their faces during the Middle Ages in Scandinavia.
Face Paint – Evidence from Hedeby, A Viking Town
Various discussions throughout history have focused on the appearance of the Vikings and refer primarily to the writings from Ibrahim ibn Yaqub (sometimes called Al-Tartushi). He visited Hedeby in the year 965 AD.
He mentioned in his writings that the Viking men and women used a type of indelible cosmetic to enhance the beauty of the eyes.
Some interpretations of those texts show that he talked about the danish Vikings in Hedeby, which is a town located in northern Europe at the southern end of the Jutland Peninsula. Overall, they were said to line their eyes with Kohl. It’s a black powder used as eye makeup, and it’s made of lead sulfide or antimony sulfide.
Ibrahim’s note suggested that it was actually conventional for the Vikings to add foreign substances to their faces to enhance or change their appearance. Sometimes, it was applied to the neck area to make a striking change to their natural colour.
It’s hard to say if the modern depictions of the Vikings having painted faces are accurate historically because there aren’t any pictures from that Viking period.
There is a grave from a suspected “seeress” that was found in Fyrkat, Denmark, dating from about 980 AD. The remains were of a woman who was quite rich or at least had access to the riches. She was buried wearing some jewelry and fine clothes that were thought to be rare for the time in Scandinavia.
With that, the woman was buried with her box brooch, and it contained lead carbonate. Sometimes called “white lead,” the ancient Greeks often used this substance. However, they did not realize how toxic it was to humans.
Most historians believe that this Fyrkat woman used the white lead as her makeup. However, it’s hard to substantiate those ideas because none of the woman’s skin was ever discovered with the remains. It’s also unclear as to why that woman might have used the substance as makeup.
There were other items discovered in her grave to suggest that this woman was a seeress. However, it’s not very clear if the lead had been used to paint her face so that she could communicate with the dead. Some say it might have been part of a ritual to call the spirits to her.
Some even wonder if the lead might have been used to help create the concoction with the ointment and henbane seeds discovered in her grave. However, that was a poisonous mixture if that was the plan.
Looking at all the evidence cited when talking about whether Vikings painted their faces, most people are led to the conclusion that they have many unanswered questions and not many answers.
Overall, Yaqub’s writings are the most reliable thing to go on right now until or if more proof is uncovered in the future.
Did the Vikings Paint Faces for War?
There’s actually little evidence to support that idea that the Vikings painted faces when they went to war. However, this is the argument from silence because not having evidence isn’t irrefutable proof that they didn’t do that. There’s just nothing really that says they did.
Most historians doubt that the Vikings might have painted their faces just for war.
Some even suggest that the Vikings had to have ways to identify the other Vikings during a battle, and it could have been much too difficult to have individual face paintings to remember.
It’s more likely that the warriors had special tattoos that showed where their loyalties lie. History doesn’t give you much to go on about that, but the Norse mythology offers some ideas for that. For one, the Vikings, including women, could go into battle with no paint on them. They wore metal on their head to protect themselves and had a shield carved with runes and other symbols that meant something.
Regardless of what the warriors wore, they knew where to thrust the sword because no one else had the same tattoo.
Ideas like this are pretty far-fetched, but they’re better than the war paint theory. If the Vikings actually painted their faces during war, the enemy could have replicated the paintings and confused them, taking advantage of everyone. It’s much harder to do that with a tattoo.
You should also remember that human sacrifice was a big deal for the Vikings. Whether they were heading into battle or not, history shows that sacrifice often happened during that age. Nothing suggests that it was focused on public religious practices. Most ideas about it indicate that it was practiced in times of crisis and in connection with war. It might have made the Vikings inspired or helped them see the light in the darkness surrounding them.
Typically, those sacrificed were painted in ways to ward off evil and promote a good bounty from the war.
Were the Vikings Influenced by Other Cultures?
In The Conquest of Gaul, Julius Caesar mentioned that the Britons had dyed their bodies with a mustard-like herb called woad to make them look even more terrifying during battle. Some historians have speculated that the Vikings might have started using face paint when they went to war with the Britons.
With that, they often prayed to pagan gods so that their swords might strike a mighty blow and their women might be fruitful and have more warrior children.
The Truth about the Viking Era Appearance
Over 500 Viking skeletons have been found so far. None of them offer definitive proof that the Vikings painted their faces, but they do reveal some information about their appearance in general.
Contrary to the ancient legends or modern-day stories, the Vikings weren’t giants. They had physical builds like many modern Europeans, but they were likely more muscular because of the hard physical work they had to do.
The face shapes for the Viking women were more masculine than they are today, as well. However, the face shapes for the Viking men were actually more feminine when you compare them to today’s normal.
Overall, Vikings looked quite like men and women do today. Genetic research has indicated that the Vikings had blond or red hair. The colour of hair depended on whether they were from North or West Scandinavia.
Popular Culture’s Impact on the Viking’s Perception (Viking Graves)
Most stories show the Vikings as dirty and ruthless warriors. Historically, that portrayal is very simplistic and based partly on stereotypes of what the Middle Ages people were actually like.
Many Viking graves have had combs locked away in boxes, which shows that they were serious about grooming. John Wallingford, an English Clerif of St. Fridswides, wrote how the Vikings took baths on weekends, changing their woolen garments very frequently. That was so they could seduce the high-born English women.
As mentioned earlier, there is only one historical document out there that suggested that the Vikings were dirty, and that was from Yaqub’s writings. He talked about how they blow their noses into bowls and spit, passing it on to the next man.
Some historians even suggest that Yaqub was exaggerating because of his Islamic beliefs of how a person should wash their body.
It’s possible that those bowls were emptied and then refilled to be used by another person. In that case, Ibrahim might still have found them dirty.
Apart from Ibrahim, most sources claim that the Vikings were actually one of the cleanest people throughout Europe in the Middle Ages.
They took baths in bathhouses, streams, and lakes during the summer months, and they chose to use heated bathhouses during the winter. Plus, they washed their faces and hands each day when they woke up.
This misconception about Viking warriors and face paint for war preparations comes from various television shows and re-enactors. However, most of the story is fiction and not actually based on history at all.
More Evidence Is Necessary
Overall, the most widely used evidence about how Vikings paint their faces came from Yaqub’s writings. He was the Arab traveler visiting Hedeby in 965. His writings do suggest that the Vikings used Kohl to line their eyes, but it doesn’t list any other cosmetic types or options.
Archaeologists consistently unearth Viking-related artifacts, but none of them have irrefutably proven that the Vikings painted their faces to date. Therefore, the question remains: did they? It’s probable that they did. While the use of Kohl that Yaqub noted hasn’t been corroborated by other sources yet, the historical reliability of those writings is relatively high, though not flawless.
It’s also been established that the Vikings took their personal appearance and grooming seriously. Therefore, it’s highly possible that they did use foreign materials on their faces for symbolism and enhancement.
How to Make Viking Age Face Paint
Now that you’ve learned more about the Viking period and have an inclination on if they used face paint or not, you may have ideas of creating your own.
Mineral paints are quite easy to make, but they require special equipment. Some of them might be toxic or explosive. However, those aren’t being discussed today. A simple way to make face paint like the Viking women and men used is to start with rocks.
It’s a basic ochre paint, and you can learn how to substitute some things that the Vikings had that you don’t.
1. Finding Rocks
When you’re hunting for rocks, you have to go where they are. It’s best to take a hammer with you so that you can test the hardness of them before bringing them home. The first thing is to find a colour you like for your face paint and then a stone that’s easily crushed. Please wear safety glasses when you’re using a hammer because the rocks could splinter off, causing sharp fragments to fly every which way.
Streams are the ideal place to find rocks for paint. They often contain various stones, and the light ones crush easily and are usually on top. You may also purchase Red Ochre online if you don’t want to go hunting.
Sedimentary stones are the best for pigment, but malachite is transitional, so you could get igneous pigments.
If you don’t have a stream nearby, you may also check out any gravel road. There’s bound to be some decent rocks on it. However, ask permission before you start hammering rocks if it is on private property!
2. Preparing the Pigments/Rocks
Once you’ve found a few rocks to try, wash them to get rid of the mud and dirt. Place them into a durable container that can take the abuse of hammering them into 1 cm cubes.
Now, you must sort the pieces, putting the darker ones into one pile and the lighter ones in another. You can also have grades in between if you like, though this depends on what you’re painting.
For example, an armoring form is a great choice for history buffs, but basalt or granite mortar and pestles can work well, too. Just make sure that you don’t abrade them and don’t eat off of them. Arsenic or heavy metals are common in the minerals used for pigments, but they’re not food-grade safe.
If your stone is the same colour throughout, you don’t have to sort them out.
After you’re done with that (or didn’t have to do it), you should drip water on the rock pieces to decide what to use. As you make more pigments, you learn how to blend better.
3. First Grind
The first grind is probably the easiest one. It’s best to use something like a heavy-duty mortar and pestle, such as a dishing form. A ball-peen hammer is also a good choice. Then, use a circular motion in your form with the ball part of the hammer to crush and grind to dust, but not sand dust.
Pick it up and roll it between your fingers. It’s likely smooth, but don’t go beyond that just yet. There’s still much more to do, and you don’t want to overwork yourself now.
4. Burned Ochre
Sometimes, colours aren’t what you want, but they’re pretty close. The stones might darken or lighten with burning, and others might be toxic. Therefore, you should use small quantities at one time and do it all outside.
It’s best to do it now at the sand or dust stage so that you don’t have exploding rocks. Plus, if you grind it down finer and do this, the torch’s turbulence might blow the pigments away. Therefore, be careful and go gently here. If you’re afraid or not an adult, ask someone else to do this step for you.
5. Second Grind
Now, you need some different equipment, such as a metal mortar and pestle. You can find them online or from culinary stores.
Put the dust in your mortar and start grinding. Make sure that you’re pressing down with the pestle and moving it in a circular motion with no twisting. Just make gentle circles. Continue grinding until you’ve got a powder. When you’ve got it to that consistency, or you think you do, put a pinch in the hand and then gently blow on it. It should fly away when it’s just right.
However, if you notice residue on your hands, you should keep grinding.
6. The Wet Grind
Once it flies away after blowing on some, you’re ready for the wet grind. Add some thickened linseed oil to the powder and continue grinding. You may have to add more of the linseed oil to ensure that the mixture has that honey-like consistency you want.
When it’s incredibly smooth and easily sticks to the brush, you’ve got a usable paint. Make sure that you store it properly in an air-tight container. It should keep for quite a while.
Many art supply stores sell thickened linseed oil for projects. It’s best not to thicken your own because you have to boil burning liquid, which could explode everywhere.
Typically, American ochres can only give you a rust or reddish-coloured cinnamon-brown tint. However, if you use yellow ochre or got blue chalk, it can still be appropriate to the Viking pigments.
It is possible to change the hue, so if you’re not happy with that colour, head to the next step. Otherwise, you’re ready to paint, but see the last step before you do.
7. Changing Hue
If you’re unhappy with the color of your paint, you might be able to do something for it. Historically, the more expensive pigments could brighten the ochre bases, such as azurite, malachite, and vermillion. Vermillion is actually a mercury-based pigment, so it’s very toxic for the environment and should never be used.
Malachite is quite affordable, but it is still thought of as semi-precious. Still, azurite is incredibly expensive.
Overall, many people have luck with Lapis Lazuli. You can buy it in large chunks, and it’s inexpensive. However, you may have to crush/grade it yourself to get any savings.
The last resort is to buy some primary colours that are linseed-based, add them to the mix, grind, and you’re set to go. That’s often the best course of action if you don’t want to work with toxic materials.
8. The Last Grind
You only have to do a third grind if you added another colour or the linseed-based hues. Grind the primary colours together with the ochre, adding other colors as necessary.
9. Paint Something
One awesome thing about making your own paint is the holistic feeling you get for doing something yourself. Some people feel that raising rocks from the ground to create paint and then putting it on rune stones or other artifacts can put you in touch with your ancestors and history.
There’s just a level of satisfaction of being your own craftsman that you can’t find anywhere else.
One word of caution here is not to use the paint on your face. While the Vikings might have done so, it’s not considered safe. Some of the substances are toxic, and you don’t want them that close to your eyes, mouth, and nose.
However, you can paint on anything else you like. Keep it for yourself or give it away to friends and loved ones.
How Did the Vikings Make Their Face Paints?
While there isn’t much proof of how the Vikings used colours, experts are quite sure that they used bolder hues to be seen. With that, they understand now that the Vikings used pigments from different sources, such as charcoal and ochre. They blended them together with a binding agent to ensure that the colour adhered to the material (skin, animal fur, etc.)
The most common binding agents at the time were linseed oil, eggs, or milk products.
What Colors Did the Vikings Wear or Use?
Archaeologists now know that the colours used for Viking clothing were blue, yellow, purple, and red. However, blue was only found in the graves of very wealthy individuals because it was considered precious.
Why Did the Vikings Tattoo Their Heads?
There is some proof showing that the Vikings tattooed their bodies, and their heads were the most prominent part. No one knows why they did it, but many speculate that it was to put fear and confusion into the minds of the enemies. Typically, the Helm of Awe was the most popular design used, as it was supposed to grant different magical powers to the wearer.
As you can see, there are many ideas out there about Viking age face paint. Most people believe that they used various materials to paint their faces for different purposes. However, no one knows the real story as to why they did it or when it was done.
For example, most historians feel that they did not paint faces during times of war. It probably took too long and could be copied by the enemy. Others believe that they did it to feel or look more attractive to the opposite sex.
Regardless, it’s very likely that the Vikings used paint on their faces, so many of the films and television shows got that aspect correct.