Did the Vikings really have tattoos like in movies and TV series? We have no definitive proof

In recent years, the fashion of Vikings and of Norse culture he contributed to the birth of numerous television and film products set in medieval northern Europe. Among these, the most successful were the television series Vikings And The Last Kingdom. In these works, when representing the Norsemen it was often chosen to show the warriors of the north as tattooed. The truth is that there is no proofneither archaeological nor historical, which can suggest to us that the practice of tattooing was widespread in Scandinavia. On the other hand, however, there is no evidence to suggest that this practice was not contemplated. The only medieval sources that speak explicitly of tattooed Norsemen come from the accounts of Ahmad Ibn Fadlana jurist and traveller Arabic lived between the 9th and 10th centuriesand his contemporary Ibrahim Ibn Yaqub. However, these sources should be taken with a pinch of salt.

The journey and testimony of Ibn Fadlan

Between 921 and the 922Ibn Fadlan was part of aembassy sent by Caliph of Baghdad to the king of the Bulgariansa nomadic people of origin Turkish who lived along the banks of the river Volgathe watercourse longest in Europe which today is found in Southern Russia.


The purpose of the embassy was to educate the Volga Bulgarians about Muslim practices and lawsseeing as they were very recently converted to Islam. The journey of the Arab diplomats was long: they left from Baghdadthey crossed the Persiapresent-day Iran, and then headed north, into the territories of the deserts and steppes which today are part of the Turkmenistanof theUzbekistan he was born in Kazakhstanfinally arriving along the banks of the Volga, in what is now Russian territory.

During his long journey, Ibn Fadlan described with eye ethnographic the people he met, including i Rusalso known as Varangiansthat is, those pirates and merchants of Scandinavian origin who, through the great rivers of Eastern Europe, colonized the vast plains of today's Russia And Ukraine. It is precisely from this meeting that we have the only testimony of tattooed Norsemen. The Arab jurist described them thus:

… I have never seen such perfect physiques, tall as date palms, blond and reddish… from the tips of their toes to their necks, each man is tattooed with drawings of trees and figures, dark green in color…

It is about theonly explicit mention of tattoos referable to Vikings. Ibn Fadlan's description seems flattering, but then he continues as follows:

… These are the filthiest of God's creatures: they do not purify themselves after defecating, urinating, or copulating, and they do not even wash their hands after eating …

It seems clear that in his description Ibn Fadlan wants to highlight the barbarism of these people; in this sense, the mention of possible tattoos could have served the author more as an element to help the reader understand from his point of view the rudeness of the Rus. It is not certain, however, that the Varangians actually had them.


Another problematic point of the issue is the true ethnic identity of the Varangians. Although among these groups of pirates and river merchants of Eastern Europe the presence of individuals of Scandinavian origin was certain, it is also true that among them there were people of Slavic, Turkish, Finnish And shutter. It is therefore even more difficult to try to understand who Ibn Fadlan was actually referring to (assuming that the description of him is accurate).

The travel report of Ibrahim Ibn Yaqub

In closing it must be said that, in addition to the explicit mention of the Baghdad jurist, there is another faint clue regarding the practice of tattooing among the Norse. Also in this case the testimony comes from the Arab world, in particular from the travel report of Ibrahim Ibn Yaquba contemporary merchant of Ibn Fadlan, who however came from the present Spain. Ibn Yaqub traveled through Western and Central Europe and came into contact with the Scandinavian populations ad Hedebyan important trading center that was located near the current border between Germany And Denmark.

During his visit to Hedeby, amidst the multitude of information he brought back regarding daily life in the town, the merchant mentioned the fact that both women and men used “permanent and indelible make-up”.

It cannot therefore be excluded a priori that the Norse populations tattooed themselves, on the contrary: tattooing is an art very ancientwhich has its roots in prehistory, and of which we have evidence much older compared to the Middle Ages.