People are fighting on Tiktok again. This time, it’s a topic of interest to us here at History Unboxed®: historically-accurate Viking hairstyles! 

On one side are people who say that Vikings wore complex braids including box braids and locs, styles known to most people today through Black hairstyles. Some Tiktokers have even gone so far as to claim that Vikings invented hair braiding. On the other side are historians who say that while Vikings likely did wear braids, it was not like how dramatized shows like Vikings depict them. 

So let’s turn to the historical and archaeological evidence to solve this dispute! 

What evidence do we have? 

The Vikings tended to burn their dead which means we don’t have a ton of surviving Viking remains to examine. We do, however, have the items of everyday life that remain, including many beautiful combs which suggest that hair combing and general cleanliness was important to the Vikings. 

Reconstruction of hairstyle and skincape of the bogbody Elling Woman near Silkeborg, Denmark. Approx. 2nd century BC

The Elling Woman is a preserved bog body who died around 280 BC/BCE. She predates the Vikings by over five hundred years, but she does have an ornate braid and comes from an area that Vikings would inhabit many years later. Still, this style is very different than locs or box braids. It is much closer to styles of braids found in other areas of Europe, or what we might call a French or Dutch braid today.

What about written accounts? The Vikings did not keep many records of everyday life that have survived. There are Norse sagas, but those focus more on the plot of the story rather than the physical depictions of characters. There are accounts from other cultures who interacted with the Vikings. 

Edmund of England: Scene, Landing of Danes. From Miscellany on the life of St. Edmund England, Bury St Edmund ca. 1130

We can find an eyewitness description of Viking hair in Ælfric’s letter to Brother Edward c.1000 AD/CE. Translated from the original Latin, it says. “…you dress yourself in Danish fashion, with bald neck and blinded eyes.” Does this mean a closely shaved back of the head and fringe or bangs that hang down in front over the eyes? Perhaps, we could think of this as a reverse mullet. This twelfth-century depiction of Norsemen painted by an Englishman shows people with hair styles much like those of their Anglo-Saxons neighbors. 

Photo of Valkyrie from Hårby. Silver figurine, height 3.4 cm. Dated Viking age and identified as armed Valkyrie. Found at isle of Fyn, Hårby, Denmark (2012). Displayed at National Museum of Denmark.

What about artistic renderings like drawings or sculpture? Recently, an amateur archaeologist discovered a sculpture which is thought to be a valkyrie from around 800 AD/CE. The figure known as the Valkyrie from Harby shows a female figure with a ponytail at the base of her neck. This is similar to other rune-based images that archaeologists have found which show a knotted ponytail or ribbon knot hairstyle. 

All of this is very inconclusive. With the evidence we have now, we can presume that Viking women likely did braid their hair. There is not great evidence for men braiding their hair or keeping it particularly long. 

What do we know for sure? Vikings did not invent braiding. 

There are depictions of braided hair from as early as 30,000 BC/BCE including the famous Venus of Willendorf. There are figures with cornrows in Tassili n’Ajjer cave paintings in North Africa that date from 6000 BC/BCE. Iron Age and Bronze Age cultures from across Europe, Asia, and Africa have depictions of braids including the Greeks, Persians, Israelites, Canaanites, Phoenicians, Arabs, Scythians, Ancient Egyptians, and Nubians. Braids were around long before the Vikings! 

Rebecca McCormick is a writer and editor based in Fairfax, Virginia. She has a passion for history education and holds an MA in History of Decorative Arts. Rebecca believes that hands-on history and interacting with objects help learning come alive for children and adults.