Fun fact: Björn means “bear” in Swedish.
And now, just for the sake of historical accuracy in light of the preceding photo story, which is accurate in lots of ways but not so accurate in some key ways, we present an interview with a real, a seriously really real, Viking.
Vice: Hello, Björn M. Buttler Jakobsen, king of Foteviken’s Viking village.
Björn Jakobsen: It’s a city, not a village. I’m king of the only reconstructed Viking city on earth. We’re mostly active during the summer, but there’s a tithing operation all year round.
And you live just like they did during the Viking era?
We certainly do. I’ve been a Viking for more than 30 years now. It’s my full-time job, and I’m also the director of the Museum of Foteviken.
Would you mind if I ask you a couple of Viking-fashion-related questions?
Not at all.
How accurate is the image we have of Vikings compared with what they actually looked like?
It’s the same as with our perception of cowboys. Everyone thinks they know what a cowboy looked like, that they carried Colt .45s and wore jeans with checkered shirts and a hat. But look at any old American photo and you’ll see that they wore long riding coats and carried regular shotguns. They had much more primitive weapons and simpler clothes than what we assume. It’s the same with Vikings. The imagery of Vikings depicted in the films and images of modern times is not at all representative of what they actually looked like. For example, the most common assumption is that they wore metal helmets with horns. But metal was very expensive. A sword was worth as much as an estate, so it was something only the richest men had. Regular Vikings wore leather helmets with metal reinforcements, if they could afford it. They had bows, knives, spears and sometimes axes—tools they used in their everyday life for hunting, eating, or chopping wood—that could also be useful for smashing someone’s head in when going to war.
Then why do we have this idea that they wore metal helmets with horns?
That’s a myth originating in the late-19th-century Wagner opera Twilight of the Gods, which is about Ragnarök, the end of the world in Norse mythology. They mixed all kinds of tools and symbols for the costumes in that opera because it was typical for the Romantic era to enhance everything and give it a twist.
So the most famous imagery we have today of Vikings is actually just the fantasy of some Romantic 19th-century costume designer?
Pretty much. Though there might have been some kind of ceremonial horn helmet that was used during the Bronze Age.
OK, please tell me how your regular old Eddie Lunchpail sort of Viking dressed.
Well, think of what materials were at hand. Everyone had access to leather because all they had to do was go out and hunt and they’d have animal skin to make shoes, pants, cloaks, rope, and bags. They also had good access to wool that they’d snarl or spin, and flax, for which there was the whole process of harvesting, banging, and weaving to make linen. The most exclusive fabric was silk, which they had probably traded for in Byzantium. It’s funny because today it’s the other way around: Leather is the most expensive, then wool, then linen, and you can get cheap fake silk anywhere. But you asked me what they were actually wearing. How about I start from the bottom and then move up?
Good plan. What did Viking shoes look like?
There were many ways of making them, and the styles also changed throughout the Viking Age. Basically they looked like any shoe today but without the sole and laces and with a buckle. They wore down several pairs a year, that’s why shoes are the most common archaeological finding. They also put wool in them to form a sole. I’ve done it myself, many times, because if you don’t you get periostitis.
How do you know?
It happened to me before I started putting wool in my shoes and it hurt like crazy.
Ouch. What did their underwear look like?
Well, pretty much like old-fashioned linen diapers. People think they wore linen outer clothes, but that fabric was mostly used for underwear. They didn’t have socks, so they wrapped up their feet and legs in fabric and then attached it to the underwear to make pants.
Like those harem pants that are so popular today?
Yes, exactly. Then, when it was cold, they’d wrap up in another layer of fabric. They worked with layers and liked to wrap stuff around themselves, like the long, cone-shaped hoods they could wrap around their necks and wear as scarves. On their upper bodies they wore cloaks and tunics, often several tunics—sometimes decorated with braid on the neckline and cuffs—on top of each other. Since they couldn’t weave anything larger than 23 inches, the fit was funny looking. They had to put padding under the arms, and, as fabric was hard to come by, things were often made of different bits in different colors. Later, in the Middle Ages, that actually became fashionable.
So they looked all mismatched?
Yes, though most fabric had very basic colors, as dyeing was pricey and time consuming. Fabric was so expensive that they wore their clothes until they fell apart. On their excavated remains, you can see that they had been patched together with all kinds of different fabrics and patterns.
How did women dress?
Much like the men, only not in pants, and when they wanted to dress up they’d wear a pretty apron. As buttons or zippers hadn’t been invented yet, they used buckles to hold their clothing together. Also, anything that emphasized the bosom didn’t appear until the Middle Ages. In medieval times, not only women enhanced their body parts, even men had reinforced crotches on their pants so that it’d look like they had huge packages. They even had fake balls and dicks that they could tie to their underwear.
Did the Vikings initiate that fashion?
No, but the Vikings were obsessed with fertility. It was very much a means of survival because if they didn’t have a lot of kids and some died, they had no one to support them when they were old.
How did this fertility obsession manifest itself? I read somewhere that Viking women carried penis amulets.
I don’t know about that but wedding celebrations, for example, weren’t finished until all the guests had seen the couple make love. Back then the wedding night was an open ceremony. Many old Viking rituals dedicated to fertility are still celebrated in the Nordic countries to this day. Like Blot, a ritual held on the darkest night of the year in December, to celebrate that brighter times are coming. We still celebrate it here at Foteviken.
What did they do on Blot night?
They got drunk and sacrificed animals and people to the gods and then drank the blood of their offerings.
They drank human blood?
Um, well… Let’s stick to animals. They didn’t let anything go to waste and ate the sacrifices afterward. They even made food with the blood, like the black pudding we still eat today.
King Jakobsen inaugurating the yearly reenactment of the Battle of Foteviken, in which they honor the fallen soldiers of the famous Viking battle that took place near their village’s shore on June 4, 1134.
Photo courtesy of the Museum of Foteviken
You know what? Let’s completely change the subject to something cute and fluffy, like, say, lambs, aka yarn! Could Vikings knit?
No, they used the nålbinding technique, an insanely complicated Norse method of knotting the yarn. Although time-consuming, it resulted in nearly indestructible garments.
Did they have tailors or even designers?
No, that came later in the Middle Ages, when, if you dressed above your standing, you could go to jail. During the Viking Age, the women made the clothes and if they were good seamstresses, the clothes would look fancy. There was a loom in every household.
Didn’t women weaving also have some kind of mythical meaning? I’ve read that since the Valkyries and Norns of Norse belief decided men’s destinies in battle by either weaving or cutting their life thread, the women would weave while their men were away killing and plundering.
Well, that’s another myth. If you had a loom in the household that meant you had a wife and kids and a pretty good life, meaning you wouldn’t want or need to go out and pillage. Those who did were men who had nothing. As only the oldest son could inherit, all the disinherited youngsters would gather, build boats, and go out to ravage and pillage. When they had made some money, they’d start trading instead. Then, when they had made a life for themselves, in Ireland, for example, and had a cute Irish wife and healthy kids, they wouldn’t want to continue plundering. They were a mix between pirates and merchants.
How should one dress in order to look like a powerful Viking man, like yourself?
To define standing and wealth, you should wear jewelry in silver and gold and fancy fabrics like silk and fur—flamboyant, garish, hard-to-come-by details that were obtained from trading in the Far East. And you should have an impressive beard, as that was the strongest sign of manhood. Also, it’s said that the stronger colors you wore, the richer you were. Red and blue were signs of wealth because they were the most difficult colors to make. For example, the only way to make blue stick to fabric was to mix it with urine from a man who had been partying for three days.
Ha. Yes, you had to cook the fabric in it. I have friends who’ve tried it and apparently it smelled so bad they had to evacuate the house and leave the windows open for two days. Cooked male urine does not smell good.
How about red dye?
The most colorful red was made from squashing a certain kind of Spanish lice.
Yikes. Pee and lice, that’s some fancy fabric. From where did the specific decorative Viking style originate?
It differed depending on with whom they traded. Vikings who traded a lot with the Irish would wear crosses, for example. Then they had different passing styles and fashions, just like today, but they wouldn’t go out of fashion as fast since they didn’t have internet access to find out about new trends [laughs]. Most of the decorative style came from Norse mythology, Thor’s hammer being the most famous symbol.
So their fashion was influenced by foreign cultures, seeing how they ravaged and pillaged—I mean traded—everywhere?
More so than any other people of the time, as the Vikings had something no one else had: incredible ships that enabled them to travel everywhere, fast. For example, the Vikings that had been to the Black Sea came back with baggy pants. They wanted to show that they’d been traveling, that they were worldly. Much like people today.
How about hygiene? They’re often depicted as giant dirty savages.
There are ancient Arabic scripts in which they describe how Vikings had a specific day of the week, Saturday, reserved for cleaning themselves. That’s when they washed and combed their beards and long hair. They were actually clean people, and I’d go so far as calling them vain. They were even buried with their combs. They also braided their hair and beards and had scissors and primitive irons consisting of a round and flat stone to press their clothes.
Did they heat them too?
I don’t know, but I’ve tried them and they work cold.
Right. Was there ever a Viking who was famous for his appearance?
Yes, Harald Hårfager, which translates as Harald Pretty-Hair. He was, according to the stories, a very beautiful man with long, shiny hair. The others made fun of him for his vanity.
Any final words on Viking clothing?
We’ve acquired most of our knowledge about how Vikings dressed from grave goods, and if you just look at how your grandparents were buried, it was in their best clothes. If I were to travel back in time to the Viking Age wearing the Viking attire I’m wearing, they’d probably think I was a ghost. I might very well be dressed in burial clothes. Nobody knows for sure what Vikings actually looked like. But I think the closest thing to it is still around today: the Sámi people of northern Scandinavia’s traditional clothing.
Thanks, Viking King! See you in Valhalla!