Vikings and tattoos: An interview with Neil Price by Sean Parry
If the Vikings had tattoos, what would they have looked like? We will probably never know. And this element of mystery is what always drew me to the early medieval dark ages and pre history. I’ve always liked that it gives more room for the imagination.
We know that there is archeological evidence of tattooing in Northern Europe from before the viking age, and text stating that the Rus Vikings for instance had root like patterns from their toe nails to their necks “painted” on their skin.
Early viking art (like that present at the Oseberg burial) is extremely complex and detailed, where as towards the end of the viking age it certainly streamlined and became less complex, but still very detailed from time to time (urnes style).
The objects that display these designs would have taken hours and hours to complete, so why would their tattoo work not display the same level of intricacy?
Well, it is possible. You can tattoo anything by hand to can do by machine if you have the time, patience and skill. And the Viking age craftsman certainly had a lot of this.
But there was also an etiquette to what art forms where used to ornament different objects and surfaces by craftsmen. In embroidery there is no evidence for the serpents that are commonly displayed elsewhere, and the knotwork and patterns used by silversmiths seems to by quite distinctively different from that used by goldsmiths. There would have been workshops and in-house styles, like those of the royal courts as well as individual artistic styles.
So as well as a range of diverse possibilities for design types, maybe they only tattooed in thick bold lines, maybe they only worked in dots. But I have to admit that the dots is more unlikely.. but that’s a blog for another time.
It is possible that tattooing was only practiced or worn by the elite, and maybe only by völva’s or other religious figures. Maybe it was widely practiced. My suspicion though has always been that it was the craftsman of the day that would have turned their skill to the art. One argument as to why tattooing is not mentioned in the sagas (other than it was cut out of the stories by Christians, and maybe only gets referred to as scars) is that it was so common it wasn’t even worth mentioning.
I try not to ever hold bias, as fixed opinions in such matters can blind one to new possible theories.
I had always wanted to put the question forward of the logistics of tattooing in the Viking age to an expert, and thankfully the opportunity finally popped up!
Earlier this year (2019) I attended the Jorvik Viking festival in York. I looked on the festival website to see what events would be on and was overjoyed to see Neil Price was doing a talk one evening... until I realise it was on the same time I was also on stage at the Jorvik takeover gig (although I did have a wonderful time playing there!).
So, I contacted Neil to see if it would be possible to meet up to do an interview with him while we where both in the same city, but sadly his schedule was too busy. Thankfully though he wrote that he would be happy to answer any questions I had over email. So for your enjoyment, here is our correspondence.
1 - There were a few distinct native, Scandinavian art styles through the Viking age, with an obvious artistic tradition which marked objects such as weaponry, jewellery and clothing. What did ornamenting such objects mean to the Vikings?
2 - Were there any particular “meanings” or significances to the mythical beasts depicted in such artwork (especially those which had no outright earthly counterparts or analogues)? And were such depictions an attempt to demonstrate the importance of said objects due to the mythical/religious significance of otherworldly creatures, or were they an attempt at mimicking creatures shown on imported objects, such as those from the Byzantine and Roman Empire?
[I’ve taken the first two questions together as they’re related]
From what we know, it seems that ornamentation extended pretty much to any available surface, probably including buildings. To some extent this tells us about Viking-Age aesthetics and fashion (which they definitely pursued in much the same ways as we do), but in recent decades it’s become increasingly clear that there were also meanings encoded into such designs. Some of the iconography can be linked to stories or beings from the mythology, and there are also written descriptions, for example in poems, of buildings decorated with stories of the gods in pictorial form. The animals you mention are part of this – perhaps the Midgard serpent, the various wolves and hounds of the myths, and so on; the ‘beasts of battle’ (ravens, and the like) are also in the mix, and perhaps suitable for a warrior, for example. We’re familiar with amulets (for want of a better word), whether things like Thor’s hammer or also the Christian cross,
and it’s possible that many other images had a similar function. One other aspect of Viking-Age design is the presence of repeating motifs – on runestones, metalwork, and so on. We don’t know what they mean, but it is obvious that they represented something specific, representing a message that a buyer or commissioner could choose to adopt in the same ways as we choose what jewellery and clothing we wear, usually with at least some reference to the signals it sends. Think of our T-shirts with slogans on, or lapel badges and so on; the Vikings probably had equivalents to those too, perhaps encoded in the designs. It’s also possible that we are seeing more local identities expressed in images, not forgetting colours – perhaps membership of a family, or a military unit, a particular retinue and so on. It would not surprise me if we also see something similar to traditional sailors’ tattoos or military patches, symbols indicating where somebody had travelled or fought, which could be expressed on clothing, on painted objects such as shield boards, or on the skin. It’s important to remember that most of this is speculation, but we are clear that the designs could be more than just ‘art’.
3 - Given the lack of any archaeological evidence of tattooing among the Vikings, do you think there was any possibility that the Vikings might have practiced tattooing, but - for whatever reason - no evidence of this made the historical written record? Could it have been omitted due to the cultural prejudices of Christian scribes and chroniclers? If so, who could have made the tattoos, and who might have had them?
I think the Ibn Fadlan account is pretty conclusive that they did practice tattooing, though with the caveat that he just says they had pictures on their skin – it could conceivably be paint, something like henna. We also know from al-Tartushi that both men and women used eye make-up, and we also have plentiful archaeological evidence of filed teeth, so this also fits a picture of the body as a canvas. I think one reason the historical sources don’t mention tattooing is because everybody else might have been doing it as well. The Anglo-Saxons certainly had tattoos; if I recall correctly, King Harold Godwinsson, killed at Hastings, was identified by the tattoo of his wife’s name on his arm, which implies that the practice was relatively common.
This also tells us that Christians had tattoos – we don’t necessarily have to link them with paganism, and the designs probably had as wide a range of varied meanings as they do now. As to who would have made them, no idea beyond ‘anyone with the necessary skills’. Just as now, some people were probably masters at the practice, others less skilled but cheaper!
Hope this is of interest, and all best,
I hope you found or correspondence as interesting as I did, and thank you again Neil for your time and insight.
Blog written by Sean Parry of Sacred Knot Tattoo