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Have you ever wondered where the pop culture reference to blond and blue-eyed Vikings comes from? You’d be surprised to learn that historical sources point out that there were more Vikings with red hair than you think. In fact, there’s a debate about the origins of the red hair gene and its correlation to the Norsemen.

Scientific research has closely associated red hair to a certain type of melanin. But, it’s still curious to know that most people who have red hair nowadays live in parts of the world where Norsemen once lived. 

To learn more about Vikings and their red hair origins, keep on reading!

viking with red hair sitting in front of her house

Did some Vikings have red hair?

Contrary to what pop culture has us believe about Vikings, most of them didn’t actually fit the prototype of blond hair, blue eyes, and rugged looks. In fact, research suggests that genetic analysis of this Norse tribe found that a majority of Vikings had red hair.

What Vikings looked like is one of the biggest misconceptions that you’ll come across. There’s a lot of historical information that has been distorted over the years. Partly due to pop culture references, Vikings have been depicted with blond hair.

Yet, there’s more evidence that suggests that these Nordic tribes – especially those in West Scandinavia – were likely to have had red hair genes instead. It was more common to bump into a Viking with red or ginger hair than it was to meet one with blond hair. There’s historical and geographical evidence that strongly mentions that there were many Vikings who had red hair than you might be aware of.

Related: What Did The Vikings Look Like? (The Ultimate Historical Guide)

Did Vikings have red beards?

Yes, Vikings did have red beards. According to sources, red hair and beards are a genetic trait that is specific to Nordic tribes. It’s even thought that some Norsemen would dye their red hair and beards to look blond using lye soap.

Red beards that matched the red hair were far more common than believed to be. The ginger gene that’s responsible for the mutated appearance of red hair affects all hair cells and follicles. This results in red beards as well even if, as mentioned, some sources suggest that Viking women and men dyed their hair and beards.

red hairs Viking with a red beard

Fortunately, facial hair is one thing that references to Vikings appear to have been accurate on, given that Norsemen are known for their prominent facial hair. From the assumptions about Norsemen having beards, you can assume that the ones who lived in areas where you find red hair genes dominant would, consequently, have had red beards.

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Who was the famous Viking with red hair?

Erik Thorvaldsson, famously known as Erik the Red, is the Viking who was known for his spectacular red hair. Erik wasn’t just a sporadic seafarer, but he also founded the first European settlement in present-day Greenland. He got his byname Erik the Red in his youth when he decided to travel after being exited from Iceland.

According to sources, he was born in the district of Rogaland in Norway. When he was 10 years old, his father was banished from Norway for manslaughter. They eventually settled in northwestern Iceland.

During his stay in Medieval Iceland, Erik grew up to still honor Norse paganism. He was later married with four children. But, he also followed in his father’s footsteps and was exiled from this part of Iceland.

17th century illustration of Erik the Red
17th century illustration of Erik the Red in Arngrímur Jónsson’s Gronlandia

It’s this era that really made him one of the most famous Vikings, as it’s when he became known for his many travels that led to many discoveries, the most well-known one being his discovery of Greenland. However, studies suggest that there were indeed other Nordic seafarers who had discovered Greenland before him. What set Erik the Red apart was that he was the first person to settle in this part of the world.

Once his exile expired, he managed to return to Iceland. Erik needed the support of the Icelanders to certify his settlement colony of Greenland. His discovery flourished, and he maintained a great amount of wealth until his death around 1003.

Unfortunately, an epidemic reached the shores of Greenland and ravaged the majority of its population. Those who survived, managed to rebuild the nation well until the Little Ice Age. As far as the most famous red haired Vikings go, Erik seemed to have lived a full life.

Were most redheads Vikings?

As it’s believed that Scandinavia had the most redheads during the Viking Age, it can be supposed that most redheads were Vikings during that era. This perception holds to be true when you look at the prevalence of red haired people in where Vikings used to be found around what’s present-day Norway and parts of Scotland.

After all, there weren’t a lot of Viking warriors who were naturally blond, and genetic studies on Vikings continue to highlight that there was a mixture of blonds, dark haired, and red haired people as you would find today. The only difference is that where you would find red haired Vikings would vastly depend on where you were located. 

Viking with red hair gene holding a sword

For example, when you compare Northern Scandinavian areas, you’re likely to find remains of more blond Vikings than in any other parts, particularly West Scandinavia (modern day Denmark) where more red heads could be found.

Yet, there still appear to have been a significant number of red haired Vikings. When you travel towards the other parts that were predominantly Viking encampments around the western parts of Scandinavia, you’re likely to observe the traces of red hair origins. So, it makes more sense to assume that most Vikings were indeed red haired.

Did the Irish and the Scots get their red hair from the Vikings?

There’s an argument amongst experts on whether Vikings did scatter the red hair gene or not. For instance, in the eighth century, Viking warriors invaded Scotland. If the evidence points to a majority of them with red hair, then it means that they could’ve spread their red hair genetic traits in this area and even Ireland when they traveled there.

The fact of the matter is that when it comes to association with red hair the Irish and the Scottish will always come to mind. Even though the global population of red haired individuals dwindles at below 2%, these countries have the highest concentration of red haired people globally. Scotland leads with around 13% and Ireland falls behind at just 10% globally, making the number one and two respectively in the whole world.

So far, there are two theories related to the Vikings that contribute to this phenomenon in these countries. One popular theory relates to the adoption of this red hair gene when the Vikings conquered these countries. The other theory is that the prevalence of red hair is directly proportional to the areas that the Vikings mapped as their trade route. In whichever case, it seems that the Vikings are mainly responsible for the widespread number of red haired individuals around these two countries in particular.

You may also be interested in: Did Vikings Have Dreadlocks: The Historical Truth

Where did red hair originally come from?

Red hair color had been associated with various locations such as Asia and Scotland, to nomadic cultures like Vikings. The answer to the origins of red hair lies in the individual’s genetic makeup. There’s only 1% of the population that’s pure red haired, with the other 40% of this group being mainly a mixture of various genes.

The thing is, there were already red haired individuals way before the Vikings era. Scientific evidence points towards red haired people around the period that Celtic and Germanic tribes thrived. One can argue that the genetic disposition for red hair was already among the population.

famous red haired Viking woman walking on a beach

But, since this genetic trait is recessive, the arrival of the Norsemen likely played a significant role in the genetic activation of it. Recent studies on red hair genetic analysis show that there’s a unique sequence that is directly linked to the formation of red hair. A specific gene, MC1R, plays a role that determines if you’ll have red hair or not.

There are variants of this unique gene, and the more variants there are, the most likely it is that you’ll have red hair. Since hair color is also determined by melanin, it means that the lower your levels of melanin, you’re prone to higher levels of pheomelanin which is a red or yellow pigment. When these levels are higher, then you have higher chances of having red hair.

Does Norway have a lot of redheads today?

According to the red hair map, red hair is mainly common in Norway. Finland and Germany have the highest number of red haired people. This unique hair color trait is mostly concentrated in Celtic nations.

While this color hair can be found in various parts of Europe, there are still areas where it’s more common than the rest of the continent. According to historical records, there are more redheads in the Volga region in Russia than anywhere else in the world. The men around this region have been described to have the most red hair in the rest of the world. 

Even though there are parts where red hair is more prevalent, there are still areas in Europe where you won’t find people with red hair. Chances are that they carry the recessive gene, but it isn’t dominant as you find in places like Norway and Finland (which perhaps further supports the theory that there were Vikings in Finland too).