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Do you want to get a new tattoo? First things first, it’s natural to want to consider the kind of design that you want to get and you wouldn’t be the first to turn towards one of the Viking tattoos that are so popular at the moment. But did Vikings have tattoos in reality? And what were their meanings?

That is, even though most Viking tattoo designs are impressive, there’s a lot of historical information to learn. For instance, Vikings tattoos and their meanings are widely popular due to pop culture more than anything else – but are all those TV shows accurate? After all, there are a lot of things that are inconclusive about this Norse tribe, including when it comes to their body art.

In particular, while Vikings did have tattoos, there are things to know and avoid. Read on to learn more about what makes Viking tattoos so interesting, the important Viking symbols, and what to avoid about these tattoo designs.

viking tattoo on the side of a man's head

Did Vikings have tattoos?

The consensus is that Vikings were heavily tattooed. However, archeological findings struggle to determine the presence of tattoos on Viking remains because most of what’s left is skeletal remains. Nevertheless, various historical sources indicate that they had clear markings that are equivalent to modern day tattoo markings.

Vikings are known as warriors. It makes sense for them to have tattoos when you look at the historical accuracy of warriors from different tribes at the time. In every tribal group, artists and craftsmen are present to play a crucial role in history.

According to some sources on what Vikings looked like from an Arabic scholar at the time, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, visible ink markings on Vikings gave them their impressive appearance. These tattoos showed unfamiliar patterns, trees, and other historical symbols used for expression.

These markings have significant meaning to different Viking tribes even though they weren’t recognizable to outsiders. Over the years, tattoos have remained a big part of European and other heritages. In fact, they date back to centuries prior to the Viking era.

Were there Viking tattoos for females?

Viking women lived a life similar to Viking men, so they had similar things done, such as body art. It’s common to find sources that refer to Viking women with tattoos. This means that it’s considered accurate for TV shows and other forms of media to depict Viking female warriors with tattoos.

This is why you find detailed female Viking tattoo designs. Females explored intricate runic symbols and Norse mythological animals for body art ideas. In certain instances, females added face paint and henna hand drawings to enhance their aesthetic appeal, and Viking make up was also a thing at the time.

You’ll find that the Viking tattoo meanings and designs tend to largely be the same for both male and female Vikings.

Did the Vikings tattoo their bodies?

The evidence is inconclusive about whether Vikings had tattoos on their bodies or not due to the lack of concrete archeological preservation of Viking remains. Some historical sources state that Vikings were known for their prominent bodily markings. If present, these markings symbolized various meanings that depend on various factors.

Since Viking tattoos are only a considered fact, research proposes that these markings have significant meaning when present. But, Nordic tribes lack written records because they believed history passed down from generation to generation through storytelling. Most of this history is lost in translation, and nowadays, you rely on inconclusive information.

Viking that had a tattoo with meaning for a warrior

In many representations of Viking history in books and television, they continuously show this tribe with distinctive permanent markings. You can say that these resemble modern-day tattoos. In fact, Iban Fadlan gave a descriptive account of the appearance of Vikings with bodily art around the 10th century, noting that they had tattoos that continued from their fingertips, up their arms to their necks. 

Moreover, Scandinavian history that dates back to the Bronze Age shows that tattoo art has existed in these parts of the world until well before the Viking age. There are tools that have been used to carve permanent drawings on bodies as far back as 3000 B.C. This strengthens the view that Vikings did in fact have tattoos or similar bodily art.

Did Vikings have tattoos on their heads?

Any evidence of Vikings with tattoos suggests that they didn’t have any on their heads. Vikings are said to have visible markings on their hands, bodies, and faces. Arab scholar Iban Fadlan suggested that these markings were a collection of different symbols along their fingertips to the nape of their necks.

The minority of the evidence implies that Nordic cultures didn’t believe in tattoos on their faces and heads. The most that you find is Viking face paint that they use in battles, or the females for their appearance. However, there’s mummy evidence of inland Germanic tribes and their use of facial and head tattoos.

It’s just difficult to say this practice spread across to the seafarers of Nordic descent. In some historical sources, facial tattoos are depicted as noble symbols earned in battle, and of aesthetical value for females in others. If Vikings had any head of facial tattoos, it was custom more than for appearance purposes.

That’s not to say that appearance wasn’t a big thing for the Vikings. After all, questions on whether Vikings had dreadlocks and if Vikings braided their hair remain, although it seems that Viking piercings were a step too far for these fearsome warriors.

What did tattoos mean to Vikings?

Bodily markings, if present, had different meanings for Vikings. This depends on the person’s status or if they were a warrior or not. For instance, a warrior would have chosen a specific design that serves a functional purpose to instill confusion and fear in their enemies.

Since the Vikings are depicted as a prominent tribe, it makes sense for their tattoo designs to have significance. To draw what Viking tattoo meanings may have included, it’s important to understand their notable symbols.

Helm of Awe
Caption: Helm of Awe

There are popular Viking tattoos that have the following meaning.

  1. The Helm of Awe – This tattoo points from the center and includes eight armed spikes. This is the most crucial tattoo of Viking mythology because it represents overall protection and magical powers, which are the core belief system of their existence. It’s worn by warriors since it endows courage when facing enemies.
  2. Valknut – The three triangles interlocked while pointing upwards. It’s one of the symbols that depict Odin, the God of War. It’s a sign of welcome from this important deity. In recent years, these three triangles have risen in popularity with jewelry designs and modern tattoos. It’s a sign of overcoming any adversity in life through Odin’s blessing and aid.
  3. Yggdrasil or the Great Tree – Norse mythology contains an ash tree of life. According to the Nordic tribes, this tree connects the Nine Worlds and everything else in the universe. This tattoo represents mystical deities, power, and wisdom.
  4. Thor’s Hammer – Also known as the Mjölnir, the hammer is a symbol of the most powerful God. In Norse tribes, this is an honorable amulet for protection from battles and life. It offers courage and power.
  5. Huginn and Muninn – These admired and revered ravens come as a pair. They’re always found perched on Odin’s shoulder. They represent memory and thought as a symbol of Odin’s multitude of powers.
  6. Ouroboros – This snake that eats its tail represents Loki’s father Jormungandr Norse Midgard Serpent. Although Loki is a known trickster, the Ouroboros tattoo is a symbol of unity of material and spiritual things alike, so could broadly be considered one of Loki’s symbols. Another take is that it represents the never-ending cycle of destruction and rebirth.
  7. Troll Cross – Vikings believed in supernatural beings. This means that they also believed in evil spirits and lingering negative energies. The Troll Cross appears in Viking encampments to ward off evil and trolls.
  8. Web of Wyrd – These powerful runic shapes intertwine. The woven symbol is a sign to highlight how everything is interconnected. It serves as a reminder that your past, present, and future actions carry consequences.
  9. Gungnir – This Viking symbol is powerful because it represents the mighty spear that Odin carries. It’s found in various historical sources, pop culture references, and as a tattoo marking. As seafarers, Vikings relied on this vital symbol to bring them home safe from their travels, since it’s mainly associated with protection. Tattoo designers use this symbol to represent authority and power. It’s believed that Odin relied on his spear in times of difficult decisions. He would sacrifice himself to his spear when in search of knowledge.
  10. Rune – Runic letters are what you consider alphabets. The Nordic runes were a significant communication symbol used for calling on deities for help in times of trouble. Each letter connects to a specific God with its meaning.

A lot of history details the use and importance of runic letters. They were used for various purposes to depict Norse history, and only a few people can accurately translate their definitions.

How did Vikings give themselves tattoos?

The available evidence on Viking tattoos suggests that they either had bodily markings or henna drawings. To carve these markings, Vikings use broad and rigged blades dipped in black or gray ash. For henna drawings, they mixed dark green paint on their hands and faces.

While the idea of Viking tattoos comes from recent depictions, if they did indeed have tattoos, they would use various objects and materials. This largely depends on where they were based. They would use carving knives to tattoo permanent ink on their bodies.

Viking tattoos on a man's arms

The ink used would be made from a combination of ash, Kohl, and different plants, based on what’s accounted for by the Arabic scholar who mentions dark blue and green colored markings. 

And, of course, they didn’t have anesthetic needles back in those days. Instead, they mainly relied on medicated plants and herbs to numb the area that would’ve been carved by the rugged knife.

When did Vikings get tattoos?

The travel and seafaring of Vikings across Europe dates back to the eighth century and it’s known that Viking tattoos appeared at least in the 10th century. In addition, since tattoos in this period were considered mainly for warriors, it’s likely that Vikings got them before battles and after their wins. 

Funnily enough, one of the most popular symbols that you find considered as being a Viking tattoo is the Vegvisir, known as the modern day compass. However, while this is from the region, given that it’s Icelandic, it actually only dates back to the 19th century.

This means that while it would make sense that something intended to help the bearer find their way through rough weather would be the ideal Viking tattoo meaning, it was created far too late to have been used during that time.

What tattoos would Vikings have?

One of the most common tattoo symbols that you see on Vikings is the Helm of Awe. However, there are other significant symbols that you see in Viking tattoo designs. According to legend, these symbols grant certain ethereal powers to them.

Other tattoo symbols that are depicted in some historical sources include native trees, mythological animals, and well-known Norse artwork and symbols. Some of these date back even further than the Viking Age, as far back as 800 B.C.

Vikings have a strong sense of mythical belief systems. This means that the tattoos had significant messages. They had tattoos to symbolize the Gods that they believed in.

Is it disrespectful to get a Norse tattoo?

For the most part, it isn’t disrespectful to get a Norse tattoo if you want to get one and wouldn’t be considered as cultural appropriation. At the same time, it’s advisable to not get a tattoo with a cultural history that you’re unfamiliar with without some research. 

The idea is that if you don’t know what a tattoo design means, steer clear of getting it done. It helps avoid misconceptions of the culture that understands the meaning. There are certain instances when you get a tattoo and obscure its sacred meaning.

man holding sword with traditional Viking tattoos with meanings for him

For example, the runic tattoo symbols are an ancient language that ties with deity knowledge that a lot of people don’t understand. It’s best to research what the meaning of each symbol is before you tattoo it on yourself. Find out as much as you can about Norse tattoos before you get one that’s deemed disrespectful.

The thing is, like in any other culture, there are also Norse tattoos to avoid. They’ve either lost their original meaning due to translation or misuse.

Related: What Language Did the Vikings Speak? (Ultimate Guide)

Are there Norse tattoos to avoid?

Yes, there are Nordic tattoo symbols to avoid on your body. The fact of the matter is that certain right-wing groups adopt Norse historical symbols as part of their right-wing agenda. In other cases, these symbols are only reserved for members that are descendants of Nordic tribes.

It’s okay to look for Norse tattoo inspiration. But, research is a big factor in helping you avoid getting the wrong tattoo that you can’t get rid of. The fact is that the majority of important Nordic symbols are used to spread hate and racist beliefs by different groups across the world.

The following are six common Nordic tattoo symbols to avoid.

  1. Odin (God of War) – This symbol is related to power and war. Over the years, supremacist groups and outlaws have used Odin’s tattoo to usurp power over marginalized groups. The paired ravens that perch on Odin’s shoulder are used on the white flags these groups adopt. As a result, this symbol is associated with oppressive groups. In Scandinavian countries, these symbols are offensive and seen as racist.
  2. Valknut – During Hitler’s time in power, the Nazis stole this symbol to use it to represent their power. It has since shown the hate of the right-wing. Neo-Nazis in parts of Europe still use this symbol to represent their hatred and racism.
  3. Triskelion – This symbol shows three horns interlocked facing upwards. In the Nordic tribes, the Triskelion represents rotational symmetry. However, it’s been adopted by hate groups all over the world.
  4. Sonnenrad – This ancient Nordic and Scandinavian symbol is part of a significant heritage. It’s the sun-wheel that represents the birth of life and new beginnings. Yet, it has also lost its prominence to racist right-wing groups. The most recent use of this symbol was during the attack on the US Capitol in 2021.
  5. Othala Rune – This runic symbol is the core of Nordic ancestry. It represents the birth of these formidable tribes. White nationalists spread across America and Europe adopted this symbol. It’s abused to spread hatred and racism by groups with right-wing tendencies. Its use is seen as a direct association with hated groups.
  6. Yggdrasil – This is a very sacred symbol that has also lost its meaning to global hate groups. Instead of the vital culture it represents, it’s now a symbol of supremacist beliefs.