What we know about viking face paintYou may assume that viking facial paint was used by Nordic peoples during the heyday of the vikings. However, the real story behind it is much more complicated than it appears.

Most of the records and knowledge we have about viking culture and conquests don’t speak specifically about paint vikings might have used in battle.

Continue reading to learn the truth about the face paint used by viking cultures for the purposes of war and peacetime decoration.

What We Know About Viking Face Paint

Viking face paint was probably used a lot less than modern-day people believe or the movies show. Surprisingly, there is very little known about the habits and facial painting practices of vikings.

Most of our preconceived notions about the traditions and habits of vikings stem from messages and images in popular culture. When we do access the historical record, however, we can see that there are a few recorded instances of travelers visiting viking lands and making note of the way the vikings looked.

Even though the vikings lived relatively recently in the historical record – between around 700 AD to 1000 AD, we have fewer records of their culture, activities, and rituals than we do of civilizations that lived thousands of years prior, like the Greeks or Romans.

If vikings painted their faces in times of war or during regular daily life, practically no evidence of it was ever recorded. Viking bodies and gravesites were decomposed or destroyed long before archaeologists could study them.

The vikings were also a civilization oriented around oral storytelling traditions, most of which were lost through conquest and assimilation into other cultures. Those lost stories could have contained unique references to wartime paint or other face-painting traditions that they had.

Did Vikings Wear Face Makeup?

Yes, according to the few sources we have today about viking grooming practices, they did wear face makeup. Both men and women wore eyeliner. We have no evidence that vikings men wore war paint or painted their faces for any other purposes. Viking women, however, are another story.

Viking women might have used other products than eyeliner to augment their beauty. A grave of a viking ‘seeress’ from the 10th century uncovered by archaeologists in Frykat, Denmark, contained a small box with lead carbonate.

Lead carbonate is actually a common form of ancient makeup that was used by the ancient Greeks, who called it “white lead”. Historians were not sure, however, if the white lead was actually used by the seeress, since there was no trace of it on the remains found in the grave.

It remains to be seen if the Vikings did or didn’t wear face makeup. Most historians believe that they opted against face makeup in favor of elaborating hygiene practices for their hair and skin. Archaeological digs of known viking gravesites contain many relics of personal grooming, including combs, toothpicks, and tweezers.

It was well known that viking men and women elaborately braided their hair. Men braided, brushed, and trimmed their beards as well. Despite the evidence we have about vikings’ love of personal grooming, we have little information about their use of face makeup. Unless new information is discovered or new sources about viking history emerge, it is most likely true that face makeup was not common among the vikings.

What Did Vikings Paint Their Faces With?

Some vikings painted their faces by lining the area around their eyes with a dark kohl product. At the time, kohl was made from a combination of lead sulfide or antimony sulfide. Over time, these substances had a toxic effect on the user. They created pockmarked skin and contributed to lead poisoning.

Vikings paint their facesIn different locations, vikings might have used different, less toxic substances to adorn their features.

A common source of black powder or dark pigment was charcoal, which any viking could use if they had access to the ashes from a fire. To create a paste that could be applied to the face, vikings used binders like eggs or linseed oil.

Vikings mixed natural pigments and charcoal with linseed oil to make paints that they used on their houses, shields, and decorative objects. It stands that they may have completed a similar process to concoct a form of makeup. If they did, though, all records of it have been lost, since there is no evidence that survived to the present day and can be solid proof.

In the 10th century an Arab traveler from Cordova, Spain, named Ibrahim ibn Yaqub, traveled throughout Europe and wrote a commentary on the habits, activities, and practices of people of different cultures including vikings. According to his notes about kohl-lined eyes, the vikings were Danish, and they lived in a town called Hedeby, which was located in what is now Northern Germany. But again, even in his notes, there is no other information about vikings painting their faces.

How Do You Do Viking Face Paint?

As a starter, you can decorate your face with dark black eyeliner around your eyes. Please be cautious and don’t try to use historical formulas like lead, as it is very toxic and can have serious health consensuses.

Although it’s practically impossible to find the stuff anyway!

The rest is up to you, since there are a variety of creative ways to decorate your face for a battle scenario using everyday make up. The vikings used simple facial adornment, which you can easily complete on your own.

Remember though that most of the perceptions we have today of viking’s facial paint are based on popular movies and legends that aren’t historically accurate. Most of the perceptions of fearsome, painted warriors are based on stereotypes of the Britons. These people, who dwelt nearby in the British Isles, used a herb called woad to paint their faces and bodies an intimidating blue color.

Most vikings lived in places where woad didn’t grow, so it followed that they wouldn’t decorate their faces and bodies for battle the same way that the Britons did.

Why Did the Vikings Paint Their Faces?

Ibrahim ibn Yaqub wrote that the vikings in Hedeby painted their eyes to appear more attractive and to enhance their best features. Both men and women painted their eyes, albeit in different ways. Men did it to appear more masculine, while women lined their eyes in order to enhance their femininity. It is clear that this custom was not geared towards war.

When going on conquests and trips into other areas of Europe, historians found that viking men were adept at wooing and even seducing English women by their attention to hygiene and advantageous grooming. Instead of fighting and conquering only through battle, the vikings conquered hearts with their appealing nature. A viking man might paint his eyes to emphasize his masculinity, as was customary in his culture.

It may also have been that the vikings were tattooed and didn’t feel the need to paint their faces to intimidate their enemies. The Arab visitors to viking-controlled areas noted the heavy tattoos on the arms of male viking warriors. It stands to reason that a thoroughly tattooed warrior might opt against painting his face for battle.

Why Did the Vikings Paint Their Eyes Black?

Vikings painted their eyes black for a number of reasons, such as increasing their attractiveness, indicating their status, or hiding ugly scars. Richer viking women might line their eyes more heavily with kohl than a servant or maid. A scarred warrior might line his eyes to hide that one was blind, or to add greater emphasis to scars elsewhere on his face.

Furthermore, in situations where vikings did want to intimidate their enemies, they could paint all around their eyes like a mask instead of lining them. On a battlefield, this would emphasize the whites of the warrior’s eyes, further striking fear into the heart of their foe.

Furthermore, it was better to have an identical system of painting their faces in war than to have each warrior paint his own face in unique patterns. This was because enemies could identify and target a warrior they could pick out from others. When all the warriors had identically painted faces  – or no paint at all – it was harder for the enemy to identify the strongest warrior and pick a single target for attack.

Conclusion

Viking facial paintIn this article, we discussed the meaning and purposes of viking face paint, and what role it played in the culture of the vikings during the early Middle Ages.

Now, it’s a good idea to look over the most important facts about viking facial painting practices and check the most important points that you need to know:

  • Little evidence suggests that the historical vikings wore paint on their faces when they fought in battle or when they were besieging towns along the coasts of Europe.
  • No relics of makeup, paint, or war-time facial painting belonging to the vikings have been discovered in the modern era.
  • Facial paint and makeup were commonly used in the viking era between the 8th and 11th centuries, but it was primarily for the purposes of personal adornment and increasing the user’s attractiveness in the eyes of others.
  • Both male and female vikings maintained a well-groomed appearance through bathing weekly, combing and brushing their hair daily, and lining their eyes with a black form of kohl made of lead or charcoal.

Contemporary perceptions of viking history are dominated by false images of battles, war-paint clad warriors, and dirty, badly-kept people. Now that you know the truth about viking face paint habits and the well-groomed nature of the vikings, you can help dispel those myths!