For more information on counter-intuitive facts of ancient and medieval history, see Anthony Esolen’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization.
Did the Vikings wear tattoos? One piece of historical evidence says yes, at least the Swedish Vikings who raided and traded through Russia probably did. An Arab writer, Ibn Fadlan, was sent by the Caliph of Baghdad on a diplomatic mission to the Bulgars in the Middle Volga area of Russia. While there in A.D. 921, Ibn Fadlan met a people called the Rus, Swedish Viking traders, who had brought slaves to sell at the markets.
Ibn Fadlan describes the Rus and at one point he mentioned that all the men were tattooed from the tips of their fingers to their necks. The tattoos were dark green figures of trees and symbols. It is likely, however, that the tattoos were probably dark blue, a color that comes from using wood ash to dye the skin. While Ibn Fadlan describes the tattoos as trees, he could have see the Vikings trademark gripping beast or other knotwork patterns of which the Vikings were fond.
This is rather slight evidence on which to state categorically that Vikings tattooed themselves. The Arabic word used in the original text for “tattoo” was more commonly used to describe mosque decorations rather than actual tattoos. Also, tattoos are not mentioned in any of the sagas or poetry, although these literary works describe many other physical characteristics such as scars or hair color.
Unfortunately, human skin does not survive centuries of burial. However, a Scythian chieftain was found in Siberia who had been buried circa 500 B.C. He had been buried beneath the permafrost, so his skin and tattoos survived. While this find predates Viking traders in Russia by 1300 years, it is possible that Vikings could have met the descendants of the Scythians while on trading missions in Russia and learned the tattooing art from them. The Scythian warrior’s tattoos had Scythian art styles, of course. If Vikings did have tattoos, it is likely they would have used Norse designs and symbols found in their other artwork on bone carvings or jewelry.
Many tattoo artists have designed Viking tattoos, which can be easily found in many places on the Web. Popular Viking tattoos include the compass tattoo, called the Vegvisir. This symbol is not from the Viking Age, however; it dates to the 17th century, from an Icelandic book on magic. Another popular Viking design for a tattoo is the Helm of Awe or aegishjalmur. This symbol allows the wearer to strike his enemies with fear and confusion. It is also thought to grant magical powers to its wearer.