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Cleanliness - Did Vikings Take Baths?

The Vikings have long had the reputation of being filthy, wild animals. Even in modern day films the Vikings are usually portrayed as dirty savages. However, close examination of the facts seem to dispel the myth of the filthy Viking.

It's important to remember that most of our accounts of the Vikings come from Christian writers. A Viking writer would not be likely to give an account of the general cleanliness of his people as a whole. The Christian writers were writing about a fearsome group of pagan people who were ravaging Europe. A Christian writer would have had a strong bias to present the evil pagans in the worst light. To this day it is the writings of these Christians which give us the impression that Vikings were physically powerful, terrifying, and dirty savages. (This is not unlike the Roman habit of portraying Hannibal as a great and gifted military commander because it made the Roman victory more impressive. While there is no doubt Hannibal was masterful general, he did make make more than one strategic error.) The reality of what a Viking was seems to be very different than conventional wisdom.

What we do know from the excavation of Viking burial mounds is that personal grooming tools are some of the most common items found. Items such as razors, tweezers and ear spoons have been found. In fact combs seem to be the most common artifact found from the Viking Age. We also know that the Vikings made a very strong soap which was used not only for bathing, but also for bleaching their hair. Vikings bleached their hair as it seems blond hair was highly valued in the Viking World.

Accounts of Anglo-Saxons  describing the Vikings who attacked and ultimately settled in England suggest the Vikings might be considered to be ‘clean-freaks’, because they would bathe once a week. This was at a time when an Anglo-Saxon might only bath once or twice a year. In fact the original meaning of Scandinavian words for Saturday (laurdag / lørdag / lördag) was ‘Washing Day’.

A later writing often credited to the Abbot of St. Albans reports that "thanks to their habit of combing their hair every day, of bathing every Saturday and regularly changing their clothes, were able to undermine the virtue of married women and even seduce the daughters of nobles to be their mistresses."

There are also early 10th Century writings describing the cleanliness of the Vikings. The Persian explorer/geographer Ibn Rustah comments on their cleanliness. The report by a later Arab writer Ibn Fadlan may be a little misleading. He is particularly offended by the Viking approach to defecation and urination, along with their failure to wash after sex (orgasm). It can be considered likely that Ibn Fadlan's opinion was guided by the requirements of his Islamic faith and its specificity regarding certain cleaning rituals as described in the Quran. (for example An-Nisa 43, 5:6). Zoroastrianism also contains some specific cleansing rituals.

He further observes that every day Vikings must wash their faces and head. He notes that he is disgusted by the fact that Vikings sharing the same bowl to wash their faces and blow their noses. Again, his opinion reflects Islamic custom. His notes do confirm that Vikings washed each day at a time when European Christians did not.

The Viking approach to communal washing would not have appealed to a member of the Islamic faith.

LastUpdate: 2017-11-27 22:10:18