August 24, 2022
The Anatomy of Germanic Art
- Early Animal Style
- Style I
- Style II B
- Gold Foil Figures
- Helmet Plates
- Style II C
- Style II D
- Style III E (Broa Style)
This article is a work in progress and will be updated.
Sign up for the newsletter below to get notified when new content is published.
The Anatomy of Helmet Plates
c. 525 – 675
Heirloom Helmets and Elite Warriors
Helmet plates are stamped bronze foils used for decorating prominent iron helmets.
Most of the decorated helmets have been found in graves. They are often already old antiquities at the time they ended up in the burial; they are worn, and many have been repaired or are incomplete. Their role in the burial custom seems to be that of an heirloom embedded with cultural and historical meaning. They have most likely been passed from generation to generation or been part of the gift-giving system in a long chain of reciprocity by the time they are following the dead into the grave. During their lifetime of use, the helmets have become imbued with biographies, with the invisible imprints of people, words and events. They have become living history and thus belong to the mythical world rather than the practical world.
The decorative motifs on the helmets seem to reflect and reinforce particular traditions developing over generations pertaining to the higher echelons of the Scandinavian warrior society. The central theme of the images is not surprisingly that of war, warrior culture and rituals, and a recurring character is one taking on the appearance of Oðinn.
The images on the helmet plates are all scenes pertaining to Oðinn’s domain of war, elite warriors, fate, magic and shape-shifting. Oðinn, as a central figure in mythology connected to magic, warfare and rulership, began to take shape during the mid-sixth century developing through the Viking age.
Figures with Oðinn attributes likewise appear on the helmet plates. Oðinn figures are commonly depicted wearing horned headdresses with bird-head terminals. They usually carry spears, a significant attribute of Oðinn.
Several Oðinn images are made to seem one-eyed, many altered after their manufacture. The eye is usually scratched out rather than initially creating a one-eyed person. Votive helmet eyebrow deposits are also known and can be interpreted as an act of offering an eye.
Some appear in connection with beast-headed shape-shifting warriors connecting them directly to berserkir. Seið, magic and shape-shifting are again central abilities of Oðinn.
The meaning of the term ‘berserkr’ is still disputed and difficult to decipher definitively. The most commonly accepted translation is ‘bear-shirt,’ i.e. ‘bear armour’ rather than the other suggested meaning of ‘bare-shirt,’ i.e. ‘without armour’.
The term ‘ulfheðinn’, meaning ‘wolf-shirt’, is probably interchangeable with ‘berserkr‘, referring to the same kind of elite warrior with identical characteristics.
The earliest sources describe berserkir as elite soldiers, bodyguards and champions of kings. Later sources, on the contrary, describe them as boasters rather than heroes, and ravenous men who loot, plunder and kill indiscriminately.
This reflects a Scandinavian society shifting from heathenry embracing the berserkr customs into Christianity, where such customs are seen as trollish and demonic.
The earliest surviving reference is in Haraldskvæði composed by Thórbiörn Hornklofi in the late 9th century. In 1015, Jarl Eiríkr Hákonarson of Norway outlawed berserkers. Grágás, the medieval Icelandic law code, sentenced berserker warriors to outlawry. By the 12th century, organised berserker war bands had disappeared.
The general concept and practice of shape-shifting are far from straightforward. It refers to many different ways of changing appearance depending on the context. It can, for example, mean leaving one’s human body in a sleeping state and taking on the shape of an animal, changing bodies with another human being or animal or, as seems to be the case with the berserkir, simply transforming one’s body into a more animal-like appearance either by simply morphing or by taking on and wearing an animal pelt.
Shape-shifting aspects can be part of coming-of-age ceremonies. In the Völsunge saga, for example, Sinfjǫtli and his father Sigmundr embark on a ritual journey in which they put on wolf skins and live as ferocious wolves before taking their revenge on King Siggeir.
Roles of the Berserkir
In the literature, berserkir took on particular roles. They were most notably elite members of the royal retinue, expected to be present at a pagan king’s court and to fight on his behalf, possibly as a champion or a member of his army. As elite warriors, they were usually seen in the front of the army and well positioned in the hall with high social status. In this role, they were both valued and feared.
However, in the post-Viking-age Christian-leaning literature, they were often cast in a protagonistic role.
They show up in the hall at Yuletide as an uninvited intruder alone or as part of a group and proceed to make the lives of those present misery and challenge the hero of the story.
Or they show up in the role of Hólmgongumaðr, who challenges weaker farmers to duel for their farms, female relatives or both. The saga hero steps in as the farmer’s champion, defeats the berserkr and gains a wife and property.
Viking berserkir usually occurs in groups marauding and pillaging for their own gain, composing a more significant threat to society than the individual berserkr. They could be part of a king’s retinue while raiding abroad but could also be a band of outlaws.
Characteristics of a Berserkr
Berserkir were known for their berserkergang (‘going berserk’) when they went into battle. Going berserk meant doing some kind of shape-shifting in which the berserkr gained superhuman animalistic powers and characteristics.
The process usually began with the berserkr chewing on the rim of their shield and howling (ON: ‘grenja’) like a wolf. It’s possible that they used their shield to modulate their voice.
Going into the battle, they were said to be invulnerable to edged weapons, though not impervious to blunt weapons such as clubs. The invulnerability may be attributed to animal-skin armour.
Some berserkir could blunt swords merely by looking at them. Therefore, a good strategy to circumvent this would be to carry two blades and only reveal the second one the moment before the kill. Blunting weapons is also an attribute of Odinn.
When berserkergang ceased, a great dulling of the mind and feebleness followed, which could last for one or several days. In this period, the berserkr would be especially vulnerable.
There might also have been a berserkir tradition of leaping across fire or even walking on hot coals. In Christian conversion stories, the fire bites the berserkir once it is consecrated. This trope is, however, not part of a long-standing tradition.
Berserkir share several characteristics with the so-called blámenn.
‘Blámenn’ (black- or blue-men) refer to people with dark skin colour and usually people of Africa or the Middle East.
The literary blámadr and the berserkr are essentially the same. The blámadr’s function as stock villains is similar to berserkir, and so is their behaviour before and during battle. Invulnerability is also attributed to blámenn in some sagas, and blámenn are also described as howling.
Other fantastical creatures taking up the same role as the berserkr in Old Norse literature are haugbúi (‘mound dweller’ or undead being) and trolls.
Helmet Plate Motifs
Some common motifs recur across the selection of helmet plates.
The motif features two opposing men in a duel mirroring each other. Two crossed spears seem to be central to the composition. One spear pierces the clothes of one of the men, and the other spear pierces the shield of the other man. Both men are holding short swords or knives, ready to attack.
The two men might be engaging in a formal duel like Hólmganga, a legally recognised way to settle disputes.
Oðinn Figures Alone or in Pairs
The most iconic feature of the Oðinn figures is their headdress composed of two inwards-curling horns with bird-head terminals (clearly birds of prey), a large rectangular forehead piece and triangular animal-ear-like shapes protruding on each side of the head below the headdress.
The figures usually carry downwards-facing spears, either two in one hand and a sword in the other or one spear in each hand.
Though they occur dressed in caftans, they often appear naked, only wearing a belt and a sheathed sword in a baldric looping around their shoulder, sometimes even with exposed genitals.
Their stance appears to be dancing or jumping, indicating motion.
Man Flanked by Two Beasts
The motif of a man flanked by two beasts is common throughout the Germanic Iron Age and into the Viking Age.
The beasts face the man and seem to interact with him with their mouths on each side of his head by his ears. Their legs and limbs are usually intertwined with the man’s legs. In some cases, the man is stabbing the animals with knives.
This motif could be interpreted as a man engaging in a fight with two beasts trying to attain their magic shape-shifting powers by defeating them. Or it could be a moment of violent transformation from man to beast.
Oðinn Figure Flanked by Two Beast-headed Warriors
The motif shows an Oðinn figure flanked by two armed figures with animal heads. In this way, the motif mimics the ‘man flanked by two beasts’ motif.
It is not clear if the two figures are wearing animal heads or if they are humanoid figures with animal heads. Nor is it clear, due to the stylistic rendition of the animal heads, precisely what kind of animals they are, though they are predatory mammals with sharp teeth like bears or wolves and not boars or birds.
The beast-headed figures are armed, and one is holding a sheathed sword up in front of him as to give it to the Oðinn figure facing him.
It seems like this motif is re-iterating several themes from the man flanked by beasts motif. The Oðinn figure is, for example, inherently linked to violence, the practice of magic and shape-shifting, and the half man half beast warriors are shape-shifting berserkr-like figures. But in contrast to the ‘man flanked by beasts’ motif, the scene here seems more ceremonial.
Man with a Beast on a Leash
This motif seems to be directly related to the motif of a man flanked by two beasts. There is an apparent power struggle between man and beast in both motifs. But in this case, the man has defeated and fettered the animal, rendering it immobile with its limbs tied up in knots. In one hand, he is holding a rope tied to the neck of the animal, and in the other, an axe.
In both motif types, the beast’s mouth is pointed at the man’s ear as to deliver a message. Open mouths and tongues are directly linked to the performance of magic. In the present case, the magic nature of the oral delivery is underscored visually by the beast’s extended tongue.
These scenes could be interpreted as the moment a person gains shape-shifting powers from a beast he has fought and defeated, forcing it to transfer its animalistic powers to him.
The motif features two or more mostly identical warriors in profile.
They are usually depicted in full armour with spears, swords and shields, wearing elaborate helmets with either the head of a bird-of-pray or a full boar on top.
They are sometimes accompanied by animals such as birds or serpents.
Multiple double warrior motifs are usually applied in a row on the helmets, giving the impression of a column of warriors.
The central figure of this motif is a mounted warrior with a helmet, shield, and sword lifting a spear horizontally across the top of the composition.
A tiny Oðinn figure behind him above the horse seems to guide the spear, holding on to it with his hand.
One or two other warriors in front of and below the horse appear to attack or try to grab hold of the horse. Often a warrior is seen stabbing the horse with his sword from below.
The image is thus divided diagonally into two halves, one depicting forces aiding the rider into the battle and the other half forces opposing him. The overarching theme might be fate.
The underlying composition might derive from Roman funeral art, with the ‘fallen warrior’ motif frequently depicting warriors trampling vanquished enemies. Though, the motif on the helmet plates is heavily adapted in line with Scandinavian tradition.
Motif Placement on the Helmets
The distribution of the motifs on the helmets varies, and no two helmets are entirely alike. But there seem to be some common patterns.
Above the eye
A mirror image of duelling combatants. These can take various forms, such as warrior against warrior, Oðinn figure vs Oðinn figure or a warrior with a beast.
Along the sides
Horizontal lines of plates with warrior columns and battle scenes are often lined up above each other. They are usually all oriented towards the front of the helmet and thus reversed from one side to the other, giving the impression of moving in the same direction as the helmet’s wearer.
Additional plates with animal ornament are often used in between the figurative plates with the warriors.
The Gutenstein Scabbard Mount
The Finglesham Belt Buckle
The Obrigheim Foil
The Pliezhausen Bracteate
Pliezhausen, Reutlingen, Germany
The Staffordshire Hoard
The Sutton Hoo Helmet
Sutton Hoo, Woodbridge, England
The Sutton Hoo Purse-lid
Sutton Hoo, Woodbridge, England
The Torslunda Matrices
Torslunda, Öland, Sweden
The Valsgärde 7 Helmet
The Valsgärde 8 Helmet
The Vendel 1 Helmet
The Vendel 12 Helmet
The Vendel 14 Helmet
Axboe, Morten. 1987. Copying in Antiquity: The Torslunda Plates. Studien zur Sachsenforschung, 6:13–22.
Dale, Roderick Thomas Duncan. 2014. Berserkir: a re-examination of the phenomenon in literature and life. PhD thesis, University of Nottingham.
Jakobsson, Ármann. 2011. Beast and man: Realism and the occult in Egils saga. Scandinavian Studies. 83 (1): 34.
Norr, S. 2005. A New Look at King Hákon’s Old Helmet, the Árhjálmr. Scripta Islandica, 55:71–86.
Price, Neil, Mortimer, Paul. 20??. An Eye for Odin? Divine Role-Playing in the Age of Sutton Hoo.