What Do We Know
About Vikings Tattoo?
Tattooing is one of those arts that usually not preserved in the historical records. Because skin is so fragile, and rarely survives in ancient burials, we almost never have confirmation of style, colour, patterns or designs. Unless we find a tattooed Viking frozen somewhere so that the skin is preserved, we will never know what patterns exactly could be used.
Still, we know that the Kievan Rus warriors at least wore tattoos, for the Arabic merchant and observer Ibn Fadlan says in his Risala:
Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife and keeps each by him at all times. The swords are broad and grooved, of Frankish type. Every man is tattooed from finger nails to neck with dark green (or green or blue-black) trees, animal figures, etc.
The Arabic word for the colour of the tattoos can mean green, blue or black. Almost certainly these were dark blue tattoos, created using fired wood ash as the dyeing agent.
Ibn Fadlan calls the designs “trees”, but it is highly likely that he is actually describing Nordic knotwork or Viking Borre, Jellinge or the Mammen Art Style patterns that were so common in northern art.
Although it predates the Vikings by about 1300 years, an interesting parallel are the tattoos found on a Scythian king in Southern Siberia in the Pazyryk region, ca. 500 BC. The Scythians inhabited the Eurasian steppes regions, and their descendants were probably in contact with Rus and other Vikings who traded through Russia with Byzantium. This particular Scythian is very well preserved, because the burial mound or kurgan in which he was interred was dug deep enough to have the burial chamber below the Zero Celsius the level of the permafrost. Thus the chieftain’s skin, and his tattoos, have been preserved. The artwork used in these tattoos is clearly based in Scythian artistic styles, and it is not hard to speculate that if Vikings practiced tattooing, their body art might reflect the designs found in their bone and woodcarvings and fine gold, silver and bronze metalwork.