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Viking Masks

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

'tis the season... Halloween season that is. This being my favorite holiday of the year I thought you would be able to tell me if the Vikings celebrated anything like it. Were there costumes?

(signed) Not Wearing the Plastic Viking Hat Another Year

Gentle Reader:

The Vikings did not celebrate Halloween, and while they had a major celebration at near the same time of year, it did not involve costumes or masquerades. Yet we know from archaeology that they did use masks, and there is evidence to suggest that these may have been connected with a different seasonal celebration.

Three annual festivals appear to have been known and celebrated throughout Viking Age Scandinavia. The Heimskringla of Icelander Snorri Sturluson records these festivals in Ynglingasaga, chapter 8, saying:

Þá skyldi blóta í móti vetri til árs en að miðjum vetri blóta til gróðrar, hið þriðja að sumri. Það var sigurblót.

[A sacrifice was to be made for a good season at the beginning of winter, and one in midwinter for good crops, and a third one in summer, for victory.]

The division of the year into three seasons among the Germanic peoples appears to be quite ancient, for Tacitus says in his Germania, chapter 26:

Nec enim cum ubertate et amplitudine soli labore contendunt, ut pomaria conserant et prata separent et hortos rigent: sola terrae seges imperatur. Unde annum quoque ipsum non in totidem digerunt species: hiems et ver et æstas intellectum ac vocabula habent, autumni perinde nomen ac bona ignorantur.

[They do not laboriously exert themselves in planting orchards, enclosing meadows and watering gardens. Corn is the only produce required from the earth; hence even the year itself is not divided by them into as many seasons as with us. Winter, spring, and summer have both a meaning and a name; the name and blessings of autumn are alike unknown.]

This tripartate division of the year, along with the celebrations heralding each new season, appear to have been prevalent over a large part of north-western Europe (Ellis-Davidson, Myths and Symbols, p. 39).

In Scandinavia, Vetrnætr or "Winter Nights" occurred in three or more days in mid-October, being celebrated in Iceland between October 11-18 (Ellis-Davidson, Myths and Symbols, p. 39). This was the celebration of the start of winter. The most important of the three celebrations was Yule (Jól) or Hökunótt, "mid-winter night," which was originally celebrated in mid-January (Williams, Social Scandinavia, pp. 385-386, Cleasby-Vigfússon, p. 309 s.v. höku-nótt). The third, Sumarmál ("summer time") took place in mid-April, celebrated between April 9-15 in Iceland, and was held to welcome the coming of summer (Ellis-Davidson, Myths and Symbols, p. 39).

With the advent of Christianity, the old pagan celebrations were co-opted and reinvested with Christian overtones. In the case of Winter Nights, it appears that the celebration was shifted to November 1, All Saints' Day, for the Gulaþing Law records that all Gulaþing farmers were required, in groups of at least three, to brew ale and hold a party for peace and prosperity after consecrating the drink to Christ and St. Mary. The Yule celebration was similarly shifted in this law to coincide with Christmas (Foote and Wilson, Viking Achievement pp. 401-402).

There is not a wealth of information surviving about the nature and activities associated with pagan festivals and celebrations. It should be remembered that all of the large body of documentary evidence surviving was transmitted to us after the end of the Viking Age, recorded by Christian men. In large part the motivation for preserving pagan materials was to allow later people to understand the poetry and stories of their ancestors, or else to glorify heroic or saintly men. Accordingly, the materials are few, and when present the records are suspect unless widely confirmed in several sources.

The feasts and celebrations associated with Vetrnætr were termed vetrnátta blót, "the winter night sacrifice" (Cleasby-Vigfússon, p. 701 s.v. vetr). The celebrations would have probably included an animal sacrifice (blót), with communal feasting after the sacrificed animal had been cooked. Hákonar saga Góða chapter 17 mentions specifically that a horse was sacrificed for the vetrnátta blót, and cooked in a kettle. Perhaps the most important part of the Vetrnætr celebration would have been the ceremonial drinking of ale, or sumbel, which was preserved even into Christian times. In chapter 17 of Hákonar saga Góða, the Vetrnætr sumbel is described:

Um haustið að vetri var blótveisla á Hlöðum og sótti þar til konungur.... En er hið fyrsta full var skenkt þá mælti Sigurður jarl fyrir og signaði Óðni og drakk af horninu til konungs.

[In fall, at the beginning of winter, there was a sacrificial feast at Hlaðir and the king attended it.... Jarl Sigurðr proposed a toast, dedicating the horn to Óðinn, and drank to the king.] (Heimskringla, pp. 110).

While masquerades and costumes did not make up a part of the Vetrnætr celebration, we do have evidence that masks were used in Scandinavia, from archaeological remains found at Haithabu (Hedeby). Two masks, made of felted material, were among the textile remains found at this site.

Photos of sheep mask shown flat and formed into shape
Two views of sheep mask from Haithabu, shown flat and formed into shape.

The first mask, shown above, is thought to represent a sheep. This mask is formed from thin, reddish felt material. The dimensions are approximately 7.5" (19 cm) wide, 5.5" (14 cm) high, with a thickness of 5/32" (0.4 cm). The material edges are all cut, presumably with the felting preventing the edge from ravelling. On the upper edge extend two tips shaped like ears. On the edges the characteristic outlines of the jaws may be detected. From there at a distance of approximately 2-3/8" (6 cm) two eye holes are cut out. The face and muzzle were probably shaped by felting. The nose is formed by a diagonal cut that has been sewn and formed and with nostrils provided, probably originally angled downward. The outside of the mask was treated to produce a nap, making it appear shaggy and furry (Hägg, Die Textilfunde aus dem Hafen von Haithabu, pp. 69-72).

Diagram of Sheep Mask from Hedeby
Haithabu Sheep Mask Diagram.
Note that the irregular edges result from age and conditions in the ground. The original would have had smooth-cut edges and almost certainly was bilaterally symmetrical.

The second mask is thought to represent a cow. Only half of this mask survives; the original would have consisted of two identical halves joined together at the midline. This mask is heavily felted, medium-fine, thickly napped 2/1 twill with a thread count of 25x10/cm and fairly thick yarns of 0.9 mm and 1.7 mm respectively. The dimensions are approximately 7-7/8" (20 cm) in width, 10.25" (26 cm) in width, with a thickness of 5/16" (0.8 cm). As with the sheep mask, all the edges were cut, needing no additional finishing beyond the felting. The layout of the cow mask is thought to have originally consisted of straight lines, originally about 8.25" (21 cm) from the edge of the forehead to the muzzle with the second half sewn along the edge, a concave curve for the muzzle portion, a strong jawline, an ear and gently curving forehead line. A large eye-hole, about 1-3/8" × 1.5" (35 × 40 mm) is cut out, which is 7/8" (22 mm) from the midline edge. The distance between the eye holes might have amounted to a bit less than 3-7/16" (88 mm), since a slight seam-allowance between the mask halves must be considered. The three-dimensional form of the mask was created by strong felting and an appropriate shape created, then the furry outside surface was formed by combing to produce a raised nap (Hägg, Die Textilfunde aus dem Hafen von Haithabu, pp. 69-72).

Diagram of Cow Mask from Hedeby
Haithabu Cow Mask Diagram.
Only half of this mask survives. It is assumed that there would have been two identical halves, joined down the midline. The original layout is thought to have used mostly straight lines, which are altered in the surviving mask due to shaping by felting and deterioration prior to recovery.

Inga Hägg believes that these masks would have been worn with a hood covering the rest of the head. The mask may have tied on, or been pinned or stitched to the hood. For example, the illustration below shows a diagram of two types of hoods found at Herjolfsness, Greenland, and a reconstruction of how the cow mask might have been worn is shown alongside.

Suggested reconstruction of how these masks were worn
Mask worn with a close-fitting hood.

As exciting as it is to be able to find archaeological evidence of this sort, the archaeological record cannot tell us why or when these masks were worn. Instead, we can only turn to the literature and to comparative folk beliefs and practices for further information.

The Byzantine Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus referred in his Book of Ceremonies to a "Gothic Dance" performed by members of his Varangian guard, who took part wearing animal skins and masks (Ellis-Davidson, Pagan Scandinavia, p. 100). Dr. Ellis-Davidson suggests that this type of costumed dance is also seen in figures from Swedish helmet plates, scabbard ornaments, and bracteates which depict human figures with the heads of bears or wolves, dressed in animal skins but having human hands and feet. These figures often carry spears or swords, and are depicted as running or dancing.

Helmet plate from Torslunda, Sweden
Helmet plate from Torslunda, Sweden
Bracteate Fragment from Gutenstein
Bracteate Fragment from Gutenstein

Turning to folk practices, there is a strong tradition in Scandinavia and in Germany that midwinter was the time of ghosts and spirits, and it was often felt that these spirits must be honored or placated. These are beliefs that are similar in some respects to those behind the modern celebration of Halloween.

In Switzerland and in Alsatia, the medieval Germanic peoples held celebrations between Christmas and Epiphany that hark back to a pagan veneration of the Winter Goddess, known vaiously as Frau Hulda, Frau Holda, Frau Perchta, or Frau Berchta. Different rituals attended these celebrations: in some places food was left out for the goddess and her train of ghostly children, in others special foods were prepared that everyone was expected to eat in the goddess's honor. Another aspect of these celebrations are masked performances, marked by frenzy and noise, which occur throughout the Alpine regions. Those taking part in the masked activities were usually young men, who were divided into two groups, the "handsome" and the "hideous", all led by a woman representing the Winter Goddess in a procession through the town. The "hideous" group traditionally were cloaked in black fur, their heads covered with hoods, their belts hung with bells, and their faces concealed behind masks (Motz, "The Winter Goddess", pp. 152-153).

Scholars draw parallels between these masked celebrations, accompanied by frenzy and noise-making, and the Germanic legend of the Wild Hunt. Although the Wild Hunt is usually thought of as being led by the god Óðinn, very often a goddess instead is the leader, identified for instance by Luther as "fraw Hulda," or in a 15th century source as "fraw Percht" (Motz, "The Winter Goddess", pp. 153-154).

The season in which these masked festivals occurred in the Middle Ages is the same as that of the Vikings' Yule (Jól) or Hökunótt, which was originally celebrated in mid-January. Even today in Scandinavia, beasts and beast impersonations occur in Scandinavian folk traditions. In Norway, the julbukk ("Yule buck") and jolegeiti ("Yule goat") are represented by straw figures or by youths disguised with straw or skins in their role. In Setesdal, Norway, the Christmas spirit is the Faksi, a horse (Motz, "The Winter Goddess", pp. 159-160).

While this folk-evidence does not prove the existence of similar rituals occurring in Viking Age Scandinavia, it does provide one explanation for the use of masks within Viking culture.


  • Cleasby, Richard and Guðbrandr Vigfusson. An Icelandic-English Dictionary. 2nd ed. Oxford: Clarendon. 1957.
    Buy this book from Buy the book today!

  • Ellis-Davidson, Hilda Roderick. Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe: Early Scandinavian and Celtic Religions. Syracuse: University Press. 1988.
    Buy this book from today! Buy this book today!

  • Ellis-Davidson, Hilda R. Pagan Scandinavia. New York: Frederick A. Praeger. 1967.

  • Hägg, Inga. Die Textilfunde aus dem Hafen von Haithabu. Neumünster: Karl Wachholtz Verlag. 1984. pp. 69-72.

  • Foote, Peter G. and David M. Wilson. The Viking Achievement. London: Sidgewick & Jackson, 1970.
    Buy this book from Buy the book today!

  • Motz, Lotte. "New Thoughts on Dwarf-Names in Old Icelandic." Frühmittelalterliche Studien 7 (1973) pp. 100-117.

  • Motz, Lotte. "The Winter Goddess: Percht, Holda and Related Figures." Folklore 95:2 (1984) pp. 151-166.

  • Sturluson, Snorri. Heimskringla: History of the Kings of Norway. Lee M. Hollander, trans. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1964. Paperback 1991.
    Buy this book from Buy the book today!

  • Tacitus, P. Cornelius. Tacitus: Germania (in Latin). Internet Medieval Source Book. Paul Halsall. January 1996. Accessed 5 October 2001.

  • Tacitus, P. Cornelius. Tacitus: Germania. Internet Medieval Source Book. Paul Halsall. January 1996. Accessed 5 October 2001.

  • Williams, Mary Wilhelmine. Social Scandinavia in the Viking Age. 1920. New York: Kraus Reprint Co. 1971.

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