Grooming and Hygiene

A common misconception about the vikings is that they were filthy and unkempt. In truth they appear to have been unusually fussy over cleanliness and personal grooming. This misconception probably arises from their reputation for ferocity which is in turn associated with barbarism and a lack of civilised habits such as grooming and bathing.

Standing against this assumption is the evidence in archeological finds, in the commentaries of literate contemporaries and in written preservations of the oral legends and histories of the vikings themselves. These sources indicate that personal hygiene was an important and routine part of life for the nordic people during the Viking Age.

viking comb
A viking folding comb







Grooming Tools Found by Archeology

Combs, razors, tweezers and even spoon-like implements for cleaning ears are regularly found in archeological finds. Moreover the larger settlements had bath-houses.

Contemporary Commentary

The prior of St. Fridswides, John of Wallingford, complained of Danish settlers in England that their unusual cleanliness allowed them to seduce local women. He notes that they comb their hair everyday, bath at least once a week and regularly change their clothes

An arab by the name of Ibn Fadlan observed vikings in Russia washing their faces and hair in basins of water and cleaning out their noses. A practice he says they did everyday.

The Sagas

The poem Hávamál, sayings of the high one, indicates that washing hands before meals was an accepted custom. It also indicates that important meetings such as the Thing prompted extra efforts towards cleanliness.

In the poem Völuspá, Odin refrains from washing his hair as a sign of mourning for his slain son Baldr which indicates that regularly washing his hair was his usual practice.

In conclusion far from being dirty savages the vikings were unusually fastidious in their attention to personal hygiene and grooming.

Just for fun and larping Amazon carries a replica viking comb made of bone:

Hnefatafl – A viking board game

Hnefatafl, which means “fist table” or possibly “king’s table”, is played on a square board similar to that of Go. Invented in the 4th century it seems to have gone out of fashion by the 12th century. Probably displaced by Chess.

Unusually for a game of this type the gameplay is highly asymmetrical both in terms of game assets available to the players and in terms of the win conditions.

Hnefatafl
The game of Hnefatafl

Gameplay

At game deployment one player, the defender, sets up in the centre of the board with a king piece centremost surrounded by around twelve minions. The opposing player as the attacker has a force of twice as many minions but with no king. And he deploys his forces divided equally on each of the four board edges. To win the defender must safely escort his king piece off the board at any one the board’s corner squares. And in contrast the attacker must capture the defender’s king.

The scenario is very likely a simulation of an assassination versus a bodyguard action. Alternatively it could simulate an insurrection.

Players take turns, moving one piece at a time. The pieces are constrained to only horizontal or vertical rather than diagonal moves. A move may be of any number of increments. Akin to how a castle or rook moves in chess.

Also like chess it is a game of attrition where players capture and remove pieces rather than add or return them, which results in an ever diminishing number of active pieces as the game progresses.

Players capture enemy pieces by surrounding them on two opposite sides by adjacent pieces. Clearly a simulation of a pincer movement.

Beyond that the exact rules of play are lost as the surviving sagas which mention the game do not detail in depth the exact game play. It is very likely that the rules varied considerably from one place to another.

From the 19th century to the present day new reconstructed rulesets have been developed to fill in the gaps enabling the game to be played again.

The game also appears in the The Vikings TV series.

Further resources for Hnefatafl