A Viking horned helmet would have been very impractical, and perhaps dangerous, in battle. A sword blow to the head might glance off a smooth helmet. But it would surely catch on a horn and send the helmet flying, leaving the Viking bareheaded and highly vulnerable to a death blow to the skull.
There is only one depiction of a horned helmet in ancient Nordic art, and it was probably ceremonial. We get the image of Vikings in horned helmets from the 19th century revival of interest in Nordic culture. Northern Europeans romanticized what they saw as the purest form of medieval culture, as a kind of counter-balance to the glories of the ancient Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome. There was a mini-mania for all things Norse in the 19th century.
This was nowhere more highly expressed than in Richard Wagner’s operas. Wagner’s costume designer, Hans Thoma, is primarily responsible for the image we have today of horned-helmeted Vikings.
M.A. Wawn, The Vikings and the Victorians: Inventing the Old North in Nineteenth Century Britain
This is the first book-length treatment of the Victorians’ fascination with the old north. It explores the ways in which the terms ‘Viking’ and ‘Viking Age’, both unknown in 1800, were invented, explored and popularized during the nineteenth century. The material examined – published and unpublished – includes novels, poems, plays, lectures, reviews, secondary school textbooks, saga-stead travelogues, private correspondence, art and music, as well as dictionaries, grammars and scholarly editions of Eddas and sagas. In the cast of characters Sir Walter Scott, William Morris, Edward Elgar and Rudyard Kipling appear alongside long-forgotten amateur enthusiasts from Lerwick to the Isle of Wight. We follow the pursuit of Viking-related archaeology, dialectology, folklore, philology, runology and mythology. We see the old north used to legitimize many concepts and causes – from buccaneering mercantilism and imperial expansion to jury trials and women’s rights. In drawing this wide range of materials together, Andrew Wawn presents a comprehensive and colorful account of the construction and translation of the Viking Age in Queen Victoria’s Britain.