The Vikings were actually much cleaner than we assume them to be today; Saxon women even preferred them to their own (Saxon) men
Although the popular image of the people of the Viking Age is one of wild-haired, dirty savages, this is a false perception. In reality, the Vikings took care with their personal grooming, bathing, and hairstyling.
Perhaps the most telling comment comes from the pen of English cleric John of Wallingford, prior of St. Fridswides, who complained bitterly that the Viking Age men of the Danelaw combed their hair, took a bath on Saturday, and changed their woolen garments frequently, and that they performed these un-Christian and heathen acts in an attempt to seduce high-born English women1:
It is reported in the chronicle attributed to John of Wallingford that the Danes, thanks to their habit of combing their hair every day, of bathing every Saturday and regularly changing their clothes, were able to undermine the virtue of married women and even seduce the daughters of nobles to be their mistresses2.
The Arabic observer Ibn Fadlan noted:
84. Every day they must wash their faces and heads and this they do in the dirtiest and filthiest fashion possible: to wit, every morning a girl servant brings a great basin of water; she offers this to her master and he washes his hands and face and his hair — he washes it and combs it out with a comb in the water; then he blows his nose and spits into the basin. When he has finished, the servant carries the basin to the next person, who does likewise. She carries the basin thus to all the household in turn, and each blows his nose, spits, and washes his face and hair in it.
Ibn Fadlan’s main source of disgust with the Rus bathing customs have to do with his Islamic faith, which requires a pious Mohammedan to wash only in running water or water poured from a container so that the rinsings do not again touch the bather. The sagas often describe a woman washing a man’s hair for him, often as a gesture of affection. It would be likely that the basin was actually emptied between each bath: Ibn Fadlan would still have felt the basin contaminated by previous use. It does seem here that Ibn Fadlan is exaggerating a bit for effect3.
Aside from Ibn Fadlan, almost all sources indicate that the Vikings were the among the cleanliest of all Europeans during the Middle Ages. In the summer, bathing could be preformed in lakes or streams, or within the bath-houses found on every large farm (these would be much like the Finnish sauna, though tub bathing was also used), while in winter the heated bath-house would be the primary location for bathing4. In Iceland where natural hot springs are common, the naturally heated water was incorporated into the bath-house.
The Vikings also bathed their hands and faces on at least a daily basis, usually in the morning upon arising. Hávamál suggests that handwashing was customary before meals as well:
A drink needeth to full dishes who cometh,
a towel, and the prayer to partake;
good bearing eke, to be well liked
and be bidden to banquet again.5
The translator’s note for this stanza says that “Water, for washing one’s hands, and a towel were offered before a meal”6.
It seems clear that regular washing of hands and hair was the norm, and that failing to keep oneself clean was an unusual practice, perhaps reserved for those in mourning. It is said that Oðinn, king of the gods, left his hair unwashed as a sign of mourning for the death of his son Baldr in the poem Völuspá:
Baldur I saw the bleeding God,
His fate still hidden, Odhinn’s Son:
Tall on the plain a plant grew,
A slender marvel, the mistletoe.
From that fair shrub, shot by Hodur,
Flew the fatal dart that felled the god.
But Baldur’ s brother was born soon after:
Though one night old, Odhinn’s Son
Took a vow to avenge that death.
His hands he washed not nor his hair combed
Till Baldur’s bane was borne to the pyre:
Deadly the bow drawn by Vali,
The strong string of stretched gut,
But Frigga wept in Fensalir
For the woe of Valhalla. Well, would you know more?7
The same is said of Baldr’s brother Vali in the poem Baldrs Draumr:
“Rind bears Vali in Western Halls;
but one night old, still will Vali slay him:
neither cleanses his hands nor combs his hair,
til Baldr’s slayer he sends to Hel.
I was loath to speak, now let me cease