Were winged helmets actually used in ancient times?

The winged helmet is a type of helmet that is found in mythology as well as history. In the realm of mythology, such helmets are associated with the Greek god Hermes (known also as Mercury by the Romans), as well as the Norse gods. Historically, the winged helmet is often associated with the Celts and Vikings, though erroneously so. Variations of the winged helmet were also used by different peoples during various periods of history.

Greek and Roman Winged Helmet

In mythology, the winged helmet is perhaps most famously associated with the Greek god Hermes, and his Roman counterpart Mercury. The Greeks and Romans believed that this was the emissary and messenger of the gods. In this role, Hermes is required to travel swiftly from one place to another. Thus, to aid him in this, Hermes has a pair of winged sandals, which is said to have been made by Hephaestus using imperishable gold. Hermes’ status as a traveler is further enhanced by the hat said to be worn by him, either a broad-brimmed traveler’s hat, known as a petasos, or a winged cap.

Winged Helmets of the Norse Gods

Apart from Hermes and Mercury, the Norse gods are also depicted as wearing winged helmets. Such gods as Odin and Thor are often portrayed with such helmets. Additionally, the Valkyries (beings who chose, and brought those slain on the field of battle to Valhalla) are also commonly shown with winged helmets. It may be said, however, that the depiction of Norse mythological figures with winged helmets may be traced back to the artists of the Romantic Movement.

The vivid imagination of these Romantic artists not only influenced the artistic portrayal of the Norse gods, but also that of actual, historical Viking warriors. Today, it is common for people to imagine that the Vikings wore winged helmets (horned helmets are another popular, though equally erroneous, motif). This misconception is extended also to the Celts, the cartoon character Asterix being its most famous example. In a way, the winged helmet has become a symbol of the ‘barbarians of the north’.

Were Winged Helmets Actually Used?

Despite these representations in art, there is a dearth of archaeological evidence to support the imaginings of the Romantic artists. For instance, there has been no discovery so far of actual winged helmets, as we would imagine, from either the Viking or the Celtic realms. It has been suggested that the notion of northern barbarians wearing winged helmets comes from ancient Greek and Roman texts. The priests of the Celts, for instance, are said to have used winged helmets during certain religious ceremonies. Still, such headgear would not have been used by warriors in battle, as they would have been cumbersome, and would be more of a liability than an asset.

Be that as it may, there is at least one example of a winged helmet from the world of the ancient Celts. This helmet was found in Romania and has been dated to the 3rd century BC. This ‘winged helmet’ is in fact a typical Montefortino helmet with a bird, possibly an eagle or a raven, mounted on the top as a crest. The ingenious design allowed the wings of the bird to flap up and down as the wearer moved. It is unclear, however, if this helmet was worn on the battlefield, or was used in a non-military context, i.e. as a status symbol, or for certain ceremonies. Another example of a winged helmet is a 4th century Attic helmet from southern Italy, which has two small wings on the sides. This helmet is believed to have been used for ceremonial purposes.

Finally, it may be said that the winged helmet belonged not only to the ancient worlds but is also thought to be found in the Medieval world, the Teutonic realm. The knights of the Teutonic Order are known to have used a type of helmet known as the great helm, and popular imagination has added either horns or wings to this form of headgear. Like the ancients, it is unlikely that such helmets were used in battle. An example of a medieval great helm with wings is that belonging to the von Pranckh family of Austria and serves as a ‘funeral helmet’.

Karl Gustav