In 1961, when quarterback Fran Tarkenton took the field for the Minnesota Vikings’ first season, his helmet emblazoned with fierce horns, he passed for four touchdowns in an upset victory over the Chicago Bears.
And the myth began.
Not Tark — although he has his fame.
This is about the horned helmet since worn by every Viking, an image of ancient Norsemen in their battle gear.
Except that the horns are a myth. Never happened.
The Vikings actually want you to know this. In fact, they’re putting such myth-busting facts into each home game’s Playbook program.
The feature, called “The Truth Behind,” is the result of a partnership between Brett Taber, a would-be archaeologist turned Vikings marketer, and Henrik Williams, a Swedish professor and international expert on runic symbols.
Together, they separate fact from fiction for fans.
“I’d be the first person to say that we propagate a lot of mythology,” said Taber, the team’s director of youth marketing and social responsibility. “We’re a football team, and at the end of the day, this is an entertainment experience. But that also puts us in a unique position to educate fans.”
Scandinavian Minnesotans may be far removed from their past, “but so are we,” said Williams, a professor at Uppsala University. Mythically incorrect horned helmets also show up in Nordic countries, notably at Swedish soccer matches. “I like to say, ‘The past is a foreign country.’ ”
Taber and Williams would never have met had our team not been named the Vikings.
“The Vikings are unique in the NFL in that we have an actual culture to build around,” Taber said.
Indeed, the league is a regular menagerie of Cardinals and Bears, Panthers and Broncos. The few human mascots — Buccaneers, Patriots, Packers — are more generic, less evocative. You’re going to create a mythology around a packing plant for canned meat?
Nerds across the pond
At the University of Iowa, Taber majored in anthropology and ancient civilizations. The screen saver in his Vikings office depicts the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066, when the English fought back an invading Norwegian force.
He got the Vikings marketing job 10 years ago after doing similar work as a student. His degree proved handy, though, as plans for a new stadium began to develop with a desire to include Nordic elements, however mythical. (Hence, the fire-breathing dragon.)
One idea was to inscribe Medtronic Plaza’s Legacy Ship with the Vikings motto — “Honor your legacy, defend the North” — using runic symbols.
“The trouble was, no one knew the runic language,” Taber said. “The graphic design team was looking at Viking runes on Wikipedia. I said, ‘Let me explore a little and see who in the world knows about runes,’ and I stumbled onto Henrik.”
Williams said he’d be delighted to help. Turns out he’s been a Vikings fan for 40 years — ever since he was an exchange student in Ohio.
“I said, ‘Give me a week or two to check that,’ ” Williams said after Taber sent him images. “It looked very nice, but it was all wrong. So I sent back proper runes.” They’re now inscribed front and center inside the ship’s bow.
In the meantime, Taber and Williams kept talking.
“Basically,” Taber said, “we’re two history nerds from across the pond.”
So, what’s a rune?
Runes are written characters, much like ABCs, except there are only 16 letters in the runic alphabet, used mostly in the 10th and 11th centuries throughout Europe.
Also, the same symbol is used for both “d” and “t,” “which makes things a little more difficult to decipher,” Williams said. There are just under 7,000 Viking rune stones and runic inscriptions in the world.
Rune stones had varying purposes: serving as gravestones, noting geographic locations, marking important events.
Now they also fire up the fans, albeit in a perhaps intuitive way.
Each home game, Vikings players run onto the field through a corridor of six gigantic “rune stones,” each inscribed with runic letters. What’s that spell?
Blame it on an opera
So: How did horned helmets become so linked to Vikings that even the comics’ “Hägar the Horrible” wears one?
Probably because they look so cool, thanks to the vision of one Carl Emil Doepler.
In 1876, Doepler designed costumes for Richard Wagner’s opera series “Ring of the Nibelung.”
Um, can you hum a little?
That scene in “Apocalypse Now” where the Air Cavalry ’copters descend on a village with loudspeakers blaring a brassy call to arms?
That’s from the “Ring.”
Anyway, Doepler first designed helmets with wings (really?) but a few years later changed them to horns. The look captured the romance of the Vikings as conquerors, and the rest is marketing because — as it turns out — horns wouldn’t have worked so well in real life.
As Williams explained: “Helmets are defensive weaponry and protect against sword blows. A blade striking a bare helmet glances off. Knobs, on the other hand, absorb the shock into the skull.”
Who knew, right?
The truth will set us free
Williams has been in the Twin Cities for a week giving talks sponsored in part by the American Association for Runic Studies, founded here in 2006 to promote research about runes in Europe and North America.
He calls the partnership with the team “a tremendous opportunity” to help Vikings fans learn how their team is rooted in Nordic culture.
Consider the gjallarhorn, the massive horn blown at each game.
As Williams wrote: “At the final battle in Norse mythology, the Ragnarök, Heimdallr will sound a mighty blast on the gjallarhorn to awaken the other gods.”
Taber said he’s often asked why the horn has such a complicated name. Well, because it’s the correct name, from Old Icelandic equivalents of the English words “yell” and “horn.”
Taber remembers the meeting explaining to those lobbying to call it something more like “Viking battle horn” what the gjallarhorn symbolized.
After a pause, someone said, “Well, now that we know, we have to call it that.”
Or consider October’s Playbook page on runic women.
“We often think of Vikings as men only,” Williams wrote. “Women could be as far-traveled and battle-minded as men. … Women could be heathen sorceresses and priestesses, or in Christian times perform pious deeds and act as influential patrons of churches.”
At the end of the day, “The Truth Behind” is just one page among 50 in the team’s program. But for Williams and Taber, it offers the chance to score other kinds of points.
“Going back 1,000 years requires a leap of imagination,” Williams said. “People have very foggy notions of what the Viking Age was like.
“Even in Sweden, we derive a lot from the TV series,” referring to “Vikings” on the History Channel. “It’s all about the violent part, the raids and so forth. But the majority of the Vikings were just people living their lives, trading and farming.”
Um, and beating other football teams, right?