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Horns of Barbarism

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Clockwise: Stoick the Vast in How to Train Your Dragon 2, Balduvian Barbarians in Magic: The Gathering, Lord Fredrik from Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze and Aydis from Heathen.
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The horned helmet is one of the most instantly recognizable traits of fantasy barbarians: whether a simple metal skull-cap fitted with cows' horns, elaborate metal headgear with towering, wrought protrusions or just the skull of a horned creature worn as a hat, this serves as a clear and recognizable identifier that the people sporting such helms probably aren't streaming out of the depths of the forests for some quiet tea and biscuits.

The horned helmet stereotype was started by the Romans, who attributed such helmets indiscriminately to the barbarian peoples to their north. This was later reinforced by some archeologists digging up a Viking helmet near a couple of drinking horns and assuming that they had once been one piece. This led to horned helmets becoming an archetypal accoutrement of Celtic, Germanic or generally pseudo-European barbarians in later times.

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Visually, besides calling back to the forest-dwelling tribal groups of ancient history, horned helmets also serve to provide a fearsome, bestial look to their wearer, enlarging their silhouette and making them seem particularly monstrous and inhuman, displaying their status as a barbarous figure. Consequently, heroic barbarians tend to wear helmets with smaller and less intimidating horns, while villainous figures will be found sporting ones with larger and more menacing projections. In-universe, these helmets may be worn as a deliberate invocation of the above themes, so as to intimidate and cow their wearer's foes. Alternatively, the horns may be trophies of successful hunts or simply cultural affectations.

In cases where the barbarians in question are of a particularly monstrous bent, such as them belonging to an entirely non-human species, they may sport organic horns as part of their natural appearance without the need of helmets. Sometimes this will happen as part of a gag where they will seem to wear helmets at first and take them off to reveal that their horns are actually part of their body. See also A Load of Bull, as minotaurs are often portrayed as very barbaric or bestial beings.

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In reality, horns on a helmet would actually sabotage its effectiveness, providing a joint to catch incoming blows rather than deflect them. As such, while horned helmets were sometimes created in real life, these were strictly ceremonial and decorative pieces and not usually meant for being used in battle. Horned helmets may be replaced by the (equally unhistorical) winged helmets.

For the other parts of the stereotypical barbarian ensemble, see Barbarian Longhair, Beard of Barbarism, Braids of Barbarism and Pelts of the Barbarian. See also Horny Vikings, for a group most often seen sporting this type of accessory. May overlap with Horns of Villainy, if the barbarians are portrayed as antagonistic.


Examples:

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  • Capital One zig-zags this with its use of Vikings as a metaphor for other cards over-charging (pillaging) customers. Some Vikings wore metal helmets with horns, some metal helmets without horns, and others with nothing at all on their heads.

    Anime & Manga 
  • Fist of the North Star: Uighur the Warden has a helmet with two large horns. Being the warden and enforcer of Cassandra, he rules the prison city through savagery and iron fists. Not only does his helmet invoke a barbaric image in a post-apocalyptic city, its horns are actually armed with thousands of whips within.
  • A Private Story On Third Street: Parodied. One of the time-displaced footsoldiers is a (female) Viking who tries countless times to explain to the neighbourhood kids that yes, she's really a Viking, and no, Vikings didn't have horns on their helmets. Eventually she gives up and just tapes some paper horns on every time she goes to visit, causing the kids to recognise her as a Viking instantly. After a while of this she starts to wonder if maybe she's the crazy one, and Vikings did always have horns. The author's notes explain this as a Historical In-Joke about how Viking-founded settlements tended to go native very quickly and leave behind little evidence of their old culture.

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    Comic Books 
  • Asterix: Horned helmets are very common among the various barbarian peoples, even though their real-life counterparts wore no such things, in contrast to the Romans' standardized and less flamboyant armor. The Gauls and Bretons wear helmets with small horns and sometimes wings, the Goths ones resembling WWI German helmets adorned with larger horns, and the Iberians ones with flamboyant horns resembling those of longhorn cattle.
  • Doctor Who: Lampshaded in the Storybook 2010 comic strip Space Vikings!; the Space Vikings have horned helmets, which the Doctor notes is completely wrong.
  • Heathen (2017): When Brunhilde meets Aydis, she cannot help but comment on the antlers the latter had sown into her leather helm. Aydis claims that it is to scare Christians who would want to mess with her, having heard of how the Christians demonize heathens and claim that they have horns on their heads.
  • Mortadelo y Filemón: Parodied where it turns out that the Vikings the main characters encounter are victims of one of Dr. Bacterius's experiments Gone Horribly Wrong, and the horns are really attached to their heads.

    Comic Strips 
  • Hägar the Horrible: If a Viking lies, his horns fall off. Hagar tends to go through a lot of helmets because of this. The horns also show the wearer's emotional state, somehow, pointing upward normally but pointing downward when Hagar is sad.

    Films — Animation 
  • How to Train Your Dragon: The various viking tribes are typically shown wearing helmets lined with horns.
  • The Lord of the Rings: Boromir wears a horned helmet and a Beard of Barbarism for reasons not entirely clear, as Gondor is generally portrayed as anything but barbaric.
  • The Secret of Kells: The Vikings wear horned helmets that, as they're only ever shown in silhouette, make them appear to be horned demons more than anything else.
  • Tangled: The Snuggly Duckling thugs, as part of their exaggeratedly rough and tough personas, wear a variety of horned helmets alongside hook hands and the like.
  • Wizards has the dark forces of Scortch march against the elves and fairies of Montagar. Most of the Scortch warriors have armor and helmets with horns, usually rotoscoped from other Sword And Sandals films. The elves usually have no headgear, and those that do have no horns.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • History of the World Part I: Parodied in the Viking Funeral, segment where the Vikings take off their helmets to reveal that the helmets aren't horned, the Vikings are.
  • Pathfinder: The Vikings are portrayed as Always Chaotic Evil villains who wear classic fictional viking attire, including horned helmets.

    Literature 
  • The Elenium: The Genidian Knights (based in Thalesia, a Viking Fantasy Counterpart Culture) wear horned helmets as part of their formal armor. Justified in that the horns in question come from ogres, and are much harder than steel; they're additional head protection.
  • Ranger's Apprentice: The Skandians habitually wear horned helmets, which results in a Reality Ensues moment when one of the main characters uses the horns on a Skandian's helmet to grab the helm and smash it back down on his opponent's head.

    Live-Action TV 
  • Blackadder: Blackadder Goes Forth parodies this with a mention of Olaf the Hairy, a high chief of the Vikings who accidentally ordered 80,000 battle helmets with the horns on the inside.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Pathfinder:
    • The frost giants, Chaotic Evil marauders who haunt the icy reaches of the north in roving clans that pillage, destroy and enslave as they please, are almost always depicted with helmets adorned with the horns and tusks of gigantic beasts.
    • This is Subverted with the Ulfen people, though — they only wear them horned helmets in plays and ceremonial events because of how unwieldy they are.
  • Shadowrun: Trolls are the largest human metavariant, the likeliest of the main five races to be perceived as big, stupid and violent bruisers and often found working as mercenaries, hired muscle and bouncers. Fittingly, their physical traits include large, prominent horns, often more than two, growing from their heads.
  • Warhammer:
    • Orcs, especially warlords and other leaders, tend to sport large helms adorned with the horns of large animals.
    • The Beastmen, a race of vicious and animalistic savages, tend to sport large, goat- or cow-like horns by nature. They have an entire caste system based around this, in fact, in which rank is determined by the size and number of one's horns. Beastmen with no horns at all, called brays, are barely tolerated as slaves, outcasts and cannon fodder. Ungors, who have horns on human heads, form the lowest rank of actual Beastman culture; the larger their horns, the better their lot. Gors sport fully caprine heads with large, curling horns. Ones with particularly fine horns and/or additional pairs, who also tend to be the largest and fiercest Beastmen around, are called Bestigors and form the elite of Beastman society; Beastman warlords are inevitably Bestigors. Consequently, it's fairly easy to tell who the fiercest, most ferocious and most important member of a warherd is by simply looking for the one with the largest, showiest horns.
    • The Warriors of Chaos often wear face-concealing helmets adorned with gigantic metal horns, sometimes with skulls clasped between their tips. Often, Chaos mutations can lead to them growing organic horns without the need for helmets.
    • Averted by the Dwarfs, who often wear horned helmets but are far from barbarians, and are in fact one of the most technologically advanced cultures in the world.
  • Warhammer 40,000:
    • The helmets of Chaos Space Marines often sport horns of various lengths and shapes, with Kranon the Relentless of the Crimson Slaughter bearing one of the most extravagant examples. These are called the Slaughterer's Horns, and give him several melee combat-specific rules in the game.
    • The Orks often wear helmets decorated with horns, typically ones taken from large animals that they hunted and killed, in order to make themselves look tougher, to emulate the fearsome appearance of these creatures and as a symbol of their own prowess by advertising that they managed to kill something even bigger and nastier than themselves.

    Video Games 
  • Age of Empires:
    • Age of Empires II: The Berserker, a Viking unit, sports a horned helmet.
    • Age of Mythology: Norse heroes, raiding cavalry and upgraded frost giants all wear horned helmets. The rest of their units stick to more compact designs.
  • Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze: The Snowmads are a band of sea-fairing invaders who freeze Donkey Kong Island to conquer it. They are all made to look like vikings, and characterized by their horned helmets.
  • Dragon Age: The Avvar, a barbarian people native to the Frostback Mountains and fond of raiding and pillaging their neighbors, often wear horned helmets.
  • The Elder Scrolls: Given that the region of Skyrim and its people, the Nords, are heavily influenced by Viking culture, it's no surprise that many of the heavy armor sets forged in the region have helms with some form of horns or wings on them, but the Iron Helmet particularly bears the greatest resemblance to traditional depictions of barbarian/Viking armor, though the horns are curved downward instead of skyward. This also seems to be only restricted to the region of Skyrim itself — while other armor sets forged elsewhere in Tamriel each have their own regional differences, horned helmets aren't among them. The promotional material for Skyrim and the Greymoor DLC for The Elder Scrolls Online both feature Nords wearing a horned Iron Helmet and are both set in, well, Skyrim.
  • Fire Emblem: Zigzagged; the base Barbarian class does not usually have horns on their helmets, but its advanced class the Berserker almost always sports them in every game it's in.
  • For Honor: In the Norse faction, the Raider and the Valkyrie can both adorn their helmets with a variety of different horns. The Warlord and the Berseker don't have these options, but make up for it with equally impractical helmet ornamentations like the ever-classic winged helmet.
  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: The Barbarian's Helm consists of the top half of a beast's skull, decorated with tribal designs and with a large pair of forward-pointing horns attached to its sides.
  • Nehrim: The Berserker Armor set includes a helmet with a large pair of horns pointed upward.
  • Warcraft: In nearly all incarnations of the game, Orc soldiers (named "Grunts") wear horned helmets (as well as spiked armor in general), and are portrayed as more barbaric than humans. Meanwhile, the Tauren have natural horns, being nomadic bull-men.
  • Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? (1997): Lampshaded; when you are in the time of the Vikings, you'll find a helmet in one part of the level. Clicking it will have your guide mention this trope, and a nearby Viking will then scoff at the idea of having a horned helmet.
    Rock Solid: Vikings didn't really have horns on their helmets, that's just a myth.
    Norseman: Horns? On a helmet? Who starts these crazy rumors?

    Western Animation 
  • Dungeons & Dragons: Bobby, the team's Barbarian, wears a classic barbarian outfit — fur boots and a loincloth, a leather chest piece and, of course, a metal helmet with a large pair of horns.
  • Fangbone!: Almost every barbarian character wears a helmet sporting these. The titular protagonist wears one with three small horns.
  • Phineas and Ferb has the recurring bit-character Alaric the Visigoth, who wears a large, horned helmet in addition to the rest of his ancient armor.

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