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What’s with the hand licking in Vikings?

In the hit History Channel TV series Vikings, viewers often see characters licking their hands or fingers. This habit may seem odd or unsanitary to modern audiences, but it served a purpose in Viking society.

Why did Vikings lick their hands?

Vikings didn’t have napkins or handkerchiefs to wipe their hands while eating. Licking their fingers was a practical way to clean grease, food, and drink off their hands between courses or after a meal.

Archaeological evidence shows that Vikings didn’t use plates either. They often ate directly off the table or held food in their hands. Hand-washing before meals was not a common habit. So licking hands and fingers was necessary to remove food residue.

Vikings also didn’t have the same understanding of hygiene and germs that we have today. They had no concept that hand-licking could transmit diseases. Their priority was removing grease and stickiness from their hands during and after dining.

When did Vikings lick their hands?

Vikings licked their hands on many occasions, not just while eating. Here are some examples from the show Vikings and what they represented in Viking culture:

  • Licking fingers after eating – A way to clean hands without napkins
  • Licking blood off weapons – A ritual before battle or killing
  • Licking hands before battle – Symbolic of taking in the “life force” of the enemy
  • Licking blood off bodies – A possessive act over conquered foes

Licking hands was so ingrained in Viking culture that it took on ritualistic meaning. The blood rituals tied the Vikings to their gods and warmaking. Hand-licking before battle aimed to absorb the spirit of the enemy.

What did Vikings eat with their hands?

Vikings didn’t use forks and spoons regularly. They ate mostly with knives and their hands. Foods Vikings typically ate with their hands included:

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Fruit
  • Bread
  • Cheese
  • Vegetables

Vikings slaughtered livestock directly at the dinner table. They tore meat from bones with knives and ate it right off the tip of their blade. Stews and porridge were scooped up in handheld bowls. Vikings picked up fruits and vegetables to bite into them.

What did Vikings drink?

Popular Viking drinks that required hand-licking after consuming included:

  • Ale – Made from fermented grains and brewed at home
  • Mead – Alcoholic drink made from fermented honey
  • Fruit juices – Squeezed from foraged fruits
  • Milk – From domestic animals like cows, goats, and sheep

Vikings drank from cups and bowls without handles. They did not have the benefit of straws or spouts. These vessels required lifting with their hands, which became sticky with drips of ale, mead, or juices.

Did Vikings wipe their hands?

With no napkins available, Vikings had few options to wipe their hands while eating and drinking. They could:

  • Rub hands on their clothes
  • Rinse hands in finger bowls
  • Lick grease and liquids off fingers
  • Use the edge of the tablecloth

But licking hands and fingers was likely the most convenient and effective method. It immediately removed sticky residues. Rubbing hands on clothing could stain and damage clothes. Rinsing required having a bowl and pitcher on hand.

What did Viking tables look like?

Viking Tableware Description
Trestle table A table with X-shaped legs that could be set up and taken down quickly
Tablecloth A large linen cloth covering the table
Knives Large knives used for eating and cutting meat
Bowls Made from wood, horn, or ceramics to hold stews and porridge
Cups/beakers Drinking vessels made from hollowed wood, horn, or ceramics

Viking tables were simple, portable, and lacked implements of today like napkins, forks, and serving dishes. Food was served directly on the tablecloth. Vikings ate communal style, spearing meat with knives and bringing bowls and cups to their mouths by hand.

Did children lick their hands too?

Yes, Viking children also licked their fingers and wiped hands on their clothes. With no concept of germs or hygiene, hand-licking was taught at a young age as a necessity.

As soon as Viking children graduated from breastfeeding to solid foods, they ate with their hands. Young children likely made an even bigger mess than adults, dripping food and drink. Hand-licking helped them tidy up.

Were women’s hands cleaner?

Viking women focused on domestic duties like cooking, cleaning, and childcare. Their hands regularly got dirty from food preparation, gathering firewood, and tending livestock.

But elite Viking women likely kept cleaner hands and clothes than male warriors. Wealthy women had more changes of clothes and time to focus on handicrafts like weaving and stitching instead of manual labor. Their hands wouldn’t be encrusted with blood, dirt, and grime from raiding battles.

Did Vikings wash their hands?

Personal grooming and bathing were important to Vikings. But handwashing specifically was not ingrained in their daily routines.

Vikings bathed at least once a week, more often than other Europeans of the day. They used saunas, hot springs, and steam baths to wash themselves. But the purpose was ritual cleansing and socializing, not health or hygiene.

Handwashing before meals or after using the latrine was not practiced. Water had to be hauled and heated at great effort. Washing hands was simply not a priority in their culture when licking or wiping them was effective.

How did Viking hand hygiene differ by class?

Viking Class Hand Hygiene
Nobility Had more time and resources for personal grooming. Hands washed more often.
Free peasants Worked hard manual jobs in fields and farms. Hands frequently dirty.
Slaves Toiled constantly with no time for washing. Hands likely filthiest.

Nobles and chiefs had slaves to haul water and prepare bathing areas. Poorer Vikings had less access to baths. Slaves almost never bathed and had grimy hands caked with soil and manure.

What diseases could hand-licking spread?

Vikings had no idea, but frequent hand-licking could transmit dangerous germs and parasites including:

  • E. coli
  • Salmonella
  • Gastroenteritis
  • Hepatitis A
  • Streptococcus
  • Giardia
  • Pinworms
  • Hand, foot and mouth disease

Living in unsanitary conditions, the Vikings frequently suffered from parasites and stomach illnesses. Close contact via hand-licking likely exacerbated outbreaks in the community.

Could Vikings get sick from hand-licking?

Yes, Vikings lacked immunities that modern people have built up over centuries of improving hygiene and sanitation. Constant hand-licking could make Vikings sick.

Viking feasts entailed shared knives, cups, and bowls handled by many people. If one person was ill, germs quickly spread via contaminated surfaces and hand-licking. Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, parasites, and dehydration could result.

During raiding trips and warfare, Vikings licked hands tainted with mud, blood, feces, and entrails, exposing them to pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and parasites.


In conclusion, Vikings frequently licked and wiped their hands because they ate with their hands and lacked napkins or handkerchiefs. Hand-licking was necessary to remove grease and food between courses and after eating. It also became a symbolic ritual before battle.

But Vikings had no concept of spreading germs this way. Their unsanitary living conditions and hand-licking likely contributed to rampant rates of disease and parasites. Yet handwashing was rarely practiced in their culture. Licking hands clean was tradition until the Vikings adopted advances in sanitation, hygiene, and table manners.