How The Vikings May Have Created Criminal Profiling

Rampaging Viking hoards caused much destruction in the many lands they attempted to conquer, and while they did destroy and pillage a lot of villages, Vikings did come up with some things we still use today, be it for good or ill.

Vikings did many messed up things. Or at least, that's what we heard since many of what we know about Vikings are second-hand information from the people they attacked. They sacrificed slaves, practiced infanticide, and occasionally executed people for their benefit. Generally, Vikings could be very terrible.

One of those terrible elements of Viking culture is the possible invention of criminal profiling. You know, the kind that predicts if people will be criminals based on how they look. The method that some authorities still use even though it's unfair. According to a study by Dr. Tarrin Wills from the University of Aberdeen, Vikings may have been the first to develop, study, and use criminal profiling. Based on his study, Wills said Viking society was very much concerned with law and order. The big fear is that Vikings who go abroad to fight often come back different, and if they do come back, they may be more violent than usual.

So, Vikings wanted to come up with a system that will prevent possible crimes and violence from happening in their homelands. Of course, it would be easier if they just had names of people who joined raids, but no, they'll just go with a general profile of them.

They said guys with bushy beards and big foreheads could be violent

Now, when authorities create a criminal profile of someone, it's usually based on a number of factors. If you've ever seen the show Mind Hunter, you have an idea of what profiling can be. The police or the FBI can look at different types of behavior that suspects had in a similar crime and other factors like location and the crime to build a profile.

According to the American Psychological Association, criminal profiling generally began as a tool for investigators during the Jack the Ripper investigation in the 1880s. At the time, two physicians — George Philips and Thomas Bond — looked at the evidence during those murders and concluded that Jack the Ripper was someone who had knowledge of medicine and made predictions about his personality. Later, in the 1960s, New York City police relied on intuition to build an idea of who the Son of Sam killer might be. It wasn't until 1974 when the FBI created its Behavioral Science unit, the one portrayed in Mind Hunter, did a more organized way of profiling crimes, and criminals become codified. 

But Wills' research showed, in fact, the idea of profiling may have been around far earlier than that. According to Medievalists, Wills looked at early Scandinavian literature and found that Vikings made a link between testosterone levels and behavior. He saw that authors of Icelandic sagas would pinpoint specific physical characteristics related to high testosterone levels to create what amounts to a mugshot. They'd point to heavy eyebrows or beards, receding hairlines, and the width of their foreheads when describing warriors instead of talking about what they wore.

They wanted to warn others

The Medievalists wrote that Viking societies used this knowledge of behavior and physiology to identify potential trouble makers. It also showed how concerned Vikings were about anti-social behavior because they would identify specific aspects of behavior that they felt didn't fit.

Wills said Viking criminal profiling became important because they lived in an area like the Wild West. Wide, open, and full of men trying to get a piece of land for himself or for his family. Violence was common, and while the Vikings had a sophisticated legal system, no one was around to enforce it.

So, in writing about these men in their sagas, they could warn others about their behavior. After all, Viking literature talked about tendencies towards violence and did not romanticize pillaging behavior as something to bring back to the homeland. It was more like, beware of Olaf with the broad forehead and bushy beard, he might have killed ten people. In that sense, said Wills, Vikings created a form of criminal profiling to warn people to be wary of the potential violence of some men. It's not precisely how police do criminal profiling now, but it's close enough.