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Cremation at Kattegate, season 1, episode 9 of ‘Vikings’

In a previous blog I discussed the television series Vikings seasons 1 and 2. Here I focus on death, burial and commemoration in Season 1.

There is a lot of death in this first series as you might expect, mostly killings: battles on different scales between and within different groups of Vikings and involving Vikings and others, mainly Anglo-Saxons but also with an unnamed Baltic tribe (at the opening of episode 1). There are also individual murders, executions and examples of gruesome one-sided slaughters of unarmed men, women and children (and monks). Disease makes an appearance but old-age and accidents make no intervention in the narrative.

Some of these deaths lead to funerals in different locales, on varying scales and in contrasting character. It is interesting to me as an archaeologist how the disposal of the dead is portrayed in this popular series – both funerals and instances where funerals are denied – and in particular how they draw upon later medieval literary sagas, Viking-Age written sources and archaeological evidence as well as the requirements and needs of the storyline. As I outlined in my first blog, it doesn’t interest me to bleat about historical accuracy. Instead, the variation is instructive in other ways, giving students of the Viking Age a flavour for the complexity and variability of mortuary practice, including both its formal and informal dimensions. Furthermore, the choices about how to portray these funerals gives us a sense of how the Viking past is appreciated today. These are of course not the intended outcomes of the programme, but they are striking issues nonetheless.

Of course, for many of those who die, we are awarded no view of their funeral, such as the son of Siggy’s cousin who died of the plague and was ‘buried the next day’, ‘in the ground’. Likewise, we learn nothing of what happens to those killed in conflict in Ragnar’s third expedition against Northumbria: were they buried or cremated? We have bodies ‘dumped’, like the Lindisfarne monk who dies aboard Ragnar’s boat approaching Kattegat. We don’t get to see whether Lagatha’s miscarriage gets awarded a funeral and burial (episode 7), although the death inspires Ragnar to take all his family to ‘Uppsala’ to sacrifice to the gods (see below). What happened to poor old Earl Bjarni after Siggy stabs him? His retainers are present with him at his wedding; is he given an honourable funeral? After all, his only crime seems to be being old and liking to eat fish in bed after sex.

Deaths don’t conveniently take place when everyone is at the bedside. Gitte, Ragnar’s daughter, dies and only later does anyone notice, and Ragnar is far away. In all these fashions, the series gives a flavour of the ubiquity of death and funerals, both experienced, missed and heard about. Not all funerals were grand affairs: this is a message made loud and clear by the programme. Likewise, not all deaths were sensational dramas and ritual extravaganzas.

Execution and Sacrifice

We see animal sacrifice as a key component of Viking-Age life. It is mentioned many times and witnessed in episodes 8 (at Uppsala as part of the 9-yearly sacrifices) and episode 9 (at Kattegat in response to the plague). Poor goats! Yet it is sanctioned execution and sacrifice which dominate the series far more.

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Erik lost his head but won’t be going to Valhalla

In episode 1, we witness the trial of Erik Trygvasson at the thing held in the earl’s hall for murder following a land dispute. Tried as guilty by the Earl, he is given his choice of method of death (from an undisclosed menu). The criminal willingly accepts execution by beheading with a smile and without fear in the hope of entering Valhalla, only to have the Earl curse him and instructs that his head must be ‘fed to the pigs’ to deny him entrance to Valhalla and win the dead man’s land for his own. Ragnar asserts that the Earl should not have done this and it is implicit that this is in order for the Earl to confiscate his land. The question on my mind is why Erik thought getting his head cut off for an illegal killing would constitute a good death. Suggestions here are welcome.

We then get a flashback in the dreams of Earl Haraldson to his discovery of his own sons executed and dishonoured by being murdered, dumped in a shallow grave and having their heads placed upon their buttocks. Interestingly this seems to be behind a shack beneath a large tree, possibly an allusion to the Lay of Volundr and the killing of King Nithhad’s sons by the magical smith. In episode 5, Haraldson explains that:”the killers dug a shallow grave and put their faces against their arses as a sign of disrespect.” He keeps this horror a secret until his own death, which he faces with his own sons’ hair as a memento around his neck. This is a haunting dimension to the story, and one that makes us understand why the grief-struck Earl turns into a real shit.

We also have a rather confusing scene where the Earl gets his own best and most loyal servant stabbed for wanted to sleep with his wife. I still didn’t quite get what this was all about so I will make no further comment. Likewise, why the Earl would kill the principal blacksmith of Kattegat by shoving his face into his own furnace escapes me: this is clearly an Earl who has lost the plot and pissing people off for sure (perhaps that’s the point I got from this, being a Tarantino-style mafia Earl means you are respected but for only a few weeks).

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The boy killed and placed to ‘guard’ the treasure
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Earl Haraldson’s slave-girl with her throat slit

A further intriguing scene leaves me wondering what historical, literary or archaeological data (if any) might have served as inspiration. Having claimed and bullied Ragnar out of the treasures of his raid on Lindisfarne, Earl Haraldson and his lacky are seen hoarding the treasure among rocks in the hills about Kattegat. A boy of 12/13 is helping them dig the hole for the treasure and, once the treasure is loaded into the hole, they stab a boy and dump him on the treasure to guard it in the next world. The final scene is of his body, curled upon the treasures. It is yet another scene which serves to illustrate the pagan beliefs, but also the cruelty, of the Earl. Odin may well have said that those that hoard get the riches to play within the next life. Still, did people really get motivated by that idea? It is a moot point. Did they kill boys when doing so? Really doubt that somehow.

We also have the sacrificial killing of a slave-girl at Earl Haraldson’s funeral taken straight out of the tenth-century account of Ibn Fadlan (see below). As in Ibn Fadlan’s writings, the killing takes centre-stage in the depiction of the funeral. Following her rape, she proclaims a vision of her Earl in the next world. Her throat is then slit and she is carried and placed beside the Earl on the funeral pyre amidships.

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The sacrificial gallows in the sacred grove at Uppsala
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The pagan priests and King Horik, with their human sacrificial victim

Of course the greatest sacrifice comes in episode 8, when the main characters undertake a pilgrimage to Uppsala to participate in prayer, feasting, sex, drinking and magic mushrooms before sacrificing many animals and nine men to the gods. King Horik arrives for the event and he is seen presiding over the rituals, and the pagan priests are bald and with black face-paint. A range of ritual artefacts are shown in use and an altar is employed to kill animals and people while a woman sings. The king himself kills the humans and then smears blood on his cheeks; while the rest is collected for pouring around the gods’ statues inside the temple, creating pools of blood reminiscent of a scene from Blade II.  Afterwards, the animals and men are hung suspended from the feet in triplets from twin-post gallows in the sacred grove. Now I strongly suspect that human sacrifices really were not ‘voluntary’ at pagan temples, so the delusional faith of the willing men is both sickening and implausible.

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King Aelle’s snake-pit

Of course, the Christian Anglo-Saxons appear to enjoy a bit of ‘theatrical’ killing of their own. King Aelle gets up to a bit of sacrificial killing with the trial-run of his snake-pit in episode 5 by throwing in a lord who rode away rather than die fighting facing Ragnar’s season raid.

In summary, there is quite a lot of sacrificial death and execution stuffed into Season 1, very little seemingly inspired by Viking-Age sources but some of it by later literature. Yet even if we genuinely believe that humans were sacrificed at funerals and at temples and the victims were actually willing, and that judicial execution also had a strong sacral element to it (the latter is very likely I would say), the programme does not attempt to portray some imploding Apocalypto dystopia: apart from mad Earl Haraldson is is clearly losing his grip on power without Ragnar’s interventions, deaths are still relatively rare, regulated and memorable events.

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The beach burial

Beach Funeral

In episode 4, having killed the sheriff and his posse, then raided ‘Hexham’ and slaughtered a few here and there, Ragnar and his single-ship’s crew return to the beach. At his ship they find a thegn and 50 warriors waiting for him and his two guards dead. With c. 25 warriors he easily dispatches his 50 opponents because the Anglo-Saxons don’t seem to comprehend battle tactics of any kind. A hail of arrows and then a disorganised charge. Meanwhile the Vikings utilise their shield wall effectively, raise up men on shields to fire arrows on their opponents: all clever tricks.

A huge total of 4 Vikings die and are buried in a shallow boat-shaped grave on the beach with the head of one of their opponents’ horses. The scene is introduced with an overhead shot of the grave, strikingly akin to an archaeological grave-plan, before panning up to show Ragnar’s crew eating a funerary feast (I suppose) and Ragnar, Lagatha, Rollo and a few others drinking at the graveside. They then kill with an axe their Anglo-Saxon prisoner, although it is unclear whether this is simply an act of revenge or a sacrifice to accompany the fallen dead.

If one were to be critical of the battle scene, one could also be critical of the grave. One might point out that they really don’t seem to be buried deep enough to be covered over by the sand around the edge of the grave. I cannot imagine this being effectively concealed for long. It is an accurate grave plan, if we imagine archaeologists have already strip-cleared the topsoil! Still, one is left with a portrayal of a scene that is familiar to burial practices found in the Viking diaspora and homelands, as well as instances of raiding parties buried en masse, as at Salme, Estonia.

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Cremations on the beach

Cremations on the Beach

In episode 9, a plague sweeps through Kattegat, killing many including Gitte, Ragnar’s daughter. They are cremated on communal pyres on the foreshore twice over, one set during the day, and another set in the evening. This is perhaps the most striking set of funerary practices depicted in Series 1 and Lagatha – as the ‘Earl’ in Ragnar’s absence – presides over the rituals and instructs a man to light the pyres. She is also seen standing alone on the beach, presumably mourning their collective losses and her own daughter’s death. There are no songs, no feasting, no pyre-goods and no ceremonies: a stark contrast to the festivities and spectacle of Early Haraldsson’s funeral (below) and yet none the less spectacular for the quantity of deaths involved and the spectacle of cremation employed. From the Icelandic sagas, we know that ‘bad deaths’ could lead to foreshore cremation: was this an explicit part of the decision to portray cremations in this manner here?

Earl Haraldsson’s Funeral

Taken straight out of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan’s account of the Rusiyyahthis funeral is adapted for a fjord-side context. Earl Haraldson is given a Baldr-esque embarkation of the boat onto water rather than a ship-cremation on dry land as took place on the Volga for the Rus chieftain. Like Ibn Fadlan in the 10th century, the focus is upon the slave girl who has chosen to be put to death with her Earl (see above). Ragnar and Bjorn take turns in playing Ibn Fadlan’s informants, with Aethelstan playing the part of Ibn Fadlan himself as the disgusted and overawed witness.

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The drunken slave-girl being prepared by the other slave-girls

Timing is kept loose, but we are expected to imagine the preparations taking days, and the funeral itself lasting much of one day. The ship is beside a jetty at Kattegat and it is decked for the funeral and it has a pyre prepared amidships. On the pyre ‘s four posts are inward facing animal heads: a nice touch. The Earl’s body is processed to the ship and received by the Angel of Death – a female funerary specialist – who is helped by an entourage of female and male attendants. She has a Bronze Age-style winged helmet on: are we expected to regard this ceremonial item, like the sacrificial weapons used by the priests at Uppsala to sacrifice animals and men, as ancient heirlooms?

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A first stage to the funeral: the Earl’s body reaches the boat

Once Earl Haraldson’s body has reached the ship, festivities commence and last for an undisclosed duration. This period involves the drunken slave-girl being taken to have sex with multiple men (not shown). She then walks to the boat, takes a drink for a last time, foresees her paradise destination and gets her throat cut by the Angel of Death (see above and note winged helmet). It is important to reiterate that all these elements are attested in Ibn Fadlan’s account.

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In a ship-cremation, two’s company, three’s a crowd

 

A key point worthy of note is Ragnar’s motivations. Aethelstan asks ‘why did you grant Earl Haraldsson such a great funeral, is he not  your enemy?’ Ragnar replies ‘he was also a great man, and a great warrior.’ He earned renown and deserves the funeral he claims. While a worthy answer, it is clearly not the full truth. It is more than likely is the need for Ragnar to legitimize his own position as Earl, revealed by both his appearance with his family at the funeral, and his refusal to allow Siggy to light the pyre. This is well-articulated in the programme, making it clear how funerals can operate to underpin and consolidate the successor to the dead man. Ragnar enhances, rather than detracts from his new-found position by honouring the dead Earl: this worked very well in the storyline and in the choreography of the events.

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Earl Haraldson’s burning boat, an unnecessary interference with the subsequent use of the jetty?

There is plenty of critical interest here too, including the absence of animals accompanying the Earl, and the absence of grave-goods with him: the boat seems to be empty but for bits of wood. Weapons, armour, vessels, sacrificed horses, cattle and chickens find no place in what is actually rather an austere funeral. Perhaps this can be explained away as Ragnar showing respect to his predecessor in the formal and scale, but not the detail, of the obsequies? Still, in general terms, this is an interesting adaptation, although I cannot but feel the boat might sink half-cremated and block the jetty… Things might readily go wrong in past funerals, and the more elaborate the rites, the more that can go wrong!

Discussion

Putting all these instances together, season 1 of Vikings gives us a rich and varied sense of the complexity, material investment, variance of tempo, numerous participants and observers, and balance of ceremony and informality that must have been dimensions of Viking-Age mortuary practice. The series is more ludicrous with execution and sacrifice and more grounded in dealing with funerals in my view but historical accuracy is not really the issue: the portrayals made me think a lot about both what might have happened in the Viking Age and how we articulate these events through image and text in the present. The funerals in particular emphasise the positive things I say about the series in my first blog.

While I have described the series as a ‘blood-bath’, it is of course the case that killing is carefully managed, mirroring the care and attention, and both personal and public dimensions, of Viking-Age funerals. The alien, yet encultured, character of funerals is apparent; this is not a gawdy free-for-all and there is no single funerary cliche promoted. In all these regards, I think Vikings show-cases death, burial and commemoration in the Viking Age very well indeed.

One point of comment or criticism cannot be avoided, however. The striking thing about these funerals is the complete absence of funerary monuments. Despite the potential of CGI, no attempt is made to depict memorials to the Viking dead, either in households, in and around the settlement or elsewhere in the landscape. As is usual in portrayals of cremation in film and TV, the burning of the pyre is regarded as an end-point of obsequies. In terms of how ancient cremation is portrayed in modern popular culture, cremation requires no further ritual practices: they are an end in themselves. This is almost certainly a falsehood and unhelpfully misleading. Therefore, despite aspects of positive attention to reconstructing various Viking-Age funerals, this is as jaundiced view of what we know. Even if we stick to Ibn Fadlan and ignore the vast amount of archaeological evidence, we might expect someone like Earl Haraldson to have a large mound raised over his cremated ship…

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