The History Channel ‘Vikings’ show is full of mortuary archaeology of various kinds. Season 2 especially sees the bones of the dead coming centre-stage in both pagan and Christian worlds, and at their intersection.
Everywhere in Scandinavia, animal bones are portrayed as suspended, and especially in association with the houses of Floki the ship-builder and most abundantly in the Seer’s house. Bones are presumably amulets of protection and media for divination…
Human bones find a more specific set of associations as repositories of memory and identity, trophies of war and materials of mourning. We see encountering the bones of a dead relative as a key stage in the grave reopening by Floki in Episode 7 of Season 2, discussed here. In what other ways do we find human remains handled and engaged with? I discuss three ways here.
Borg’s First Wife – Skulls as Drawing One’s Own Conclusion
In Season 2, skulls follow Jarl Borg. One of the principal bad-guys of season 2, this cunning yet melancholy leader still mourns his first wife who died drinking his own poisoned chalice at their wedding feast. Her skull appears first in Episode 1, when he kisses it after taking magic mushrooms with Rollo as part of the ritualised preparations before battle with Ragnar and King Horik. The skull motivates and affirms his deeds in battle.
The skull doesn’t constitute an element of the subsequent story of Borg after he is dismissed as a raiding ally by Ragnar and Horik and his vengeful invasion of Kattegat and then defeat and repelling with the aid of Largertha’s forces. We might imagine the skull followed Borg to Kattegat and back but it didn’t forewarn him of his failures.
In Episode 6, we encounter a clearly deranged Jarl Borg back in his homeland of Gotaland. Rollo is visiting to invite Borg to rejoin an alliance with Ragnar and King Horik to raid westward. Borg walks in with his first wife’s skull beneath a cloth and places it on the table between him and Rollo ahead of their discussion. He states that she ‘continues to advise’ him on important decisions. He consults the skull on what to do, kissing it and breathing in deeply, as he had done in Episode 1. Subsequently, he announces to Rollo that his wife advised him to return to Kattegat!
To seal the agreement, witnessed by Jarl Borg’s second wife Torvi who dispenses the mead (and to her evident displeasure), Rollo and Borg drink in turn from the skull! When Borg says ‘my wife will join us’ in the drinking, you are supposed to imagine he means Torvi but then realise he means his first wife herself! He treats his second (and living) wife like a servant, he treats his dead wife like a wife.
Crazy sods! I’m guessing the Weland myth is the inspiration here, but it is loose and unspecific.
The skull moves with Borg from now on, tied to, and tying him to, his fate. The skull makes a more prominent journey to Kattegat by ship with Torvi, Borg and Rollo. The skull is carried by Torvi and when Borg tells Rollo that he hopes he wasn’t lying, Torvi cuttingly remarks ‘why don’t you ask her?’, looking at the skull. Nicely done!
The skull is an intermediary between this world and the next, not only through Borg’s handling and kissing of it. At Kattegat, it is by his bedside: he is framed between wives living and dead. Thus, it next appears in Jarl Borg’s dream, warning or preparing him for his execution. Is the skull speaking to Borg? This doesn’t prevent his capture by Rollo, Torstein and Floki who burst in upon an already awake and ready Borg, but Borg is prepared for this by the dream.
The skull then appears again as a gift from Horik to the imprisoned Borg while he awaits his execution in Episode 7. Borg hides it when Bjorn comes in to visit him and later he grabs it as soon as unshackled and upon his exit from the prison. No longer in hiding, at this point the skull is positioned to face him, sitting on top of the shackling post.
He then carries it out into the torch-lit night and up onto the platform where he is executed by Ragnar by the legendary ‘blood-eagle’. Before the execution begins, Jarl Borg places the skull down on a tree stump on the execution platform to witness his own death. When Ragnar cuts his back open, his blood splatters over it. Thus, the skull’s advice leads to, accompanies him to, and witnesses, Borg’s death. By handling it, Borg is drawing his own conclusion!
Battlefield & Execution to Hall: Displaying Skulls
Will Borg’s skull become a trophy or memento of its own? Ragnar’s hall in Kattegat gets redecorated sometime in the middle of Season 2. Seemingly when he returns from his third raid on England and regains his lands from Jarl Borg, Ragnar decides to give his hall a cranial make-over.
We don’t learn whose skull these are, but we can imagine that they are battle trophies. Ragnar carries a West Saxon warrior’s fresly decapitated head beneath his arm to intimidate and interrogate prisoners after his first battle in Wessex. Moreover, there is a human sacrifice by beheading of one of Borg’s men following his defeat and Ragnar’s return to Kattegat. It might be surmised that the skulls on display are those of West Saxon and Geatish warriors. The skulls watch over the preparations for Borg’s execution and appears twice during the entry of King Horik into Ragnar’s hall. Are the internally facing skulls foretelling the fates of those whom they look over?
Finally, the skulls are made to perform in a sacrifice execution by the legendary ‘blood-eagle’. Skulls line Jarl Borg’s path to his place of execution, making the head-hunting nature of Ragnar a growing dimension of his personality as a warrior and earl, later to be enhanced further in Season 3.
Bones of the Saint
As portrayed in the Vikings series, bones were clearly an integral part of pagan Viking society. Yet where did Ragnar get inspired to take up his head-hunting ways? Is it portrayed as a timeless practice of pagan Nordic relgion? Au contraire, it seems to be an adaptation of a Christian habit. In Episode 3, Ragnar and Horik’s forces attack Winchester which appears to be a church within a small farm, defended by 30 warriors with no discernibleskill or tactics. Once inside, Aethelstan directs them to where the relics of St Birinius will be interred beneath the altar. The Northmen themselves apparently wouldn’t have guessed as to the location of the treasures despite having ransacked churches in Lindisfarne and Hexham in Season 1.
Here we encounter the skull of St Birinius. It is thrown to Ragnar who enquires of Aethelstan as to what a saint is. Aethelstan explains that bones of saints can exert benediction. In the background, Floki handles Birinius’s rib-cage with suspicion and disdain…
Later, Floki goads Aethelstan by giving him a Bible and the hand of St Birinius to test his faith. Floki clearly sees no power in these bones, which is odd given their attention in his homeland. The Bible stays with Aethelstan but the fate of the hand is disappointingly left unclear; surely if he had kept it with him it might have saved him from a near-crucifixion! Aethelstan’s failure to honour Birinius nearly lead him to his own grisly doom. Stupid boy!
This leads us back to Floki’s grave reopening in Episode 7 as discussed here. Were human remains this widely displayed and handled in the Viking world?
How human remains were displayed and circulated in both Viking Age Scandinavia and areas affected by the Viking diaspora is open to question. It is difficult to know what kinds of evidence we need to confirm just how common human remains were. Still, my feeling is that they were widely but only in specific contexts.
We know from Anglo-Scandinavian England and Viking Age Ireland that skulls were taken during executions/after death and displayed in specific settlement contexts and upon execution sites. However, the nature of archaeological evidence is unlikely to reveal the full extent of these practices of handling and displaying the dead. Were skulls and other human bones used beyond the cult of saints for divination and other magical rites? Were they kept as mementos of loved ones? Were they really displayed in halls as trophies? Were skulls really ever used as grisly drinking cups to seal alliances? I don’t know! I doubt it in most cases. Still, I certainly think that cremated human remains were curated and distributed in many contexts, both within the grave and in other environments and contexts. Presumably some unburned human remains could also be curated and receive subsequent uses and reuses?
It is not the accuracy of ‘Vikings’ that interests me here. Skulls are an easy and simple way to foreground impending death and the sinister violence and fatalist components of Viking society for the storyline. Yet more than this, what is fascinating about the portrayal of human remains in Vikings is how handling and displaying bones might have been key dimensions of the social lives of the Viking Age elite. We see both comparisons and contrasts between pagan and Christian worlds played out explicitly and in this regard; both value bones. Bones are portrayed as active presences in social life but only for certain people and certain contexts. Most strikingly with Jarl Borg, skulls doom the living, sealing their fate. In ‘Vikings’, skulls can be powerful and skulls can be dangerous.