Aethelstan receives crucifixion for apostasy...
Aethelstan receives crucifixion for apostasy…


As recent entries should make clear, I’m getting myself through Season 2 of the History Channel ‘Vikings’ series.  It is of great interest to me as a mortuary archaeologist of the first millennium AD societies. The series is the latest worldwide popular 21st-century portrayal of Scandinavia and the Viking diaspora in the late eighth and early ninth centuries. Therefore this series needs to be taken seriously by academics as a way of tackling and debating the use of legendary, historical and archaeological evidence relating to life and death in this important period of European history.

See my earlier blog entries for other dimensions of the ‘Vikings’ series. As well as reviewing seasons 1 and 2 in general terms together here, I previously went on to review in more detail the mortuary archaeological dimensions of Vikings Season 1. I have also recently written posts about Floki’s reopening of a grave in Season 2 here and the importance of bones in Season 2 here.

Bishop Swithun is as tough as any Viking!

Compared with Season 1, this second series seems on first impressions to contain far fewer attempts at displaying overtly archaeological and historical scenarios and death rituals. However, on reflection, I think there are just as many as in Season 1, but they are less formulaic set-pieces and more seamlessly woven into the storyline. Hence, there remain numerous fascinating archaeodeath moments and legend-inspired grisly deaths worthy of our attention. This blog seeks to review the portrayal of sacrificial killings within Vikings Season 2.

A Quartet of Sacrificial Killings

Swithun – It Never Rains But it Pours!

First up, we learn how raiding pagan Northmen kill a West Saxon bishop in the opening years of the 9th century. In their (of course fictional) attack on Winchester, they defeat the warriors defending the minster (whose naff tactic is to simply run at the Vikings in a disorganised manner). Torstein then butchers hiding men, women and children, while Bishop Swithun is captured by Floki after refusing to hide at Aethelstan’s bequest.

Incidentally, yes, there was a real Bishop (later Saint) Swithun of Winchester he died AD 862 over a generation later. Please note: the historical Swithun wasn’t killed by anyone, he died old of natural causes. For those confused, I am discussing a TV show, not an account of historical events! Mark the difference, some people easily get confused.

Anyway, Swithun is tied up to a column in the church and arrows are fired at him by Horik, his son Erlendur and Floki. This starkly displays Horik and his son and his jeering cronies as vile bullies. It also displays just how fervent Floki’s heathen faith – and hatred of Christians – really is.

Swithun has balls of iron and dies a martyr’s death in this story. Still, Aethelstan intervenes and kills the bishop himself by slitting his throat to save him from further suffering. This scene is of course loosely inspired by the story of King Edmund the Martyr of East Anglia’s execution by the Danes on the orders of Ivar the Boneless.

Crucifixion – Good! Out of the Door, One Cross Each

Second up, in Episode 4, we witness how the West Saxons punished captured apostates among the raiding Northmen. The second ritual killing is an aborted one: the turncoat religious rentamouth Aethelstan’s crucifixion.

crucifixion 7
I’m Aethelstan and so’s my wife!

Let’s be clear that this is historically absurd and makes limited sense even as regards the storyline. There is plenty of evidence the West Saxons were just as cruel in their executions of criminals as anyone else in the early medieval world. Hanging, beheading, mutilations and trials by fire were all a la carte. However, nailing apostates to crosses, wearing crowns of thorns and loin cloths and spearing their sides, thus explicitly emulating Christ’s crucifixion, was certainly not on the agenda.

I keep wanting to imagine this was Aethelstan’s vision of his own inner sufferings but no, this is part of the story. We must add to this the ridiculous rabble-rousing bishop who commits an even more heinous crime than subjugating a human being – pagan, Christian or otherwise – to crucifixion. Yes, I refer to the infuriating evil of pronouncing apostate as ‘apo-state’. This is second only to calling Shrewsbury ‘Shrovesbury’ and medicine ‘med-sun’. Thankfully the king is on hand to save Aethelstan and prevent the script descending into oblivion and posh pronunciations.

I guess the crucifixion is an attempt to show the inherent barbarism within both early medieval paganism and Christianity and is a forerunner to King Ecbert seeking Aethelstan’s council over the correct treatment of women accused of adultery. What is valid – indeed the only element that might be – is the hilltop open-air location for a criminal execution, something explored in detail in the work of Andrew Reynolds and demonstrable through numerous excavated Anglo-Saxon execution cemeteries.

Don’t Lose Your Head!

So far we’ve had one killing of a Christian by pagans, one killing (attempted) by Christians on an apostate. Next we have pagan-on-pagan ritual killing. This is the sacrifice of a prisoner following the defeat of Jarl Borg and his forces and the liberation of Kattegat. Presumably a captured warrior of Borg’s, he is freed of his bonds ‘because he will want to die well’ as Rollo puts it (mirroring the execution of Season 1). Rollo prepares his axe, saying: ‘in the presence of the gods and in their honour, I offer this sacrifice’.

sacrifice 3
The sacrificial altar – inverted tree stump placed upon another tree stump

The sacrifice takes place beside an altar composed of an upside-down tree stump (reminiscent of the East Anglian Bronze Age monument: Seahenge) surmounted by deer antlers and candles and with some bone amulets suspended from its extremities. Close by is a post with a carved bearded head upon it – perhaps the icon of Odin. These are set within a timber circle of short stumps, seemingly not earth-fast, upon each of which is an open brazier. A further stump, in front of the altar, is utilised for the beheading of the victim. The impression is of a temporary ritual setting, readily created within minutes and disassembled afterwards. This is worthy of note in itself.

Before Rollo can wield his axe against the (again) stoical victim, Ragnar wants his son Bjorn to be the executioner, presumably as a test to bolster his martial manhood. Afterwards, there are further rituals implied. Bjorn has his blood smeared on his face and Floki rushes to smear the human blood on himself in some kind of religious frenzy.This is juxtaposed with the holy mass of King Ecgerth and his sons. and the parallels Aethelstan perceives with his witnessing of the human sacrifice at Uppsala.

This execution is interesting because it blurs between sacrificial and judicial execution and in this regard is plausible, as well as the settlement context and temporary spatial arrangement of the execution space.

sacrifice 1
The execution to Odin

The blood-eagling of Jarl Borg is the grisly climax of Episode 7, a sinister and dark brooding episode of scheming interactions in halls and bed chambers and Ragnar posing with a pet eagle. I discuss further the relationship of Jarl Borg with skulls here.

approaching the execution platform
Jarl Borg approaches the execution stage
The octagonal execution stage

Jarl Borg is executed by Ragnar in a night-time ritual of cruel brutality. Mirroring the skull he himself holds (see below), skulls on stakes line his night-time torch-lit path to the execution stage. Again this is interesting, as this octagonal platform seems to be especially created for this one purpose and yet is superficial in construction.

Once upon the stage, Jarl Borg places his wife’s skull on a stump and willingly hold his arms up, his wrists held between deer antlers set on posts, to be sacrificed to the gods. Blood from the cutting open of his back spatters over his wife’s skull.

Ragnar as executioner dresses in a sacrificial all-white tunic as he cuts open Borg’s back, breaks his rib cage with axes and pulls out his lungs. Ragnar and Borg both see into the other world during the preformance, an eagle (Rangar’s eagle) hanging there mid-air besides the ceremony. The same eagle had appeared in a dream to Jarl Borg hovering over his bed. Perhaps the eagle is the spirit of Ragnar and/or Borg, or a messenger from the gods. Either way, Borg meets his doom, just as the Seer had predicted. Borg becomes an eagle. He also secures entry to Valhalla by not showing pain, he even smiles at the eagle as he dies.

Obviously blood-eagling is a legendary execution method with no historical or archaeological correlate, and its portrayal as a sacral rite for those who most angered the gods is intriguing. The victim must endure in silence in order to enter Valhalla, Ragnar tells us from his bath tub. It is truly implausible and again we are presented with a stoical victim who does not plead or beg forgiveness let alone display pain.

Concluding Thoughts

What do we make of all this so far? The crucifixion and blood-eagling are vivid, memorable but ludicrous, but have a powerful place in a fictional portrayal of the early Viking Age mashed up from later legends. The killing of a bishop in his own church has a vague historical foundation and context. The sacrificing of a prisoner to thank the gods for victory is eminently logical and straightforward by comparison.

I have an ethical problem with the message given out from this show about victims of execution. While I appreciate it is attempting to show the bravery of past individuals facing death and hoping to be rewarded with either Heaven or Valhalla, I wonder if this gives a true impression of the horror of the acts perpetrated upon these individuals and the cruel suffering involved.

I have an archaeological concern too inspired by these killings. It makes me wonder whether there are any discernible archaeological signatures to distinguish between a ‘sacrificial killing’ and a ‘criminal execution’: both involve axes or swords cleaving necks…