Here is my fifth and final archaeodeath blog about Season 2 of the History Channel show Vikings. I write this post listening to my just-acquired ‘Vikings – Music from the TV Series‘ CD to get me in the mood.
Having covered grave-robbing, the significance of skulls, ritual killing and cremation practices, I now turn to two scenes that embody far more personal dimensions of death and mourning in the Viking Age. These scenes are by far the most important for me as an archaeologist, because they are the most frustrating, tantalising and ephemeral. These scenes are not based on any specific historical or archaeological evidence I think, and they leave no material trace. Yet simultaneously, they relate to the Scandinavian landscape in a deeply significant way.
To counterbalance the more grandiose and public funerals in Season 2, there is one instance of private mourning in Episode 1. Ragnar is away when is daughter, Gyda, dies aged 12 of the plague and is cremated together with others on the beach at Kattegat. I discussed this in a previous blog entry here.
Upon his return, we see Ragnar mourning on the beach, presumably close to, or at the site where, Gyda was burned. He sits on the beach alone with a small fire, looking out to sea. It is unclear if he has conducted some kind of ceremony in relation to the fire, and I like the allusion without needing to dwell specifically on what rituals took place. It is an intriguing question: what rituals took place conducted by those who miss the funerals of loved ones. He is looking into the other world, with Gyda listening to him, articulated by the blurred lense.
Whether intended or not, this scene entertains rituals and mourning for which there is little historical and archaeological trace and the converse to the grandiose late Viking-Age rune-stones, the fraction of which mourn men who died abroad gain a lot of scholarly attention. How a Viking leader might mourn the loss of a daughter at home whilst away, works on multiple levels in terms of entertainment and as critique on scholarly priorities.
There is considerable debate regarding the extent that later saga and other literature and a disproportionate number of male-gendered graves from many cemeteries in many regions can be used as evidence that female infanticide was widely practised in first millennium AD Scandinavia, as discussed by (among others) Nancy Wicker. Some have even used this evidence to bolster arguments explaining the Viking Age: a dearth of women prompting young men to raid to acquire women and/or wealth to buy bridewealth (including a 2008 article by James Barrett).
Here, we have disability and a male child as the focus of a near-infanticide: the birth of Boneless in Episode 8. Ragnar takes the child to the riverside where ribbons are tried to trees, perhaps to imply a traditional site where infants are abandoned and offerings left. He raised his axe to kill him but cannot follow through and leaves the baby to its fate. Fortunately, Aslaug arrives and retrieves the disabled child, whom they then decide to name ‘Ivar the Boneless’. This reflects the sagas and laws that a child can only be murdered once named; the child they exposed was at that time nameless.
I don’t think there is any discussion in the sagas about disability as a motive for infanticide in general terms, but I defer to experts on this point.
I can’t wait to see how Boneless turns out but I can guess!
The point is, this scene touches on the cruelty and the care involved in societies that do abandon infants with disabilities and other conditions. It leaves the viewer to reflect on the horror of these practices, but also the emotional and powerful motives and attitudes of those facing such practices.
Summing up my thoughts about Season 2, I reiterate my positive comments in my previous blog about Season 1: the variety of scales and natures of mortuary and commemorative practice shown is a clear and key dimension. The attention to private and personal spaces of mourning, and to infanticide, underpin the continued attempts to depict a rich multi-layered vision of early Viking Age society, its customs and beliefs.