Ragnar coffin2
The History Channel series “Vikings” is an unprecedented success in historical drama for the Early Middle Ages, informed loosely by the sagas. It makes  a series of active attempts to reconstruct cultural practices and environments from the Viking Age to provide both setting and story line. Archaeology, therefore, both directly and indirectly, has a pivotal place in the show. Here I want to discuss the portrayal of early medieval mortuary practices in Season 3.

Background

Previously, I have blogged about the portrayal of mortuary practice in the first season here, in which I explored:

  • sacrifice and judicial killing
  • burial whilst raiding
  • mass-cremation,
  • elite boat-funeral

I then explored a series of mortuary themes in Vikings Season 2 as follows:

Together, Seasons 1 and 2 provide the viewer with a rich and varied spectrum of interactions between the living, the dead and the supernatural. While I have focused on practices and material culture for disposing of and honouring the dead, a key dimension of these series, perpetuated through Season 3, is the personal perception of the supernatural – gods and the dead – within the lives of the living characters.

Vikings Season 3

The enduring influence of the dead on the living can be found in Season 3. This is especially true in the interactions between a dead Aethelstan and a  living Ragnar: cross-faith mortuary interaction.

Still, it remains the case that Season 3 has far less mortuary and commemorative practices. I couldn’t spot any scene in the first 9 episodes worthy of Archaeodeath comment, which contrasts starkly with Seasons 1 and 2 where mortuary, commemorative and sacrificial rituals abound. Perhaps this reflects the fact that the viewers are expected to be ‘bedded in’ to appreciating the kind of crazy stuff the Norse got up to. Also, much of the action takes place in Wessex, Mercia or Frankia.

It is only in the final Episode 10 that we encounter a mortuary practice of sorts and when it comes around, it is a crucial one for the story line.

Ragnar funeral2Fake Mortuary Practice: Ragnar’s Funeral

Episode 10 is called ‘The Dead’. Here, we have portrayed a story adapted from the tale that Hastein, son of Ragnar and brother of Bjorn Ironside, pretended to request Christian sacraments and burial in order to capture the Italian town of Luni.

We find the seer’s prophecy coming true that only the dead will capture Paris. The newly baptised Ragnor Lothbrok is dying in his tent from wounds sustained during the attack on Paris. He feigns his own funeral in order to gain ‘Christian burial’ within Paris.

Once bursting out of his coffin within the cathedral, slays the bishop, takes Princess Gisla captive and retreats and forces the guards to open the gates. Bjorn Ironside then lets in the Vikings who successfully raid the city before leaving for Scandinavia.

In his ‘fake funeral’, we have 5 stages of particular interest to me as a mortuary archaeologist, regardless of whether they might be predicated on any particular historical or archaeological data or not (and I think not).

Making Ragnar’s Coffin

Helga asks Floki what he is doing, he replies: “Ragnar asked me to build him one last boat”. Therefore, the coffin is prepared by a loyal friend and retainer and defines an ongoing obligation between the ship-builder Floki and his lord. The sincerity, design and maritime dimensions of the coffin are key. What Floki makes is not a boat in exact terms, but a boat-like, or sleigh-like structure. In this sense, it is important to remember that craftsmen were versatile and made bespoke items, but applied their skills between media and structures. It also alerts us to the social obligations inherent in coffin-making across cultures.

The ‘boat’ made by Floki seems unique to me, so I’m not sure where the inspiration comes from. It might be in part inspired by 10th/11th-century ‘hogback stones‘ from northern England and southern Scotland: recumbent stone monuments thought to resemble houses or boats.

The coffin might be seen to be inspired by different elements of the Oseberg ship, but it is far more humble and doesn’t resemble any single feature from this famous well-preserved boat-burial. The resemblance is fleeting, so I’m guessing a late folkloric inspiration if any at all for this ‘coffin-boat’.

Regardless of the sources that inspired the coffin, it is the fact that it is made as Floki’s last gift to Ragnar that is key: the coffin is a vehicle for transportation but a means of commemorating social bonds.Ragnar funeral4

Installing Ragnar in his Coffin

The second stage of the funeral is Ragnar ‘dying’ and being placed within his coffin. We don’t see the washing or dressing of his body: he is not publicly handled by anyone. This makes the likelihood of this being a funeral that would have convinced his co-Vikings inconceivable. Instead, he is placed dirty and clothed into his elaborately carved boat-like coffin with coped lid in the same fashion as he lived.

While hardly representing practices conducted in the Viking Age or anywhere else, the key point here is the interaction between Ragnar’s ‘corpse’ and his son Bjorn. Contrasting with any believable funerary practice but powerful in defining the succession, Bjorn is afforded exclusive control and access to the ‘corpse’ of his father. This at least serves to articulate the strong bond – one of love and inheritance – between father and son. While the precise detail might be queried, the public performance of familial relationships in death is unquestionably key to understanding many dimensions of Viking-Age funerals.Ragnar funeral6

The coffin’s materiality and ornamentation are key media for this interaction. The coffin is carved with diamond patterns along its sides and a series of panels with comparable form along its lid. We are not told whether such a structure is ‘typical’ and, indeed, we find no parallel in earlier scenes. One could argue that it could be a complete invention: all the Franks need to know is that his body is being transported for burial and they would be none the wiser whether his mode of conveyance was typical or not. Still, the narrative of the story is that the Vikings themselves believe Ragnar to be dead, hence the funeral must be following some existing tradition known to them.Ragnar funeral7

Once installed, the lid is slid into place and the view lingers over Bjorn’s hand touching the lid. The coffin proves to be a locus of mourning, and its visual and haptic qualities are equally important. Bjorn’s touching of the coffin is to subsequently be replicated by other mourners (see subsequent blog).

Then two burly Vikings lift the coffin into place for lying in state within Ragnar’s tent, surrounded by innumerable candles. This might seem a prosaic act, but it can also be considered an act of honour and obligation. It also serves to offer kinetic proof of the presence of a corpse hidden from view within the coffin. The weight of the ‘cadaver’ is witness to Ragnar’s apparent death.

Once elevated, this allows the coffin to be a focus of private visits by those closest to the king without them knowing he is still alive. It is a nice touch, but implausible that the cadaver wouldn’t be accessible in a more direct way in early medieval funerals. Still, as I have argued in my own writings about early medieval funerals, covering the body was as important as its display in the staged experience of mortuary performance.

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In future posts, we’ll follow Ragnar’s funeral through 3 further stages of interest to me.

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