In episode 6 of Season 3 of the popular drama Vikings, a personal clash of faiths and personal interests culminates in the slaying of the religious turncoat Aethelstan by the ship-builder and all-round hyper-pagan weirdo Floki.
Who is Aethelstan? He is both the most implausible character in the series and an important lynchpin by connecting the pagan and Christian worlds of the show’s characters. Originally a monk of Lindisfarne, he was captured by Ragnar’s raid and serves as a slave and then servent on Ragnar’s farm and then at Kattegat. He becomes a Viking warrior, joins the first raid on Wessex and slays many Christian soldiers, a monk and a bishop, before being captured. He is then partially crucified, saved by King Ecbert, becomes a monk again, has an affair with the king of Northumbria’s daughter (and wife of Ecbert’s son Prince Aethelwulf), thus becoming father to the future King Alfred the Great, before deciding to return to Scandinavia with Ragnar after the third campaign in Wessex.
Once Aethelstan has decided to return to Scandinavia by his own volition and as a Christian re-convert, he has no social or religious bonds beyond his ties to Ragnar. As such, he is a Christian exile at the epicentre of the pagan Norse world. So while Aethelstan is re-established as the personal friend and confidant of the king himself and is fed, dressed and groomed as a member of the Viking pagan aristocracy, he his simultaneously estranged from, and shunned by, all others regardless of social status. There seems no future for him and he knows it, yet equally his love and loyalty to Ragnar prevent him from leaving. Moreover, while Christian, he makes no efforts to convert the pagans beyond teaching Ragnar the Lord’s Prayer, beyond rather smug glances and snide comments.
I personally neither warm to the pagan religious fervour of Floki nor the ridiculous religious merry-go-round of Aethelstan who sees faith in contradictory world views. Still, Aethelstan’s character does attempt to distill the many long-term interactions between pagan and Christian belief systems in the Early Middle Ages. His death is the culmination of years of personal and religious animosity with Floki who, encouraged by visions, resorts to murder. In doing so, he asserts his anti-Christian paganism and status in relation to Ragnar, and acts on his jealousy at Aethelstan’s personal intimacy with the king. By killing Aethelstan, Ragnar and his court is rid of a Christian presence and influence.
Like all funeral scenes in Vikings we are given glimpses of longer rites and practices. Yet uniquely, it is an anti-funeral, where the deceased is honoured personally and in secret, rather than publicly and in response to existing customs. Even the attempted infanticide of Ivar utilises existing practices and attitudes, and at a place of deposition clearly designated by tradition. In this case – there are no mourners, no ritual specialists, and no audience. Ragnar himself is unsure how to perform a Christian funeral but there are clear indications he has an understanding of its basic requirements in terms of treatment and disposition of the body and need for a cross as a grave marker. There is no fire, no extravagant materials, no music, no songs, no stories and a deliberately isolated location. The social and material actors are restricted to Ragnar himself, the corpse in a shroud, a horse and a spade.
The isolated location needs further comment, since while this is an attempt to show a distinctively isolated location, in Season 2 during Floki’s grave-digging, and Season 4 when Helga buries Angrbotha, we see a similar play in burial in seeming isolation. This is a problem for the show, since they embrace the romance of the Nordic landscape as a setting for the dead, but show no cemeteries or monuments for ‘normative’ burial practice. Hence, Aethelstan’s isolated burial isn’t as distinctive as it should be.
We are shown three stages to this funeral. First is the practices implied by the first appearance of Ragnar and Aethelstan’s body. It is evident that Ragnar (and others? – perhaps not if this is truly a personal strategy of disposal) has washed and dressed the corpse and wrapped it in Christian fashion within a shroud.
Second, we cannot infer anything else we see before Ragnar riding alone into the hills with the corpse, wrapped in this shroud and slung over the horse’s back. Yet the journey, while private and not public, has a significance, taking the body to an isolated location. This involves a horse ride, and when reaching a stream, he dismounts and carries the corpse and the spade across the river and then up a steep slope to a lonely isolated spot with trees, mountains and a waterfall as backdrop. The idea is that Ragnar has taken Aethelstan’s body as far as possible from public view; the landscape location preventing desecration of the grave and marking out his social and religious exclusion from the Norse pagan community in death as he was in life. This might also be very location where Aethelstan taught Ragnar the Lord’s Prayer, and so is a return to a place of personal significance for them.
Ragnar is exhausted. We are not shown the digging of the grave but the scene shifts to the final and third moment of the funeral: Ragnar crying and memorialising his friend while he makes a crude grave-marker. He simply marks the grave using the spade as the cross shaft and the cross-arms are made by simply tying a second stick to it.
So many of the funerals in Vikings are inspired by literature, historical sources, and archaeological finds to reveal the pagan Norse of the 8th and 9th centuries, yet here we have a useful and fascinating contrast of what happens to a powerful person who is excluded on grounds of faith and circumstances of death. As portrayed, even a pagan king cannot allow a Christian to be honoured with a public funeral.
There is an archaeological and historical debate about how the earliest Christians in Scandinavia were disposed of. In reality, it is much more likely they would have received traditional (aka ‘pagan’ funerals), because first generation Christians (and many generations thereafter) would be part of kin groups who required and expected certain traditions to be followed in honouring the dead. Death was about social networks and identities as much as religious affinities. Moreover, as repeatedly discussed by historians and archaeologists, mode of burial is the last thing (or at least not the first thing) that Christians in the Early Middle Ages cared about: baptism was obviously a far more important ritual to be publicly performed and a ‘Christian burial’ was a slowly evolving and complex phenomenon.
In short, we are shown a bizarre fantasy in the portrayal of Aethelstan’s funeral. Admittedly, it is an exceptional, private funeral materialising in space and mode of disposal a very intimate and personal relationship between Ragnar and Aethelstan. However, on balance, it is unlikely that a pagan might give a Christian a ‘Christian burial’, not necessarily because of religious anonymosity but out of strong social expectations regarding how to commemorate the dead. The dead don’t bury themselves, and funerary practices emerge from tradition and consensus. Hence, Aethelstan should really have received a boat-cremation, or at least a rich furnished chamber grave!