The television show Vikings is to be applauded for repeatedly foregrounding child characters, and also confronting both the upsetting reality of infant and child death past and present, and the range of emotional responses to these deaths. From Ragnar’s daughter Gyda in Season 1 and the attempted infanticide of Ivar in Season 2, to the miscarriages of Lagertha, the loss of children is a repeated feature of early medieval life depicted through the show.
The death of Angrbotha, the only child of Helga and Floki, is the first funerary representation of Season 4 part 1. The scene is intended to complement the burial of Aethelstan by Floki, who receives burial by Ragnar alone in an isolated location without a funeral.
As punishment for his slaying of Aethelstan, Floki is tied up naked and upright in a cave and tortured by water dripping from the cave’s roof: an overt reference to the punishment of Loki with serpent venom.
The legal status of Helga and her daughter Angrbotha isn’t made clear, but the implication is that they are also social outcasts following Floki’s trial punishment. Is this representative of Scandinavian legal customs? I don’t know, but the poverty and isolation of Helga and Angrbotha, and Helga’s attempts to attend to Floki during his torture, might (or might not) be a factor in Angrbotha’s sickness and death. We are not told.
The possibility is left open that Angrbotha’s death is an indirect result of Floki’s crime, trial and punishment. Certainly Floki must suffer torture but then learn of his daughter’s fate, and her death is an implicit factor in Ragnar’s decision to free Floki in the subsequent episode.
The scene is a snowy rocky hillside where Helga is seen grave-digging in distress and discomfort – physical and emotional. She has prepared Angrbotha’s corpse wrapped tightly in a shroud – a fashion of burial only previously shown for Aethelstan and therefore, we it not demonstrably so, one might suspect is a Christian burial. Ragnar comes upon her and assists in grave-digging. Paralleling this transfer of action, Helga then picks up the shrouded body of her daughter but Ragnar takes it from her and places it in the shallow grave.
We are left to wonder whether prayers are said, grave-goods are deposited (probably not, although it does appear that the shroud is dressed with a necklace or annular brooches) and any marker is left on the spot to commemorate the burial. Still, we can suppose that, as with Aethelstan, the implication is that this is an isolated location and there are no signs of other graves in the vicinity. The idea is that social outcasts were denied access to burial grounds and public funerals. It is therefore a pity that no funerals at cemeteries are actually shown in the series, but the next funeral depicted in the show – of Earl Kalf – does accept that cemeteries existed when they are completely lacking in Seasons 1-3.
So the parallel of Angrbotha’s interment to the treatment of Aethelstan – an isolated location and shroud-burial – is another attempt by the show to depict the similarities, as well as the differences, between Christian and pagan traditions, in this regard of social outcasts. Throughout the show similar juxtapositions are attempted, as with the portrayal of Yol and Christmas at Kattegat and Paris respectively in Episode 4 of Season 4.
Yet equally there is a stark contrast. At least Athelstan is laid to rest on a serene spot surrounded by the beauties of nature. The harsh windy and snowy weather and the desolate outcast status of Helga and Angrbotha render them rather more excluded in this mortuary event than even Aethelstan.