In Episode 4 of Vikings Season 4 Part 2, viewers get to see a 2-and-a-half minute full-scale funeral of an adult member of the Viking elite. This is the third of its kind in the show.
First, let’s just pause there. As with Game of Thrones which has provided audiences with a large array of funerals for the fantasy medieval world, Vikings has now provided us with a rich range of funerals for the semi-historical Early Middle Ages. Putting ‘fantasy’ and ‘historical’ drama together, we are getting a gamut of burning bodies on our screens these days. This is an unprecedented situation for filmic portrayals of imaginary medieval pasts, and it is worthy of note for all students and scholars of the period, since these media are adapting and shaping popular engagements with death and disposal in the human past.
Right, back to Vikings. As with Earl Haraldson in Season 1, the emporium of Kattegat is the setting for the funeral. Yet again, it is a cremation over water. Contrasting with Haraldson, this time we have a female corpse: the queen and volva Aslaug: daughter of Sigurd the Dragonslayer and Brunhild, second wife of Ragnar, seeress and mother to four sons.
Aslaug is slain by Lagertha (Ragnar’s first wife), whom has now established her power over her former-husband’s kingdom. There are improvements over the portrayal of Haraldson’s funeral: it is less static. As with Ragnar’s fake funeral in Season 3, we see a procession for the dead.
I’ve been reasonably sympathetic with the other recent portrayals of funerals in Vikings because of their attention to materiality, elemental dimensions, dimensions of mortuary process and by (through the succession of different funerals shown for different individuals dying in different circumstances) offering a sense of mortuary variability. I’ve been more critical of the lack of attention to cemetery contexts, monumentality and landscape location in the disposal of the dead. Still, I’m less concerned regarding their ‘accuracy’ as to what they foreground about death as mourning, memory work and drama. There are four discrete stages to the funeral of Aslaug depicted. Let’s take each in the order they appear. I want to show how the first three are interesting if problematic, but how the last one loses the plot.
The funeral begins with an undisclosed rural inland location where we meet with a horse being exercised whilst tied on a rope, priest (or priests) then flicks red paste upon the animal as part of a dedication before sacrifice, and then a solitary axe-wielding man is shown slaying the beast by decapitation.
Presumably this is short-hand for a range of other activities – preparing food and drink, and slaughtering all manner of animals, associated with the funeral. It is also a useful remedy to the lack of animal agents in the funerals of Haraldson and Ragnar – major omissions in my view.
Archaeologists and historians are familiar with the dramatic killing of a horse (or horses) as an integral part of Vendel/Merovingian and Viking-period elite funerals in Scandinavia, and that decapitation could be accomplished as a mode of slaughter. However, my understanding is that the riding or racing of horses, as described by Ibn Fadlan’s Risala, is to make them sweaty and pump their blood before sacrifice. This might have had eschatological significance, but it certainly ensured a horse whose blood would spurt dramatically as it is lanced or sliced. This aspect only works if the horse (and animals) is being sacrificed in a public venue, as Ibn Fadlan describes. The killing has to be at the place of cremation and the killing should be an integral part of the performances and auguries surrounding the preparing and lighting of the pyre. Sadly, this is missed out on in Aslaug’s funeral.
This is a bit odd too. I’m delighted that a procession is included, giving a sense of multiple locations and groups of actors involved in the funerary process. However, rather than the corpse being processed on a bier to its place of burning, we witness a strange reverse/dislocation of procession from the cadaver which is depicted as yet to be moved.
We encounter a scene where there is a procession into Kattegat witnessed by jubilant crowds. It is led by two priests; this is interesting in itself since we have no clue whether these are roles of warriors and farmers who take on funerary roles, or whether these are ‘priests’ (full-time ones) like those shown at the temple at Uppsala in Season 1. I don’t think we have seen priests acting during funerals in Vikings before, and is this to imply Aslaug’s role as volva (seer), or because they forgot that only female ritual specialists, or the androgynous ‘Angel of Death’ should be doing this role?
The crowd are composed of adult men and women in good spirits, singing and smiling, some (three) playing drums immediately behind the priests, and others farther back carrying ritualistic staffs and rattles (similar to those used on Ragnar’s funeral) and wearing wolves’ headdresses (again, akin to those depicted as processing in Ragnar’s funeral). Their relationship to the deceased is left obscure. What is more notable is their relationship to the things they carry, and here we see the influence of archaeological attention and discussions of grave-goods and the stories and significance they bring, as much as to any historical and literary sources.
Some carry offerings to be placed with the dead queen; they hold them aloft for the crowds to witness – including bowls of nuts, heather, and weapons. I liked this aspect: the artefacts are introduced as actors in their own right, not as possessions of Aslaug, whom we never see wielding a weapon (for example). Instead, and rightly, the artefacts are deployed to denote her status, age, gender and other aspects of her identity.
The crowd reaches a pre-prepared bier, furnished with greenery, with the body of the Queen dressed in finery lain upon it. Her hands are together over her waist and her eyes are shut – typical dimensions of filmic portrayals of fantasy and past funerals. Her jaw is shut somehow. We therefore have to imagine the ceremonial stages of washing, dressing and placing the corpse, as well as building and dressing the bier.
The procession encircles the bier while crowds look on. The items are added to the left and right of her, including golden armlets and ringlets, wooden bowls of food, and swords/seaxes and two axes. Interestingly, and actually rather oddly for my understanding of early medieval furnished graves, there seems to be attention to symmetry in the arrangement of the tableau around the body.
Then, the head of the horse (I presume it is the same one we’ve seen slaughtered) is lifted onto the bier and placed at Aslaug’s feet. This is not the only animal depicted, and a chicken is placed by her left side. The absence of dogs and other meat joints is odd. Another odd omission is that I couldn’t make out any drinking vessels: odd given how many scenes the queen is shown guzzling alcohol morning, noon and night and that consuming beverages would be a key element of her social and ritual roles as queen. What of bronze vessels?
What items denote her status/role as a volva? Wher is her seer’s staff? If she really was foresighted, I guess she might have predicted Lagertha’s actions. If she was a seer, why didn’t she go to her pyre with items displaying that status?
As well as weapons, food offerings and the horse’s head, the amount of gold ornaments placed with Aslaug, as offerings rather than as costume, is striking. This renders the funeral more legendary, rather than an historical: gold seems to rarely go ont pyres and was exceedingly rare compared with silver. Indeed, throughout Vikings, any hint at a burgeoning silver economy is obscure.
When I posted this, I didn’t think to point out direct archaeological influences. I would cite the ‘Queen of Gausel’ from Stavanger, Rogaland, Norway, as one such parallel. Well discussed in the literature, including by Neil Price, the horse’s head at the foot of a well-furnished female grave provides parallels, but also reveals the odd omissions noted above.
In short, the attention to the careful, staged arrangement of the bier and the dressed corpse is key and important. However, I’m still confused about the order and character of the items shown.
Finally Vikings cannot resist continuing its love affair with burning on water. We have seen this before with Earl Haraldson’s ship-cremation in Season 1 and the burning of the war-dead in Wessex on four rafts in Season 2, as well as almost every other funeral taking place beside or close to water. This simultaneously relieves the production expenses of visualising post-cremation ceremonies, and yet by doing so it perpetuates an unhelpful and pernicious stereotype of filmic portrays of open-air cremation that the burning of the body is somehow the last stage of obsequies.
Still, I was hopeful with Aslaug they might mend their ways and give us the full monty of burning and then mound-raising, but no. Instead, the body and artefacts are (out of shot) off-loaded from the bier onto a small boat and Aslaug is sent off into the fjord between two jetties lined with bearded males holding torches over the water. For me, this is where it all goes wrong. Even the Prose Edda description of Baldr’s funeral has a boat embarking from the shore rather than some attempt to steer it between jetties. Indeed, in the funerals discussed above, Vikings shows the practical choice of men waist-deep in water pushing out the ship and rafts. In this case, they lose the plot a bit, and while two men are depicted in the water starting the boat on its course, they then show the boat drifting with supernatural speed (somehow the result of a slight push by the two blokes) out into the fjord. To parody Beowulf, who knows what motor steered that cargo! I guess they had to use a small remote controlled outboard to keep it moving at a pace and in the right direction. One might imagine a swift tide doing this, but I’m not so sure that is convincing…
Aslaug goes off with fire lining her way but in Scyld Sceafing fashion, unburned to join the afterlife. Well… no. Because here come the FLAMING ARROWS. One from the end of each jetty, at the instruction of Torvi and Astrid, in turn directed by Lagertha from the shore, men fire burning arrows at the boat, setting it aflame in a fashion that resembles the recent Game of Thrones burning boat at Riverrun in Season 3.
Farewell Aslaug! She got a truly pagan Nordic funeral, mashing Ibn Fadlan with Kirk Douglas, but with a careful inclusion of animal sacrifice and staged artefact display and placement. Where it all comes undone is in the watery demise, which while it cannot be regarded as ‘wrong’, needs to be critically considered as an homage to filmic predecessors, rather than anything demonstrably to do with early medieval mortuary practice.