Why were grave-goods placed with the dead in the Viking Age? The historical drama Vikings finally gives us more clues in the fictional context of the final funeral aired at the time of writing: that of Floki’s wife Helga.
Helga is lost by series 4 part 2 of Vikings. Her social position is unfixed, she is itinerant like Foki, and her mind is seemingly unhinged by grief at the loss of her daughter. Helga joins Floki in the Great Army, bringing with her Tanaruz, her adopted daughter whom she had ‘saved’/abducted when Bjorn Ironside’s Vikings raided Seville.
In Ecbert’s palace after the Great Army’s victory, the girl Tanaruz stabs Helga with a dagger for reasons that aren’t altogether clear. She then kills herself. The fate of Tanaruz’s body is not made apparent, but Floki seems to mourn and bury Helga alone.
The grave-digging and other preparations for the funeral are not shown; instead he carries her body, re-dressed for her burial, up the hillside to an already open grave away from the palace on open ground.
A single spade suggests he has already fashioned it in isolation. He lays Helga on furs, while another fur lies on the right of the grave upon which are some objects placed ready for interment with the cadaver. First, he places an antler comb by the right of her head. Second, a bronze or golden armlet by the left side of her head. Third, he rests two festoons of polychrome beads around Helga’s neck. Fourth, a knife with an iron handle is lain by her right shoulder without its sheath. Finally, Floki places a stone upon Helga’s throat. As he slowly and carefully performs these acts, Floki speaks of the gods:
When Balder, Odin’s beloved son, died, not only did people weep, but fire wept and iron, and all the other metals wept, the stones wept, earth wept. Farewell voyager, farewell my heart. Farewell… for now.
His words do not coincide exactly with the placing of the artefacts, but it is clearly significant that ‘fire’ is uttered as he places the beads, ‘iron’ as he places the knife and ‘stones’ and ‘earth’ as he places the stone. No one else is close by, although Bjorn does watch from the bottom of the hill. Floki’s complete solitude is as incongruous as Helga’s demise, but the words are clearly spoken for Helga herself, not the gods, nor the living.
All that said, what is striking here is that Vikings achieves something no other television show or film has attempted before to my memory: they try to create an explanation to the placing of mundane grave-goods – items of dress and grooming items – in Viking burials. The careful attention to the interment of relatively humble grave-goods, and the mythological allusions made to the materials from which the selected items are composed (as opposed to their function or symbolism) are distinctive and interesting. The role of combs in practical bodily management but also the preparation of the cadaver for othe funeral is reflected in the widespread presence of these grooming implements in Viking-period graves. Knives are similarly widely found. Armlets are rare in the Atlantic context, but the choice to wrap beads rather than wear them shows that items placed as if worn, might actually be added after interment.
Likewise, their precise situation in the grave in relation to the body, adorning rather than ‘dressing’ the cadaver, makes this a perfect way to conclude our journey through the funerals of Vikings. The mixing of practical and intimate, the ritualised and public aspects of this relatively humble funeral are fascinating. Moreover, the relationship between the supernatural and the prosaic is captured well in Floki’s careful attention the artefacts, and the words with which he places them. In so doing, the religious nature of the funeral is explicit: overt through Floki’s deeds and words, he talks to Helga through things and his voice, making clear the funeral is only a temporary parting.
We need not search for a single parallel in the archaeological record: such a simple grave, with artefacts laid around and upon the body, mirrors many 9th-/10th-century female-gendered furnished inhumation graves from northern Britain.
The location of the grave is not fantastical but neither is it particularly convincing. Proximity to, but outside of settlements, is a perfectly feasible location for Helga’s grave, although we might have expected her to join a pre-existing Christian cemetery. Here again, the isolated nature of Floki’s mourning — echoing the solitary mourning of Ragnar for Aethelstan and Helga for Angrbotha — is best seen as a romantic contrivance.
Still, in the fascinating performative roles envisioned for grave-goods as citations to broader social and mythological narratives, we see a popular television series portraying a key aspect of understanding Viking Age furnished mortuary practice (see Price 2010; Williams 2016).
Price, N. 2010. “Passing into poetry: Viking-age mortuary drama and the origins of Norse mythology.” Medieval Archaeology 54: 123–56.
Williams, H. 2016. “Viking mortuary citations.” European Journal of Archaeology 19(3): 400–14.