I confess I have missed out a key funeral scene in my review of Vikings Seasons 1-4! I jumped to discussing Vikings Season 5’s funerals without mentioning the cremation of the war dead during the second attack of the Northmen on Paris.
Previously in Vikings, we’ve been shown individual cremation in Scandinavia and mass-cremations during raiding in England, both taking place over water. Aslaug is also burned over water. The show has also depicted mass-cremations on the beach at Kattegat. But a different permutation of landscape, context and cremation takes place in Episode 7 of Season 4 part 1. The war dead are cremated on land, beside the River Seine, following the campaign to tackle Rollo’s river defences.
Lagertha has lost many of her shieldmaidens in the fighting and, as she does during the epidemic that kills many in Kattegat in Season 1, she serves as officiate. In contrast, Ragnar stands at the back, reluctant to take responsibility for the losses involved in the assault. Spatial proximity to the funeral and honouring the dead assures legitimacy, but the gender imbalance and Lagertha’s lack of ambition to supplant Ragnar means he keeps his power and authority for the time being. Lagertha shows herself to be the more proficient captain, if not leader of the entire army.
The spectacle of the mass-cremation is striking and large. Again, no one sings or performs: all is silent, reflecting the sombre occasion but perhaps still unlikely. The dead are equipped with shields over their bodies and appear dressed as they died. Presumably other artefacts are upon their bodies and weapons are placed beside them, but this isn’t clear as most bodies are wrapped in blankets.
As in previous cremations ceremonies depicted in the show, no attempt is made to entertain post-cremation ceremonies as key installments of the obsequies. In particular, we see no mound-building, cairn or stone-setting creation, or stone or wooden post-raising to commemorate the dead.
In some tight shots, we are shown a perspective of mourners and pyres interpolated. This is an innovation in the portrayal of cremation and is worthwhile. The perspective is of Ragnar, seeing others closer to the pyre and the multiple pyres ablaze.
A further feature of the cremation, indeed the only other dimension than the large collective pyres themselves, are slender posts (?spears) accompanied by cross-arms with centrally placed shields. Four of these are raised behind the pyres. These are part of a ‘ritual/cultic’ aesthetic of the show and they appear elsewhere. They are behind the thing site at Kattegat in Season 1 and Season 4 part 1, and similarly at the thing site at Hedeby in Season 4 part 1. One of these re-appears on the grave of Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye in Season 5 part 1 and it is unclear what they are supposed to denote. However, they are a means of showing the potential ways that the temporary marking of pyre-sites and graves might have taken place.