In one of my most recent publications in the book The Public Archaeology of Death, I surveyed and evaluated the portrayal of mortuary practice in the TV show Vikings Seasons 1-4. I concluded that Vikings gives us a rich sense of mortuary variability in the Viking world and tackles themes of mortality in the past and present through a fictional lens. Moreover, it brings Norse death-ways to a global television audience in a fashion no archaeological report ever could. The show reveals the influence of archaeological research as well as our fascination with Viking death for present-day mortuary matters.
Critical dimensions of death rituals portrayed in the show include limited attention to post-cremation practices and mortuary monuments, although there are many interesting features affirmed by archaeological evidence depicted in the five series aired to date. Key to the funerals is their variability of scale and mode (cremation and inhumation), differences in the provision of grave-good and grave structures, and contrasting disposal locations (over water and upon land, almost always close to water).
Now that Season 5 parts 1 and 2 have completely aired, I wish to return to review the additional depictions of Viking-period funerals and commemorative rituals and what these reveal about the show’s representation of the 9th-century world. In previous posts, I’ve already reviewed:
- the boat-grave at the very start of Season 5 part 1;
- the boat-shaped inhumation at the very end of Season 5 part 1.
Both of these Season 5 part 1 funerals offer new permutations of mortuary practice that differ from what we’ve seen before on the show. Hence, regardless of their precise accuracy and relationship to specific archaeological exemplar, the range and variability of location, structures and grave-goods as well as disposal method, are effectively communicated by Vikings. Let me remind readers: there is simply no previous fictional series that has ever attempted this for the Viking world!
Now there are executions and human sacrifices in Season 5 part 1,and in earlier seasons. However, as before, I have refused as yet to engage with these largely fantastical representations but I may address them in the future. Instead, I want to point out one method of corpse disposal that many might have missed, taking place as it does in the first episode of Season 5 part 1 and practised by the West Saxon Christian royal household itself: cremation!
Yes, this overtly ‘pagan’ and ‘Norse’ (in the 9th-century context) disposal method is employed as an emergency corpse-disposal method by the disease-ridden exiles from the royal court hiding out in the fens of (what I presume is) Somerset. Aethelwulf and Edith are tending to a sick Alfred (their son). They are living in a 9th-century version of the Glastonbury Lake Village and they travel about in coracles. The fact that Aethelwulf rows himself, and both conduct humble tasks like food processing, articulates their poverty having been defeated and vanquished in battle by the Norsemen.
This is the context – dire straits for Wessex and an inter-regnum following the killing of Ecbert – in which the Saxons choose to revert to ‘pagan ways’ and mass-cremate the dead in a wetland landscape. As Aethelwulf rows to the settlement, we are shown a corpse floating in the water. Later, we see multiple bodies alight on a makeshift pyre. Just behind Edith in the scene above, a body is chucked unceremoniously onto the pyre to burn with them!
Does it make sense in the context of the show? Yes.
I scoffed at first at this choice of disposal, but rather than an historical illiteracy, it is a deliberate choice to articulate the context of what is happening to the main characters.
In Season 1, we are shown cremation as both a high-status Norse funerary ceremony of an earl slain in a duel, and a mode for disposing of plague victims in Kattegat. Subsequently, we see cremation taking place over water and on land on multiple occasions. When Queen Aslaug is slain in Season 4 part 1, she is burned over water by her killers. After defeat in battle in Season 2 the mass burning of warriors after battle and over water. A similar mass cremation on land, also after defeat in battle, is led by Lagertha in Season 4 part 1. In all cases, cremation is seen as a fully integrated part of the funerary rituals of the Norse, but also linked to sombre defeat on more occasions than not.
So we are introduced to cremation in the show as a non-Christian rite. This provides a backdrop to how viewers are expected to read the brief and background cremation scene conducted by the West Saxons in Season 5 part 1. Viewers of the show are being afforded the intelligence to see beyond historical ‘accuracy’ to consider funerals as visual cues to the fortunes and moods of the characters. Here the disease affecting the West Saxons is clearly a result of displacement and all the attendant factors – bad sanitation, poor diet, exposure to the elements, and emotional stress. Their recourse to a non-Christian method of corpse disposal, away from consecrated ground and without priests attending, is a powerful visual index of the desperation and destitution to which even the royal family is subjected in response to military defeats and being forced to flee from the Heathen Great Army led by the sons of Ragnar. This background moment poses the question: in a wetland disease-ridden temporary camp, might even West Saxon royals burn their dead?
Williams, H. 2019. Death’s drama: mortuary practice in Vikings Season 1–4, in H. Williams, B. Wills-Eve and J. Osborne (eds) The Public Archaeology of Death, 155–182. Sheffield: Equinox.