In Episode 14 of Vikings Season 5, the fourth of part 2, the pregnant wife of Helgi goes missing. At night, in a thunderstorm, her ghost approaches Floki when he sits alone outside beside the fire and tells him who murdered her, how it happened and where are remains lie. I’m no expert in the Icelandic family sagas, but I did at least recognise that this scene embodies in a sincere way clear inspiration from the ghost story elements of Icelandic medieval tales. The ghost is not a wispy presence, but a very corporal ghost – a draugr. Yet rather than a force of malign violence and death, this draugr comes to Floki in the flesh to speak of her death, displaying her death-wound, and point the way to her grave and thus her killer. Thorunn even names her killer. It feels very much like a good mix of Icelandic ghost story, Hamlet and CSI Miami wrapped into one. Subsequently the shallow grave is discovered and the feuding Icelanders continue on their downward spiral of self destruction.
Throughout Vikings, the storyline repeatedly plays with the idea that the Norse – some more than others – believe in fate and prophesy, and that some are actually in contact with supernatural forces. Some appear governed by their interactions with the supernatural and the desire to join Odin in Valhall. Characters have visions of the gods and Valhalla. Odin even visits the sons of Ragnar to inform them of his death – and the intervention of individuals claiming to have supernatural powers and insights. Floki and Ragnar in particular have many visions, valkyries claiming the souls of the dead, for example, opens the show. Signs are witnessed in blood dripping from wood or in visions of deeds taking place thousands of miles away. Dwarves and land spirits are briefly mentioned in passing, but never seen but Floki actually sees and hears the gods in the Icelandic landscape. So as with the legendary sources they are inspired by, the Vikings world is one of sustained interactions with the supernatural who appear in various guises and disguises.
Specific individuals have the power to mediate with the supernatural. As intercessor between worlds, the Seer claims to be informed by the gods of things yet to take place, including the deeds and doom of Ragnar, Lagertha and the songs of Ragnar. In Season 2, the lawspeaker is also afforded this intercessory status. Aslaug claims to be a seer and able to see the past too.
Yet the Norsemen are not dupes. There are many more who mock and manipulate these beliefs for their own ends and some – including Hvitserk – make clear they rarely consult the Seer as they wish to use experience to direct their actions. Ragnar bribed the lawspeaker in Season 2 to save Rollo’s life. Moreover, in Season 5 part 2, we encounter a ruler so delusional he actually believes he is a god but few will accept his rule: Ivar the Boneless even raises a statue as a cult focus for Kattegat, although it is unclear whether he is delusional or inspired and informed about this kingly identity. He seems himself as a god by divine right and by biological descent.
The dead are one among many supernatural agents who can interact with the living. While burial mounds and other funerary monuments are strikingly not considered places of dialogue with the dead (and this I feel remains a stark omission of the show), we do see multiple instances of a more spiritual connection between the living and the dead. Since Season 1, we see both pagan and Christian characters in dialogue with the dead, including Ragnar with his daughter Gyda, Ragnar with Aethelstan, and Alfred with Aethelstan. Yet never before has the story line swung so clearly in favour of a supernatural agency in events, directly Floki to the dead woman’s grave. The reality of what is shown is left ambiguous: did Floki imagine it all? Did he really receive word from Thorunn’s ghost? Frankly, the viewer can read it either way. Perhaps Floki’s brilliant mind and ability to read landscape and ‘see into trees’ to see the ship planks that might be made from it, would have lead him to the disturbed ground by the waterfall in any case. Still, it prominently featuring graves and ghosts, Vikings is useful in shedding light on a world view very different from our own in which funerals and graves were foci for ongoing dialogues with the dead, mediated by space, place, architecture and material culture. Thorunn’s ghosts has clear, simple tales to tell, naming her murderers and her place of burial. Even though no specific archaeological or literary source is deployed here, it is one of my favour moments of this season of the show.