I’m wading my way through the anime series Vinland Saga and things are heating up on all fronts as we move to episode 19. As part of the back story, Thorkell reveals he knew Thorfinn’s father Thors when they served together as Jomsvikings. With Thors lost and presumed dead, he is given a funeral in absentia.
For only the second time, we have a funeral scene. In the opening episode, Thors and his family bury a slave who stumbled into their Iceland farm in an isolated headland context. In contrast, the cenotaphic funeral of Thors is shown as a boat-cremation. As previously discussed and much debated in relation to the TV show Vikings, fiery funerals over water are a feature again and again, in Season 1, Season 2, Season 4 part 2 and Season 5 part 1.
The very brief scene is remarkable in showing how, despite all the slaying and battlefield scenes, the burial of the dead is a very low-key dimension to the show (unlike Vikings). Moreover, it shows the popular appreciation of cremation, and music as elements of solemn and dramatic high-status Norse funerals. The funeral is sombre, not only for the fact the Jomsvikings are losing their greatest warrior and without a body, but for Thorkell there is regret that he was never able to face him in combat.
More than the plot of Vinland Saga, the portrayal reveals just how entrenched the idea of cremation in boats over water is on popular culture, despite the limited direct evidence that it was actually practised in the Viking Age. Like horned helmets, this is a trope of our present-day obsession with the Norse world. It patches together the death of the god Baldr from the Prose Edda with the account of the cremation and inhumation of the dead in ships and boats on land attested from historical and archaeological evidence. Yet, it really owes its popularity to the death and funeral of Einar in The Vikings (1958). However, it say this is ‘wrong’ is pushing it. If the dead were actually burned on water, difficult though this might have been to achieve, we wouldn’t necessarily expect to find demonstrable archaeological evidence to support or deny it. Rather than denounce this kind of representation, it is more helpful to understand its connections to past practices and contemporary death rituals and imaginings. Indeed, burning boats for the dead is no more fantastical than many other dimensions of the show, skirting the borders of history to make dramatic fiction. In this way, it shares much with the sagas…