In previous posts, I’ve explored the mortuary and commemorative practices represented in Vikings. A fascinating mixture of sagas, archaeological sources and new creative fiction have been fused to portray a rich variety of death rituals from Season 1 through to the current Season 6. I’ve now published 3 (2 co-authored) chapters about the series:
Williams, H. and Klevnäs, A. 2019. Dialogues with the dead in Vikings, in P. Hardwick and K. Lister (eds) Vikings and the Vikings: The Norse World(s) of the History Channel Series, Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press. 128−152.
Sanmark, A. and Williams, H. 2019. Things in Vikings, in P. Hardwick and K. Lister (eds) Vikings and the Vikings: The Norse World(s) of the History Channel Series, Jefferson, NC: McFarland Press, 173−200.
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, Sheffield: Equinox, pp. 155–182.
I wish to review some thoughts on further aspects of Season 5 part 2. The Icelandic story line of Season 5 is one of hardship and struggle against the environment, but also about bitter feuding between the two principal families: Eyvind’s and Kjettil’s. The entire season is book-ended by graves that accrue next to the ‘cursed settlement’ instigated by Floki, the two shown are the results of the feud. Eyvind’s son Bul’s boat-shaped stone setting starts the season, a killing that leads to the slaying of Thorgrim – Ketil’s son – and then the death of Thorunn, Kjetill’s daughter, with her unborn child. Eyvind’s family is expelled from the settlement. At Helgi’s request, Kjetill and Floki go to save them. Rather than show mercy, Kjetill slaughters Eyvind’s entire family and sticks and the heads Eyvind and his two sons on spikes (Season 5, episode 17).
Aud, Kjetill’s daughter, consumed by grief at her family’s own violence, commits suicide by jumping off a cliff into a gorge fronting a waterfall. Thus, in episode 18, we encounter Kjetill as a crazed man and Floki in the cemetery, mourning the dead. Whatever one makes of this, the story does crystallise the central focus of the Icelandic family sagas of feuding, condenses it, and projects it back to the very start of the Icelandic settlement.
This second boat-shaped stone-setting – the grave of Aud (whose body was presumably retrieved by Floki – follows the style of Bul’s grave which is in the background. Floki rests a rune-carved antler tine at the ?eastern end of the ship-shaped stone-setting. Walking away, Floki accuses Kjetill of not even digging his own daughter’s grave, implying explicitly that it would have been his mortuary obligation as a father to dig the grave. I’m not sure this is historically attested, although from Ibn Fadlan the chief mourner lights the pyre. I don’t think digging the grave is necessarily equivalent. In any case, Kjetill replies snidely and dismissively of his dead daughter, that he thought she’d become more Floki’s daughter than his own. Aud’s mother mourns at the grave alone while Kjetill and Floki talk. Floki explains what violence his old self would have enacted. Instead, however, he states that he won’t do that: he is ‘done with the humans’. Floki departs to wander into a cave to find the truth of his journey’s folly in regarding Iceland as the land of the pagan gods… The grave is thus shown as a focus of mourning and remembrance: the commemoration of the dead but also of the feud that is dooming the settlement to near-extinction.
One of the principal criticisms of Vikings and its mortuary rituals is the presence of only two mortuary monuments and no cemeteries in the whole of Seasons 1-4: the grave of Floki’s unnamed father in Season 2, and the grave of Earl Kalf in Season 4 part 1. Most funerals are portrayed as if the burial or burning of the body (or bodies) is the principal focus of obsequies and marking the burial or burning place was not represented. In stark contrast to our archaeological and written sources, the dead in Vikings are not present in the landscapes of Scandinavia or elsewhere.
Season 5 begins to rectify this error, with the grave of Sigurd, son of Ragar, depicted as a low mound on a ridge above the river beside the Viking encampment in England. The Icelandic ship-shaped stone settings also serve in some small way to rectify the absence of the dead from the 9th-century landscape. Regardless of the plot and the form of the inhumation grave (which is plausible in general terms), I love the way that stone-settings mark the Icelandic landscape, and frame the sequence of exchange killings. Those in between’s graves are now shown, and perhaps their heads remained on stakes, their bodies discarded. The stark contrast between the deviant dead and the honoured dead is thus evocative too. The losing side are presumably denied a proper burial. Those afforded boat-shaped stone-settings close to the settlement are those of Kjettil’s family at the start and end of the narrative. Thus, the graves operate as a monumental testament to the unfolding sequence of deaths and the perceived discrepant moralities of the demises. And so, a burial tradition and a cemetery is shown in the Icelandic landscape, albeit at a bizarre location amidst geysirs, contrasted with the ‘cursed’ dead, beheaded and discarded.