It’s time to pick up on my continued saga of exploring the Norse funerals and mortuary monuments in the TV series Vikings.
The show offers an unprecedented opportunity to explore the materialities, spatialities and variabilities of death rituals in the Viking world, and in previous posts I’ve identified how we can write an ‘archaeology’ of the show, including both the archaeological inspirations for its representations of graves and funerals, and its innovative decisions regarding what to show and what not to show regarding dying, death and the dead in the ninth-century legendary world recreated in Vikings.
You can read through my previous 41 posts here dealing with Seasons 1-5. The first half of Season 6 has now been aired and I wish to explore how death rituals continue to feature prominently in the show.
First, we must deal with the burial and reeexcavation of a sword rather than a human being. This is both of interest in itself and as a prelude to the character’s own demise. Episodes 1 and 3 of Season 6 part 1 present a close relationship between persons and things in this heroic fictitious version of the early Viking Age.
The show’s famed warrior-woman, Lagertha (played by Katheryn Winnick) founds a new community where she aims to live in peace and relative tranquility. She literally attempts to ‘bury the hatchet’ – giving up on her warrior life in order to reconnect to her youth as a farmer. This naive idealism following the brutal feuds and conflicts she has actively participated in. She turns her back on her warrior ways by giving her sword a private funeral in the woods above the site of the new settlement.
Dressed as for battle (i.e. as the show has hitherto shown her, not in anything we would anticipate from the archaeological record), she kneels and in a shallow scoop between rocks, she digs through ridiculously loose moss and soil, and then unsheaths her sword. She holds it in both hands as if presenting it to the gods, saying:
As the sun sets, and in the sight of the gods. I swear I will fight no more. Forever.
She then lays it bare without scabbard in the ground, throws some moss and soil over it, and she departs.
Trouble starts again with a band of outlaws and so she is forced to dig up her sword to defend her grandchildren’s lives and the settlement more broadly.
Fortunately for her, she didn’t bury it at any depth, the soil was not compacted and the blade was not only fully accessible with only 2-3 seconds of excavation, but the blade has been miraculously untarnished by rust. Perhaps this was the very same day?!
Now, at one level, the close association of a weapon with the biography of a living person is a feature underplayed in the show thus far. Ragnar gains the king’s sword when he slays King Horik at the end of Season 2, but we don’t get many other close connections between artefacts and people beyond the occasional featuring of ‘oath rings’ (bronze and silver arm-rings). So this is a pair of scenes worthy of praise, and while we don’t get told the name of Lagertha’s sword, we can imagine its deeds and her fate are tied closely both in her own perception and that of saga-tellers evoking the famed deeds of Viking-era heroes. Famed swords were named swords in the written sources, and so we can anticipate this was a named and famed weapon linked to Lagertha’s former combats and battles. Burying it not only articulates her giving up an aspect of her warrior identity, it was a form of martial death for herself. Are we meant to imagine her giving up on Valhalla too (given the show’s stereotypical equation of Valhalla with an honourable death without fear in conflict). The deposition is certainly private, but a solemn ritual act witnessed by the gods through her proclamation.
There is some archaeological context in general terms we could mention for Lagertha’s act, if not in regards to her precise behaviour. Weapon deposition is of course a variable but widespread feature of mortuary practice in the later first millennium AD in Scandinavia, and while not ‘warrior burials’, might indicate a close connection between kin groups giving up a prized blade to honour the death of one of their number. Sometimes we have evidence that weapons were among those items later ‘robbed’ by kin from graves to be circulated again in gift exchanges and other aspects of social relations and inheritance practices. Indeed, in Season 2, we are shown Floki digging into his father’s grave to retrieve his sword to exchange in his marraige ceremony.
Weapon deposition into water is also known and presumed to be a sacrificial act rather than a denouncement of violence by the wielder. It is also known in some places from dryland context. Yet these are clearly – at least in those instances where the archaeological evidence remains, one-way journeys. In the former the consignment into lakes and rivers prevents their easy retrieval, while in the latter the weapons are often deliberately bent or broken.
None of these practices match with Lagertha’s behaviour. So, while I’m happy to be corrected by literary scholars, I don’t think this representation matches any specific behaviour from a Norse saga or the archaeological record. I take it more to be a personal act linked to the specific arc of the character of Lagertha in the television show without literary parallel. The connect of person and weapon is foregrounded, and this is good, but the detail is far more akin to male heroes’ behaviours in Westerns. Lagertha is here more Shane (Alan Ladd in Shane, 1953) or Britt (played by James Coburn from The Magnificent Seven, 1960) than any Norse hero.