It’s been a long time to get here, but we finally experience the ultimate Viking funeral ever portrayed on film or television: the funeral of Lagertha in Vikings Season 6 part 1.
This is surely the longest-ever and most spectacular Viking funeral portrayed for popular audiences. It is a suitable subject of my last commentary on Vikings Season 6 part 1, following on from a host of blog-posts critically evaluating the death rituals of the television series from Season 1 onwards.
We are shown a large crowd, a mobilisation of resources like never before, priests, ritual sex and human sacrifice, the slaying of beasts and a long sequence of preparations. We never learn who organises it, although the ‘Angel of Death’ has a role, and male priests too.
The landscape context is a fjord, seemingly set apart from Kattegat but close by. As well as an assembly of people to watch the funeral ship’s last journey, a processional route is shown, lit and demarcated by torches on poles by which the cadaver and survivors arrive on site. Two gangways allow practical access to the ship upon the frozen fjord, but are ornamented with ritual paraphenalia, which in Vikings comprises flowers and chains of animal vertebrae (these are also suspended down the backs of the bald priests with their white and black face-paint).
The funeral is portrayed as a drawn-out affair taking all day. It culminates and focuses upon drumming and dancing, a bewildering, spectacular, extravagant, violent and theatrical furnishing of a ship upon ice, sombre moments of reflection and conversation with the decased, and a quiet lament, followed by ice-breaking, the hauling, burning and breaking and ship as it consigns the deceased to the next world.
The funeral encapsulates so much that is ‘alien’ and ‘other’, barbarian and pagan; yet the funeral is shown to be emotive, personal and memorable, combining both drama and intimate dialogues with the dead through her corpse. The magnitude of the event is made clear when Bjorn Ironside arrives unaware but for a feeling of loss that his mother is dead: the entire population has emptied to attend Lagertha’s funeral and the town is utterly deserted.
In short, Lagertha’s funeral comprises everything we want an elite Viking funeral to be, at least one fit for a fantastical warrior woman and queen. It mashes together and responds to the early 10th-century account of Ahman Ibn Fadlan, a bit of the Prose Edda portrayal of Baldr’s funeral, and a host of evidence from the archaeological record from elite Viking-period ship inhumation and cremation graves from Scandinavia. Yet beyond all of these, the funeral is of course a response to a range of filmic and televisual funerals preceding it, from Einar’s funeral in The Vikings (1958) to the funerals hitherto shown in this drama series. Yet more than these influences, this is an evoluation within the show itself. The result is a funeral that goes places that (to my knowledge at least) Viking funerals have never gone before: pitching fire against ice in the transformation of the dead and using the frozen fjord as the stage for the cremation ceremony.
The material dimensions are prominent, although sadly thre are some odd absences. Disappointingly, unlike Helga’s funeral, no stories are told with any of the material cultures. And by holding the funeral on the frozen fjord, the funeral eskews monumentality as had the funerals of Earl Haraldsson and Queen Aslaug before them. The archaeological monumentality and landscape context of elite funerals from Viking-period Scandinavia is completely side-stepped.
Still, the ship itself is not an arbitrary vessel: it is Lagertha’s boat: an object with a biography that has journeyed her to and through her many adventures. Some strange further absences include the lack of food and drink: there is no feasting and no intoxication: it is a very sober Viking funeral. Despite this, there is animal sacrifice, the vivid spilling and spreading of blood, and the creation of her ship decked with dried flowers, a bed, furs, weapons and other personal items, together with a shield maiden who volunteers to be sacrificed. Notably, archaeological-style birdseye views are afforded of the ship decked and ready to be burned.
As such, it is the ultimate farewell for one of TV’s most popular female characters. Lagertha’s funeral trumps all earlier portrayals of a Viking funeral in TV and film in scale and elaboration. Indeed, they dedicate an entire episode – The Ice Maiden (episode 7) – to the funeral, interspersed with only occasional snippets of what is happening elsewhere in Kiev. The show is conscious of what it is doing here. And the characters themselves are conscious of making this like no other and projectiong Lagertha’s memory down the generations to come. As Torvi says, this was designed to be a funeral like no other before among their folk, and she is right. It contains many of the materials and themes we’ve seen before, but combined and enhanced in an unprecedented fashion.
The ending is fabulous and ludicrous. We’ve encountered flaming arrows before at Aslaug’s funeral. Here, despite the pyre already being alight, flaming arrows and ballista bolts fired from the cliffs aim to crack the ice, and horses and shield maidens draw the ship forward into the fjord so it burns and sinks.
We then travel into the realms of the imagination. With the eyes of Lagertha’s grandchild, Asa, peering through the ice, we see her tranformed in death and join Ragnar in the next world.
In short, it is everything that we imagine Viking funerals could be and should be and almost certainly never were.
Check out my YouTube Archaeodeath video on this episode for more details!