The Man who could not die is buried here. But is still alive.
So says Gunnhild whilst mourning her dead husband, Bjorn Ironside, in the opening episode of Season 6 part 2 of the hit television show Vikings.
Vikings has now concluded after 3 standard-length seasons and 3 double-length seasons and thus a total of 89 episodes. This is an unprecedented portrayal of the Viking Age for 21st-century audiences. As academics continue to reflect on the show’s strengths and weaknesses, its significances and legacy for popular understandings of the Viking Age, I’m pleased to have authored one chapter about the TV show’s funerals in seasons 1-4 in the 2019 The Public Archaeology of Death. Furthermore, I’ve co-authored chapters evaluating the assembly places and practices, plus the treatment of human remains, in seasons 1-5; these were published last year in the first-ever academic collection exploring the show’s themes and world: Vikings and the Vikings.
To date, I’ve reviewed the funerals and mortuary dimensions of the portrayal of the Norse up to season 6 part 1 on this blog. Now the show has concluded, I return to survey the funerals and mortuary archaeology of season 6 part 2. We start with the howe (burial mound) of leading character Bjorn Ironside (Alexander Ludwig). Fans have been speculating on the fascinating death and ‘burial’ on horseback of Bjorn Ironside within a burial mound. Here is my archaeological perspective on what we see.
One of my criticisms of the funerals in Vikings seasons 1-4 was the lack of tombs. Beyond a brief engagement with Floki’s father’s cairn and Lagertha’s exorcism of bad spirits at a small boat-shaped stone-setting covering Earl Kalf’s grave, cemeteries simply don’t exist in the landscapes of Vikings. However, almost as if they had read my criticisms on my blog, this has been increasingly remedied by the greater attention to funerary monuments of various forms, including ship-shaped stone settings and modest mounds, in seasons 5 parts 1-2 and season 6, represented in a ship-burial beneath a modest mound in England and Iceland’s first cemetery of boat-shaped stone settings, as well as in Scandinavia itself: the funeral of those killed in battle against White Hair buried beneath a ship-shaped cairn, and Lagertha’s funeral on ice.
Again, I repeat the point that I’ve made in print: none of the funerals in Vikings are ‘accurate’, because they aren’t pretending to show an historical real-world. This is creative storytelling for an historical drama inspired by later saga literature. Still, the show has been at pains to draw on a range of archaeological details and themes in general terms, as well as those found in contemporary and later written sources. What is important to recognise is how the show does this to reveal not only common themes but also the variability in Viking-period death rituals. Thus, the show is an important artistic statement regarding the complexity of ideas and motivations driving the diversity of death ways in northern Europe in the late first millennium AD. In this regard, it is invaluable as a popular medium for education and engagement in the ‘Viking world’. Indeed, the very prominence of funerals in the show is the most ‘accurate’ thing of all: the show sheds light on a world where death was everywhere, and the dead needed to be afforded respect and honour, ritual performances and dialogues of remembrance and mourning. Yet, up to this point, a large, striking burial mound has been a missing component, despite the aforementioned unduly modest mound raised over the ship-burial of Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye in Season 5 part 1.
The tradition of showing burning over water or by water remains a prominent ingredient of funerals in Vikings, and each new funeral is yet again distinctive, reflecting the specific character and circumstances of the death(s). Yet Vikings season 6 part 2 finally fills the yawning gap of absent burial mounds through the grave of Bjorn Ironside, the only son of Ragnar and Lagertha. Fatally wounded by Ivar the Boneless, Bjorn struggles half-alive to lead Kattegat’s armies to victory against the invading Rus. He dies upright in his horse, pierced by arrows – like a mashup of El Cid and Boromir.
For Ragnar’s mock-funeral, and for Aslaug’s funeral, aspects of sacrifice and procession and multiple stages are depicted, and Lagertha’s funeral takes up much of an entire episode in its elaborate and implausible procedures! For Bjorn, we do not get to see any of the processions and ceremonies, feasting and animal sacrifices we might image accompanied his long-lasting funeral. We are presumably afforded the impression he was honoured like no other before him apart from perhaps Lagertha. Instead, we join the obsequies at the very last moment: Bjorn is already installed in the tomb and his burial mound is about to be closed.
And what a tomb! The idea that Bjorn was already dead while leading armies to victory is mirrored in the ambiguity regarding whether he is indeed truly dead. Bjorn becomes the ultimate ‘mound-dweller’ of Norse saga literature, neither immortal or extant nor fully deceased or gone to Valhalla. This is articulated in a bold, ridiculous and yet still somehow almost believable way in the magical space of Bjorn’s howe. We encounter Bjorn mounted on his horse, almost as if he were still alive, his right arm raised holding aloft the sword of the king which Ragnar had acquired from Horik in season 2! No sense or logic can explain this utterly impractical and incongruous treatment, but despite its ludicrous nature, it is rendered eerie and almost believable as an exceptional funerary treatment befitting the great king.
The scene opens with Gunnhild alone inside the howe, last to look upon her husband before the mound is closed. She stands gazing upwards at Bjorn, whose eyes are hidden from view by shadows and one can imagine might just be still an animated presence, only sleeping or ‘frozen’ in time.
Around him, the burial mound seems furnished around the edge of the walls with provisions for his mound-dwelling existence. There are buckets of wheat or barley, and other food stuffs, as well as at least one casket of treasure. The floor is flat and even, uncluttered and covered with a fine sand or dust under the horse itself and up to and down the passage way leading outside. There is an odd and (to my knowledge) archaeologically unprecedented candle-stand near the entrance. The lower parts of the walls constitute bare megalithic orthostats with flat slabs creating a shelf upon which candles are burning.
Above this shoulder-height shelf, the walls appear to be plastered as they rise to a dome. The lowest band are of gold-painted with red-outline giant runic characters, each oddly interspersed with punctuation dots usually deserved to distinguish entire words on Viking-period rune-inscribed memorials. I am unsure what the inscription says and I’m no runologist. Again, this is the realms of fantasy and no such features have archaeological parallels: it is almost as if we are in a northern version of the mausoleum of Theodoric at Ravenna,
The next band of ornamentation is a series of moving figures evoking journeying between worlds by ship and by horse. These comprise interspersed depictions of Sleipnir (Odin’s eight-legged stallion as represented on Gotlandic picture stone from Tjängvide) and longships with dragon prows in the style of the Bayeux Tapestry. Yet unlike their inspirations, the horses are riderless and the ships empty of visible mariners.
Gunnhild is the last to leave, and men then block up the portal with loose rocks: the tomb is closed but not sealed.
The shots linger on Bjorn inside, in stasis, neither fully living nor dead. This second view inside Bjorn’s howe reveals the interspersed Sleipnirs and empty ships continue around the walls of these near-circular chamber above the runic inscription. Opposite the doorway, behind Bjorn, there is a striking raven depiction, an elaborated black-painted version of the upward flying bird depicted on the Jorvik-minted mid-10th-century pennies of Anlaf Guthrithson.
The curve of the dome itself is depicted with larger-than-life portraits of warriors, perhaps his half-brothers and/or ancestors: at least 6 are visible and perhaps those immediately behind are intended to represent Ragnar and Rollo, the former is social father, the latter his biological father. A red shield forms the apex of the dome. This is stupendous and fantastical.
Then the shot shows the kerbed mound with megalithic portal isolated on a mountainside overlooking Kattegat and the fjord.
Again, it is worthy of note that the episode ends with this funeral. Bjorn’s mound thus conflates the idea of a mound-dweller and ‘dying into the mountains’, both themes shared across 12th/13th-century Icelandic sources, both perhaps revealing echoes of older traditions of both burial mounds and hills/mountains as dwelling places into which the dead might pass and occupy.
The enduring howe as a landmark
As well as showing a tomb as a prominent, monumental end-point for a funeral and installing the dead with grave-goods, a royal heirloom in the form of the ‘sword of kings’ and a beast (stuffed, or else it is a ‘model’ of a beast, who knows?) in a fantastical but magnificent architectural dwelling-space, Vikings works to convey the enduring presence of the newly built mound as part of the visual envelope of the Kattegat town and seat of royal power. We see views from the howe down over Kattegat, thus articulating for audiences the powerful continued presence of Bjorn as an identity and force in the landscape and in the affairs of the inhabitants as Harald, Erik, Gunnhild and Ingrid compete for power over the throne. Hence, in episode 2 visualises the relationship between the tomb and Kattegat – it is on the skyline above the town and Ingrid and Erik scheme about their plans about power beside the fjord and under the shadow of the mound on the horizon.
The howe as a place of intercession – 3 contrasting visits
Vikings also plays with the idea of the tomb of a king as a place of intercession with the dead and the gods, drawing on the mound-dweller tradition of the Norse saga literature. In this legendary world, this is as much about real-world experiences and responses to prehistoric megalithic architecture and Vendel/Merovingian-period great mounds as it is to newly built monuments: we have plenty of archaeological evidence that far-older mounds were the focus of Viking-period cemeteries, cult sites and assembly places.
In episode 3, Ingrid goes to the tomb and conducts a ritual at the tomb. She removes the stones and enters, taking the skulls of deer, herbs and rune-inscribed stones, paints her face with white paint and by dancing and chanting hopes to summon the gods. Frustratingly, we never really learn whether she is successful and why precisely she is doing this. To whatever end, we sense the tomb as a place of intercession with the gods even if we don’t learn what effects it brings. Is she trying to ensure her unborn child is Bjorn’s through sexualised interaction with his corpse? Of course she succeeds through her ‘magic’ to poison Erik and kill him in a needlessly long-winded fashion to take the throne of Kattegat when all rivals are dead. But how is her howe-visit instrumental in this regard?
Episode 4 sees a revisit to Bjorn’s tomb by Gunnhild. This isn’t about the tomb as place of intercession with spiritual forces, however. Instead, Gunnhil is engaging with the howe to seek the counsel of her dead husband as well as to articular more a personal farewell to Bjorn her lover. In doing so, she reflects on her own vulnerable political and social position. We are left wondering whether she actually enters, or is it an intercession through her dreams/imagination. Unlike the bright lights and rich colours of the newly furnished howe, the tomb is now starkly empty and cold with only a beam of natural light descending from an aperture in the apex of the dome which evokes the vertical descent of heroes in saga literature into burial chambers. Dimly, we see the runes and orthostats are still visible in the gloom. She walks right up to him, and talks to the silent mounted sword-raised figure, explaining to him her choice to marry King Harald. She reflects on the death of Ragnar, Lagertha and him, and speculates as to whether the golden age of the Vikings is over (maybe she means ‘silver age’?).
The third and final visitor does not enter the tomb, but sits beside and upslope from its entrance. In episode 6, Hvitserk talks to his brother as if he is in a place close to the gods, able to hear their words, but still separate from them. Moreover, it is at this moment that the show, perhaps for only the second time, unambiguously breaks the wall between the gods and people. Complementing the message of Ragnar’s death taken to his sons by Odin, we now see the goddess Idunn ‘choosing to appear’ to Hvitserk to comfort him.
Of course, the placing of a tomb on a mountainside, far above the settlement, and bereft of context, is starkly fantastical and contradicts all archaeological evidence for the large expansive burial grounds on islands and close to the shore stretching away from early towns as at Birka and Kaupang (for example). It might be more inspired by the idea of Icelandic sagas where mounds are raised on headlands overlooking the sea, sometimes across water from the farmsteads from whence they resided in life. Still, the megalithic architecture of Bjorn’s tomb indicate this is less about Viking death ritual and more about how Neolithic tombs and Bronze Age, such as those in Västergötland or Orkney, might have been imagined during the Viking Age and the later medieval period as the chambered dwellings of ancient kings and named and attracting myths and legends.
The details of the burial depart strikingly from the archaeological record, and they are meant to. Yet themes do connect up: elite burial in a seated position (and thus animated, if not on horseback) is attested from the sagas and from chamber-graves (such as those from Birka, including the now-famous/infamous Bj581 chamber grave). Burial with weapons and sacrificed horses is also attested in both the archaeological record and the later saga literature. Moreover, the specific and bold vision of Bjorn upon his horse plays off the idea of Theodoric the Great’s mausoleum at Ravenna and the Byzantine idea of mosaiced ceilings, mashed up with the 9th-century Rök runestone which records the great king as:
Theodoric the bold,
chief of sea-warriors,
ruled over the shores of the Hreiðsea.
Now he sits armed
on his Goth(ic horse),
his shield strapped,
the prince of the Mærings.
This is often taken to be a reference to Theodoric’s statue (although see the most recent take here). In Vikings this is mashed up with this later German namesake Frederick I (Barbarossa) who legend has (akin to Arthur and Bran of British traditions) sleeping with knights in the cave of the Kyffahuser mountains in Thuringia or Mount Untersberg between Germany and Austria to reawaken when peril threatens the realm (thanks to @Jotem27007 for reminding me of this!). Like Frederick, Michael Hirst’s vision for Bjorn as the impervious king, slain by his own half-brother, is vividly imagined as still ‘on his horse’ like Theodoric and in stasis like Frederick.
I also like the way in which his mound is accessible to those who dare, but closed off with stones. The howe is shown as protected yet permeable to those with intent.
The idea of a mound-dweller and of dialogues and necromancy involving the occupants of howes, as well as entering tombs to combat their seated sleeping yet animated occupants are a replete theme of the saga literature, and this sequence pays homage to this tradition and extends it. We don’t see Bjorn reanimated, but his animated pose does capture the awe and terror this form of interment seems to inspires in the saga literature: the tomb is a place of reverence and dread.
The broader tradition of this in later literature, as in Eyrbyggja Saga where Thorolf Mostrarskegg believed he and his kin would die into a particular mountain near his dwelling: Helgafell. It is equally is well-versed in relation to tombs specifically and not just in Iceland: Egil’s Saga recounts how King Herlaug entered a burial mound prepared over 3 days with 12 of his men and closes it behind him rather than face Harold’s overlordship (Chapter 3). Another notable examples is when Gunnar sings from within his burial mound, witnessed by drovers by day and then by Hogni and Skarphedinn at night in Chapter 77 of Njal’s Saga). Both hills and howes are seen as akin to halls for the dead.
Entering burial mounds is a dangerous pursuit, as Grettir found out when he enters the chamber of Kar the Old to find a man sitting in a high-chair and with gold and silver heaped together and a small chest (like the one depicted in Bjorn’s mound) full of silver. Of course, Grettir fights the draugr but the horses bones are just that: there are no animated beasts in the chamber. Such barrow-dwellers are to be decapitated to exorcise them, placing the head on their rear.
Worshipping at grave-mounds in Vikings is shown in two contrasting senses – the writhing rituals of Ingrid to evoke the gods, and the quiet personal dialogue with Bjorn by Gunnhild. The idea that people ‘sacrificed’ to mound-dwellers is recorded in Flateyjarbok (Halfdan the Black and Olaf Geirstadaalfr) and Ynglinga Saga (Freyr), plus there is the tradition of ‘sitting on a howe’ in dialogue with the dead. However, while Hirst shows two contrasting interactions with Bjorn’s howe by women whom he had loved entering into it, neither resemble or resonate closely with the surviving saga literature. Still, it is at least a welcome reflection on the potential enduring power of the burial mound in the Viking-period landscapes: places to be worshipped, places of memory evoking the stories of the dead, places of intercession, and in some instances (as with the great mounds of Vestfold) places that needed to be robbed to decommission their power and personalities by rival dynasties.
In short, this final illustrious representation is informed, creative, evocative and ridiculous in equal measure, and despite my critical reservations it is ‘true’ to the sources it draws upon in broad and selective fashions. Vikings pays creative and partial respect to archaeological and historical evidence as well as drawing directly on multiple strands from the later saga traditions. In doing so, Bjorn’s howe takes us far from the historical reality of the royal burial mounds of the Viking Age, and yet still captures the very magic and awe that burial monuments such as Oseberg, Gokstad, Ladby, Jelling and Lejre evoke in the modern mind. In particular, this rendition is true to the monumental associations with Bjorn as a Swedish king in later sources, and his association with multiple burial mounds, including Bjornshogen near Birka at Ekeby, and the famous Hågahögen near Uppsala. This is the final, and perhaps the most important, narrative gained: that ancient mounds accrue ‘fame’ and association with legendary personages who might have no direct association with their far-older occupants. Like Beowulf’s mound from the Anglo-Saxon poem, ancient monuments of pre-Viking date endured in the landscapes of the Viking Age and medieval periods, perceived as containing the dormant but potentially reawakened presences of famed occupants. Hirst is alluding to these traditions and perceptions in the portrayal of Bjorn Ironside’s howe as much as to any Viking-period mortuary practice.
And so there Bjorn sits, sword raised, astride his horse, encased in megalithic splendour, his cairn isolated, prominent, overlooking the world of the living, seemingly timeless and undying, awaiting Ragnarok: a once and future king.
Ellis, R. 1943. The Road to Hel. Oxford: Oxford University Press.