In my journey through six seasons of Vikings I have attempted to present a positive yet critical evaluation of Michael Hirst’s portrayal of a legendary 9th-century northern Europe. I have focused in particular on the inspirations and ramifications in the prominent use of Norse funerary rituals and funerary monuments in the show. Much of what is shown is inspired by sagas and other written sources, notably the account of Ibn Fadlan, as well as our 20th/21st-century expectations of what constitutes a Viking death. Yet there are also clear and strong flavourings of archaeological inspiration too at various points. I’ve commended the rich variability in death rituals on show, and while funerary monuments are few and far between in seasons 1-4, they appear more commonly in seasons 5 and 6.
While I have yet to focus on the funerals of the Christian Franks and Anglo-Saxons shown, as well as others (including First Nations), the final episode of the final season (6 part 2) – The Last Act – concludes by showing the defeat of Ivar the Boneless by Alfred of Wessex. Killed by an unnamed warrior, Ivar locks gaze with his brother Hvitserk before expiring. His brother weeps and stays at his side. The fighting stops and as we pan up, we see that Ivar has fallen adjacent to Alfred’s battle-cross: juxtaposing pagan and Christian. This is a constant fixation of the show, depicting a world on the cusp of Christian conversion.
As the warriors leave the field of conflict, his crutch is the only thing left standing.
After the battle, we get to see the burial of one of the most famous Vikings of all.
In his sickbed in Alfred’s custody, Hvitserk expresses his wish, subsequently granted through royal Christian agency:
I need to give my brother a proper burial: a Viking burial
Just as in The Last Kingdom where Alfred presides over a Cornish pagan cremation ceremony, there is a repeated desire to show Alfred as not only indulging, but actively sanctioning pagan funerary ceremonies.
Side-stepping the complications of how a defeated Norse army would honour its dead when the cadaver and the field of conflict has been taken by a Christian enemy, we jump straight to the post-funeral graveside dialogue between Hvitserk and his dead brother.
Let’s be clear: we don’t know whether Ivar was inhumed or cremated, whether artefacts and sacrifices accompanied his funeral. However, given that no other participant in the funeral is shown, we don’t know who presided over it beyond Hvitserk alone. In that case, Ivar’s funeral has closer resemblances to that of Aethelstan by Ragnar than to the funerals of Earl Haraldson, Aslaug and Lagertha.
We join the funeral after all is over. West Saxon warriors surround the Viking and the funerary monument itself is humble: nothing more than a body-sized pile of stones: a humble cairn for a great pagan war-leader. Hvitserk kneels with his back to the cairn, and the personal dialogue and aspiration that they will meet again mirrors the conversations with Ragnar’s coffin in Season 3. Hvitserk anticipates the twilight of the gods is imminent and he will see Ivar again soon: the dead are gone but still listening.
The form of the grave, whilst vaguely referencing that of Sigurd in Season 5 part 1, the season 5 Icelandic boat-shaped burial cairns, and a diminutive version of Bjorn’s howe in the same season, is again distinctive from anything seen before. With three posts, one bearing a shield ( a feature of funerary contexts we see repeatedly deployed, as in the season 4 cremations outside Paris). A cattle skull each adorns the other two posts which together frame the low cairn. This is a demonstrably pagan monument in its scale, form and posts, but also in its field location. Otherwise, it lacks any specific archaeological source or inspiration.
The sombre and emotive characterisation of Ivar’s battlefield death is mediated by material culture – Alfred’s cross, his crutch and his cairn. And while Hvitserk is shown renouncing his pagan gods and former life (he requests for baptism as a Christian, as had his father Ragnar) he gets to oversee the pagan funeral of Ivar, interred in England’s soil. Thus, Hvitserk becomes a fictional version of Guthrum, baptised as ‘Aethelstan’. Yet Anglo-Saxon England’s gets to hold the bones of Boneless.
Thus ends my exploration through six seasons of Vikings in which the Norse pagan funerals and funerary monuments are fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey (52 posts in total!).
To my mind, Vikings has succeeded in bringing to television audiences for the first time something of the detail and complexity of Norse dialogues with the dead. On many scales and in contrasting settings, the drama has integrated funerals and funerary monuments, revealing them as fluctuating and complex media for negotiating relationships between the living and the dead, as well as navigating afterlife journeys to Valhalla. No claim is made for a single set of static Norse beliefs and practices, and many different sources of evidence – literary, historical and archaeological – as well as original creative flourishes – are mashed together in funerals depicted.
So, all told, while there is plenty to criticise, there is also plenty to celebrate about the duration, character, materialities, monumentalities and landscape settings of the show’s attention to Viking funerals.