The television world of Vikings has had the visual and narrative engagement, longevity and global reach to resurrect and reinvent the Viking world like no other popular media to date for 21st-century popular audiences. Michael Hirst’s early medieval universe drew on existing stereotypes and misconceptions in telling the story of the Northmen. Equally though, the show persistently debunked and subverted others, whilst creating its own rich range of new tropes and misinformation for popular audiences, all mediated by historical and archaeological advisors and consultants including some recent interpretations of a host of aspects of Viking-period Scandinavian society, from their assembly practices and social structures to their seafaring and warfare.
Through my Archaeodeath blog and publications, I’ve now explored the mortuary archaeology of Vikings through its six series focusing on the mortuary archaeological dimensions . Rather than stop there, it makes sense to now embark on a continuation of that quest for the Vikings in our contemporary world as mediated through televisual entertainment by reviewing its brand-new spin-off series.
So, as part of my ongoing evaluation of the popular entertainment representations of early medieval archaeology and history focusing on the way death, burial and commemoration are represented, I here review the first season of the historical drama created by Jeb Stuart for Netflix: Vikings Valhalla (2022-)
Vikings Valhalla jumps well over a century from the condensed story of the late 8th to early 10th-century Viking world from the Rus to Vinland provided by Michael Hirst’s six series of Vikings. In the new show, we encounter a late Viking Age world of the early-mid-11th-century focused on Cnut and Harald Sigurdsson. In doing so, we see a conflation and adaption of saga legends and history into a fresh, simplified storyline. Beginning with the St Brice’s Day massacre of 1002, the show is set to conclude in 1066.
The show stars Leo Suter (Harald Sigurdsson), Frida Gustavsson (Freydis Eriksdottir) and Sam Corlett (Leif Erikson) with the show’s principal villain played by Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson (Jarl Olaf Haradsson).
As with Vikings, the show is balanced between Scandinavia’s fictional emporium of Kattegat and a journey east to the temple at Uppsala through southern Norway and central Sweden and military campaigns and political intrigue in and around London. Denmark, from whence most of the ‘Vikings’ originate who feature in the action, is not represented.
Connecting together Vikings with Vikings Valhalla is not only a similar fast-and-loose attitude to established historical events and character’s timelines and deeds, but also the reduced but sustained engagement with the dead and the supernatural. A key focus also remains on religious conflict and accommodation: the interaction and conflict between Old Norse pagans and Christianity. In this regard, the significant shift of the late Viking Age is now in the fact that a large segment of Scandinavia has accepted the Christian faith, with some actively and aggressively imposing conversion by force.
Here, I review some key themes of series 1 and the principal cultic and mortuary archaeological aspects. As with Vikings, I regard these as far from accurate but still demanding our critical attention because of their inspiration by and influence upon contemporary perceptions of Viking death, burial, commemoration and religion. Specifically, the show not only draws upon archaeological sources in its mixing of myth, legend and history for world-building, but also because it fosters discussions of strengths and limitations of the educational value for Viking-period archaeology outside academia. Whether we like it or not, Vikings Valhalla will influence popular understandings of the late Viking Age and the Vikings for years to come.
Context and plot
As stated, the plot and context is a simplified and condensed one of late Anglo-Saxon England and its incorporation into Cnut’s empire combined with the religious and political tensions within Scandinavia.
We begin with Prince Harald Sigurdsson leaving a ‘Viking’ settlement in the Danelaw just as his elder brother is called to the court of King Aethelred II to be slaughtered. Aethelred is shown to be enacting systematic ethnic cleansing to purge the ‘Vikings’ from England by slaughter, despite it being settled over 100 years and accepting Christianity.
Subsequently, we follow the gathering of a pan-Scandinavian army at Kattegat to pursue vengeance against Aethelred, framed by Cnut as mirroring the revenge enacted by the songs of Ragnar Lothbrok against Aelle of Northumbria. We see the Greenlanders led by Leif Eriksson joining this endeavour, bound to do so to rid Freydis, Leif’s sister, of the debt she owes having slain her rapist in the great hall at Kattegat (the man who had raped and mutilated her in Greenland we learn to be Harald Sigurdsson’s and Olaf Haraldsson’s half-brother: Gunnar. As a compromise, Harald secures Leif and his Greenlanders to assist in the attack on London to recompense for Freydis’s slaying).
In this way, the chief male and female protagonists, the son and daughter of Erik the Red, and the future king Harald Sigurdsson, become our principal focus drawn into historical events and processes they had little to do with.
Leif orchestrates the plan to attack London Bridge and thus doing so secures Cnut’s victory. Meanwhile, Freydis travels to the temple at Uppsala to seek her destiny as a shieldmaiden at the encouragement of Jarl Estrid Hakon of Kattegat. When Leif and Liv return to Kattegat, they must defend it against the combined forces of the (arguably unhinged) Christian Jarl Kåre and the machiavellian Christian Olaf Haraldsson. The series ends with Jarl Kåre being slain by Freydis, but Olaf delays his attack to allow his ally to be defeated. Olaf enters Kattegat in victory but his power immediately slips away as King Sweyn Forkbeard’s navy arrives to supplant him.
In many regards, the flow and dynamics of the plot pick up well where Vikings left off. In England, events are focused on the court and city of London supplemented by the Mercians at Tamworth and fight scenes in Kent. For Scandinavia, we see the landscape focused on the fjord and Kattegat and the journey to Uppsala involving a small settlement, the pagan temple at Uppsala which was already visited by Ragnar, Rollo, Lagertha and their companions in series 1 of Vikings set almost two centuries earlier. There is also a brief representation of Denmark.
Architectures and landscape
Attention has been made to show continuity and evolution of the Scandinavian landscape to where we left off somewhere in the late 9th/early 10th century. Kattegat is shown expanded and established. Its great hall remains, as does its mixture of shops and town buildings, its walls and towers as well as sea defences. This brings it odd inconsistencies and limitations, however, such as the lack of a funerary landscape surrounding this long-established centre: even Bjorn Ironside’s howe has disappeared. Also, despite the importance of the settlement, the idea of a coherent system of civil defence has not been established: a beacon is lit to coordinate Jarl Kåre’s attacking forces, but no system seems to be in place to warn of attackers. Of course, we see very little of the broader worked agricultural landscape and settlements outside of Kattegat appear to be isolated farmsteads. The only further architecture of note is the temple at Uppsala, discussed below.
For England, as well as ships and harbour, hall and battle camps, we get to see London and its extant Roman walls. Following the tradition of both Vikings and The Last Kingdom, as well as Vinland Saga, the walls are represented as Roman and have been well repaired. Meanwhile, the representation of London Bridge is very good and plausible in general terms. Notably and oddly, Queen Emma is attributed the decision of moving the military activities into the old Roman walls hitherto deserted out of fear that it was inhabited by ‘Roman ghosts’. Whilst utterly false in this representation given the evidence of ecclesiastical and trading activity from the 7th century and is Alfedan burh at least brings a superstitious and funerary dimension to the choices of settlement and military strategy in the later Anglo-Saxon landscape hitherto lacking.
One notable Anglo-Saxon landscape feature is a free-standing stone cross. Indeed, it is the same one reused from Vikings but here painted afresh. In other words, this is the third time it has appeared – first at Hexham in Vikings series 1, then in the Northumbrian landscape in Vikings series 4 part 2, and now beside a church in the former Danelaw rebuilt following being burned in the St Brice’s Day massacre. The bevelled base makes no sense of course and I don’t think it has a parallel. The plain monochrome painting design is at least mildly plausible if under-stated.
The church itself is rather good, with a modest bell tower and porch with woodwork painted in gold and clearly a single-celled structure with a shingle roof. In crude terms, it takes its inspiration from the rare survival of a pre-Conquest wooden structure from Greensted, Essex. The choice of horizontal slats rather than vertical split logs for the walls is, however, odd, although it is evidence this is a superstructure overlying a foundation of mortared stone walls.
Costume and Material Cultures
While most focus on the costume, this is not my primary interest. Still, my sense is that the same strengths and weaknesses apply here to the representations of Vikings. Swords, bows and arrows, spears and round shields are generally fine, but the lack of helmets or other head gear is a major limitation. The presence of helmets is restricted to Ivar’s henchmen in Vikings but here instead hooded warriors represent the zealous Christian acolytes of Jarl Kåre and no helmets are shown at all. Again, the ridiculous over-representation of black and dark-coloured leather is ridiculous.
One odd dimension is that the Greenlanders are represented as living without wool – afforded furs and skins to articulate their North Atlantic homelands. In contrast, the Norwegians have black and dark coloured leathers and wool.
In regards to female costume, we have the same set of issues found in other Viking Age television shows – with fabulous representations being fun and distinctive for lead characters yet drifting far from evidenced costume. Domestic material cultures provide very much mix of grounded evidenced items and speculative elements far removed from our evidence.
The Anglo-Saxons are represented as wearing a finer range of elite clothing and with distinctive war gear. The royal halls are shown with lavish furnishings and fittings that are presumably inspired by later medieval art and architecture rather than anything distinctively early medieval. As with Vikings and The Last Kingdom this serves to differentiate them as more civilised’ and certainly differentiated from the Scandinavians. All-metal kite-shaped shields reflect the influence of the Bayeux Tapestry on the styles represented. Helmets, likewise, appear as ubiquitous dimensions of warrior gear together with all manner of fabulous leather and textile layers mark them as distinctively ‘non-Viking’.
There remains considerable confusion regarding the use of the term ‘Vikings’ itself. In these televisual context, ‘Vikings’ is misleadingly used as a Scandinavian pan-regional ethnic identity, building upon its use in its predecessor show Vikings. As such, it is shared by pagans and Christians alike and is deployed in political rhetoric to emphasise shared cultural traditions and opposition to the English. Harald evokes ‘Viking blood’ as their shared identity and inheritance. Cnut reiterates Harald’s message that the Vikings are ‘one people, one heart, one soul’. This is perhaps the most misleading and anachronistic dimension of the narrative to the television show.
Even the Greenlanders are not doubted to be ‘Vikings’ even though they feel out-of-place amidst the relatively populated Kattegat. Otherwise, the ‘diversity’ of the Viking world is articulated primarily and briefly through both slaves and elites and hinted at through merchants. Slaves from sub-Saharan African and East Asia are represented in Kattegat and we hear Arabic spoken, presumably by traders. This is stretching the historical sources at our disposal, but it is not outrageous. What is lacking, however, is any sense that Sami, Finns, Balts, Slavs, Saxons, Frisians, Franks, Irish, English or Scottish folks are present, let along Norse-speaking peoples from elsewhere other than Greenland were present. Hence while the presence of an East Asian and Black African slaves is a quick shorthand for ‘diversity’, it only superficially articulates the complex trading networks and the myriad of non-enslaved people operating in and around later Viking Age trading sites and emporia.
Jarl Estrid Hakon presides over the wealthy emporium and its tolerance of different religions. As such, she is a beneficiary of not only the commerce of things but also people. She is portrayal by a woman of colour has caused considerable controversy, as well as her chief bodyguard, also played by a woman of colour. Estrid tells Freydis’ Viking people have travelled more than most: they raided but ‘traded too’. She explains: ‘Kattegat is the beneficiary of that trade. You will experience different people and beliefs like nowhere else.’ She then explains how she came to be there: her grandmother came from a ‘great African family’. She explains: ‘All things are possible if our minds are open’. I’ve already discussed this in an earlier post here.
In contrast, beyond the political division of Mercia from Wessex/England, there is no attention to the character of early 11th-century Anglo-Saxon England let alone northern and western Britain and Ireland.
A pivotal theme and division in Scandinavian society is represented as between Christian and pagan ‘Vikings’. Of course it is completely unclear why the Greenlanders would be represented as ‘pagan’ when there is sparse evidence of Norse paganism from Greenland. Still, in terms of leading characters, many Scandinavians are shown to be flexible and open to a range of religious positions and even entertain the existence of all deities, pagan and Christian. In particular, Jarl Estrid Hakon presides over a pagan enclave in a largely converted Scandinavia yet she is shown to be tolerant of Christians. Similarly, Leif is a pagan but tolerant and open to defend Christians and Freydis is pagan and fights Christians, but exhibits no prejudice towards Christians per se. Conversely, Christians tolerant or indifferent to faith are best represented through the lead character Harald.
On the flipside, the show makes no mistake in showing Christian Vikings slaying Christian women and children, as well as Christian priests, with the same ferocity as pagans.
It is the conflict in Scandinavia between pagan and Christian where we see vicious violence against all and sundry play out. A berserker attacks and kills all of her company but Freydis. Estrid recalls the torture and murder of her husband and his ship’s crew by Christians. We then learn he was sent by Jarl Kåre who is the enemy of Jarl Haakon and regards himself as ‘God’s Arrow’ slaying all pagans on their way to Uppsala. Yet despite his fervent hatred of pagans, he believes in their world of fate and destiny. Hence, Yet even Jarl Kåre consults the Seer to learn his future. He cuts the rune off the palm of his left hand upon the altar to purge himself of this pagan past. Then he destroys the temple at Uppsala and slays its priests. Finally, he sends the corpses as a warning to Kattegat by ship: puts their heads on spikes and suspending the chief priestess’s body from it as it slowly enters unsteered into the harbour of Kattegat.
It is worth giving attention to the representations of the major pagan cult site of Uppsala. Estrid sends Freydis to Uppsala to seek her destiny and it is presented (following season 1 of Vikings) as a wooded mountainous recluse with twin temples akin to medieval Norwegian stave churches. Of course this is far removed from the archaeological evidence for Gamla Uppsala itself! Yet beyond scoffing at this supposed ‘inaccuracy’, a lot of the details of the space not only show the continuity of a structure down the centuries from the time of Ragnar’s visit in series 1 of Vikings. As well as a structure of great antiquity and sacrality, the architecture being inspired by 12th-century and later stave churches. Furthermore, it sits at the centre of a wider unenclosed space including an elaborately carved and painted series of two portals marking the main upslope route towards the main temple. Notably, following a pattern of chains used to protect sacred spaces established in Vikings, iron rings form an enclosure around the building and symbolically bind and protect the holy place.
A further aspect we shall return to in reflecting on Vikings Valhalla series 2: banners are show a version of the ‘web of wyrd‘ symbol: a modern Norse Pagan motif evoking the weaving of fate by the Norns. This same diagonal crossing of lines is integrated into the temple architecture itself too, as the wooden slats at the back of the temple allow chinks of sunlight to flood in and afford a similar arrangement. The outer portals also bear an abstract version of this diagonal design.
A notable difference to early 11th-century Uppsala as opposed to early 9th-century Uppsala is that priests are now led by a female and use black, white and yellow face paint and wear crowns. This contrasts with the exclusively male priests portrayed in season 1 of Vikings. In both shows, face-paint denotes ritual specialists and those acting as officiants in ceremonies – here the priestess is fully white with black eye make-up and a chin-line arguably appropriated from native North American designs and aesthetics. Her hair is arranged into tight plaits and dyed/painted white to match her face. The crown is a striking feature in itself.
A further odd feature is that the temple is dedicated to the idols of Odin, Thor and Freya, rather than Odin, Thor and Frey.
The outer portal is carved in gold and red, with designs reflecting the web of wyrd too, and with Ringerike dragon heads.
The altar downslope and outside the temple was used for human sacrifice in Vikings season 1 and Freydis is herself prepared as if to undergo sacrifice. She is laid on the altar as if she is about to be killed. Instead, the veil used to cover her and the drugs blown over her assist in transporting her into the spirit world. This the altar is portrayed as less a place of killing and more a portal between worlds. Freydis encounters the Seer who perceives her to be ‘The Last’ (whether this is the last pagan or last protector of Uppsala, is yet to be made clear). Upon returning to real world, she then prays in the temple at Uppsala and when she departs, Freydis’s sword given to her by the priest at Uppsala with red-inlaid runes on the blade. The pagan cultic sword as an heirloom from the gods provides a magical element to the storyline and with it she proceeds to take her vengeance on Jarl Kåre.
Finally, I would like to reflect on the striking spectacle of the burnt temple as it is explored by Freydis and her companions. Regardless of the accuracy of the building as represented, as a conflagrated carapace it serves to reveal how devastating and dramatic the destruction of such a centuries-old building might have been and how its passing would be remembered despite attempts to forget it. One is reminded of central places subject to destruction as attested for Uppakra, Scania.
Death, Burial and Tombs
There are no Christian funerals in Vikings Valhalla series 1. The body of King Aethelraed is shown laying in state but his funeral and burial, nor his tomb are represented.
The one pagan funeral relates to the ‘pagan’ Greenlanders who are slain in the battle for London Bridge: Njal and Skarde. The pair of them are placed in a boat, clothed and given weapons (seaxes?) each. They are then covered by rushes and oil is poured over them and set adrift and alight on the Thames by Leif. This all takes place without an audience, prayers or songs or any other ritual. This sombre anti-funeral fits a widespread pattern in filmic and televisual representations of heroes honouring the dead in isolation. In the context of their paganism within a largely Christian world and a long-Christianised landscape, this is somewhat poignant and appropriate regarding required secrecy. The understated funeral upon the River Thames reflects the established tradition of Vikings of showing funerals conducted in private and for exiled and excluded individuals, not simply normative public theatrical rituals. Leif says only the following as the boat embarks, not referencing any belief other than his hope that they will be protected by the sea goddess Ran:
Goodbye, my friends. You’ve come so far for me. My you sleep in the embrace of Ran and be reunited with your departed loved ones. I miss you.
Unfortunately, without a pyre in the boat, I doubt this practice will afford a viable cremation for Njal and Skarde. Still, the act of cremation and its embarkation articulates the alien ‘pagan’ in a Christian world and redeploys a mode of disposal which, while unattested archaeologically, remains a mainstay of popular fantasies regarding Viking death ways.
Further pagan cremation ceremonies are implied later, but not shown. Freydis finds all the pilgrims and priests at Uppsala slain apart from some children left alive to pass on Jarl Kåre’s message that he promises to destroy Kattegat and kill Freydis. She promises to build fires for the dead but the undoubtedly perfunctory mass cremations are not represented.
The practice of human sacrifice as a voluntary aspect of death rituals (for Earl Haraldson in Vikings series 1 and Lagertha in season 6), to accompany and provide a ‘guardian’ for buried treasure (Vikings series 1) and to secure victory in battle (Vikings series 4) is already established. We also see the sacrifice of captive children and warriors as well as Christian bishops, priests and monks. Vikings Valhalla also represents human sacrifice via two forms.
First, we have a formal human sacrifice at Uppsala shown as a flashback to Jarl Kåre’s childhood. Jarl Kåre’s hatred of pagans derives from the trauma of seeing his elder brother sacrificed and thus human sacrifice is framed as the one practice that drives elites away from the old ways.
Second, human sacrifice is practised to assist in delivering help from Odin against Jarl Kåre for the pagan enclave of Kattegat. The explicit idea is that the sacrificed individual travels to Valhalla and pleas for Kattegat’s victory. With pagan priests either side, Jarl Haakon picks a volunteer for sacrifice within the great hall. The volunteer, a man called Audun, is slain by a female ritual specialist and her attendant priests. He is tied up to a post and a large screwed spike is turned through the post into the back of his neck. They then drink his blood captures in gold goblets. I’ve no idea what inspired this technique of execution although the drinking of the blood of sacrificed victims is a theme already introduced in Vikings series 1 at Uppsala.
I hope these reflections are of interest, and once more I hope it shows how we can reflect on the immersive material cultures, architectures and landscapes of this drama series beyond fixating on details of accuracy. For despite the limited representations of mortuary ritual and funerary landscapes, there is significant merit in reviewing series 1 of Vikings Valhalla in continuing the legacy of Vikings. We are afforded a sense of time and historical development for both the Scandinavian and English early medieval world. Again, we are shown a rich mixture of archaeological, historical, legendary and mythological elements focusing on political strife and religious conflict. Vikings Valhalla continues the tradition of Vikings in emphasising material cultures and architectures in constituting ethnic and religious distinctions in the early medieval world. As with Vikings, the inspirations from archaeological sources and modern-day ‘Viking’ fantastical and quasi-historical misrepresentations mix together in this drama in a way that is both engaging and demanding of academic critique.
Great review – including the borderlands of known history and enthralling fantasy.
Fascinated, by ‘ Blood of the Vikings’ many years ago, I didn’t expect to meet an Eden Valley Viking *- DNA says well over 60% Scandi .
Evidence of any enduring cultural influence in areas like this ?
* On a Viking dig,
You’ll know about the Cumwhitton cemetery and the excavations at Dacre by Oxford Archaeology North?