A host of new facets to Viking Age death, disposal and commemoration are explored in the just-aired series 2 of Vikings Valhalla (2022-present). This post reviews the main cultic and mortuary dimensions, but first, let’s sketch the eclectic late Viking material cultures, built environments and landscapes portrayed. Note: this follows on from a series of posts about the predecessor show Vikings and a review of Vikings Valhalla series 1.
Following the battle for Kattegat, Harald and Freydis escape northwards to live in isolation in Halogaland. Meanwhile, Leif hunts down the remnants of Olaf’s army for King Sweyn. They join up as Olaf sends out assassins having regained power under Sweyn as protector of Norway.
Leif, Harald and Freydis head east, with Freydis with the Jomsviking called Jorundr seeking out Jomsborg. We follow her voyage across the Baltic to Pomerania where Jomsborg is represented as a quarry and harbour behind sea cliffs accessible only via a tunnel and surrounded inland but dense forest, ruled by th seemingly generous Harekr. The populated western Slavic lands are oddly not represented – the Jomsvikings operate in a secret base set within a wilderness.
Meanwhile, Harald and Leif go east to Novgorod and on via the Dnieper on sled and then boat to the Black Sea where they meet the Byzantine Emperor at the ancient Greek ruins of Pontic Olbia. Contrasting with Vikings, Kyiv miraculously disappears from fiction as Ukraine is torn apart by a Russian invasion. By the end of the series they have reached Constantinople. Along the way they meet further characters, including the remarkably Arabic female astronomer, combat with the Pechenegs, and a romance between Leif and the fatally sick Mariam. They also travel with Irish slaves and a Chud princess to be married to the emperor and the warriors Batu and Kaysan.
Meanwhile, we follow the court intrigues of England between Queen Emma and Godwin within the implausibly complete Roman-walled London and witness the return of Cnut from Denmark where he had been fighting the Wends. There is a brief visit to Sussex but little is shown of the wider English landscape.
These stills should afford you wish a flavour of the rich built environments and material culture constructed to represent thousands of miles of settlements and communication routes over land and sea which comprised the ‘Viking world’, but I want to reiterate the many odd gaps and omissions – Scandinavia is either emporia or wilderness, Pomerania is a coastal settlement or wilderness, the Russian river systems are…. you get the picture.
Notably for me, despite numerous mortuary omissions (such as we never see the funeral of Jarl Estrid Hakon or the many others slain in and around Kattegat), there are far more mortuary dimensions to series 2. Together, more than series 1, they reinstitute the sustained funerary fascination with Michael Hirst’s Vikings show in fantastical fashions, many inspired by saga literature and occasional nods to archaeological data, some seemingly reliant on popular tropes. What’s notable is not the accuracy or plausibility of all or any of the representations, but the striking diversity of death ways represented.
Before proceeding to them, let us reiterate the misrepresentation of the show in the use of ‘Vikings’ as a pan-regional ethnic identity which spans vocation and age, gender, status and kin. Equally though, and on a positive note, the malleability of ‘Vikings’ in different circumstances is emphasised, rather than any exclusive cultural or racial identity. Thus, in episode 2, for example, King Yaroslav says to Harald: ‘Do what Vikings have always done: reinvent themselves’. The ‘Vikings’ are shown as generally inclusive and welcoming to others via their trade routes, as well as slavers capturing and trading in human bodies. Conversely, the only real nasty character is shown to a racist, namely the leader of the Jomsvikings: Harekr. In episode 4 he states of the immigrants seeking refuge at Jomsborg that: ‘they are a filthy mix of Norse tribes unlike us. We are the superior people’. In other words, Harekr is a proto-Nazi and it is delightful to see his grisly demise at the hands of his people who finally reject his despotic focus on ‘purity’ of the Jomsvikings and stone him to death. If only 20th and 21st-century people made such determined stances against their rulers!
The ‘web of wyrd’
The first item for discussion isn’t mortuary per se, but relates to the transference of pagan cult from Uppsala to Jomsborg, with Freydis’s sword presented as a magical heirloom that conveys the authority of the pagan tradition to the existing temple there. This follows the Seer appearing to Freydis in Scandinavia beside a stream and showing her the web by inscribing it in waterside sand.
When she reaches Jomsborg, Freydis encounters it inscribed on a central pillar within the temple. The leader of the Jomsvikings, Harekr, explains the symbol weaves the fates of gods and men but it isn’t explained beyond that. It appears as an ancient focus around which the temple has been built and so we might speculate that the idea is that this represents a Bronze Age or early Iron Age monolith that becomes a long-running cult focus from before the Viking Age. This in itself is a notable and interesting idea that finds parallels in the archaeological record even if the material details represented are fabulous.
Subsequently, the temple is perceived as a ‘new Uppsala’ by Freydis and the other refugees and Freydis is perceives as predestined to be its priestess given her gift of her rune-inscribed sword by the Uppsala priestess.
The temple with its symbol stone persists as a focus through the series. In episode 5, Freydis gives birth leaning against this stone.
The temple has two components – the tower from which the priestess appears to her people, and the sanctuary containing the stone where Freydis also sleeps. I don’t know what specific archaeological evidence inspired this idea.
Notably, the architecture of the temple evokes the symbol: the zig-zag slats and likewise the banners reflect those from Uppsala.
The symbol defines the temple’s sacrality and predestines it to be the successor of Uppsala.
To reiterate again: this is a modern Pagan symbol, not one evidenced from the Viking Age. A good discussion of this symbol can be found here. I predict the use of this modern symbol in fictional representation of the Viking Age, however, will lead to much confusion in popular culture.
Boneyard of the Jomsvikings
The Jomsvikings are a bit of a joke – elite losers rather than elite warriors, lurking in a pagan enclave they soon turn out to be far removed from the salvation they promise to those who seek out their protection. We only learn this slowly as Harekr’s initial generosity gives way to oppression. One ‘red flag’ is their over-enthusiastic cult of their ancestors.
To become a Jomsvikings, warriors must visit the hidden boneyard of their ancestors – a physical and spiritual challenge to reach a place we are told is haunted. This reflects no specific archaeological evidence but does play off the saga literature such as the poem The Waking of Angantyr (as recently discussed by Neil Price 2020: 233-236). Each wears a finger bone around their neck as a trophy of their initiation trial. Again, this has no relation to archaeological and historical evidence, but plays on the idea of the Jomsvikings as a warrior cult tied to an exclusive conception of ancestry. It very much mirrors some extreme eco-fascist and hyper-masculine cults who model themselves on their fantasies of Viking warrior brotherhoods.
Conversely, Freydis subverts this by countering their idea that warriorhood is exclusive to males. She instead claims their ancestors as her own and the right to become a warrior, thus subverting their tradition. While they flaunt the bones of their ancestors, Freydis retorts that it should be a ritual open to all, not restricted to those from the settlement and excluding the newcomers. This is very much a conversion about modern Norse Pagans and their conflicting attitudes of exclusivity and inclusivity in relation to faith and ancestry. Freydis says:
“We are all Vikings, so I claim the ancestors of Jomsburg as my own.”
Beyond this debate, we get to actually see the Jomsvikings’ boneyard! Hrefna is a girl who has been inspired and encouraged by Freydis to herself become a Jomsvikings warrior. She disappears into the forest in search of the secret boneyward and it does indeed prove to be a dangerous adventure for her.
Freydis follows the girl Hrefna to the boneyard where spears and swords mark platforms where the dead are placed. The skeletons are still broadly articulated (which might not be very plausible) and in one instance at least the remains of a mail shirt are visible, suggesting the idea is that the dead were dressed as ‘warriors’ upon the low platforms.
The platforms themselves are quite ornate, with some appearing to have turned legs The landscape is oddly introverted, linked to the idea that the burial site (‘boneyard’) is in a secret situation: a tight wooded coomb with rock outcrops close by.
Hrefna is found by Freydis hiding amidst rocks she has been wounded by a wild boar. She drove it away but it comes back to attack Freydis who slays it with a spear from one of the platforms. Hrefna has already claimed her bone and the weapon of the dead is used to slay a real-world foe. Both Hrefna and Freydis phsycially and martially claim the Jomsviking identity as a result. Later, episode 6, Freydis hides in the boneyard to escape Herakr who is threatened by her actions.
Vikings has already tackled the theme of revisiting graves in order to access the sword of Floki’s father for exchange in his marriage to Helga. We also have the re-entering of Bjorn Ironside’s howe. While it goes without saying that we have no evidence for excarnation practices in the Viking Age, revisiting graves to access items, not bones, is attested in the saga literature. This does match some instances where spears and swords are found from archaeological excavations to have been thrust into chamber graves and cremation burials. For example, most recently in the instance of two swords excavated in a position that suggests they were originally thrust vertically into graves. While not following any specific archaeological evidence, the portrayal of the Jomsvikings ‘boneyard’ does evoke the archaeological and written data for a complex set of relationships between cemeteries and living people in Viking-period Scandinavia and the Baltic.
The vertical spears pierce the platforms beside the skeletons, but sometimes seemingly through the skeletons, sometimes into the earth adjacent to platforms. Oddly, it seems the blades of the weapons are upwards, the contrast to what might be expected from the archaeological data but more striking in the context of the television show (and after all, if the spearheads were downwards viewers wouldn’t be sure they were spears at all. Swords seem to pierce the ground adjacent to platforms although it isn’t fully clear.
In Vikings, we’ve seen ghosts as a powerful dimension of the dialogues between the living and the dead, reflecting saga literature. Vikings Valhalla returns to this in Novgorod. As he mourns her loss, Leif starts to have visions of Liv. He is introduced to opium which is claimed to ‘break down the wall between the living and the dead’. Liv beckons him to his death, asking him to join her in Valhalla.
Irish slave Orlaith buried in hole in the ice
The slaver dumps her body through a hole in the ice for no good reason. This is odd, because cutting the ice takes considerable effort, yet the body is being discarded with disdain and disrespect.
Gestr’s disposal in the Dneiper
Gestr the slave trader gets dumped into the river: a suitable end as he gets treated as he would treat his human cargo. No one likes slavers, even the other Viking characters who treated him with disdain until finally dealing with him.
An Irish freed slave buried beside the Dnieper
Finally we get a modest but respectful burial for a non-elite individual! Having drowned in the foolhardly bid to navigate the waterfall on the Dnieper, the body of Kaysan’s lover (sorry I can’t work out her name). The river-pebble grave-cover and the sombre graveside respect shown by Mariam, Batu and Kaysan, with the latter offering flowers, is touching and simple. This worked very well.
Pecheneg’s skulls on posts and carved drinking skulls
I’m really not sure what to say about the representation of the Turkic steppe nomads as antithetical to trade and exchange and as destroyers of the trading systems between the Rus and the Byzantines. At one level the show attempts to humanise them and not overtly exoticise them too much, with the blinded brother of the khan – Kurya – serving as a ‘good-guy’ seeking revenge.
In other regards, with skulls on posts throughout the settlement we witness, and the leader of the Pecheneg’s sitting on a throne adjacent to a huge pile of carved human skulls, one of which he drinks out of, they fit the ultimate stereotype of the marauding steppe barbarian. Harald brags to them: ‘it is clear to me there is no Viking skull in your collection’ claiming that positions would be reverse had they met a ‘real’ Viking, and he would be drinking their skulls. Overall, we learn little about how typical such practices are and what motivates the trophy skulls. Beyond the literary trope of drinking from skulls which we know from poetry such a the Lay of Volund, I don’t know if there are any archaeologically attested instances of this that can be narrowed down specifically to the Pechenegs.
Pontic Olbia – ancient Greek temple – context for Mariam’s funeral and burial
Finally we reach ruins – the ancient Greek city of Pontic Olbia at the mouth of the Dnieper. For the first time, Vikings Valhalla encounters the ancient world and Mariam is the scientific authority to explain that this was an ‘ancient Greek’ city. It also becomes the place of her death and burial, the ruins being a setting for the laying out of her body on a stretcher resting on column bases and then she is interred nearby. This is all very archaeological, but not in a fashion we’ve hitherto encountered in Vikings Valhalla, but finds parallels in the engagements with stone circles and standing stones in England found in Vikings.
I’ve left this until last and separate treatment outside of the chronological ordering since this is the only overtly Christian graveside scene in the show. Aelfwynn has been tortured to death by Queen Emma and Godwin stands at her grave in a small burial ground. A pillar with interlace and other stones mark graves around. For other graves there are either grave-slabs or standing stones; in one case both. In contrast, Aelfwynn gets a modest cross-marker carved with her name. The scene is key, as it reveals the subtle machinations of Godwin as Gytha comes to mourn, the true target of his bid to gain influence and power as well as (most importantly) royal progeny.
I confess one aspect I’ve avoided in previous blogs is evaluating the Christian burials and funerary contexts in the TV show Vikings, of which there are a smattering. This adds to the list, in which Christian death and burial is shown to bear both similarities and differences to those of the Norse pagans.
This sketch of series 2 of Vikings Valhalla reveals the persistent attention to funerary practices and mortuary monuments in the popular representation of the Viking world. The highlight for me was the attempt to show a cemetery in the form of the Jomsvikings ‘boneyard’, prompting me to think on the genuine archaeological research question: was excarnation actually a widespread but largely invisible disposal method in the Viking Age? I can’t wait to see how a mixture of archaeological, historical and literary sources are utilised to conjure further funerary scenes in subsequent seasons!
Price, N. 2020. The Children of Ash & Elm: A History of the Vikings. London: Allen Lane.
I am enjoying your commentary. On Pechenegs and skulls, I have come to the conclusion that skull cups are more of a Bulgarian thing.
Khan Krum of the Balkan Bulgars was reported by several Roman sources to have fashioned a gold encased and jewel encrusted skull cup from the calvaria (upper cranium) of Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus ‘the First’ in 811 AD following the Roman Emperor’s death in the Battle of Pliska.
The Kievan Hraes’ (Rus’) Primary Chronicle tells of the ambush and slaying of Prince Sviatoslav ‘the Brave’ of Kiev and the fashioning of a skull cup from his calvaria by the Pecheneg Khan Kurya in 972 AD. This is likely from a fabricated Roman report of the incident because the Kievan prince had escaped death following his Roman defeat at the battle of Dorostolon a year earlier. The same Roman report includes the escape back to Kiev of a General Sveinald from the Pecheneg ambush and this Sveinald is likely the Danish Prince Svein ‘the Old’, Svein and Sveinald both being the Varangian variant of Sviatoslav, the Slavic form of the Danish prince’s name. The Romans likely instigated the Pecheneg ambush, but it likely failed, for they were soon after offering Prince Svein’s Danish son, Grand Prince Valdamar ‘the Great’, the hand of Roman Princess Anna Porphyrogennetos of Constantinople and, thereafter, the offspring of Valdamar (Slavic Vladimir) were called the Czars of Hraes’. I have elaborated on this particular skull cup incident because it has both Pechenegs and Varangian Vikings in it.
The contemporary ‘Written Chronicle’ of George Acropolites tells us that the calvaria of Emperor Baldwin ‘the First’ of Constantinople, a leader of the Fourth Crusade that sacked Constantinople, was turned into a drinking skull cup by Tsar Kaloyan of Bulgaria in circa 1205 AD. This may also be a Roman fabrication because there persists a rumour that Baldwin made it back to his homeland of Flanders.
I have a fictional account of the Pecheneg attack upon Prince Sveinald (Sviatoslav) at the Dnieper River cataracts or rapids in Chapter Twelve of ‘The Saga of Prince Svein “the Old” Ivarson’ in my ‘The Varangians / Ukrainians’ Book Series on http://www.SeiberTeck.com should on wish further details on it.
Keep up the great commentarties!
Brian Howard Seibert, B.A.
Oh! I’m delighted to have attracted this response. Thanks for the input.