Category Archives: Vikings

Crime and punishment Viking style

One of the most famous killings in the sagas is the burning of Njal in his home

One of the most famous killings in the sagas is the burning of Njal in his home

So your brother’s been deliberately murdered by one of his neighbors. And you’re both farmers in Viking Age Iceland, around the year 1000. What do you do?

In the United States today, you’d go to the police, lay out your reasons for assuming that the neighbor did the deed, hope the police can find enough evidence to charge the neighbor, have the neighbor tried, and hope there is enough evidence to convict the neighbor. If convicted of murder, the neighbor will spend decades in prison, unless unlucky enough to live in one of the states that still executes murderers. And that’s that.

But, no, you’re in Viking Age Iceland. There are no police. There are no prisons. So what happens instead?

Gudrun greets her husband's slayers with a smile, but she'll get her revenge!

Gudrun greets her husband’s slayers with a smile, but she’ll get her revenge!

Well, first off, believe it or not, your brother’s neighbor publicly proclaimed he was responsible for the killing. Why? Because then it isn’t murder. Instead, it’s manslaughter. What’s the difference under Icelandic law? The killer can pay compensation, in silver or something valued in silver, to settle a blood-debt incurred by manslaughter. That option isn’t officially open to him if he conceals the killing, a dishonorable course. The killer risks being outlawed, not a trivial penalty.

You think about collecting your farm hands and exacting revenge by killing your brother’s killer. It would be fair, it would be just. But then his brother might summon up a band to come kill you!

So you go to your chieftain, your godi, instead. And you tell him what happened and why you think it happened. You’ve got a clear case: the neighbor announced the killing, and there was a well-known property dispute over some woods, a valuable property. Certainly the godi will see the justice in your case, summon up all his thingmen (supporters) and help you kill your brother’s killer.

Not so fast. Your godi has his own issues. Sure, he wants to retain your loyalty. And he’d like a reputation for justice and wisdom. But that’s one of the reasons he doesn’t immediately offer to help you kill the guilty man. He doesn’t want a blood feud on his hands that could escalate and cost a lot of people their lives, including more of his supporters, maybe even him. And there is credit to be gained if he can settle this matter in your favor but without bloodshed.

That’s not his only concern. Just because you have the facts in your favor doesn’t mean he can successfully prosecute the case. Your brother’s killer has the support of several allied godar (plural of “godi”). Your godi has to consider which other godar he can count on for support. He might eventually decide he can’t support you, in which case you’re out of luck, at least for now.

The Law Rock where the Althing met

The Law Rock where the Althing met

But let’s say he supports you. You don’t get a hearing immediately. It has to wait until when the quarter court meets at the Althing, the annual Icelandic assembly, in the summer. (They are called quarter courts because Iceland is divided into four quarters for legal purposes.) In the meantime, your side and his side meet several times. There is tremendous pressure put on both of you to settle, though always to the advantage of your side, of course. Meanwhile, everyone is also taking precautions against the other side making a violent move.

You are burning with vengeance, and consider your brother’s title to the woods unassailable in law, so you are looking for revenge and refuse compensation, no matter how much money the killer and his godi offer. Especially because they refuse to even discuss the woods. But your godi is regretting his role in this affair. He’s going to have to use a lot of influence on your behalf, and he makes it clear that he won’t support you any further without something of value from you. Ultimately, he proposes to fight for your rights, but only if you sign over the woods to him when you win. It sounds like a bum deal, but your godi points out that your brother wasn’t able to maintain his rights to that property, and you, who live even farther away, won’t be able to do so either without help. So you agree with a witnessed handshake.

Luckily for you, the killer’s alliance of godar breaks up over other issues, conflicts among them, and he comes to the Althing with very limited support. The godar name the farmers and other men who will hear the evidence and pass judgment, and with his allies, your godi is able to stack the quarter court’s panel with quite a few people favorable to your cause.

No one wants a fight at the Althing, but sometimes things get out of hand

No one wants a fight at the Althing, but sometimes things get out of hand

The panel at the quarter court hears the evidence presented and witnesses called by both sides, deliberates, and delivers a judgment, both verdict and terms of settlement. It sounds nice and modern. But the panel could be influenced by the political power mustered by the very visible presence of godar and their thingmen supporting each side. No one wants to deliver a verdict that will tear open the Althing with violence.

But you have the best of both worlds: a solid case, and the weight of political influence. The panel decides in your favor. Better yet, the sentence they pronounce on the killer is the maximum that could be inflicted: the greater outlawry. This means that your brother’s killer loses all of his property, and all of his rights. No one can help him, and anyone is free to kill him.

You’re surprised. You figured the best you could hope for was to have him sentenced to the lesser outlawry, which also involves confiscation of his property, but only a three-year exile out of the country instead of forfeiting his life. Your godi notices your surprise, leans over, and whispers in your ear, “The man’s killed before, and while those cases were settled, he’d developed quite the reputation of a trouble-causer. People pretty much agreed that Iceland’s best rid of him for good.”

Grettir survived almost 20 years as an outlaw, but then he was tough enough to put down an Icelandic zombie

Grettir survived almost 20 years as an outlaw, but then he was tough enough to put down an Icelandic zombie

The killer flees the Althing, but is killed by your widowed sister-in-law’s family who track him down in the desolate interior. Your godi assists you in taking possession of your brother’s farm, while he gladly takes the disputed woods as your own. You arrange a good marriage between your brother’s eldest son and the daughter of your godi, and settle them and the rest of your brother’s family on the farm you previously occupied.

Everyone’s happy . . . until the killer’s son, thirsting for revenge, kills you fifteen years later. But that’s another story.

The Norse gods: all too human

Ragnarok: the world is being destroyed by fire (By Emil Doepler (1855-1922), c. 1905)

Ragnarok: the world is being destroyed by fire
(By Emil Doepler (1855-1922), c. 1905)

I grew up with Edith Hamilton’s account in Mythology (1940/42) as my source on the Norse gods and their world. To judge from Hamilton’s account, the mythology portrayed a dreadful world in which the Norse gods struggled to survive, knowing they were doomed at Ragnarök. It seemed to me to be a humorless world developed by grim people.

So when I turned to the Eddas, I was pleasantly surprised to find out just how much humor they contained. The Vikings could laugh at their gods! And in doing so, they could laugh at themselves.

Thor doing what he does best (By Marten Eskil Winge (1825-1896), 1872)

Thor doing what he does best
(By Marten Eskil Winge (1825-1896), 1872)

Take Thor, the best known Norse god, the wielder of the mighty hammer Mjöllnir. Ever hear the expression, “if all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail?” Well, Thor has a hammer, so to him, everything looks like a nail. He instinctively reaches for his hammer to bash in someone’s skull any time he’s faced with a problem. Far from being the long-winded hero of Marvel comics, the mythological Thor is an amusing combination of masculine pride and limited intellect. It shows.

One Viking practice was to engage in flyting: a contest of exchanging insults in ritual fashion. One of the masters of flyting is Loki, the trickster figure of Norse mythology, born of a giant, but blood brother to Odin, chief of the gods. At one memorable feast, Loki takes on most of the Norse gods, insulting their courage, fighting ability, and sexuality. He’s fairly crude, but quite inventive. For example, he accuses Odin of letting the weaker side win in battle so his Valkyries can claim the braver men after they are slain. He accuses Frigg, Odin’s wife, of incestuous relations with Odin’s two brothers. Those are just a few of his accusations.

Thor isn’t present at the beginning, but comes in just about the time Loki brags about seducing the goddess Sif, Thor’s wife! Well, Thor isn’t going to take that lying down, so he calls Loki a homosexual (in terms that were specifically insulting in Viking culture) and threatens to kill him with Mjöllnir. Loki waxes creative, telling one embarrassing story about Thor after another. But all Thor can do is just repeat his initial insult and threat. He sounds like a broken record.

Doesn't Thor look pretty as a bride? (By E. Boyd Smith (1860-1943), 1902)

Doesn’t Thor look pretty as a bride?
(By E. Boyd Smith (1860-1943), 1902)

Oh, those embarrassing stories? For some reason, Loki skips what I think is the funniest one. One day, Thor wakes up to find his hammer gone. (It’s hard to ignore the Freudian implications.) It turns out a giant has stolen and hidden it. The giant won’t give it back unless Freyja, the goddess of love, marries him. So to recover his hammer, Thor has to impersonate Freyja by dressing up as a bride and pretending to marry the giant. As a bride, Thor is not a smashing success. He eats and drinks so much at the wedding feast that Loki has to apologize for him. Thor wears a veil to disguise his looks, but when the giant peeps beneath it, Thor is so enraged that his eyes glare in a distinctly unfeminine way. Thinking quickly, Loki again offers an apologetic explanation, saying “Freyja” hasn’t been able to sleep for eight nights thinking about her future husband.

The story ends as you might expect. Thor gets his hammer back, and proceeds to treat the giants like nails. His would-be husband dies. So do a lot of other giants.

Odin's not going to get his way this time! (By Lorenz Frolich (1820-1908), 1895

Odin’s not going to get his way this time!
(By Lorenz Frolich (1820-1908), 1895)

Odin, as befits the chief god, is usually depicted as wiser. He sacrifices himself on Yggdrasil, the World Tree, to obtain the magical knowledge of runes. He gives an eye to drink from Mimir’s well to acquire wisdom. And he uses lies, trickery, and magic to seduce women all the time. Some wise leader! He brags about it, even. When he and Thor get into a flyting, Thor invariably talks about what he’s done fighting, while Odin prefers to relate his sexual conquests.

Now you might think, “Men!” And you’d be right. Male gods brag about their sex lives, while accusing females of being unfaithful or promiscuous. Just like real men have done.* And that’s the point. The Norse gods were all too human in character. And in laughing at them, the Vikings laughed at themselves. They could even admit, sometimes, that if women were fickle toward men, men were just as fickle and deceitful to women. After making these observations, the speaker in the Hávámál (one of the poems in the Elder Edda) sums it up by saying love makes fools of us all. Even Norse gods.

* No, that’s not an observation on contemporary politics. Leave it alone.

The Last Viking

A glorified portrait of Harald Hardrada (credit: Wikipedia/Colin Smith)

A glorified portrait of Harald Hardrada
(credit: Wikipedia/Colin Smith)

His name was Harald, Harald Sigurdsson if you want to know his father, but he’s gone down in history as Harald Hardrada, “Harold the Hard-Ruler” we would say in English. He was King of Norway for twenty years, from 1046 until 1066, until he died in battle on foreign soil. And he is often considered “the last of the Vikings.” To what does he owe this dubious honor? He spent most of his life in battle, whether as a mercenary captain, a raiding Viking, or a warrior-king.

In the 11th century, the Viking Era was drawing to a close. Long gone were the adventuresome raids of individual chieftains. The enemies of the Vikings had organized into powerful states to oppose them, and the Vikings themselves were gradually consolidating into the kingdoms of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the Icelandic republic. But the bounds of these kingdoms fluctuated, and it was not beyond the power of any one king to dream of conquering another realm. Though their own grasp on power was tenuous, for while it was felt that royal ancestry was necessary to take the throne, it did not follow that male primogeniture (succession by the eldest son) was the rule. Kingship was held by those who could take it and hold it.

Canute was so great that some sycophants thought he could stop the tides!

Canute was so great that some sycophants thought he could stop the tides!

Harald was born around the year 1015. Later accounts would say he was descended from the legendary King Harald Finehair, but his real claim to the throne was through his half-brother, St. Olaf, King of Norway from 1015 to 1028. Olaf had opposed Danish designs to conquer Norway and rule through native earls. Although initially successful, he was driven out of the country by Danish King Canute the Great and killed in 1030. Most of the dynastic claimants to the Norwegian throne took refuge in the court of Yaroslav the Great, the dominant ruler of Russia, and himself of Viking descent. Harald was among them.

He didn’t stay in Russia long. Instead, he went south to the great city of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, still one of the richest and most powerful states in the Mediterranean world. There he became the commander of the Varangian Guard, the Scandinavians who served the Byzantine Emperor as an elite military unit. He became famous for his courage, success in battle, opportunistic dishonesty, and the wealth he accumulated from fighting, much of which probably belonged to the Emperor.

Sometime around the year 1042, he came into conflict with the Byzantine Emperor and court. Maybe, as legend would have it, he fell in love with a Byzantine princess, and the Emperor refused his suit for her hand. Maybe the Emperor found out about how much treasure Harald had amassed for himself. In either case, Harald was imprisoned, escaped, and fled to Russia, where he had thoughtfully sent most of his wealth to Yaroslav for safe-keeping.

Harald's Russian wife. There are varying accounts about whether he left her behind when he went to Norway or became a bigamist once he became king.

Harald’s Russian wife. There are varying accounts about whether he left her behind when he went to Norway or became a bigamist once he became king.

Once he arrived in Russia, Harald found out his uncle Magnus, “the Good,” had returned to Norway and retaken the throne there in 1035. Indeed, Magnus had just managed to make himself King of Denmark in 1042, after the last of Canute’s sons had died. Harald probably kicked himself for not thinking of this first. So he married one of Yaroslav’s daughters  and headed west, to see what he could grab for himself in Scandinavia.

When he arrived, the situation wasn’t looking too good. Magnus controlled both Norway and Denmark, and the only trouble he was getting was from Swein Estridsson, who had once been Magnus’s right-hand man in Denmark but now claimed the throne there for himself. Ever the opportunist, Harald joined forces with Swein and the King of Sweden to try to topple Magnus.

Facing both Swein and Harald, Magnus decided to make peace with Harald, who was his nephew after all. In 1046, Magnus offered to give Harald half of Norway if Harald gave Magnus half the treasure he had accumulated.  Harald agreed. It was a good deal, because Magnus died the next year, making Harald sole King of Norway, and getting back Magnus’s share of the treasure, to boot.

Harald helped convert Norway to a money economy by minting his own coins

Harald helped convert Norway to a money economy by minting his own coins

Harald became a strong king of Norway, which is to say that most people became terrified of him. He lived up to his reputation for savagery and duplicity that he had earned as commander of the Varangian Guard. For example, to make temporary peace with his domestic enemies on one occasion, he pardoned an exiled man . . . and then arranged for the man to get killed in battle against the Danes.

Harald also made incessant warfare on Swein, who had become King of Denmark upon Magnus’s death. Harald felt he was owed all the lands claimed by Magnus, including Denmark. Give Harald credit: he typically won his battles and staged successful raids on Denmark. But for all the trouble he made, Harald couldn’t conquer Denmark. The nobles and the people backed Swein, and Harald’s savagery didn’t persuade them otherwise. So around 1064 or 1065, he made peace with Swein, leaving Swein in possession of Denmark.

That might have been the end of Harald’s fighting career. He was about fifty, and while strong and tall, that was an old age to reach in the 11th century. But fighting had been Harald’s life. He was probably itching for an opportunity.

He got one. Tostig, the deposed Earl of Northumberland in England, came to him with a plan to invade and conquer England. Harald liked the idea. He recalled that Magnus had claimed all of Canute the Great’s realm, and that had included England. Tostig also promised he could get many nobles to rise up against the newly crowned English king, Harold Godwinson (who, incidentally, was Tostig’s brother, but they didn’t get along).

So Harald went to war, and sailed to England. He easily defeated Tostig’s successor and the Earl of Mercia at Fulford on September 20, 1066. York surrendered on September 24. The north of England was his!

And then the next day, to the utter astonishment of Harald and Tostig, King Harold Godwinson appeared with the main English army, long before anyone expected him in the north. Godwinson had marched 200 miles in four days! The Norwegians thought themselves outnumbered, and Tostig urged that they fall back a few miles to rejoin the troops stationed by their ships, but Harald would not retreat, and instead ordered riders to fetch the reinforcements.

Harald (center) charging into battle for the last time

Harald (center) charging into battle for the last time

Battle was joined at Stamford Bridge. The story has it that a single Viking held the bridge and slaughtered forty English soldiers before he was killed, but that was the last good news for the Norwegians. The English charged across the bridge, engaged their enemy, and broke the Norwegians’ shield wall. In a do-or-die effort, Harald, big man that he was, charged into battle himself where the line had been pierced. But it was not enough. He died there.

The Norwegians were defeated. The co-Earls of Orkney gathered up the sad remains of the army the next day and sailed away in peace. Harold Godwinson let them go, provided they agreed never to return. He had other concerns, another invasion to repel, in fact. Although he didn’t know it, he would soon lose his crown, his kingdom, and his life.

Harald Hardrada’s body was buried on the battlefield at Stamford Bridge. The next year, 1067, it was exhumed and moved back to Norway for internment in Trondheim.

Harald was succeeded on the throne by his son Magnus, who died within three years, and his son Olaf. Olaf reigned for about 26 years. They were good years for Norway, peaceful years. For Olaf wasn’t the Viking king his father had been. No, those times were over. The Viking Age was done.

My favorite Viking saga tragedy

The Icelandic sagas were set down mostly in the 13th century. They frequently refer to events many centuries in the past. While they seem to be straightforward historical accounts, and often involve actual people identified in other sources, it is clear that the accounts have often been fictionalized in order to improve the storytelling. Yet, oddly to the modern eye, they tend to be very weak in explaining the motivations of their characters. So let me offer you my interpretation of the motivations of the characters in my favorite Viking saga story.

A 1654 map of the Orkneys

A 1654 map of the Orkneys

The story comes from the Orkneyinga saga, sometimes called the History of the Earls of Orkney. The Orkneys are an island archipelago north of Scotland that was settled by Viking during the 9th century (or earlier). Although they owed obedience to the Kings of Norway, in practice the Earls were often autonomous rulers, whose realm could extend as far north as the Shetland Islands, as far south as the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea, and onto Caithness and Sutherland on the Scottish mainland.

This story begins with two legendary figures, Erik Bloodaxe and Thorfinn Skullsplitter. Erik was the favorite son of King Harold Finehair of Norway, and became king after his father’s retirement in the early 930s. According to legend, he was so fierce a ruler that his subjects deposed him in favor of a brother and drove him out of the realm after only a few years. Fleeing abroad, Erik began a career of raiding that would make his name infamous.

No, Thorfinn didn't really look like this.

No, Thorfinn didn’t really look like this.

But Erik understood that he needed a home base where he could take his plunder and keep his family safe. He thought of the Orkney Islands, Officially, they were ruled by the three sons of Earl Torf-Einar: Arnkel, Erlend, and Thorfinn. But these three young men proved no match for the bloodthirsty Erik. He took over the islands in 937 as his new kingdom. And he took the three sons of Torf-Einar with him on raids. Originally, they were probably hostages, but over time, they became Erik’s collaborators. Indeed, this is probably when Thorfinn acquired the nickname “Skullsplitter.”

Still Erik was not satisfied, and a few years later took over the Viking kingdom of Jorvik in the north of England. There he proved to be such a nuisance that the English mobilized against him, defeated him in 954, and slew him as he tried to flee. Arnkel and Erlend were with him, and they died, too.

Gunnhild is informed of Erik's death, as imagined in 1899

Gunnhild is informed of Erik’s death, as imagined in 1899

Erik’s widow, the formidable Queen Gunnhild, returned to Orkney with her two sons. Like Erik, they found the island earldom too limited for their ambitions. They cast about for some way to regain power in Norway. The King of Denmark offered them help in 955 and they departed from Orkney, leaving behind the remaining son of Torf-Einar, Thorfinn Skullsplitter, as the sole ruler of Orkney. But to solidify the bonds between the two families, Gunnhild married off her daughter Ragnhild to Thorfinn’s son Arnfinn. This union was to have dire consequences.

Thorfinn Skullsplitter now ruled alone as Earl of Orkney for many years. They were good years, good for the realm and good for Thorfinn, whose wife had borne him five sons and two daughters. And then Thorfinn died peacefully in his bed. As expected, his eldest son Arnfinn succeeded him as earl, with Ragnhild at his side. The future looked bright for the sons of Thorfinn.

In good years, the sheep in the Orkneys multiply

In good years, the sheep in the Orkneys multiply (Credit: Wikipedia/Liz Burke)

Ah, but there was a serpent in this paradise, and her name was Ragnhild. She was too much her parents’ daughter, strong and lusty. Perhaps she wanted real political power, more than Arnfinn would give her. Perhaps she was hard to please in bed, and that was more than Arnfinn could give her. So she decided Arnfinn had to die. Perhaps she suggested to Arnfinn’s brother Havard that he could have the throne if he murdered his brother. Perhaps she seduced Havard, too. Whatever the case, Arnfinn was killed. Havard took the throne and took his brother’s widow to wife, too. No doubt people suspected he had killed his brother, but they weren’t sure. In the good years of harvest that followed, people chose to forget just how Havard came to power.

But Ragnhild wasn’t satisfied. Considering what happened next, one suspects Havard had failed her as a husband and lover, much as his brother might have. For while Havard still had at least three more younger brothers living, it was not to them that she turned. No, instead she robbed the cradle by making eyes at one of Havard’s nephews! This was Einar “Buttered-Bread,” so called to distinguish him from his cousin Einar “Hard-Mouth.”

Ragnhild’s technique played on Einar’s vanity. She praised him as a good man who would make an excellent ruler. She made it clear that a woman would consider herself lucky to marry Einar. In case he was a little slow on the uptake, she added that she didn’t expect her marriage to Havard to last much longer. Einar got the point. Lust for power and for the body of his aunt made him Ragnhild’s patsy. He quickly gathered some of his followers and ambushed Earl Havard, killing him in the skirmish.

Einar had been too obvious. There was an outcry, as many people felt Einar had acted shamefully in killing his uncle. They were not willing to let Einar be the next earl.

Maybe Ragnhild had never really wanted Einar as a husband, or maybe she didn’t want to go against popular opinion. So she betrayed him. She went to his cousin, Einar Hard-Mouth, and suggested that Einar revenge Havard’s killing by killing Einar “Buttered-Bread.”

So far, none of the descendants of Thorfinn Skullsplitter had shown much in the way of brains. But Einar Hard-Mouth wasn’t completely stupid. He had some idea that Ragnhild’s talk of family honor might be a cloak for some scheme of hers. And yet he still fell for it! Thinking he was being tough and realistic, he made it clear that he expected both the earldom and Ragnhild’s hand guaranteed as his rewards. No doubt Ragnhild must have laughed up her sleeve at this. Here Einar thought he was driving a hard bargain when he was just asking for the same thing she had promised Einar “Buttered-Bread” only a short time before! Naturally she agreed. And naturally she had no more intention of keeping to her side of the bargain this time, either. But Einar Hard-Mouth had fallen for her. He summoned his men and tracked down Einar “Buttered-Bread,” killing him just as he had killed Havard.

Ragnhild was pleased. But she wasn’t going to let some boy Einar’s age push her around. Instead, she went to the fourth son of Thorfinn’s, Ljot, pointed out that he had a better claim to the Earldom of Orkney than Einar did, argued that he should take the throne, and the best way to cement his claim was to marry Ragnhild!

You’d think by this time, someone would have figured out what sort of schemer Ragnhild was. And maybe Ljot did. But whether he did or not, Ljot was a chip off the old Skullsplitter, a man not to be trifled with, not by Ragnhild nor anyone else. Oh, he listened to Ragnhild. He became Earl of Orkney and married Ragnhild. When Einar Hard-Mouth tried to take the earldom and Ragnhild away from him, Ljot had Einar killed. When the King of Scotland tried to take over the Earldom’s possessions on the Scottish mainland by using Ljot’s brother Skuli as their pawn, Ljot made war on the Scots and killed Skuli.

Maybe Ljot was just the sort of man Ragnhild needed. Maybe he was tough enough and virile enough to keep her satisfied. Or maybe she was finally getting too old and tired. She’d been a wife to three men and probably a mistress to at least two more over more than thirty years, and was now in her fifties. In any case, she didn’t engage in any plots to kill Ljot (that we know of). Instead, Ljot would die as the result of his wounds in one of his campaigns on the Scottish mainland.

It had been only about a decade since Thorfinn Skullsplitter had died, but thanks to Ragnhild’s machinations, only one of his sons, Hlodvir, remained alive. With Ljot’s death, Hlodvir became the next Earl of Orkney.

With Hlodvir’s ascent, we hear no more of Ragnhild. Maybe Ragnhild was dead by that time. Maybe she looked at her chances, saw that Hlodvir already had a wife, and not just a wife but a son, Sigurd, who was almost an adult, and decided she should finally retire into widowhood. But judging from her career, I wouldn’t be surprised if she went to her grave thinking that if she had just been a few years younger, she could have made a play for Sigurd. If she had, she would have altered history. Sigurd “the Stout” became one of the most powerful Earls of Orkney ever, and would die in the famous Battle of Clontarf in 1014, fighting with Sitric Silkenbeard, Viking King of Dublin, against the Irish High King Brian Bóru.

The Battle of Clontarf, painted in 1826 by Hugh Frazer (1795 - 1865)

The Battle of Clontarf, painted in 1826 by Hugh Frazer (1795 – 1865)

Historical fiction on TV: “Vikings”

“Vikings” protagonist, Ragnar Lothbrok

To catch up on how popular culture represents Vikings (and no, Marvel movies featuring Thor don’t count . . . well, they shouldn’t), I sat down the last few weeks to watch the History Channel’s show Vikings, first broadcast in 2013, and now scheduled for a fourth season. I was able to get hold of only the first season on DVD, so that’s mostly what I’ll talk about here. Bottom line, if you want to skip the rest of the review: so-so entertainment, so-so history, but useful for all that, and the series does have its moments.

The History Channel has had some dubious times, having swung from the “Hitler channel” due to the prevalence of World War II features, to exploring the fringes of the alien UFO theories. My expectations for this series were appropriately low. And right from the first episode, there were historical howlers. Was I really supposed to believe that the Norsemen had never sailed west before? Or that they stumbled on Lindisfarne monastery simply by chance? I won’t even get into the outfits, which one historian described as more appropriate for a leather fetish bar in the 1980s. Why is it that historical dramas about rough men love leather so much? Okay, stupid question.

And then there’s the pacing. One can see the struggle between Ragnar and Earl Haraldson shaping up from the get-go, but it takes six episodes to come to a climax. Doesn’t sound so long? The Earl’s been killing Ragnar’s allies dishonorably since episode 2. The show wants us to think Ragnar is some wise, far-sighted man, and Travis Fimmel, the actor who plays him, can sometimes make me believe, but he’s a pussy for putting up with friends and family being killed as long as he does.

I should be putting a picture of Rollo here, but I don't care about him. Instead, here's the improbable warrior Lagertha, who's also Ragnar's first wife

I should be putting a picture of Rollo here, but I don’t care about him. Instead, here’s the improbable warrior Lagertha, who’s also Ragnar’s first wife

A large part of the problem is TV’s tendency to turn historical dramas into soap operas. I first noticed this in the HBO series Rome, which should have been called Desperate Roman Housewives. The producers of these series think that the way to hold our attention is to drag every major character into labyrinthine plots. For example, Ragnar’s brother Rollo is simultaneously envious of his brother, carrying a torch for his brother’s wife, considering betraying his brother to whichever powerful man offers him a deal, bedding Earl Haraldson’s widow, and banging anything else in a skirt that he can reach. It’s all supposed to create dramatic tension and develop Rollo’s character. But it’s all so unreal in its relentless complexity that I end up not caring about Rollo at all. In fact, by the time I finished watching the first season, he was just “the irritant who’s supposed to make Ragnar’s life more complicated.” And the same could be said for many another character.

And yet . . . in between the de rigueur battle scenes and the plot complications, the characters do actually get some chances to develop. Ragnar’s pseudo-wise silences don’t impress me, but his battle smarts in setting up battles to favor his side do. His romance with a woman other than his wife and his son’s unfavorable reaction to this don’t move me, but Ragnar’s way of dealing with his son’s disapproval does.

And probably the most affecting moment in the entire first season is a side show to the main event: not the duel between Ragnar and Earl Haraldson, but the funeral afterwards. Ragnar’s willingness to honor his foe and the grief of Siggy, Haraldson’s widow, provide some genuine emotion, because they are human reactions to events that don’t seem contrived. It’s not Euripides’ The Trojan Women, but the episode exists for the same reason: human grief is real and understandable.

Siggy's usually a throw-away character, but here she's an essential part of the funeral episode

Siggy’s usually a throw-away character, but here she’s an essential part of the funeral episode

But what of the history? Again, Rome provides a reference. The series took painstaking care to get some details authentically correct, while doing great violence to the actual historical events and people. And Vikings is doing much the same, by reweaving history to make what the producers think is a more dramatic story, blending the authentic (e.g., the raid on Lindisfarne) with the inauthentic (e.g., the church at Uppsala). In both cases, just viewing the episodes won’t tell you what’s accurate or a guess or anachronistic or simply wrong.

Yet, in both cases, the series can provide an entry to learning more about history, so long as you start with the question “Was it really like this?” Did the Vikings really worship their gods at a church like the one shown in episode eight? Well, no. But then where and how did they worship? At that point, the historian and folklorist and archaeologist can step in and provide some answers. Most viewers won’t even get that far. But let’s treasure and encourage the ones that do, and help others along the same path.

My own interest in the Vikings began with watching the movie The Vikings from 1958. It was like the TV series, accurate in some details, but doing serious violence to the history. The Vikings started me on the road to trying to find out what the Vikings were really like. I hope Vikings will do the same for others.

That's Ernest Borgnine on the left, playing the 1958 version of Ragnar. Janet Leigh gets to play an ornament . . . oops, sorry, a princess. She does not kick ass.

That’s Ernest Borgnine on the left, playing the 1958 version of Ragnar. Janet Leigh gets to play an ornament . . . oops, sorry, a princess. This one’s no warrior-princess.

Honor in Egil’s Saga

One can tell a lot about a culture by the values it celebrates. For the Vikings, one key value was honor. As shown in Egil’s Saga, honor is a complicated matter, depending not just on what one does, but who one is, and who else one deals with.

Although Egil thought burning people in their houses an honorable course, later Icelanders would condemn the practice as dishonorable, as in Njal's Saga.

Although Egil thought burning people in their houses an honorable course, later Icelanders would condemn the practice as dishonorable, as in Njal’s Saga.

As you might expect, Vikings could win honor in battle or raids. It makes sense. Go on a good raid, fight a lot of people, take a lot of treasure in booty, and you win honor. Egil Skallagrimsson, the eponymous hero of the saga, was a Viking who took these matters to the extreme. In chapter 46, he led a party that robbed a farmer of all his treasure. But for Egil, that was not enough. He said that was a poor form of honor, that to win proper honor, the Vikings needed to let the farmer know that his treasure has been taken. And how did Egil let the farmer and his family know? Why, by burning down their house and killing anyone who tried to escape. That’s a hardcore Viking for you.

Fighting in battle also qualifies as an honorable occupation. Egil and his brother Thorolf helped lead King Athelstan’s army to victory in chapters 52-55. Athelstan honored Egil with recognition of his favor . . . and two chests full of silver.

And there are duels. Vikings used duels to settle many disputes, including disputes at law (see chapter 57). Egil even intervened in another family’s dispute to fight a duel. A man named Ljot wanted to marry a girl whose family refused him, so Ljot challenged the girl’s brother, Fridgeir. The idea was that if Ljot killed Fridgeir, that he would win the girl’s hand anyhow. Nice idea that, that one might have to marry a man because he killed your brother! Egil was staying with Fridgeir, who has been an exemplary host, and when he found out what was going on, Egil offered to challenge Ljot. Well, when they arrived at the site chosen for the duel, Ljot agreed to fight Egil instead of Fridgeir, because Ljot thought Egil a more worthy and tougher opponent. Ljot figured that if he killed Egil, he would win more honor than killing the younger, weaker, and less famous Fridgeir. In case you have to ask, Egil killed Ljot.

Egil had a long track record of killing people. He believed, along with most Vikings, that revenge was honorable. As in so many things, Egil was a bit extreme. When he was seven years old, he killed an eleven-year-old over a dispute at a ball game (chapter 40). Good thing Egil wasn’t in the NFL during “Deflategate!”

On another occasion, Egil challenged Berg-Onund to a duel over a disputed inheritance when he couldn't get satisfaction by litigation. Painting by Johannes Flintoe (1787-1870)

On another occasion, Egil challenged Berg-Onund to a duel over a disputed inheritance when he couldn’t get satisfaction by litigation. Painting by Johannes Flintoe (1787-1870)

If being a good fighter is something we expect of Vikings, being a good poet is not. Yet Egil was a noted poet, and several of his poems are recorded in the saga. (Although there’s some argument about whether they are genuine compositions of Egil’s.) His first recorded notable poem (chapter 31) was delivered at age three! So much did the Vikings honor poetry that King Eirik Blood-axe, who had many reasons to have Egil executed, spared him after Egil composed a drapa, a long complicated poem celebrating heroic deeds, in honor of Eirik (chapters 60-62).

Another worthy way of gathering honor among Vikings was to be generous. Equals were generous to each other (chapter 68). Wealthy, powerful men, such as Egil’s uncle Thorolf, generously supported many followers (chapter 9). Kings who made generous gifts were held to be honorable, as Athelstan did to Egil (chapter 55). Indeed, if you gave a worthy gift, you not only gained honor, but the recipient gained honor as well. Consider Egil’s uncle Thorolf. He built a magnificent longship that was so much better than King Harald Fairhair had that the king became jealous of Thorolf. Thorolf realized that he was slighting the king by appearing to be better than him, so gave the king the longship as a gift (chapter 11). Harald was pleased, and both men gained honor.

Warrior, poet, and sometime heroic spewer of vomit, Egil was a Viking through and through

Warrior, poet, and sometime heroic spewer of vomit, Egil was a Viking through and through

That last exchange demonstrates some of the dangers of the Viking code of honor. It was not wise to gain more honor than one’s superiors. Thorolf made that mistake, and while his gift of the ship temporarily solved the problem, ultimately his success led to King Harald Fairhair having Thorolf killed (as detailed in the chapters up through 22). And it wasn’t considered good form to act honorably and obviously expect to be praised for it. Late in his life, Egil received a wonderful shield from his friend Einar (chapter 81). What’s Egil’s first reaction? He was insulted that Einar left the shield because Egil thought Einar expected Egil to praise Einar and the shield in a poem! Egil wanted to go after Einar and kill him! Only after he learned that Einar was far away on his ride home did Egil regain his temper . . . and compose a poem about the shield and his friend Einar!

There’s a lot more to be said about Viking honor in Egil’s Saga. But I hope these few examples give you an idea of the range of Viking honor, and the complexity of the society that measured honor in these way.