Viking History Q&A: Season 2, Episode 6

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History.com checks in with Vikings show researcher Justin Pollard to get the historical context for each Vikings Season 2 episode. 

Season 2, Episode 6: Unforgiven

Question: The Seer mentions Valkyries and tells Siggy, “The gods will always smile on brave women.” What are Valkyries and where do they come from?

Justin Pollard: Valkyrja is Old Norse for “Chooser of the Slain” and the Valkyries were female mythological beings that “harvested” slain warriors for Odin. Half of those who died in battle were selected by the Valkyries and taken to Valhalla where they feasted and prepared for the battle at the end of the world (Ragnarök), when they would assist Odin in fighting Fenrir. These warriors were known as einherjar. Valkyries were sometimes accompanied by or represented by Odin’s ravens, “Thought” and “Memory,” who came to him each evening and told him of the deeds of men on earth. Chief amongst the Valkyrie was Valfreyja, perhaps a form of the goddess Freyja, known as ”the mistress of the slain,” who served ale to the Aesir in Asgard.

Valkyries are also associated with weaving, like the Norns— although they can weave victory or defeat in battle, rather than the fates of men as they do in Beowulf. Sometimes, the Valkyries also appeared in a rather more benign form as swan-maidens, who could take the shape of a swan when wearing their swan-shifts and travel across land and sea. It was said that if you could capture a swan-maiden, then you could demand a wish of her.

It’s worth noting that Valkyries are never recorded as taking part in battles and are rarely even armed. Their job is simply to harvest the slain.

Q: Jarl Borg says he is advised by the skull of his dead wife. We’ve also seen Ragnar talking to the deceased Gyda earlier this season. What is the relationship between Vikings and those who have died? Do Vikings believe their spirits are present?

JP: Vikings did believe that the spirits of the dead could remain present in the world of the living. Whilst every warrior yearned to take his place in Valhalla, most of the dead were thought to have a strange second life in their grave rather akin to a zombie (as opposed to a ghost). One group of those buried in burial mounds were known as haugbui (mound-dwellers) and were thought to use their mound as a home. Provided no-one disturbed their mound, they usually presented no trouble to the living. In one saga, they are described calling to each other from their graves, like neighbours chatting over a fence.

By contrast, aptrgangr walked free from their graves and could interfere in the lives of the living. These spirits still inhabited their decaying, dead bodies and so were effectively “un-dead.” As well as having superhuman strength, an aptrgangr was magical and could change form, often appearing as local animals and attacking in that form. Some could also travel through solid rock, disappearing into the earth when threatened, or bring down night or a thick mist to hide themselves. These creatures resented the living and longed for the life they had lost, so they would often attack the living and their livestock. To kill an aptrgangr, it first had to be wrestled to the ground and then decapitated, sometimes with its own sword. The body was then walked around three times anti-clockwise and, in some legends, a stake was driven into the body.

Vikings

Q: How were servants typically treated in Viking culture?

JP: Viking culture was a slave-owning and trading society, so servants were literally the possessions of their master or mistress. Slaves captured in raids were one of the Vikings main traded commodities. Exotic slaves from distant lands could fetch a premium and might be traded on thousands of miles from their original home.

This was a hierarchical society with jarls at the top, followed by freemen, then servants/slaves stood on the lowest rung and hence we might expect they received the worst treatment. This all depended on their owner and their status within a household.

These unfree servants were known as þræll or “thralls” and are slightly different from those who are simply captured in battle and sold on as slaves. There are also hereditary thralls who are sometimes referred to as “fostre,” whose families may have provided generations of service to another family and because of this might expect better treatment. You might think of these thralls as more like house servants or even old fashioned butlers rather than slaves.

The lowest thralls were used for heavy manual labor, tending fields, building, cutting wood and herding animals. Female thralls might be expected to milk the livestock, make butter and wash clothes. Higher up the scale, trusted thralls, whose families may have been in service to a family for generations, might become overseers or bailiffs running estates whilst their female equivalents might become personal maids or nannies. In law, someone who killed a thrall was not responsible for their murder, but was required to pay their value to their owner, just as if they had killed some livestock. A slave’s children were always also slaves and most were not allowed to own property. On the brighter side, thralls who were injured had a right to medical care from their owners and owners were required to provide for those who were too old or ill to work.

Slavery was not necessarily a permanent state, however, and a thrall could buy their way out of servitude by paying their current value to their owner. Of course, a thrall had to have been given the means to earn money to do that in the first place. Generally, the law allowed a thrall to keep the proceeds of crafts they produced in their free time and some were given plots of land whose produce they could sell. So, after many years, they might be able to buy their freedom. A yet more fortunate few might be given their freedom, often as a mark of long service by their owner, or occasionally by a third party. These freed men did not have exactly the same position in law as the free born. Those freed by their owner retained a duty of deference to their former master, usually being required to seek his or her approval for most things. In return, the former master treated the freed man as a sort of adopted family member offering support and help.

Q: Athelstan and King Ecbert discuss art—what was art like for the Vikings?

JP: Much of Viking art revolved around dynamic interpretations of swirling animals, often in complex interlacing patterns. Vikings carved designs on much of their material culture—from ships prows, bone combs, caskets and jewelery to standing stones. Much of this material was perishable and hasn’t survived in the archaeological record, so we might expect that much more was decorated, from clothing to houses.

Viking animal ornamentation is usually divided into six ”styles,” named after the places where particular examples were found. The Oseberg style is found on the Oseberg ship, a beautifully preserved Viking ship discovered in a burial mound in Norway. It dates from 834 AD, so is very much a style we use in the show. The most recognizable element of this style is called the ”gripping beast,” sinewy interlinked animals gripping the borders of the design.

Borre style appears slightly later, but still in our period and is named after a boat burial discovered at Borre in Norway. It evolved slightly later than Oseberg style, perhaps around 850 AD, and was mainly used on jewelery. It’s most characteristic feature was the ”ring-braid”–two bands held together by rings.

The other styles–Jelling, Mammen, Ringerike and Urnes only appeared in the 10th and 11th centuries and so, outside our time period.

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