Viking History Q&A: Season 2, Episode 2

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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 2: Invasion

Question: In this episode, Aslaug tells Ragnar she is a völva. What is that?

Justin Pollard: A völva was a Viking female seer of a type that frequently appears in Norse mythology. In Old Norse, the word means “wand-carrier” or “magical staff carrier.” A völva practiced a type of divination known as spá by means of sacred leaves, twigs or slips of wood used in lot-casting.

How this was technically done is not clear. Tacitus, speaking well before our period, says that Germanic peoples during the Roman Empire practiced divination by marking sticks with magical signs and randomly picking one. In Chapter 38 of Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga Saga, Granmar, the king of Södermanland, travels to the Temple at Uppsala for the seasonal blót:

“There, the chips fell in a way that said that he would not live long.” 

Another source is in the Vita Ansgari, the biography of Ansgar the Archbishop of Hamburg-Bremen, which was written by a monk named Rimbert. Rimbert describes the custom of casting lots by the pagan Norse, which would be marked, possibly with sacrificial blood, shaken and thrown down like dice, and their positive or negative significance then decided.

This type of magic was considered very much to be in the domain of women and men who practiced spá were entering a dangerously feminine world where their masculinity could be at risk. Most would hence consult a völva rather than trying to divine the future themselves. This is what Odin does when he resurrects a long dead völva from her grave in the poem Baldrs draumar.  Having said that we have many examples in the sagas of men, desperate to know the future, doing just that.

Q: Aslaug prophecies that Ragnar’s son will be born with the image of a serpent in his eye? Can you tell us a little more about the serpent in Viking mythology? 

JP: According to the sagas, Aslaug proved she was the daughter of Sigurd, who had killed the serpent Fafnir, by prophesying that her next child would be born with the image of that serpent in its eye. The next child was then born with a malformed pupil in one eye and was known as Sigurd snake-in-eye.

The serpent in the story, which can equally be seen as a snake or a dragon was a powerful symbol in Norse mythology. The peoples of Scandinavia had every reason to believe in dragons. The earth on which they lived was a physically and socially violent place. Earthquakes were a sure sign that dragons dwelt beneath the ground and the mines in which gold and silver were found were proof that deep within the earth lay dragons’ precious gold hoards. With the settling of Iceland in the 9th century, the discovery of this turbulent, volcanic island was yet further proof that the fire-breathing dragons of legend were also a matter of fact.

The Vikings celebrated these mythological creatures in stories associating them with greed and the overwhelming desire to hoard treasure. In the Völsunga Saga, the dying dragon Fafnir tells Sigurd (Aslaug’s father) that his gold hoard is cursed, implying that all those who endlessly seek riches will end up unhappy, saying:

“‘Ride there then,’ said Fafnir, ‘and you shall find gold enough to last your whole life; but that gold will be your curse, and a curse on everyone who ever owns it.’” (Volsunga Saga XVIII)

This stark warning doesn’t seem to put Sigurd off, however, and he reminds the dragon that everyone must die and it would be better to die rich.

Jörmungandr, the World Serpent, also features very heavily in Norse myth. This sea serpent, a child of the god Loki, grew so large that he was able to surround the earth and grasp his own tail in his mouth.  It was said that when he let go, the world would end. At that last battle, Ragnarök, Jörmungandr would be killed by his enemy, the god Thor who would then take nine steps before falling dead himself.

Q: Siggy speaks to Rollo of a future in Hel. What did Hel mean to the Vikings, and how was it similar or different to the Judeo-Christian interpretation?

JP: A lot of what we know of Hel comes from the 13th century Poetic and Prose Eddas and Heimskringla by Snorri Sturluson who, as a Christian, may have added features to make it more like the Judeo-Christian hell.

In Viking mythology, Hel was one of the Nine Worlds and certainly the least favorable one to end up in after death. This place was reserved for those who died a natural death–not heroically in battle. Hel was ruled over by a giantess of the same name, a daughter of Loki, who had been appointed by Odin.

Sources are confusing over who exactly went to Hel and what happened there but it seems to have been considered to be a place where those who had done evil in life were punished. The “Corpse Shore”(Náströnd) lay in Hel where the bodies of those guilty of adultery, murder and oath-breaking were punished. Even though there were beautiful halls there, no warrior would want to end up in Hel. One saga tells of a dying warrior cutting himself with spears to make it appear he had died in battle and thus fool the gods.

Q: At the feast, King Horik and Jarl Borg toast with the saying “skål”– is that a Vikings toast? What does it mean?

JP: Skål is a toast still used today in Scandinavian society. It derives from the word for cup, a traditional drinking vessel of the Viking age. The idea that it relates to Vikings drinking from the skulls of their enemies is a post-medieval invention however. We chose this toast because it was recognizable as such and short!

Toasting was important in Viking society and the process was highly ritualized and lengthy. The first toast was always to Odin and dedicated to victory. One source says the toast might be followed by the chief or king taking the drinking cup or horn and making the sign of the cross over it in the shape of Thor’s hammer. Further toasts followed to other gods, dedicated to good harvests, peace at home and in the memory of dead relatives and friends. The latter was called “minni,” meaning “memory.”

These rounds of toasting were known collectively as “sumbel” and the toasting and passing of the ceremonial cup was accompanied by storytelling, oaths and songs. Despite all this, it was considered inappropriate to get very drunk at these gatherings and Odin himself was recorded in the poem Hávamál as warning men to be “wariest of all with ale.”

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Q: Both Siggy (on her back) and Ragnar (on his head) sport some interesting tattoos in Episode 2. Do we know that Vikings had tattoos? Were they permanent?

JP: Our knowledge of tattooing in Viking culture is very limited as the bodies on which it may have been practiced don’t survive. We do however have a written record from the Arab traveller and diplomat Ahmad ibn Fadlān ibn al-Abbās ibn Rāšid ibn Hammād (known as Ibn Fadlan) who journeyed amongst the Viking Rus in the 10th century. In his account he says:

“I saw the Rūsiyyah when they had arrived on their trading expedition and had disembarked at the River Ātil. I have never seen more perfect physiques than theirs—they are like palm trees, are fair and reddish, and do not wear the qurṭaq or the caftan. The man wears a cloak with which he covers one half of his body, leaving one of his arms uncovered. Every one of them carries an axe, a sword and a dagger and is never without all of that which we have mentioned. Their swords are of the Frankish variety, with broad, ridged blades. Each man, from the tip of his toes to his neck, is covered in dark-green lines, pictures and such like.”

These “dark green lines” are almost certainly permanent tattoos, most probably from the description in those sinuous patterns loved by the Vikings. This was the inspiration for our use of tattoos in the series.

Q: Ragnar has always displayed a lot of affection for his children. This warmth toward the young is quite different from some other warrior societies—namely the Spartans. Can you tell us more about Viking child-rearing and family relationships?

JP: The kin group was the essential central feature of the lives of many Germanic peoples, including both the Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons and the starting point of this was, not surprisingly, the relationship between parents and children. It was your children who would look after you in old age (if you lived that long) and they who would keep your fame alive after your death.

This does not mean that Viking children had an easy life however. There was no formal schooling for children and both boys and girls were expected to work as soon as they were capable of doing anything useful. Girls would be expected to spin and weave and boys would perform the usual manual labor needed on a farm. Children were also regularly fostered–sent for extended stays with relatives or friends who might either need the help or have particular skills they could teach the child.

There was still time for play and boys were encouraged to practice fighting–and not simply play wrestling, but single combat with weapons. Story telling was also an important relaxation, explaining the religious mythology of the era and the history of the people. There were also some toys like dolls, model ships and balls. Bolli Bollason is recorded in his tale the Bollaþáttur as building himself a playhouse. In many ways this was a world of children as half the population was under 15.

Whilst children were cherished Vikings were very practical in times of stress. When the population of an area looked like it was out-pacing the food supply, or during famines, infants and particularly the infants of slaves might be exposed on mountainsides in order to keep the population down.

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Q: Ragnar gives Athelstan an arm-ring on the battlefield. Did non-Viking born ever receive arm rings?

JP: As a piece of personal property it was exceptionally rare for a non-Viking to receive an arm-ring as there were imbued with magical properties.

Arm rings are the only magical talisman mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle aside from raven banners. Most Vikings wore some jewelery, particularly gold or silver arm rings but some of these also had a sacred value. We don’t know a great deal about these artifacts, but there is a brief mention in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describing how Alfred the Great persuaded the Viking warlord Guthrum to swear a treaty on such a ring. This was probably a sacred gold arm-ring of a type which was associated with the thunder god Thor and which was usually kept in pagan temples. What we know of these mysterious objects comes from later sources, particularly from Iceland, where the 13th century Eyrbyggja Saga describes an ancient pagan temple where:

“…off the inmost house was there another house, of that fashion whereof now is the choir of a church, and there stood a stall in the midst of the floor in the fashion of an altar, and thereon lay a ring without a join that weighed twenty ounces, and on that must men swear all oaths; and that ring must the chief have on his arm at all assemblies.”

There are also hints in the Annals of St. Bertin that at least one Viking in Francia took a pagan oath “after his own fashion.”

Arm rings also had a far more practical purpose in everyday life, representing the bond between a lord and his follower. In early poems such as Beowulf, great lords are known as ”ring-givers.” So, in our show it’s a way of demonstrating both the relationship between Ragnar and Athelstan and showing what mattered in the Viking psyche when it came to making statements about loyalty and friendship. It is also the first intimation Athelstan gets of the power of Viking religion.

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