Viking History Q&A: Season 2, Episode 4

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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 4: Eye for and Eye

Question: What is Wessex?

Justin Pollard: The Kingdom of Wessex was one of a group of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms in England which had emerged in the late fifth and sixth centuries after the collapse of Roman rule. We call these kingdoms ‘Anglo-Saxon’ after the two Germanic tribes, the Angles and Saxons, some of whom seem to have migrated to Britain in this period. Just how many Saxons, Angles and other Germanic peoples came over to England then is still hotly disputed, but regardless of the number who actually made the journey, those that did come seem to have been in the ascendancy and the culture of the succeeding generations, at least in England, might be reasonably described as theirs.

Theirs was an overwhelmingly agricultural land—a land of scattered farmsteads and small villages in a landscape dominated by forests which had actually increased in size since the end of the Roman period. In the South, three great forests—Andredeswald in the East, the central Ashdown Forest and Selwood in Somserset and Wiltshire—covered much of the land and were still home to wolves, wild boar and beavers. Between these dangerous obstacles and around the scrub, wastelands and heaths, lay upland pastures on which sheep, goats and cattle grazed—pannage for pigs and the lowland fields in which the staples of Anglo-Saxon life – wheat, barley, oats and rye were grown.

The glue that held this society together was a Germanic concept of kinship, where at every level an individual held allegiance to the head of his kin group–the child to the father, the father to the head of the extended family, thence to the local lord and so up through the ranks of aristocracy to the king himself. Even amongst the kings there was then an order of precedence, the title of Bretwalda (probably meaning “ruler of Britain”) belonging to the king who claimed at least nominal overlordship of the others.

Q: The Seer speaks to Jarl Borg of an eagle representing his destiny, and Jarl Borg seems pleased by this revelation. What did the eagle mean in Viking culture?

JP: The Vikings thought of the eagle as a carrion bird–one that eats the flesh of dead animals (and, more importantly, the dead of battle) and they knew it as hræsvelgr, which we can translate as “corpse-guzzler.” This association with those who died in battle–the heroic dead–led to the eagle being associated with heroes. It was said that when an eagle cried out it marked the birth of a hero and the bird was saluting the arrival of someone who would later provide corpses for them to feast on.

The eagle is also associated with Odin, as are those other carrion birds, ravens, although this connection may go back further, perhaps even to the days of the Roman Empire. The Imperial eagle was the symbol of Roman might and the Germanic tribes along the Roman frontier may have taken on this idea and come to associate the bird with their own overlord–Odin.

Q: Aslaug complains of dirt and filth repeatedly. Was cleanliness and grooming something important to the Vikings?

JP: The idea that Vikings were filthy or simply didn’t care about cleanliness or appearance is a bit of a movie myth. Obviously, a warband in the field is not going to be as hygiene-conscious as a town-dweller, but Vikings took great care with their appearance. Some of the most common finds on excavations from Viking sites are tools associated with grooming–tweezers, combs, razors and tiny spoons for removing ear wax. The Arabic traveller Ibn Fadlan noted that men of the Viking Rus bleached their beards to a saffron yellow using a type of soap.

The Vikings also loved to bathe, one English cleric noting that they took a bath every Saturday and frequently washed their clothes–something he considered to be excessive and a sure sign of paganism. He also claimed that they only did it to seduce Christian English women. Even today, Saturday is referred to as laugardagur / lördag – “washing day” in Scandinavian languages, whilst “laug” still means “hot spring’ or “bath” in Icelandic.

Vikings also washed daily, according to a poem known as Hávamál in the Poetic Edda which states that diners were presented with a bowl of water and a towel before a meal.

The only exception to this fastidiousness was as a sign of mourning. When Odin hears of the death of Baldr, he stops washing his hands and combing his hair until the body has been burnt on a pyre.

Q: Athelstan suffers a pretty terrible fate in this episode. Is there a historical precedent for his character—people who lived in both cultures?

JP: Viking warbands often took slaves, sometimes to keep and sometimes to sell, and from the earliest attacks in England we know that monks were abducted and hence must have been forced to live in Viking culture from that moment on. The first occurrence of this in England that we know about is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 793 AD when Lindisfarne is sacked. The medieval chronicler Symeon of Durham concludes his chronicle entry for that year:

“In that same year the pagans from the northern regions came with a naval force to Britain like stinging hornets and spread on all sides like fearful wolves, robbed, tore and slaughtered not only beasts of burden, sheep and oxen, but even priests and deacons, and companies of monks and nuns. And they came to the church of Lindisfarne, laid everything waste with grievous plundering, trampled the holy places with polluted steps, dug up the altars and seized all the treasures of the holy church. They killed some of the brothers, took some away with them in fetters, many they drove out, naked and loaded with insults, some they drowned in the sea……”

Exactly what the fate of those taken away “in fetters” was is unknown, but Viking society was strictly hierarchical and they probably took on the role of thralls–unfree servants–having been taken back to Scandinavia and sold at slave markets. Slavery was widespread at the time and not only foreign captives, but people from other parts of Scandinavia could be enslaved, sometimes as a form of ransom.

First generation slaves would rapidly assimilate to their new culture. They would have to wear the slave collar that marked them out and any children they had would also be slaves. Their main hope was to be able to gather enough money to buy their freedom or to be granted freedom by a grateful owner.

Vikings

Q: Aslaug tells Ragnar their son has been born with a “snake in the eye.” What does the snake represent to the Vikings?

JP: Snakes and serpents play an important role in Viking mythology. Snakes were often conflated with serpents and dragons, like Fafnir, the dragon killed by Sigurd’s grandfather and namesake. A mythological snake is also one of the central foci of Norse mythology, in the form of the World Serpent Jörmungandr, a sea-serpent and child of the god Loki, who grew so large that he could encircle the world of men holding his own tail in his mouth. At the end of the world, during Ragnarök, the Vikings believed that Loki would escape his bonds and, with his children, Jörmungandr and the wolf Fenrir join the Giants in attacking the gods in Asgard. During this battle the heroes who Odin has gathered in Valhalla would fight with him, but in the end be overcome, just as he had forseen. The battle would ultimately result in the death of a number of the major figures: Odin (killed by Fenrir), Thor (killed by Jörmungandr), Freyr, Loki and Tyr amongst them. During the battle, there would natural disasters culminating in the end of the present world, when the sun would turn black and the stars fall down. Then the world would sink beneath the waves, only to emerge later renewed.

Another serpent, Niðhǫggr, formed part of the mythological system around the world tree Yggdrasil which bound reality together. Yggdrasil had three great roots, one of which reached to the realm of the Gods, one to the land of Giants and one into Hel. Beneath the Giant’s root lay Mimir’s well which brought wisdom and understanding to Odin and all those who drank of it. Beneath the Aesir’s root lay the well called Urðr where the Norns, who ruled the fate of men and Gods took water and white clay and showered it on Yggdrasil so it would never rot away. At the base of the third root lay the terrible serpent Niðhǫggr gnawing at the tree. The squirrel Ratatoskr carried insults between Niðhǫggr and an eagle who lived atop the tree.

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