History.com checks in with Vikings show researcher Justin Pollard to get the historical context for each Vikings Season 2 episode.
Season 2, Episode 10: The Lord’s Prayer
Question: Ragnar, King Horik and the Vikings are celebrating with a feast. How long would a Viking feast go on for? What kinds of activities would it involve? What kinds of games did they play?
Justin Pollard: Viking society revolved around the hall, the warm inviting home with a great fire that keeps the dark and cold of the Scandinavian winter at bay. Here one could eat, sing and tell stories both from folklore and from your own past. Providing food and drink to accompany this was a duty and the more wealthy an individual was the more lavish his entertaining was expected to be. It was all part of providing for his kin and demonstrating his wealth and power. Major feasts, such as a wedding, could last a week and travelers might expect hospitality for a senior jarl or king to last the whole winter.
Vikings loved games and there were numerous to choose from. Dice were made of antler for the most part, although examples of bone, walrus ivory and jet are known. Wood and horn were also probably used. They were often rectangular, with the 1 and 2 on either end and the 3, 4, 5 and 6 on the four long sides. The nature of the games played with dice are unknown, but simple games such as “who can get the highest (or lowest) number” were probably common (and are suggested by some of the sagas).
The “long-dice” normally have the numbers 1 and 2 on the smallest face, suggesting they were used for a game where low numbers were needed. Dice have also been excavated that when x-rayed, revealed small weights inside them, deliberate cheats like medieval “Fulhams.”
There are many finds of board games and gaming pieces from Scandinavia and from the British Isles. Whilst we have lots of mentions in the sagas of board games, it can be tricky to work out exactly how they were played. Hnefatafl was probably the most common and probably developed from the Roman game latrunculi (soldiers). The game works superficially like chess, with one side trying to capture a king and the other trying to escape. A carved board with 13×13 squares, which is a double sided board with a nine men’s morris on the reverse, was found at Gokstad in Norway.
Other board games included Kvatrutafl, which was a development of the popular Roman game of duodecim scripta, Nine Men’s Morris, which has survived to this day, and Halatafl, which appears from the sagas to be a form of solitaire.
Q: What is the story of Loki’s first wife?
JP: According to the Poetic and Prose Eddas, Loki’s wife Angrboða, whose name means “she who brings grief” was a female jötunn, a giantess, one of the race of giants who live in the world known as Jötunheimr, having been refused entry into Asgard by the Aesir gods. The Eddas differ on exactly which children she had with Loki, but the Prose Edda states that their children were:
- Fenrir, the monstrous wolf that will kill Odin during Ragnarök
- Jörmungandr, the World Serpent who will kill Thor at Ragnarök
- Hel, who presides over the dead in Hel
As such, she represents the mother of the creatures who will bring about the end of the current world, a fairly frightening image, although as Ragnarök was unavoidable it’s difficult to know what exactly most Vikings thought of this giantess. We don’t have much detail on Angrboða beyond this, although one tale suggests that Loki bore the three children having eaten Angrboða’s heart.
Loki is also credited as the father of various other supernatural creatures. By his wife Sigyn, he was the father of Narfi and Nari (possibly just one although they may be the same person). Still more unusually, by the stallion Svaðilfari, Loki was the mother to Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir (having taken the form of a mare).
Q: King Horik refers to his sword as the Sword of Kings. How prevalent were swords amongst the Vikings? How did Vikings name their swords?
JP: The sword was a relatively rare weapon, being hugely costly. It was the preserve of the professional fighter and leader and might be passed down through the generations. Swords were given personalities and names such as “war-flame,” “life-taker” and “truce-breaker.” The hilts could be highly decorated with gold and even jewels. The hilt usually had a cross guard and heavy pommel as a counterweight to the blade. By our period, it is somewhat more common for them to have iron cross guards and pommels with silver inlay. Blades were tapering, often pattern-welded (usually German), two inches wide and around 30 inches long. There was often a groove down the center (a fuller) which made the blade lighter and more flexible without losing strength.
Viking sword smiths were faced with one fundamental problem when constructing that most emblematic of all weapons. The essential contradiction in making a sword was that it had to be both hard and flexible. A sword with a soft edge would chip and blunt, whilst a rigid blade would keep a keen edge, but might shatter when hit. As the producing of very pure steel was limited by the temperatures obtainable in forges and the availability of high-purity ores, this required a compromise. So how did they do it?
The solution Viking smiths employed, and greatly improved upon, was one that has been in use in various European cultures since the Iron Age–pattern welding. Pattern welding combines the flexibility of softer iron with the cutting edge of carbon steel by forming blades from layers of these different metals which are forge-welded and twisted together. This twisting, hammering and grinding processes formed intricate patterns in the finished blade–hence the modern name for the technique. By building up the blade from layers of metal with different qualities, each can be combined in one weapon with a softer, springier core and a harder, sharper edge.
A single blade could be made up of numerous layers of different types of iron alloy and, by the Viking age, smiths had become so adept at this technique that sheets of pattern welded steels could be applied over an iron core, giving the weapon the strength of patterned steel and the flexibility of an iron center. In some cases, a separate high carbon steel edge was then welded on to this to make a weapon that was as sharp as a kitchen knife, but which would rebound from clashes with other blades without snapping or bending.
These were also beautiful and highly valued weapons and sources sometimes comment on the intricate patterns visible on their surface. These might be enhanced by etching the blade slightly with a weak acid to reveal the twists and turns of the weld in the rods with a higher phosphorus content (which remains lighter after etching). Kormák’s Saga, which dates from slightly after our time, talks about how, by blowing on the sword Sköfnung, its owner might make a “small snake” creep from under the guard. This may well be a reference to breathing on the blade to reveal the swirling patterns of the pattern-weld.
For all the skill and beauty of the technique, the method fell out of use towards the end of the Viking age as higher quality ores became available.
The naming of weapons added to their value in the eyes of the Vikings, making them heirlooms with their own characters and histories that could be passed down the generations. We know of hundreds of names of weapons including “foot-biter,” “battle-blaze” and “Adder” for swords and “heaven-scraper,” “battle-hag” and “glancer” for axes.
History.com checks in with Vikings show researcher Justin Pollard to get the historical context for each Vikings Season 2 episode.
Season 2, Episode 9: The Choice
Question: Viking warriors are recruited to fight on behalf of Princess Kwenthrith. Historically, how often did Vikings fight as mercenaries and how did those arrangements come about?
Justin Pollard: We have plenty of examples of Viking individuals and warbands fighting as mercenaries and this doesn’t seem to have been problematic for them. Indeed, when Frankish or English kings paid off a warband to go and cause trouble elsewhere, they were effectively paying mercenaries. Within Viking society, there was also fluidity within raiding groups. A leader who stopped bringing home the booty might be reposed or his best men might simply go to fight for another leader where the rewards looked better. To that extent, every Viking was mercenary.
The most famous mercenary groups we know about are the (possibly legendary) 10th and 11th century Jomsvikings who, the sagas tell us, had a strict membership code, which included dueling with a current member for acceptance into the group. The Jomsvikings would fight for anyone who would pay their fee, including Christian kings.
One other very real group did act as the personal bodyguard of a Christian ruler–the Byzantine emperor. The Varangian guards were the personal bodyguard of the emperor from the 9th to the 14th centuries and were originally recruited from Varangians amongst the Kievan Rus. We even get a glimpse of a pagan Vikings celebration preserved in the court records of the early 10th century Byzantine emperor Constantine VII. These show how one Christmas the emperor, who had extensive trading links with Scandinavia, invited a party of these pagans to entertain him during the holiday, and how:
“…two companies danced in a ring, striking their shields with sticks and shouting ‘Yol, Yol, Yol!’, and in each company two men were dressed in furs and masks.”
So prestigious and popular did entry into the Varangian Guard become that in Sweden laws had to be passed to try to prevent the exodus of fighting men to Byzantium.
Q: What is the story of Baldr, Odin’s favorite son? Of how nothing could injure him in battle?
JP: Baldr was the son of Odin and Frigg and his death is seen as the beginning of a chain of events which will ultimately lead to the destruction of the gods at Ragnarök. Baldr will then be reborn in the new world. Baldr dreamed of his own death and so Frigg made every object on Earth swear never to harm him. She didn’t ask the mistletoe, however, as it seemed so innocuous. As Baldr was now invulnerable, the gods used to make a game of throwing objects at him and watching them fall to the ground as they refused to hurt him. Loki came upon the game and handed Baldr’s brother, the blind god Höðr, a spear made of mistletoe. He threw it at Baldr and it killed him. In one version of the story, Loki throws the spear himself. Either way, Frigg was heartbroken and banished the little mistletoe, never allowing its roots to touch the ground again–hence why it now only grows on the tops of other trees. Baldr and Höðr (who was killed by a son of Odin for the crime) were condemned to Hel only to be released after Ragnarök, when they would be reconciled and rule over a new world.
Q: Athelstan sees ravens circling above. What do the ravens represent to Vikings?
JP: The raven was an iconic bird to the Vikings and a powerful symbol of war. Pagan legends said that Odin owned two ravens called “Thought” and “Memory” and that when ravens descended on a battlefield and began picking at the bodies of the slain, it represented that God’s acceptance of the blood sacrifice he had been offered. The ravens were also his messengers, travelling the Earth during the day and returning to him at night to tell him of the deeds of men.
Indeed so powerful was the image of the raven that it can be seen on the Bayeux tapestry, carried into battle in 1066 by the Norman descendants of the Viking Hralf during their invasion of England. The Raven banner was a magical talisman for the Vikings. We know that the sons of Ragnar carried magical raven banners as early chronicles specifically mention the capture of Ubba’s banner after his arrival in Devon, on Alfred’s exposed west flank at the time Guthrum looked like defeating Wessex. Ubba, like his brothers, was a man around whom many legends had been built. It was said by the St Neots annalist that he carried with him the traditional raven banner that Vikings took into battle. But Ubba was a son of Ragnar and his raven banner was different. Woven by his three sisters, this was a magical talisman that would flutter before victories, but which hung limp ahead of defeat.
Ravens were also practically used to aid navigation on long voyages as they could fly up and see what was beyond the horizon.
Q: Rollo is very badly injured. How do the Vikings take care of those who are wounded? What kind of medical treatment is possible?
JP: As we have precious little written down by 9th century Vikings we are slightly in the dark as to their medical practices. We do, however, have some Anglo-Saxon sources and later saga texts which probably give a reasonable idea of how Vikings dealt with trauma injuries.
In the Heimskringla, we are told that women would wash and clean wounds with warm water. For puncture wounds to the abdomen, the book describes how a wound-dresser would feed a man a boiled broth of leeks and herbs. If she could then smell the leeks in the wound, she knew that the stomach was pierced. Where an arrow head or similar remained in the wound, tongs were used to try to remove it. Where the foreign object was hard to find, one source suggests cutting in to find it. When the object was removed and the wound cleaned, it would be bound in clean cloth.
Most of these healers were women who probably had a good knowledge of herbal medicine, as well as the skills to clean and bind trauma wounds. Men, however, did also practice some battlefield medicine, although this is usually limited to using tongs tor remove arrows and spearheads. Snorri goði would famously notice the reason for certain of his fellows failing to eat or remove their breeches–because there was an arrow or spear stuck in their throat or legs. We might have to treat these accounts with a pinch of salt as even a Viking would probably notice a spear through his leg.
Doctors also existed and are mentioned in the laws which deal in great detail with the compensation payable for the loss of various body parts or faculties. Someone found guilty of maiming a man would not only have to pay the blood-price inflicting that particular injury, but might also have to pay the doctor, presumably for his efforts with the aggrieved party.
History.com checks in with Vikings show researcher Justin Pollard to get the historical context for each Vikings Season 2 episode.
Season 2, Episode 8: Boneless
Question: How difficult was childbirth for Viking women?
Justin Pollard: We don’t know a huge amount about childbirth in this period simply because the sources we have are rather reticent when it comes to talking about it. If we consider that most chroniclers of this date are Christian monks, that might explain it. There were herbal remedies to deal with the pain which we know about from Anglo-Saxon sources and, so, were probably also known to Vikings. Childbirth pain was treated (where available) with wolf’s milk mixed with wine and honey. The English herbal “Bald’s Leechbook” recommends brooklime and hollyhock boiled in ale if contractions stop.
Giving birth was an entirely female event. There were no men present. The mother-to-be would be assisted by “helping women,” who were effectively midwives and probably those female members of the community with the most experience of childbirth. The normal birth position was to kneel on the floor supported by the helping women. As well as practical assistance, the helping women could provide supernatural support. Charms and chants were offered up, particularly if the birth wasn’t going well. In the Lay of Sigrdrifa tale, it suggests cutting magical runes on the palms and pressing these on the joints whilst asking the goddess for help.
In an age before antibiotics, childbirth was obviously dangerous as infection was poorly understood and many women and children must have died in the process. However, we have few descriptions of difficult births and children’s remains seem underrepresented in cemeteries, so it’s difficult to know what the mortality rate was.
Q: We see Bjorn and Rollo in battle training. At around what age did Vikings begin training for battle? How often did they train?
JP: The age at which children began training for battle varied depending on the class of the child. In law, children could be considered “adult” from the age of 12 and, hence, boys might be expected to spend much of their time from then on honing their battle skills. Yet in sagas, we hear of 15 years old boys who accompany others to battle, but do not fight themselves as they are still children. Equally, we have boys becoming king at very young ages and taking on the mantle of adulthood then. According to the Heimskringla, Rolf Krake is said to have been eight years old when he became king. Regardless of the age, children, and particularly boys, practiced martial skills from a young age. Initially, this was probably just the typical sort of rough and tumble you’d still find today–in the Ynglinga saga it describes how six year old boys:
“… amused themselves with child’s play, in which each should be leading on his army.”
The intensity of this would increase with age as play gave way to training. Slightly older children of freemen were often sent away to live with adoptive parents (usually relatives), where they would learn to serve in the household and bear arms. Eventually, the boy would leave childhood behind to enter a new phase of life as a Drengir, a time when a young man could accumulate the wealth and prestige needed before entering into a good marriage.
Q: We see the Vikings preparing to go out on the ship. What was their pre-travel ritual like?
JP: The most important thing for any Viking heading out of a dangerous voyage was to have some intimation of what fate held for them. Most importantly there was fret. There’s not much evidence in early works for how this was done, but we have a few clues. Part of it was simply looking for omens—demanding to know what would happen and then looking for signs that the Gods favored it, like ravens flying overhead. When the Icelandic chieftain Thorkel the Tall invoked the god Frey for vengeance upon his enemy Viga-Glum, he demanded a signal that the God had heard his prayer. He regarded it as a favorable response of Frey when the ox, which he had led out as an offering, immediately fell with loud bellowing upon the ground and died. Divination (spá) is also mentioned in the Sagas, by means of sacred leaves or slips (blótspánn) and by prophetic lots (hlotar or hlutar), both basically lot-casting.
How this was technically done is not clear. Tacitus says that Germanic peoples during the Roman Empire practiced divination by marking sticks with magical signs and randomly picking one, but that’s a bit before our time, although the Viking equivalent probably descends from this. Tacitus says a bough cut from a fruit tree is divided into small slips or chips (surculos), which are marked, each with its sign, and cast out at random upon a white cloth. Thereupon the diviner makes a prayer to the gods, takes up every twig three times, and explains them according to the marks set beforehand upon them.
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.”
Q: How long would the journey take by boat? What supplies for the journey would they Vikings have on hand? What did they eat?
JP: We know of many Viking sea voyages that would have taken them out of sight of land for many days, so they must have been well prepared for these voyages. There was plenty of room in the type of ship used for these voyages—merchant knarrs, rather than the drakaar warships, so there was space to stock plenty of food provided you could keep it from going bad. To this end, we’d expect them to carry substantial supplies of salt fish and smoked meats, which would not quickly rot. Live animals—everything from horses to birds—are also known to have been taken on many long voyages, so some of these could have been killed for meat. En route, the crew could also fish for fresh fish and attempt to catch sea birds. We don’t have any evidence for stoves aboard ship, indeed the risk of fire may have precluded cooking, so rations were probably eaten cold (or raw) unless ashore. Fresh water would be more of a problem, as you can survive far less time without water than food. Sweet (fresh) water would have been kept in barrels. Rain could also be collected during the voyage. Beer, which lasted longer due to its alcohol content and the fact that it had been boiled as part of the production process, was also drunk, as was sour milk.
It’s worth noting that whilst extensive preparations could be made for long voyages, Vikings tried not to be out of sight of land for too long if at all possible. Due to the vagaries of navigation and weather, Vikings on long trips, such as from Scandinavia to Iceland, Greenland or North America, would travel up or down the coast until they reached a latitude where they could make a straight crossing to their destination. Many still were blown off course and plenty must have sailed over the horizon never to be seen again. These losses were an expected part of ocean travel. According to the Icelandic Landnámabók, of the 25 ships that set out one summer from Iceland carrying settlers to Greenland, only 14 arrived.
Life on board was harsh. There was no real cover, so the crew were exposed to the elements. This is one reason why Vikings limited long sea voyages to the summer months. Rowers usually sat on a cargo box and at night might have been able to rig a tent or the main sail over the hull to provide some cover. They slept in sleeping bags made of animal skin.
In terms of performance, the main type of ship used for these voyages was the knarr, a merchant ship with fore and aft decks, up to about 16 meters in length and capable of carrying perhaps 24 tons of cargo. Under sail, these might reach speeds of ten knots or about half that, if just being rowed. How long voyages took is rarely mentioned in the sources and must have varied wildly due to wind, sea condition, currents, weather and tides. According to the Bandamanna saga, Odd Ofeigsson sailed from Iceland to Norway and back again in seven weeks.
Season 2, Episode 7: Blood Eagle
Question: Jarl Borg faces a harsh punishment. What is the significance of a blood-eagle? When and why is it used? What does the eagle mean to the Vikings?
Justin Pollard: The blood-eagle was a punishment we know of from a number of Viking sources. The early 11th century skaldic poet Sigvatr is the first to mention it, stating in a poem in praise for the later Scandinavian king of England Cnut, that:
“Ivarr, who dwelt in York, carved the eagle on Aelle’s back”
This is a reference to Ragnar’s son Ivarr the Boneless who revenged himself on Alle, King of Northumnbria. The legend states that Aelle lost a battle to Ivarr, but did not die in the fighting. He was captured and brought before Ragnar’s son as he reveled in his victory. Seeing the humbled Northumbrian king before him, he ordered him sacrificed to Odin in thanks for the victory in the ceremony of the blood-eagle. By the time the 13th century tale of the Sons of Ragnar was written, the scene is further described as involving hacking open the victim’s chest and removing their lungs, so they resembled the folded wings of a bloody eagle.
Q: We see two very different wedding ceremonies. What is a Viking wedding ceremony like? What is the significance of the sword in the ceremony?
JP: In the Viking world marriage was first and foremost a contractual arrangement between families. What we know of the ceremonies themselves come from slightly later Icelandic sources, but these would probably have been familiar to Vikings of the 9th century.
Marriages usually took place on Friday as it was the day of Frigga, the goddess of marriage. In much of the Viking world marriages could also only take place in summer due to weather conditions.
Before the wedding itself the bride would be symbolically removed from her former role, and prepared for her new life. This involved taking a steam bath–a sort of early sauna–to wash away her old status before being dressed in new clothes. Later in Scandinavian history, we know that unmarried girls wore a circlet on their heads which was replaced for their marriage with a bridal crown, usually a family heirloom. We don’t know if Viking girls did this, but it may well date from this period. There were probably other rituals to prepare the bride and advice from older member of the community on the duties (and rights) of a wife.
Whilst this was going on, the groom underwent a similar rite, surrounded by his married male relatives, taking a steam bath to “wash away” his previous status. According to the sagas, the groom was also required to produce an ancestral item, usually a sword, to demonstrate his lineage. This he could obtain from a burial mound or from a living relative. The sword represented his ancestry, his place in society and acted as a reminder of the fame of those who had gone before him.
For the wedding itself, the bride wore her hair down–the last time she would do so–and both bride and groom wore new clothes, although neither were specifically bridal outfits.
Before the ceremony, the dowry and bride price had to be paid before witnesses. Then the ceremony itself probably took place outside starting with religious invocations and perhaps a sacrifice. Blood from the sacrificed animal would then be sprinkled on the couple. The groom would then present his ancestral sword to his new wife and she would present the sword that she had brought to him. This represented the coming together of the two families. Finger rings were then sometimes exchanged and an oath might be taken on an arm ring in a local temple or at a temporary altar.
After the ceremony, came the bride-running–a race to the hall where the feast would be served. At the threshold, the groom would escort his wife over, representing her stepping into a new life with his protection–doorways were considered spiritually dangerous places. Some stories tell of the groom then plunging his sword into a roof beam–the deeper the incision, the stronger the marriage would be. Feasting was an important part of Viking culture, as we’ve mentioned before, and a bridal feast would be accompanied by all the usual story-telling, toasting and singing. In particular, the bridal ale was drunk—which represented a legally binding part of the marriage.
At some point during that night’s feasting, the bride and groom would be accompanied to bed. These witnesses were there to ensure that they saw the bride and groom in the room together. When the witnesses left, the marriage would be consummated. The dreams of the bride that night were considered prophetic, hinting at the number of children the couple would have and the fate of the family.
The next day the bride was taken away by her female attendants and her hair tied up in marital braids. Back in the hall, the husband then paid his wife the “morning gift” (a sort of male dowry) and handed over the keys to the locks of the house demonstrating her new power as mistress of the household. Further celebrations then ensued, which might last for a week.
Q: Lagertha is now an earl. Did many women become earls in the Viking age?
JP: We gave Lagertha the position of earl (jarl) in the series to demonstrate the power and respect free women could command in Viking society at a time when women in much of the rest of Europe have a far less prominent role. Certainly women could own land in their own right and command men, but in making Lagertha an actual earl we were taking a bit of license.
The point we were hoping to make is that women have a role in Viking society very unlike that of women in most of the rest of Europe. This obviously depends on class, as slave women, like their male counterparts, have no real rights at all. However, what marks out Viking society is that the difference between male and female rights are much less stark.
In Frankia, the women were chattels–belonging first to their fathers and then their husbands. Their property and possessions equally belonged in law not to them, but the man who had power over them. There were some exceptions amongst the very highest in society, but this was the general rule.
In Viking society, this wasn’t the case. Fathers would generally select a suitable husband for their daughters, but would ask the daughters opinion as well. Marriage was fundamentally considered a practical political institution—helping to bond families together—rather than a love match. Love might follow later. A father who didn’t ask his daughter could still force the marriage through, but might find that the daughter later renounced it.
Viking society was still delineated on male/female lines and women couldn’t vote in the Thing or explicitly hold a lot of political power, but women did wield huge influence. It was the husband’s place to travel, trade and hunt, but the wife ruled the home. Step over the threshold and you enter her world. On her belt, she would carry the keys to every lock in the house—the treasure, the land and all the family had was in her care. Those possessions were hers and if the marriage ended, she could take them all with her.
Although the man was still considered the “ruler” of the household, women took a robust role in managing him–often demanding vengeance when insulted by another family or sometimes cooling down situations where hot-headed men might otherwise get into a dangerous feud. A woman expected to be listened to, if not obeyed. Whilst there was undoubtedly domestic violence—there are few records of husbands hitting their wives–violence against women was generally taboo. There are cases where, having done so, the woman has repaid the blow with a knife in the chest whilst he slept. No one seemed to think this unreasonable.
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.
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.