History.com checks in with Vikings show researcher Justin Pollard to get the historical context for each Vikings Season 2 episode.
Season 2, Episode 5: Answers in Blood
Question: When Rollo is about to sacrifice the prisoner, he speaks of his likely wish to “die well.” What did that mean in the Viking world?
Justin Pollard: Dying well was a vital part of being a “good” Viking–at its most simple, it is a heroic death in battle. Odin collected the souls of those who died in battle and took half of them to Valhalla (the other half went to Freyja’s field Fólkvangr), where they trained, feasted and told tales of their lives whilst awaiting Ragnarök. This is how every Viking wished to spend the afterlife. The alternative was a dismal non-existence in Hel. So every Viking wished to die in battle, but only after they have achieved some fame.
Fame was very important to any Viking warrior. Fame was having your name talked about. It was having poets write songs about your exploits. Fame was a way of transcending death–an immortality in which, though you might physically be dead, your spirit lived on in great tales about the things you’d done in life. This is why sagas were so important to the Vikings.
Linked to fame was fortune. The leaders of Viking society were alpha males. Kings and earls were expected to look after those who followed them, both in terms of protecting them from outsiders and providing them with wealth (and fame). In the poem Beowulf, the Danish ruler Hrothgar is called the gift “giver” and the “ring giver.” When heroes came to his hall and told of the deeds they had done for him, he was expected to reward them with gold and treasure. Likewise, the leader of a Viking warband only retained the loyalty of his men whilst he kept the loot coming in. As soon as his ability to provide booty failed, he was likely to be overthrown, and very often either betrayed or killed. Leaders had to provide wealth and if they didn’t, they were punished.
Q: This is the second ritual human sacrifice we’ve seen. What part did human sacrifice play in Viking culture?
JP: Sacrifice in Viking culture could take many forms, from the offering of inanimate objects to the death of humans. We have records of two types of human sacrifice—although, we’re not sure how prevalent they were as they were a favorite theme amongst Christian chroniclers keen to prove how barbarous the Vikings really were. The first form of human sacrifice was performed at religious festivals. According to Adam of Bremen, every ninth year, people from all over Sweden assembled at the Temple at Uppsala to feast for nine days. Nine men were sacrificed during the festival along with nine of each type of animal. The human sacrifices were not necessarily of prisoners or slaves. The Swedish kings Domalde and Olof Trätälja were supposedly sacrificed to appease the gods after years of famine. In another tale in the Heimskringla, the Swedish king Aun was said to have sacrificed his nine sons to preserve his life (nine was a magical number for Vikings). After he’d sacrificed the eighth, his people stopped him, however.
The second form of human sacrifice happened at important funerals. Most famous amongst the burial rituals is the Ship Burial—where the deceased was laid out in a boat or ship, or the outline shape of a ship marked out in stones. The ship would be loaded with a portion of the wealth the individual enjoyed in life, including sometimes what may be sacrificed slaves and the body of the deceased itself before being buried under an earth mound. The most famous of these burials is probably the near complete Oseberg Ship from Norway, buried in 834 AD. The Arabic traveller Ibn Fadlan records a human burial sacrifice among the Viking Rus in the 10th century. He witnessed the death of a slave-girl who, he claims, had asked to be buried with her deceased master.
It’s perhaps also worth noting a third type of human sacrifice. Death in battle was in itself a form of human sacrifice—offering yourself to Odin.
Q: When Ragnar, Bjorn and the others attack the grain stores, one of his men uses an instrument. We later see Floki use the instrument as Jarl Borg approaches. What is this instrument?
JP: This instrument is a simple cow horn–one of the oldest instruments we know of. It was made from the hard outer sheath of a cow horn and could either be simply blown as a blast horn or turned into a type of recorder by drilling a number of holes in its length to produce different notes and stopping the large end with a plug. We know very little about Viking music, having very few examples of Viking instruments from archaeological sites and no written music. However, a four-hole Viking recorder made from a cow horn was found at Västerby in Sweden and another one with five holes was uncovered in Konsterud, Värmland. The type of horn we use in the show is really a blast horn, the sort of instrument used in hunting and as a signal in battle or even as a call to dinner. We have very limited direct evidence from archaeology for these horns, but there is documentary evidence from the Bayeux tapestry where one can see a horn blower, apparently sounding the signal to come to a feast. The tapestry was made around 1070, shortly after William the Conqueror, himself a Viking descendant, had landed and conquered England.
Q: There’s a lot of horseback riding in this episode. How prevalent was the horse?
JP: It’s worth starting by saying that before the end of the 11th century the Vikings fought mainly on foot. Their horses were small ponies and were not used as a cavalry. Sometimes leaders might appear on the battle field on horseback, but they usually dismounted to fight.
Horses were very important in Viking society, however. Early Norse people venerated horses and sacrificed them as symbols of fertility. Most magical of all was Odin’s own eight-legged horse Sleipnir, who was ridden to Hel. Horses also feature in a number of the sagas, notably Njal’s Saga and Gretti’s Saga.
In everyday life, horses were used as draft animals and for travel. Horseshoes were not known in the Viking age although spikes were driven through the hard parts of hooves in winter to provide grip for pulling sleighs.
Saddles rarely survived, being made or organic materials, so it’s tricky to know how often they were used. Pack saddles were certainly used for carrying loads of peat and charcoal, probably in baskets slung to either flank. One saga even suggests men could be hidden in these. There are remains of a high pommeled riding saddle in the Oseberg burial and evidence from the much late Bayeaux Tapestry (commissioned by the Normans, themselves descendants of Vikings) suggest a high pommeled saddle was placed forward on the horses back with long stirrups.
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.
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.
History.com checks in with Vikings show researcher Justin Pollard to get the historical context for each Vikings Season 2 episode.
Season 2, Episode 3: Treachery
Question: In this episode, Kattegat is under attack. How common was infighting among the Vikings?
Justin Pollard: In the period of our show infighting is very common between Vikings simply because there was no such thing as a single Viking country. In the pre-Viking age the populations of Scandinavia had been quite disparate and largely self-sufficient. There was no such kingdom as Norway, Sweden or Denmark at the time and no one with the power or administrative structures to rule such a thing. It was only during the Viking age that the first real Scandinavian kings with any real power emerge.
These kingdoms probably came about by aggregation. Local lords would vie for power to control a certain area and groups of those would fall under a single leader who in turn might ally themselves with another powerful local leader who they thought might help to consolidate their position. In time, these regional positions became hereditary and agglomerated into what we know today as the Scandinavian kingdoms. This was not always a peaceful process, however, and at the time of our series each small region of Scandinavia is really its own kingdom—usually with more than one individual claiming control over it.
Q: Was Kattegat a real place?
JP: Kattegat is actually a seaway–a strait between Sweden and Denmark which probably derives its name from the Dutch ”cat hole”–being a description of the very narrow navigable passage through those waters. We chose this as the name for Ragnar’s home for two reasons. First, we didn’t want to use the name of a real town as we have no accurate contemporary record of where Ragnar was actually from. Indeed the Christian sources of the period rarely distinguish beyond calling Vikings just ”pagans” or ”northmen.” We’re not even sure from which part of Scandinavia many of the early raiders came.
Second, the etymology of Kattegat as a difficult to get to place, seemed to fit for the tucked away, apparently unimportant settlement from which the Vikings raids on the west would explode.
Q: Rollo points out to Siggy that she is not a shield-maiden. Can you tell us more about shield-maidens, and their role in Viking society? How did a woman become a shield-maiden?
JP: The idea of the shield-maiden is one we have taken mainly from Norse mythology although there is some evidence for women taking an active role in battle in Scandinavian society–for instance the Byzantine historian John Skylitzes records women fighting with the Varangian Vikings against the Bulgarians in 971. Also according to the Danish historian Saxo Grammaticus, at Brávellir where Sigurd Ring and Harald Wartooth fought, it was the 300 shield-maidens who held the field.
Even this last account must really be considered fictionalized, however, and most of what we know comes from the sagas and other literary sources. According to the tale of Ragnar, Lagertha’s career as a warrior started when a Swithian chieftain, invaded Norway around 840 AD. Ragnar came to fight the Swedes, and many of the local women dressed themselves in men’s clothing and fled to his camp to fight. Impressed with her courage, Ragnar courted Lagertha from afar. She feigned interest, but when Ragnar arrived to seek her hand, he was set upon by a bear and a great hound which she had guarding her home. He killed the bear with his spear and choked the hound to death, and thus won the hand of Lagertha in marriage. This is clearly a romanticized tale, but the idea of women fighting alongside the men is certainly not unbelievable.
In the sagas, a shield-maiden was a woman who often bore a burning grudge that could only be avenged through bloodshed. Someone who had put on men’s clothes (which was somewhat taboo in Viking society) and moved out into the realm of men. The purpose for us in the series was to demonstrate that women in Viking society had many more rights and freedoms than women in the rest of Europe at this date (and indeed for centuries after) and were much more vigorous actors on the public stage. Women certainly did occasionally fight in Viking society and the legend of the shield-maiden would be one known to every girl and woman–and , indeed, every man at that time.
Q: What was Wessex, and was there really a King Ecbert?
JP: England at the time of our series was not one country, but a series of small kingdoms which today we call the heptarchy after the seven major kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Sussex and Wessex. The kingdom of the West Saxons (known as Wessex) was centered in the south and west of England and expanded during the reign of Ecbert and his successors–particularly Alfred the Great–until it absorbed many of the other kingdoms.
There certainly was a real Ecbert. His accession to the throne of Wessex in 802 began the transformation of that nation and his descendants would go on to become the first kings of England. Until that time the state or Mercia had dominated much of southern England, but after Ecbert’s defeat of the Mercians at the battle of Ellunden in 825 and his subsequent invasion of their territory he became the overlord of the heptarchy –the greatest amongst those kings and their overlord–known as a “Bretwalda” in Anglo-Saxon. At the time we meet him he is the most powerful ruler in the British Isles, capable of not only influencing the decisions of other kings but of imposing his will on a government (witan) that still had the right to depose him. Notably when Ecbert dies it is his son who succeeds him–not a forgone conclusion in Anglo-Saxon politics by any means.
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.”
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.
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.
Season 2, Episode 1: Brother’s War
Question: When Rollo fights with Jarl Borg, he is bare-chested, as are several others, though most of the Viking army is covered in leather armor, or at least clothing of some kind. Why does Rollo fight with such little protection?
Justin Pollard: There were two ideas behind having Rollo, (and some other characters) fight bare-chested. First, we were referencing a particular group of Viking warriors known as “Beserks” – the shock troops of their day. The term beserk itself may derive from the Old Norse for ”bare of chest” implying that these troops fought that way–although some sources claim they wore wolf skins-. Most of what we know of the berserkers comes from saga sources so can be a bit fanciful, but their method of fighting (beserkergang) involved suddenly entering a terrifying state of frenzy in which they might kill anything that crossed their path. In Hrólf’s Saga King Halfdan’s beserks are said to have killed men and cattle–anything they came across. This obviously made them a powerful, if volatile weapon, and whilst they were admired in Viking society for their skill in battle, they were feared and often sidelined in peace-time.
The second idea was to show the role fate played in the lives of Viking warriors. In their religion your fate was set at the moment of birth when the Norns wove it into a cloth which they then hung in the Hall of the Moon. Nothing could undo those threads so you could not alter what would happen to you. This might seem rather depressing but actually gave individuals enormous courage as, particularly in battle, you were throwing yourself into the hands of the fates. There was nothing to fear as what will be, will be. By having Rollo fight without armor, and hence so vulnerably, we were trying to convey that sense, that he knew his fate was set so he had nothing to fear.
Q: In her conversation with Lagertha, Princess Aslaug refers to her well-known parents, Brunhilde and Sigurd. Can you tell us more about who these figures were in Viking mythology?
JP: Aslaug’s putative parents were two of the greatest heroes from Norse mythology. Sigurd is the central character in the Völsunga saga and is the same character as Siegfried in the German Nibelungenlied, and hence in Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle of operas. In the Völsunga saga, Sigurd agrees to kill Fafnir, the son of the dwarf king, who has taken a great treasure given to him by the gods in compensation for their killing of his brother Ótr. In this treasure is a cursed rig which turns Fafnir into a dragon. Sigurd has the magical sword Gram forged, then digs a pit and waits for Fafnir to walk over it. When he does he stabs him with the sword, killing him. He then bathes in the dragon’s blood, which grants him invulnerability, and drinks some as well which allows him to understand the language of birds. The birds tell him his step-father has also been tainted by the ring and so Sigurd kills him before eating the dragon’s heart which grants him the gift of prophecy.
It is after this that Sigurd meets the shield-maiden and Valkyrie Brynhildr, who promises herself to him, but prophecies that he will marry someone else. Sigurd goes to live at the Court of the Burgundian king Gjúki, whose wife Grimhild covets the ring and the treasure. She brews an ”ale of forgetfulness,”’ which makes him forget Brynhildr and he marries the queen’s daughter. Grimhil then tries to marry her son Gudrun to Brynhildr, but he cannot reach her castle as it is protected by a ring of fire. Sigurd agrees to change places with Gudrun, crosses the fire and wins her hand on his behalf. Eventually, Brynhildr discovers the truth and arranges for Sigurd to be murdered in his sleep. She then throws herself onto his funeral pyre so she can join him in Hel.
Q: In Episode 1, Rollo betrays Ragnar. Would that have in fact been a big deal in Viking culture, or is sibling and family loyalty a construct of our world? Can you tell us more about Viking kin relationships?
JP: 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– he child to the parent, the parent to the head of the extended family, thence to the local lord and so up through the ranks to the proto-kings of the age. In the Anglo-Saxon poems of the period, the worst thing poets can imagine is not death—but being cast out from their kin group.
Your relationship to dead family members as well as living granted you status in this world. This is why Aslaug was said to be the daughter of two great mythological heroes and why so many of the Vikings raiders of the ninth century claimed to be ”Sons of Ragnar.” Kinship gave you your place in society and, beyond your actual family, a warriors war band provided another family with similar ties. These bands needed to be closely knit for such a dangerous life and members would swear oaths to their leader. We know from later sources that this usually took the form of announcing your own lineage before touching the hilt of the leaders sword as a mark of fealty. An oath-breaker was an outcast, who could never enter Valhalla but would, after death, be cast up on the Corpse Shore in Hel.
Q: Rollo’s fate is decided by the Law-giver. Who can become a Law-giver and what was his (or her?) role in Viking society?
JP: The role of a Law-giver or Lawspeaker was unique to Scandinavian society and operated as part of the local assemblies known as ”Things.” Very unusually for the period, Viking society was remarkably democratic and major decisions were made at these annual or semi-annual gatherings where all free people in the community could have their say on issues affecting them. These could then be voted on. This was a place where justice could be meted out, where arguments could be legally settled and where officials, even kings, might be elected. It acted as a pressure valve for a kin-based society where grudges and vendettas might otherwise escalate dangerously.
Presiding over the Thing was the Lawspeaker. Their job was not to tell the people what to do – as an Anglo-Saxon king might–but to recite the law (which they had put to memory), make judgments based on the extant laws and also formulate any new laws that the people had decided upon. They were the repository of local law and stories to be consulted during discussions.
The Parliament of the Isle of Man is still named after the meeting place of their thing–Tynwald.
Q: Ragnar suggests to Lagertha that he could take two wives, and they could live happily together. We know from Season 1 that the Vikings were pretty open-minded about sex. Can you tell us about monogamy and polygamy in Viking culture?
JP: Polygamy seems to have been widespread in Viking society, although we have to bear in mind that many of our sources are Christian chroniclers who like to cite this as further proof of their wickedness. The important distinction here is between official wives (who held possession of the “bride-price” paid to her by her husband, as well as the dowry paid by her father) and concubines. According to the 11th century chronicler Adam of Bremen, a Viking man was only limited in the number of concubines he took by what he could afford and any children he had by them were considered legitimate. Concubines however had a much lower status than wives. Wives could tolerate them because they represented no threat and this is the cause of the tension between Lagertha and Ragnar. Ragnar is not suggesting taking Aslaug as a concubine, a role she would never accept, but as another wife who hence would represent a real threat to Lagertha.
Q: At the end of Episode 1, Lagertha declares her intention to divorce Ragnar. Women wouldn’t necessarily have had that freedom in Europe at that time. What were the Viking attitudes toward divorce?
JP: 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.
If a husband and wife didn’t get on, the wife could divorce him, without his permission. All she needed to do was take her witnesses first to the door and then the bedside and declare there that the marriage was over. The husband then had to return her dowry and other gifts and leave. If her husband died, she could chose another husband or live without, as she wished.