“The Vikings” Breakdown #3: Norse Religion and the Portrayal of the “Other”

Sad to say, the “Vikings” show on the History Channel has been going downhill of late, and I am currently a bit embarrassed to say I enjoyed the show. So rather than go on an unproductive rant about why I am upset with the show, I will spend a little bit of time discussing an important aspect of Viking culture which the show struggles to portray correctly: Norse Paganism.  Also, I promised you all I would discuss Viking religion in greater depth and I am a woman of my word. So without further ado, here is what the “Vikings” show gets right and wrong about Viking religion.

vikings_sacrifice

Seriously who are these guys? Why are their lips blue? Why are they bald? Someone explain this to me! (From “Vikings” Season 1)

Thor, Odin, and… Blue-Lipped Priests?

My recent docent work at the Field Museum has brought me into contact with a lot of really interesting folks who are curious about Viking history, and I sometimes feel  bad that I cannot answer every question that they have about the Vikings. But one thing that plagues me and every student of history and culture is that sometimes the answer to a very simple question is “we don’t know” or “it varied by region,” or “we don’t know what happened everywhere but we have one account that’s probably biased but it said this so here you go.” None of these answers are very sexy, or even very informative, but technically they are the most accurate thing we can say. I, like you, want solid answers, solid data. But this problem is especially the case with Viking religion and so I have had to wrestle with it many times.

The Vikings were a primarily oral culture before the arrival of Christianity, so the only written documentation that we have to rely on for knowledge of Viking religion are accounts written by Christians about a foreign faith or by Christian Scandinavians writing way after their people had been converted. So what we think we know about Viking belief and practice is really just a few accounts of what was a complex belief system. It can be compared, as a way of example, as if the only record historians in 3000 AD had of Christian beliefs in 21st century America was a couple of books written by one American Lutheran believer, or rather an American writing in 2215 who followed another faith but was aware of what Lutherans believed. Future scholars would know that Evangelicals, Episcopals, Baptists, Catholics, and all manner of other Christian groups existed, but they would have no idea what these people believed in comparison to Lutherans. So yes, Medieval Scandinavian scholars have a very vague idea of just how the Vikings practiced their faith, and there could have been many variations and many stories about the gods of which we are utterly ignorant. But such is the nature of the sources. (Archeological evidence can help fill in the gaps somewhat, but as I am not as familiar with this material I will not discuss it in great detail in this post.)

With the above in mind, dear reader, we have to give a little bit of credit to the “Vikings” show. The writers are working with pretty scanty material, and yet for much of the show’s run they have tried to integrate Norse beliefs into the lives of their characters and have even gone so far as to show debates between characters over belief and conversion. And while I am impressed that they are making an effort, there are some things that they do really wrong. Really really wrong. I might be a little picky because this was the topic of my thesis, and thus an area of my expertise. More than that, however, I think in an effort to show Viking religion the writers have inadvertently made the Viking characters into the “weird other” and done a disservice to Viking culture. Let me explain.

The few writings we have left about Viking rituals were put down by Christian authors, one of them being Adam of Bremen, who wrote a history of the Archbishopric of Hamburg-Bremen in the late eleventh century. To Adam of Bremen, who was a Christian in an area that had been Christian for hundreds of years, the practices of the Scandinavian pagans were at best completely foreign and at worst completely contrary to everything he believed. So his descriptions of pagan human sacrifices at Uppsala were most likely written with a certain amount of shock value, like “here fellow Christians, look at this terrifying pagan problem we need to fix. Isn’t it good work that the archbishopric is doing converting these poor barbaric sinners?” Here’s the problem with the fact that our sources about Norse paganism came from a Christian author: Adam of Bremen’s perspective completely neglects to include how the Scandinavians felt about their beliefs and practices. Instead, he made them this inhuman, barbaric other, when they were actually people with a similar faith to what Adam of Bremen’s culture USED to believe.

I see the “Vikings” show doing almost the same things wrong with their portrayal of Norse beliefs as Adam of Bremen. In fact, they decided to depict the sacrifices at Uppsala in season one just as Adam of Bremen did in his Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum. Here’s the problem with that: the sacrifices at Uppsala were a very rare event. The show even says they happened every nine years, and this is true. For people who on average lived to thirty years of age, that kind of time span between ceremonies was a lot. But it also means that the sacrifices were not typical. That was not weekly church. Going to Uppsala was more like going to Rome on a pilgrimage (before the age of cars and airplanes). And yet Bremen and to some extent the “Vikings” show treat the Uppsala ceremonies like they were more typical events. On top of that, Uppsala is in Sweden, and thus the account ignores the practices which occurred in Norway, Denmark, and Iceland in that period. Not everyone who believed in Norse Paganism went to Uppsala, or for that matter even wanted to. That was not in their cultural mindset. So while the scene in season one of “Vikings” was a nice bit of theater, I see it as being created for shock value in the same way that Adam of Bremen included such lurid tales in his writings. And by making an overly dramatized and gruesome depiction of Viking religion without any explanation and context, the show turns the Vikings into a cruel, primitive other. For their time the Vikings were not that unusual. To put it some context, until the Romans started to invade Gaul pretty much all of what was today Europe believed either a Celtic pantheon or a Germanic-Norse Pantheon, aka either a Mother Goddess/Cernunnos/Morrigan pantheon or an Odin/Thor/Freya pantheon. And it is known with some amount of certainty that both of these religions sacrificed humans and animals as part of their religious practices. Did they kill people for the gods all the time? Not at all. But it was part of their culture and to make it seem as though the Vikings were a weird outlier does a disservice to their culture. By the eleventh century they were a hold out when everyone else had gone Christian, but they were not “weird” or “unique” in a broader sense. Furthermore, the “Vikings” show is set in the late eight century, when even portions of German were still pagan, so the Vikings were not weird at all in that period.

My other issue with the show is that they over dramatize some aspect of Viking faith, like sacrifices, and then try to make the Vikings “relatable” by injecting Christian elements. Case in point: the blue-lipped priests. From my research there were NO priests in Norse paganism, at least in Norwegian beliefs, and since finishing my thesis I’ve heard of some cases of priestesses who solely worshiped Freya. But by in large, the people who oversaw important ceremonies were the local chieftains, not some individual whose only job was to preform religious services. As much as we know, the gods did not need constant offerings or constant attention. Services were held to ask for the gods favor or to signify important times of the year like the harvest. In the Heimskringla, St. Olaf was asked by other local nobles to preside over a sacrifice in order to signify his new position as king of Norway. Kings could even offer themselves as a sacrifice if a harvest really went bad.

So for the “Vikings” show to add these strange looking men as “arbiters” of religion both makes the Norse look foreign and at the same time struggles to make Norse practices relatable to the audience. It’s like they’re saying “oh look, here are priests to make this scene look like a religious service but let’s make them look weird so that people know they’re supposed to feel uncomfortable about this religion.” The Vikings did not have strangely dressed priests or oracles with no eyes. They had kings and oracles who looked like Scandinavians do today. If anyone has seen “Thirteenth Warrior,” this movie does a much better job at representing Norse belief. In one scene, the Vikings lead an old woman into the communal space, where she then proceeds to cast bones on the ground and shout prophesies about their upcoming voyage. She was not disfigured or overly different from the norm, she simply had a connection to the gods and could read the signs better than others. Does a Christian priest look different than you or I? No. So why does the “Vikings” show put such emphasis on making Viking religious people look grotesque?

That much I do know the show is doing wrong. The truth is that Viking belief and practice varied widely by region. Some areas buried their dead, others burned them. In some places wearing Thor’s hammer was very common, in other areas it seemed to crop up only after Christianity began to threaten the older faith. Still others saw no problem making pendants which showed both the hammer and the cross, or burying their Christian dead beside pagan dead. Sometimes, like in the “Vikings” show, they had carved humanoid idols in buildings. Other times they had the icons in open groves. In very rare cases they sacrificed a human being, or several human beings (as in Uppsala). Most of the time they would sacrifice a horse to Odin and then eat the horsemeat in a big celebration. The worship of specific gods also varied by region. While it is generally understood that the Norse acknowledged all the gods, it is believed that the nobility favored Odin because he was the god of poetry and wisdom while the farmers favored Thor as a protector god. Linguistic analysis of town names in Scandinavia also indicates that some gods were more favored in certain regions than others. And even then, it is believed that the distinction between the Aesir gods (Odin, Thor, etc.) and the Vanir gods (Njord, Frey, and Freya) shows that there were once two different beliefs in Scandinavia which were combined together into one faith. And maybe some places preferred the Vanir to the Aesir. We don’t know!

Even then, the mythology of the Eddas, which were written down by Snorri Sturluson in the thirteenth century, are just one version of the many possible stories that could have existed about the gods. There are some things that are constant across the Eddas and sagas, such as the fact that Odin often comes in disguise and is not always your friend, or that Thor fights giants with his hammer, but there is so much that is lost. I do not have time here to go through the entire Norse pantheon or their belief system, but what I want to stress is that Norse Paganism did not have a strict dogma like Christianity, and did not rely on written texts. Instead, it was open to many forms of belief and practice, even Atheism. They had a cosmology that helped them understand the world, but they were willing to add the Vanir to the Aesir pantheon, and then even Jesus and the saints when the Christians started coming around. From my knowledge they did not have the same sense of “blasphemy” as Christianity does (despite what the “Vikings” show may claim). Breaking the idols or refusing to preside over the sacrifices if you were a chieftain was definitely bad, but as far as we know what one Viking believed in his heart was his business. He went to public ceremonies because it was a cultural imperative, but in private he could do what he wanted.

Okay, so why am I so worked up about this? Why does it matter that the “Vikings” show takes a few creative liberties? First, the Vikings are my culture and my people. Most of us don’t believe in Norse paganism anymore but our ancestors were certainly not weird, primitive, or “other.” I grew up hearing stories about Thor on his goat chariot and learned how to pronounce “Mjolnir.” I knew about Yggdrasil, Hel, the Midgard Serpent, and trolls before I knew how to read. As I’ve explained in other articles, much of modern Scandinavian folklore stems from these older pagan beliefs, and many people still take these stories and beliefs seriously like I do. Furthermore, there are a growing number of Norse pagans who truly believe in the All-Father and the other gods, and their beliefs should be represented respectfully.  Also, it’s just bad history the way they are representing Norse religion in the “Vikings” show. Do your research show writers.

While I grant you that the show is trying to fill in the gaps on a religion we know very little about, and that they are doing a good job in certain instances of describing Norse beliefs and attitudes, I think on the whole their representation of Norse religion is very disappointing. I hope this post has been a helpful discussion of what Norse religion actually was, and I encourage you to check out this post if you want to see what else I have written on this topic. But for now, the Valkyrie has spoken!

-The Valkyrie

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3 thoughts on ““The Vikings” Breakdown #3: Norse Religion and the Portrayal of the “Other”

  1. There’s a video game that has blown me away recently, and that is “Mount and Blade – Viking Conquest”. It’s not too bad in terms of representation, but if you play as a Christian character and tell a goði of your belief in the one God, he’ll yell “Oooodiiin” at you. I laughed my butt of the first time.

    Also, there’s been a discussion in recent times if there ever was a seperate group of deities called vanir. Rudolf Simek has published a write-up of this in the RMN Newsletter in 2010, available online here: http://www.helsinki.fi/folkloristiikka/English/RMN/RMN%20Newsletter%20DECEMBER%202010.pdf

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  2. Thank you! I have read the Eddas and The Sagas I could find. I just now received my copy of the Heimskringla. I, too, was taken aback by the “priests” with make up and the elaborate ceremonies. I am glad I came across your post. It bothered me that the creators of “Vikings” chose to impose the comic book version of religious practices on the Vikings.

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    • I am very glad you found my article helpful! The Heimskringla is a great read, I hope you like it! For a good overview on Viking religious practice and daily life, I also recommend “Viking Age” Every Day Life During the Extraordinary Era of the Norsemen,” by Kirsten Wolf. But you honestly can’t go wrong with reading the Eddas and the Sagas, so you’re already on the right track.

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