Movies and television love the Vikings – the TV series Vikings has just finished its fifth season, and one can expect a Viking-themed movie every year or so. However, on both the large and small screen, the portrayal of the Vikings often deviates from the historical truth. In his article, ‘Plastic Pagans: Viking Human Sacrifice in Film and Television’, Harry Brown notes a very key difference between how it is being portrayed and how it was in reality.
Brown’s article appears in Studies in Medievalism XXIII: Ethics and Medievalism. It focuses on three sacrifice scenes – one from an episode of Vikings, and the others from the films The 13th Warrior and Valhalla Rising.
The early parts of The 13th Warrior are based on the writings of Ibn Fadlan, a 10th century envoy from the Abbasid Caliphate who journeyed into the Volga River region. In the movie his character watches as a Viking slave girl sacrifices herself to join her recently deceased lord – a choice that she makes willingly. When we actually see the scene of her death, Brown finds that it “may calm rather than disturb the viewer.” Amidst the ceremony, the girl cries out “I can see my master. He is in Valhalla. He calls me. Let me join him, then.” She is killed quickly and with little pain, and afterwards she is gently laid on the funeral pyre.
A similar scene is depicted in Vikings, when Ragnar and Lagertha decide that a human sacrifice is needed so they can placate the gods and have more children. They first choose their former Anglo-Saxon slave Athelstan to do be the person to die, but after they reach the Temple of Uppsala and Athelstan learns what is being asked of him, he declines – and the Viking priests note that the sacrifice must be made voluntarily. In the end, Leif, another of Ragnar’s followers, joyfully accepts the task. Here is how his death scene is depicted:
While the scenes depicted give an air of civility to Viking religious practices, in reality the human sacrifices were a far more brutal affair. In Ibn Fadlan’s account, the slave girl starts out by volunteering for the death, but she soon decides against going through with it. However, the other Vikings did not accept that – she is dragged into a death chamber, where six men gang rape her. Afterwards, while two men strangle her with a cord, another person repeatedly stabs her chest with a dagger in order to kill her. However, this part of the Ibn Fadlan’s account doesn’t make it into The 13th Warrior.
Brown notes that in all our historical sources on the Vikings we never have an episode where a person voluntarily accepts being sacrificed. While Christian and Arabic writers might not even be willing to mention this, even Scandinavian sources like the sagas always depict human sacrifices as being done through force or trickery. The Ynglinga Saga, for example, tells how:
King Olaf did not sacrifice much, and this displeased the Swedes, who believed that the famine was caused by the king’s laxity. So they mustered an army and marched against him. Taking him by surprise, they burned him alive in his house and gave him to Odin as a sacrifice for a good year.
If Viking human sacrifices were not done with volunteers, why does film and television shows depict it otherwise? Brown believes that the script writers and directors choose this route because they don’t want their audiences have the ‘hero’ characters to be associated with such vile practices. He writes:
This sanitization illustrates the plasticity of medieval pagans in film and television, particularly as we adapt them to the role of medievalist action-heroes. Although they might look like relics of the past, fit for the Museum of National Antiquities, they appear fair and humane, unwilling to accept a sacrifice that it not freely offered. Depicting Viking ritual killings as consensual resolves the paradox that human sacrifice presents to modern moral sensibility, allowing us to tolerate it as a prerogative of pagan beliefs while still allowing the victims their freedom and dignity. Dying, as well as killing, seems ethically defensible, because all parties enter the fatal bargain by choice.
Brown laments this however, believing that these scenes represent an opportunity lost. He explains:
By muting the most dissonant notes of paganism with shadings of Christianity, The 13th Warrior, Vikings, and Valhalla Rising avoid putting the viewer in the position of having to make an ethical judgment against paganism or the past, easing our commercial consumption of Vikings with a kind of moral suasion. The films let us gawk at pre-Christian beliefs without challenging us to face them on their own terms, or not to understand the long historical process of conflict and reconciliation between Christianity and paganism. In this respect, recent portrayals of the Vikings miss the chance to explore the similarities and differences in the ways that these two religious visions understand the fundamental categories of existence – life and death, sacrifice and regeneration, god and nature – that structure all ethical perspectives.
The article, ‘Plastic Pagans: Viking Human Sacrifice in Film and Television’ is one of fourteen papers included in this issue of Studies in Medievalism XXIII. Other articles movies that deal with Beowulf, the video game Elder Scrolls IV, and even the historical fiction of Margaret Frazer. .
Harry Brown is an Associate Professor of English at DePauw University. .