07 July 2014

Medieval Viking Human Sacrifices and Reality

Those of you that have enjoyed The Vikings from the History Channel may have viewed the human sacrifices depicted in a recent episode with disbelief, I know I did. There were human sacrifices during the burial of a chieftain, as indicated in the article's reference to the tale of the Arab, Ibn Fadlan in the 10th century; however, nothing on the scale of the History Channel series.

I have been a student of the medieval Vikings most of my life and I have never read anything approaching the complete fabrication depicted by the originator of the series, Michael Hirst.

This is the same guy that has his Viking ships built with the steerboard on the port aft side. I wrote to him and informed him that no Viking ship had ever been found with the steerboard on the port (left) side and I explained the whole thing about steerboard as the origination of our word starboard. Surprise, he did not respond.

His series bears little resemblance to the actual culture of the Vikings; rather his Hollywood Vikings are more like Celts, not Vikings. But, if you are reading this missive, and have seen the series you already know that the content is a falsification. For example, his characters are heavily tattooed; there is no documented proof that the actual Vikings covered themselves with tattoos, especially considering that 1000-year old corpses preserve few identifying marks.

Like all of Hollywood, or wherever he hatched his series the content is suspect from the outset, but hey, it is entertaining, even if the characters bear zero resemblance to the real article as understood by archaeology and those of us that follow the hard work that has been done by generations of archaeologists since they, the Vikings, walked the earth.

The following article, from my friends at Medievalists, presents the views of man who knows the subject of one of our favorite topics, medieval Vikings. (ED.)

 JULY 6, 2014

Movies and television love the Vikings – the TV series Vikings will start its third season in 2015, 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, which was published earlier this year by Boydell and Brewer. 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.
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 are 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. Click here to visit his faculty page.

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