Nearly as curious as they were ruthless, the ancient Norse revered nature, minted no currency of their own, allowed their women to fight and divorce their husbands, and believed in the afterlife. The series is rich in pagan lore and symbolism. Here are some of my favorites.
1. Ravens and Odin. Ravens appear everywhere, starting with the opening credits. The Norse God Odin has two named Huginn and Muninn, meaning “thought” and “memory.” When ravens descend on a battlefield to pick at the bodies of the slain, it represents Odin’s acceptance of the blood sacrifice he’s been offered. The ravens were also his messenger, travelling the earth during the day and returning to him at night to tell him of the deeds of man.
When it comes to worshipping Odin, there’s no better Viking than Ragnar, who feels a very personal connection with the god. “Odin sacrificed an eye to look into the well of knowledge, so I thought Ragnar should have the same impulses,” says series creator Michael Hirst. Embracing “new” technology—sundials—Ragnar leads his seafarers west for the first time and becomes intrigued with a captive monk. Says Hirst, “He’s not just going on raids to plunder and steal and kill. Ragnar’s actually curious about the world.” Ragnar also embraced the raven by incorporating the image into his armor last season.
The gods have been featured in many episodes of Vikings, in different forms. In the season one episode “Sacrifice,” one of my favorites, we see Odin, his son Thor and the god Greyr as three towering monuments inside the temple at Uppsale. Ragnar asks Odin who will bear him a son, since it appears Lagertha cannot. Soon after he meets the princess Aslaug. She gives him sons, but Ragnar’s troubles have just begun.
And by the way, what’s up with Ragnar’s buzzcut-meets-braid hair? Is it true to Viking tradition? “I was dreading the usual long hair biker look, but didn’t know how we would escape it,” Hirst says. The solution came when star Travis Fimmel showed up in a crew cut to begin filming. “He hadn’t grown his hair long enough to have extensions so we couldn’t have orthodox long hair,” Hirst recalls. Enter costume designer Joan Bergin. Joan said, “Leave it up to me. I’ll come up with a look.”
So, is it historically accurate? Maybe not. Researchers hypothesize Vikings may have shaved their heads as a health precaution to prevent lice. What few records exist report the back of the head was shaven and the front fringe left long. Ragnar’s son Bjorn and many other characters of the series have haircuts closer to the Norman tradition. But, hey, Ragnar has to have a signature look.
2. Loki. Hirst sees the mythic Loki as “a kind of serious mischief-maker.” To embody that spirit, he created the clever but unstable shipbuilder Floki (Fustaf Skarsgard). The character also represents Heimdall, a deity with gold teeth. His treasured possession is Gjallarhorn, which will be blown at the onset of Ragnarok, the battle that ends the world. Floki is indeed pictured with a horn, even though it is a drinking horn. We learned at the end of season two how dangerous he can be. Hirst says more strange dark things are ahead for this character.
3. Visions and Prophecy. Everybody believes in prophecies in this world. The Seer (actor John Kavanagh) and his visions are as integral in the show as prophecies were in Viking culture. The Vikings believed their fate was set initially at birth, and that the Norns who lived under the tree of life would spin the details of their fates every day.
Ragnar’s second wife Aslaug tells him she is a volva, a female seer. She proved she was the daughter of Sigurd, a famous volva who had killed the serpent Farnir by prophesying her child would be born with the image of that serpent in its eye. When the child is born with a malformed pupil, it was named Sigurd snake-in-eye. Next, she predicts that if Ragnar forces himself on her, their second child will be born cursed and we see that with Ivar the Boneless, born with malformed legs.
This type of magic was considered female domain. The woman of the house acted as priestess, to prophesize, to weave spells in the threads of her family’s clothes, and to concoct herbal remedies. Most Viking men, even the gods, consulted a volva rather than trying to divine the future themselves. This is what Odin does when he resurrects a long-dead volva from her grave in the poem Baldrs draumar. The seer predicts the death of his own son.
In Viking society if something terrible or really interesting is going to happen, people have simultaneous dreams about it. In the first episode in season three, Aslaug, Siggy and Helga have identical dreams of a stranger arriving in Kattegat with blood dripping from his hands. When he arrives, he's an extremely mysterious, slightly Rasputin figure who does wonderful things for Aslaug in terms of her crippled son Ivar, but the other two women are afraid. Since the name Harbard is another name for Odin, it will be interesting to see what Vikings has in store for us in Season three.
I will delve into Viking lore more next time with the mythology of swords, the Valkyries, dragons and talking skulls.
Until then, if you’d like to read Norse history and mythology, here are some suggested books:
- The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland - Here are thirty-two classic myths that bring the Viking world vividly to life.
- The D’Aulaires Book of Norse Myths – retellings of the Norse tales and descriptions of the gods and their world. For children ages 5-10.
- Wolfsangel by MD Lachlan - Viking raiders kidnap two infant brothers from a village. Clever Vali is groomed to be Viking king Authun's heir, while Feileg is raised ferally as Gullveig's werewolf protector as she schemes against the god Odin. I particularly like the way the magic is portrayed in traditional Norse Shamanic tradition.
- The Whale Road by Robert Low - Charts the adventures of a band of Vikings on the chase for the secret hoard of Attila the Hun.
- Odd and the Frost Giants by Neil Gaiman - In this inventive, short, yet perfectly formed novel inspired by traditional Norse mythology, Neil Gaiman takes readers on a wild and magical trip to the land of giants and gods and back.
- Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Key - Wonderfully imaginative historical fantasy. Seemingly random deeds connect Viking raiders and English and Welsh princes: If only Bern Thorkellson hadn't stolen that horse in a desperate act of vengeance against his sorry fate; if only Dai ab Owyn hadn't stepped outside the safety of Brynfell right at the moment when the Erlings attacked; if only Ivarr Ragnarson hadn't been born ill-formed and downright cruel; if only Aeldred hadn't been king of the Anglcyn; if only Thorkell Einarson had murdered only one man and not the second; if only Alun ab Owyn hadn't stepped into that pool on a moonless night and seen the Queen of the Elves in procession.
- The Hammer and the Cross by Harry Harrison & John Holm - Born the bastard son of an English thane, Shef goes on to lead the Viking army originally belonging to the sons of Ragnar Loðbrokkr, rising in rank from a thrall (slave) to carl (freeman) and ultimately emerging as a jarl (nobleman).