“Vikings”, “Vikings Valhalla”, History and Faith

Netflix has released all 8 episodes for the second season of Vikings Valhalla, something I have very much been looking forward to. Before I start writing reviews of the episodes, however, I thought I would offer some thoughts on the show and its predecessor, Vikings, along with comments on the show’s portrayal of the characters’ faith and the clash between the Heathen Norse and the Christian English. There are no spoilers for the new season of Valhalla in this article, though I will write openly about events from the first season and from the original Vikings series.

A handsome Viking man with his hair in a topknot and with a neatly trimmed beard looks off into the distance.
Leo Suter as Harald Sigurdsson
One thing that’s important to remember when watching shows like this is that they are dramas first and foremost and are not intended to be seen as historically accurate – which is kind of ironic since the first series aired on the History Channel. It’s best to assume that, while some things are based on actual history, most of it is fictional.

A VIking man in chainmail is standing next to a Viking woman in a leather and fabric dress. They have amused and affectionate looks on their faces.
Travis Fimmel and Katheryn Winnick as Ragnar and Lagertha
For example, the first series was based on the life and family of Ragnar Lothbrok, yet there is little (if any) evidence that shows he existed. The case for the existence of his supposed sons Bjorn Ironsides, Ubba, Sigurd Snake-In-The-Eye, Hvitsverk, and Ivar the Boneless is stronger, but again there is little to show they were related to each other or to the legendary Ragnar. And there’s no evidence Alfred the Great was the son of anyone other than King Aethelwulf, or that his mother had his brother poisoned.

In regards to Valhalla, the three main characters are actual, historical figures. Harald Sigurdsson, Leif Eriksson and Freydis Eriksdotter did exist. They just wouldn’t have known each other, given that Leif died roughly 3 to 5 years after Harald was born.

This doesn’t mean everything is fictional, however. Many of the characters are historical people whose known lives were similar to what is shown (though perhaps in a slightly different time period) and most of the important battles are based on real ones. Also very real is the struggle between the Heathen faith of the Vikings and the Christianity of the English.

A handsome Viking man wearing leather and furs looks off into the distance
Sam Corlett as Leif Eriksson
One aspect of the show that has been fascinating for me has been their depiction of the Norse faith, though, like the rest of the show, drama takes precedence over reality. In the first series, we see Ragnar going to a Thing (pronounced ting) in Uppsala, where a mass sacrifice of 9 men is going to take place. It’s known that the Vikings did sacrifice humans, but aside from a mention in Adam of Breman’s writings on Germania of a large sacrifice similar to the one on the show, there’s been no evidence I’m aware of showing something like that took place – much less regularly, as the show implies.

Another ritual portrayed on the show – the Blood Eagle – was written of in the Sagas, but to date, no evidence has been found to attest to its existence. This method of execution involved opening the back of the person being killed and cutting the ribs away from the spine. Such damage would be easily recognized on any remains found even today, but so far, none have.

A beautiful blonde woman with a proud expression on her face smears blood from her chin down to the base of her neck in two narrow lines as part of a ritual
Katheryn Winnick as Lagertha while leading a ritual.
Not everything they depict is fictional, however. On the show, we see very few priests and priestesses for the Norse. Rituals and the celebration of holidays usually took place within the family or community. In Vikings, we see Lagertha as Jarl leading rituals for her people. She is shown presiding over animal sacrifices and then sprinkling the blood of the animal onto those in the gathering. This all matches up to what we know from historical records.

A beautiful blonde Viking woman wearing furs and leathers is holding the rope of a boat and looking out to sea.
Frida Gustavsson as Freydis Eriksdotter

There were a few temples where people could come to make sacrifices, speak or pray with priests or priestesses (known as gothis and gythias), or seek training in the more esoteric aspects of the Norse faith – the temple at Uppsala where Freydis goes for training during the first season of Vallhalla being one of the most famous. Most cities and towns, however, did not have temples. In the show, for as important a city as Kattegat is, it doesn’t appear to have one. This is because the pre-Christian Norse were more likely to worship outside and because for them, faith wasn’t something you went someplace to do, it was just another part of life like sleeping or eating.

It’s not much different for today’s modern Heathens. One important way in which things have changed is that only a very few modern groups engage in animal sacrifice – most will make symbolic sacrifices or sacrifices of food and drink or meaningful objects, and the ritual leader blesses the gathered worshipers by sprinkling them with mead or ale, not blood.

The shows also place a large focus on the conversion of the Heathens to Christianity. In the first series, we saw the Vikings raiding churches and monasteries. This wasn’t because they were Christian facilities, however. They were chosen because that’s where large amounts of wealth were kept, generally under a light guard. When they began settling in Christian England, some would convert, some, like Ubba, would pretend to convert to try and placate the church authorities, while others would proudly cling to their Heathen faith, even though that might mean death. In general, though, they left Christians living nearby in peace, seeking to live lives of raising families, farming, and building a community. Here, too, the show gives a fairly good view of what we know of the early settlements of the Norse. While the Viking raiders could be terrifying in their aggression, the men and women who came with them to find new homes were typically peaceful.

By the time Valhalla‘s first season starts, a growing number of the Norse have been converted to Christianity – many at the point of a sword. These Christians were determined to convert all of the Heathen northlands, and we see entire communities destroyed and all of the people in them killed. One of the most vivid scenes is when a Christian knight who considers it his mission to eliminate as many Heathens as possible leads a raid on the Uppsala temple. Only Freydis survives the slaughter. We see King Olaf putting together his Christian army to bring the new faith to as many places as he could and to destroy those where he couldn’t. Sadly, these scenes reflect the all-too-real brutality that Christians used to achieve their goal of Christianizing Scandinavia. This is supported not just by the history of the northlands but can be seen in other crusades of the Christians where they have tried to wipe out other faiths by any means necessary.

Echoes from those years of conversion can still be heard today. While Christians no longer kill those who won’t convert, has become the dominant faith in the western world, and many Christians still believe it should be the only one. Those who follow other faiths, including modern Heathens, are still frequently discriminated against. The physical battles may be over, but the war is still underway.

Vikings and Vikings Valhalla offer us a look at life in a time we can only know from ancient records and our imaginations. There’s a lot in the shows that is factually wrong, usually in terms of showing historical people being friends or relatives of people who they most likely couldn’t have known. It also treats some people whose existence is unverified as if they were real. And they use some largely unfounded stories to amp up the drama. But the shows also feature a fair amount of truth in things like the day-to-day lives of the people of the time, their faith, and some of the main historical events of the day.

The extra drama from the fictional elements helps make the shows a great deal of fun but keep your salt shakers handy for the grains you going to need.

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