The History Channel took a break from producing redneck reality TV to go medieval with Vikings.

It has in common with other efforts of the entertainment industry a tendency to err on the side of the dramatic rather than the accurate.  The viewer must keep in mind a maxim we grew up with, that anything can happen in a cartoon.  The producers were unable to obtain permission to record in Norway, but that didn't stop a Norwegian newspaper from carping (herringing?) about notable inaccuracies in the show.  The major gripe is about the placement of the Viking temple at Uppsala atop a hill, rather than in a meadow.  Perhaps the producers of the show borrowed from Richard Wagner, as at the show's temple is Yggdrasil, being watered with the blood of goats, pigs, and men, and perhaps those hallucinogenic trips worshippers went on included visions of the Norns spinning under the tree.  The article also gripes about the Kattegat being presented as a fjord.  It's more accurate to think of the Skagerrak and Kattegat as somewhat broader versions of the Straits of Mackinac.

A working historian has his own complaints, summarized as entertaining, albeit historically inaccurate.

A colleague at Central Michigan takes a more positive view.
Sadly the reaction of many of my peers to the series has been resoundingly negative. I have followed with interest as professional archaeologists and historians snipe bitterly about the inaccuracies in the program. OK, I admit it aggravates me, too. But we can use popular culture as a touchpoint to talk with the public about the science and history behind the series. People are excited about archaeology and history, we just aren't talking to them.
Historians and anthropologists don't have to explain, as I often have to, why runaway trains can't happen the way they do in the movies, or financial markets cannot be controlled by a James Bond style villain.
The "look" [producer Michael] Hirst and company have gone for is a bit more seedy 70's leather bar than early medieval Scandinavia. I suppose it's the curse of video games and the HBO series "Game of Thrones" really, but we can use this type of thing as a teachable moment. For example, I had my students deconstruct the visuals in class and compare them to what we know archaeologically about Viking dress. The result was a good conversation about how popular culture can seep into our understanding of the past. Why do you think we have the popular misconception that Vikings had horns on their helmets?

I suppose I am less bothered by these factual lapses than some of my colleagues because I get that it's fiction. It is not a conference paper or journal article and let's face it, if it were no one would watch. This is where the television series can be beneficial to us as academics. (I do want to clarify that I am not talking about pseudo-science garbage like "Ancient Aliens"-type shows. Those shows are a whole different, stinking kettle of putrefied fish.) Dramatizations like Vikings can spark people's curiosity and move them to learn more about the subject. We just have to be willing to embrace their curiosity. As archaeologists and historians, we have the best stories in the history of humanity at our fingertips, and yet we are too often unwilling to share them, and can be terrible storytellers.
Indeed so, and yes, I have a few leading questions to ask of people who think a Bond villain can manipulate the financial markets ...
So let the debate rage, my friends. Let's use people's curiosity to draw them into the conversation. The public is not losing interest in history and the past, they just are not interested in technical jargon. If the public is turning to more welcoming sources for knowledge, it's not their fault, it's ours. We as professionals have failed to communicate our own value and we have failed to tell the interesting and fascinating stories about the human past that we know. A brown leather tunic in place of a more historically accurate red cloth is not the work of the Anti-Christ, it's a teachable moment. Climb down from the ivory tower and do your job.
Indeed so. And enjoy the sail with the disco-hater.
Earlier this month, the History Channel’s Vikings, which airs Sunday nights, swooped in from out of nowhere and, in a manner befitting the actual Vikings of yore, seized the title of Most Metal Show on Television from& Game of Thrones. HBO's Game of Thrones had what many people considered an incontestable claim on the title before Vikings appeared. It had swords, grim men with beards and long hair, bloodshed, beheadings, mayhem, dark sorcery, and Frank Frazetta levels of gratuitious nudity. It had dragons. And yet Vikings is far more metal.
And, as cartoons go, the show doesn't jump the shark, or cross into pseudo-science, or policy mythology.
It also helps considerably that the show is based in history rather than fantasy, as truth is more brutal than fiction. While there are enough (fairly inconsequential) historical inaccuracies to keep the Internet’s more pedantic Norse history nerds busy writing outraged blog comments, the show mostly depicts how things happened back then, at least as far as I can tell from having fallen down enough Viking-related Wikipedia rabbit holes to consider myself somewhat knowledgeable on the subject. The Vikings on Vikings aren’t berserkers in horned helmets but technologically advanced seafarers with extremely aggressive attitudes toward their neighbors’ property. The show’s wanton bloodshed and destruction isn’t the invention of some novelist, but more or less how things went down day to day in Northern Europe around that time. And watching a recognizably human character nonchalantly order a child sacrifice is far more intense when you realize that kind of thing was really going on back then.

Although Vikings doesn’t explicitly acknowledge how metal it is (its theme song is Fever Ray’s sinister electro-pop cut “If I Had a Heart,” expertly used), it sometimes seems to hint that it knows. That would explain Floki’s pseudo-corpsepaint, and the scene where Ragnar and his wife Lagertha offer to have a threeway with a priest, which is on a level of blasphemy that King Diamond would respect. And the fact that early on in the series Ragnar and his crew burn down an ancient church, which is widely considered to be one of the most metal things ever, although obviously terrible from a world-cultural-heritage perspective. Next thing you know they’re going to have him murdering his bassist.
The same Norwegian paper that griped about putting Uppsala uppahill noted that it is a Norwegian metal band that provides the shows theme song.

The greatest act of blasphemy on the show so far has been Ragnar offering his Saxon priest as a sacrifice to Odin.  What's more interesting, though, is that the Viking priest who questions the Saxon prior to determining that his devotion to Odin isn't sufficiently strong asks him three times to deny Christ.  (No, there wasn't one of the sacrificial roosters crowing just after that.)  In a previous episode, that priest is looking on as Lagertha is administering justice while Ragnar is shaking the Saxons down for Dane-geld.  One of the petitioners is a previously infertile couple who turn up with a baby, and the mother's husband claiming some other man was the father.  It transpires that in Norse legend, (subject to peer review by professional medievalists) there is an Immaculate Conception.  Lagertha and Ragnar have been having a rough patch ... stay tuned.


Dr. Tufte said...

One more bit of trivia: if the Vikings were going west through the Kattegatt (possible but not very useful), they would have been coming from the east ... the low shore of Sweden rather than the fjords of Norway to the north and west.

A body of open water doesn't have a fixed boundary, but roughly the fjords don't begin until the Kattegatt ends.

Dr. Tufte said...

Hey ... no fair linking to an article in Norwegian. It's not like all your followers live in Decorah. ;)

Stephen Karlson said...

Yar bin erst der yammer-yammer op der posten boat gesaling, bork! bork!

Stephen Karlson said...

Kattegatt is a Dutch word, anyway. The suffix -gat means "strait", and in the New World, Helegat becomes Hell Gate, the treacherous passage between the East River and Long Island Sound spanned by the eponymous arched bridge bringing the New Haven into Penn Station, as well as the Triboro Bridge.

Given the Viking bards' fondness for kennings, they might have referred to what we call the Skagerrak and Kattegat as Passage Between the Big-Sea-Waters.

Where you define the beginning of the ocean also matters. A Viking ship sailing due west from the tip of the Jutland peninsula, or from the southwest coast of Norway makes landfall in the North of Scotland. Lindisfarne is one of those isolated-at-high-tide islands popular with monastic orders, just south of the Border Region, and the subsequent raids in the show have been into Northumbria and rowing up the Tyne. All of these are south of west, and the sundial the ship carries should have indicated as such.

I spent a little time with Peter Freuchen last night, and turned up many of the plot elemenst of the show, just way out of sequence. Floki Vilgerdarson first located Iceland, several centuries later, with the assistance of three ravens: the first, released, flew east, the second, released, returned to the ship, the third, released, flew west. Olaf Tryggvason killed Earl Haakon, late in the tenth century. There follow enough plot complications to make possible a third season, set entirely in England. The real Ragnar Lothbrok was captured by the Saxons and cast into a snake-pit.