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Vikings need to be tamed Our godless society still fears the pagan past

The Vikings were creatures of a stranger, older age. The Northman/IMBD

The Vikings were creatures of a stranger, older age. The Northman/IMBD


July 8, 2022   5 mins

Over the last decade or so, there has been a boomlet in popular culture in dramatic depictions of the Vikings, the modern name for the pre-Christian Norse inhabitants of Scandinavia. They’ve inspired countless recent films and TV shows, from Vikings, based on the sagas of Ragnar Lodbrok, to Robert Egger’s incredibly historically accurate The Northman. Norse paganism is even practiced in America, and within the US military. But despite their popularity, it appears we cannot cope with the truth about Vikings.

The reality is that the true Vikings were far stranger to modern sensibilities than we wish to acknowledge, a fact reflected in our aversion to the highly realistic but alien world on display in The Northman — which enjoyed less-than-stellar box office returns. By contrast, Vikings did brilliantly, despite taking many dramatic liberties with both history and anthropology in service of today’s culture war. It’s clear that nobody is interested in watching a visual dissertation on Scandinavian Iron Age culture.

The pagan raiders in Vikings reflect the passions and priorities of the modern world. This perhaps explains their attraction: Vikings can be reshaped to our sensibilities in a way the more concrete Christian European civilisation that they ravaged could never be. We know the mind of St. Thomas Aquinas, the heart of the troubadours, while the God of the medieval world still reigns supreme even today. But the Vikings are comparative ciphers, mostly perceived through the mute witness of archaeology and the propaganda put down by their Christian enemies.

The sequel to Vikings, Vikings: Valhalla, highlights and extends the series’ malleable vision of reality. It is firmly grounded in rich historical detail and actual figures from the late Viking Age, but it rearranges and transmogrifies them to a large extent. The series revolves around the interlocking relationships and entanglements between three characters, Lief Erickson, Harald Hardrada and Freydís Eiríksdóttir. Yet the execution is not of true Viking history, but a fictional drama set in a Viking-themed universe of our imagination. Erick the Red’s children were born 45 years before Hardrada, and we know Lief died when the future Norwegian king was five years old. Vikings: Valhalla glosses over these details, as Lief becomes Harald’s younger protégé and Freydís Harald’s enthusiastic but troubled lover.

But these are not the only liberties taken in the show. Freydís becomes a shield-maiden, one of the ubiquitous female warriors from the original series. Though there are descriptions of female warriors in the sagas, the extant historical and archaeological evidence does not reflect a surfeit of women bearing arms in the Viking world. Fighting was generally the affair of men in the Viking Age, and raiding, in particular, was the province of adolescents who had to establish their bonafides and make their way in the world.

The presence of shield-maidens in the two Vikings series is due to 21st-century Western penchant for “butt-kicking babes” in film, often inexplicably depicted by svelte model-actresses like Frida Gustavsson, who plays Freydís. Gustavsson as an archer is a striking image, but standing 185cm high and weighing 61kg, her fighting prowess against large powerful men is totally implausible. At least Gwendoline Christie, who played Brienne of Tarth in the genuine fantasy series Game of Thrones, seems a creditable warrior, weighing 25kg more than Gustavsson.

If the sexually liberated shield-maidens channel 21st-century liberal feminism, then the character of Jarl Estrid Haakon, who rules the fictional multicultural trading city of Kattegat, reflects 21st-century Western racial progressivism. Estrid Haakon is played by Caroline Henderson, an actress of mixed Swedish and black American heritage. Setting aside the fact that there is no evidence of women rulers during the Viking Age, the controversial aspect of Jarl Haakon’s character is her racial identity, especially considering that elements of her biography seem drawn from the life of Haakon Sigurdsson, a 10th-century ruler of Norway. The stereotypical Viking is blonde and fair, the epitome of the Nordic ideal. Jarl Haakon in Vikings: Valhalla is none of those things, while her mercantile city reflects her own racial cosmopolitanism.

Though Kattegat is fictional, the idea that there might be a Viking trading entrepôt with racial and ethnic diversity is not entirely constructed out of thin air. Nearly 1,000 years ago a woman who was likely Indian was buried in a cemetery in Zealand, the island on which modern Copenhagen is situated. Additionally, vast caches of Middle Eastern and Central Asian coins are found across Baltic ports, the consequence of a rich Eurasian trading network extending as far west as northern Scotland with ties to the Islamic Caliphates to the south.

But the past is a different country. Today when we think of global trade we couple it with mass migration and multiculturalism, as the three are necessarily connected. This was not the case 1,000 years ago when Vikings roamed the world as raiders and traders. Though L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland is the most famous Norse site in North America, it seems likely that these western Vikings ranged into the Arctic, with artefacts found on Baffin Island. And in 913 AD, 500 Rus ships ventured down the Volga and into the Caspian, raiding the Persian city of Gorgan, on the border of modern Iran and Uzbekistan. There is a distance of nearly 10,000km between Newfoundland and Iran, 25% of the earth’s circumference.

And yet the Norse from the Atlantic to the Caspian were united by a common culture, a set of folkways, language and religion that likely had its roots as far back as the Scandinavian Bronze Age 4,000 years ago. In The Northman there is a scene where a woman is sacrificed on a burning ship with a horse to honour the passing of a nobleman, in line with the Arab Muslim Ibn Fadlan’s account of a ship burial in 10th-century Tartarstan, in the Volga basin. But aspects of these death rites are far older, with the killing of the horse in particular a cultural remembrance of a primal Indo-European ritual. In another scene, The Northman depicts an Indo-European warband induction, with howling young men wearing wolf and bear skins around a fire, reminiscent of the Vedic Ekāstakā mid-winter ceremony, when 16-year-old boys were initiated as roaming “dog warriors”.

The deep roots of Viking culture should not be surprising: genetics make it clear most of the ancestry that we today associate with Scandinavians arrived in the wake of the original Indo-European expansions out of modern Ukraine 5,000 years ago. After 500 AD, DNA evidence points to subtle differences between the peoples who we would later term Norwegians, Danes, and Swedes. (The term Viking points to an action rather than an ethnicity, as tribes like Danes, Geats and Swedes would go on Viking voyages to distant shores to hawk their wares and plunder booty.) And yet despite the ethnic and genetic distinctions that arose, the world of The Northman is unified in being an organic outgrowth of the Nordic Bronze Age, itself one of the innumerable children of the Indo-European expansions.

This Viking world was not the antithesis of Latin Christendom, as depicted in Vikings: Valhalla, where the sexually liberated pagan religion of the Norsemen (stand-ins for tolerant modern pluralistic Westerners) is set against the intolerance and brutality of the new Christian faith. Rather, it was a parallel universe of primal Indo-European religion and culture untempered by the sophistication of Mediterranean Europe. It was as if Hindu India was stripped away of the philosophical sophistication of the Puranas, the religious revolution of Buddhism and the introspection of the Bhagavad Gita.

In this the Norse were unique in western and northern Europe. Even the Irish and the Germans were influenced by Romanitas at a remove: the former adopting the Roman religion without threat of conquest, the latter turning the famous Roman limes into a porous and profitable border that stimulated cultural synthesis. Before Hermann led his Germans against Augustus Caesar’s armies, he was Arminius, who learned Latin, received Roman citizenship and served in the Roman army.

The Vikings did not have any truck which such hybridity. They swarmed out of their dim peninsula covered in tattoos, worshipping gods that would not have been out of place in the Iliad or the Vedas, and honoured them with sacrifices of horses. Whereas the men and women in Vikings distill sensibilities of the New Age tempered with helpful dollops of choreographed mass violence, the true Vikings, as depicted in The Northman, were creatures of an old age, a prehistoric world that somehow persisted down to the edge of history, witnessed with horror and incomprehension by the believers in the God of Abraham.

And even if in our age God is dead, the old instincts are strong, and we cannot bear to confront the strangeness of the pagan past head on. Today, the Vikings remain an enigma: we see them only in shadows and glimmers, turned into didactic instruments in the service of culture wars they would not have comprehended.


Razib Khan is a geneticist. He has written for The New York Times, India Today and Quillette, and runs two weblogs, Gene Expression and Brown Pundits. His newsletter is Razib Khan’s Unsupervised Learning


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Jason Highley
Jason Highley
2 years ago

One of the best damn articles on this site in a while. Hat tip to you, sir!

Paul Ingvarsson
Paul Ingvarsson
2 years ago
Reply to  Jason Highley

Agree, but a minor flaw: The name is Leif Erikson (one or two s) not Lief Erickson (ck was not used).

Inga-Lill Noren
Inga-Lill Noren
2 years ago

Razib khan! It’s a known fact vikings had women fighting side by side with men! Go to Birka and you will see actual viking graves with women warriors!!
You know absolutely nothing about viking history!!

Last edited 2 years ago by Inga-Lill Noren
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

Less a “known fact”, more a theory based upon some good archaeology. Remember, in England, about the same time, male children’s grave sometimes contained military equipment; so, it may have been a status thing rather than an indicator of a martial life.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
2 years ago

The “21st-century Western penchant for “butt-kicking babes” in film” has been a peeve of mine for sometime, along with all these protracted surreal fight scenes that remind me so much of the superhero cartoons I watched as a juvenile. This whole business of exporting modern values and fantasies back into historical fiction feeds into this huge industry of judging the past by the morals of the present which is so destructive of our understanding anything about evolving selves. Excellent article.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago

More than that, I believe it is a crude attempt to erase history and replace it with a ‘liberal’ version more palatable to woke ideology. I noticed this a few years ago when teaching literature. The textbook I was using had updated its most recent edition by labelling the medieval period ‘the Antifeminist era’.

jen k
jen k
2 years ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Hey look, misogynists!
Women have, historically, been warriors too. The only revision happening here is erasing women from history.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  jen k

Evidence of some women certainly (e.g. Boudicca), but little evidence for any mass mobilisation of women (very basically,not a god survival strategy). Anyway, why the desire to see women as violent?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago
Reply to  jen k

Actually I teach a lot of literature written by and about women. Sure, there were some women warriors, but these were rare enough that they warrant their own separate explanation. My issue with the term ‘antifeminist’ in describing the Middle Ages is that it transposes shallow 21st century values on to a people who never would have described themselves as such. Instead of simply being allowed to learn about and enjoy the literature of that time, students are taught to view it as ‘problematic’ and misogynistic. It’s such a black-and-white view of the world, and it is this that I fear is contributing to the binary thinking we see taking hold on many of the young. Schools and colleges are becoming incubators within which we burden the young with all our societal ills. It is no wonder that they are graduating with a huge chip on their shoulder and a grandiose sense of entitlement. In actual fact what’s happening now is reminiscent of what took place in China during the 1960s.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Guards
Judging by the wording in your post, you may be falling a little into this way of thinking too (unless of course you’re being sarcastic – I can’t always detect it online).

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
2 years ago

Precisely. It is called moral presentism. There should be a trigger warning before such entertainment, something like ‘Beware! Anachronisms”.

John Davies
John Davies
1 year ago

‘Prey’ being the latest farce. A pudgy female doing all kinds acrobatic stunts way beyond her frame, and killing a huge alien that tore apart a bear. Hillarious rubbish.

David U
David U
2 years ago

All “historical” dramas tell you more about the era in which they are made than the period they purport to depict. We live in a culture which celebrates tattoos, piercings and multiculturalism and therefore apply these to Vikings regardless of their lack of historical evidence.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
2 years ago
Reply to  David U

There’s an extraordinary scene in an early ‘Vikings’ episode in which a shield maiden, having indulged in a spot of murder and pillage, comes over all woke at the sight of r*p*.

Last edited 2 years ago by Judy Englander
jen k
jen k
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Rape is worse than murder so that makes sense. Really, it shouldn’t be depicted at all.

E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
2 years ago
Reply to  jen k

Surely your remark was meant as as ironic.

Betsy Arehart
Betsy Arehart
1 year ago
Reply to  jen k

You actually think rape is worse than murder??

Ludwig van Earwig
Ludwig van Earwig
2 years ago

On a diplomatic mission to the Volga Bulgar Khaganate, a 10th century Arab dude came across a large party of Vikings gathered beside the river. On learning they were gathered for the funeral of a chieftain, and being a curious, open-minded fellow, he said he’d like to watch the ceremony. A decision he soon came to regret. He recorded for posterity the horrors he witnessed.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
2 years ago

I wish film makers would understand this and cease the ritual unfavourable comparisons with the Christians. By our standards early medieval Christianity seems primitive; by the standards of the time it was positively enlightened.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Yeah it’s weird how people celebrate the thuggish Viking culture which contributed virtually nothing to civilisation when raiders and plunderers.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Totally agree.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Yes, another weird thing I find is that there are very few films set in the Byzantine Empire.

Björn Brightman
Björn Brightman
2 years ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Christian’s of that time went from place to place forcibly converting people through acts of murder destruction and rape. It was literally convert or die. They were monsters. And that’s a historical fact. They definitely weren’t enlightened. Sure Vikings weren’t the nicest people but at least they didn’t try to convert people. There’s also evidence to suggest they weren’t bigoted and actually respected their women as well even with gender roles, unlike Christian’s.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

Not always true, certainly Charlemagne did this to the Old Saxons, but in many cases conversion was done via missionaries. Curiously many missionaries who went to Europe came from Engand, others from Ireland.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago

The Christian conversion of the Vikings seems to belie this. Or do you think they overcame them by force?

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
2 years ago

Excellent article. Thank you.

I was reminded of the feminist/SJW medievalists and their periodic panics about European men being interested in their own history. Apparently, it’s dangerous and must be discouraged/stopped. Probably a contributor to the determination to erase the past and substitute a sanitised (in the sense of modern sensibilities) version.

jen k
jen k
2 years ago
Reply to  Sharon Overy

Men doing anything is dangerous, the last thing they need is encouragement from their dead, savage forefathers crimes against humanity.

Kerry Godwin
Kerry Godwin
2 years ago

Rumor has it “The Persians” has begun pre-production. I do hate to see these cultural depictions mashed through the revisionist Hollywood filter. We will see.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Kerry Godwin

Here, here. But I think we’re on a losing wicket.

Joel Sammallahti
Joel Sammallahti
2 years ago

I don’t believe there’s any solid evidence that medieval Scandinavians had tattoos. They’re not mentioned in any of the sagas or contemporary accounts by Christians.

John Rintamaki
John Rintamaki
2 years ago

It amazes me how accurate you were in some things and so blatantly off you were in others. Blond hair as an ideal? Red was more common, up to the point even of Thor, protector of Midgard and god of the everyday man, being red haired. Covered in tattoos? We have zero evidence of tattoos among the norse. The closest is Ibn Fadlans vague reference to markings on the Rus Vikings. Who were not norse, but a norse slavic hybrid culture from a very select region. The norse did not have a physical ideal, beyond strength and capability. So the blond and fair comment has no basis in history. We have strong evidence of the norse intermingling genetically with all peoples they encountered. In fact the red hair so often associated with the Irish comes from norse genetics carried to the island and then shared among the semi isolated population there.

Jeff Cunningham
Jeff Cunningham
1 year ago
Reply to  John Rintamaki

I believe I read somewhere that red hair moved up the Danube as well – from Macedonia which may be where the gene originated.

Brendan O'Leary
Brendan O'Leary
2 years ago

Excellent. Thank you.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
2 years ago

Superb. I can also thoroughly recommend the Icelandic Sagas (Penguin’s translated edition, which I picked up on recommendation in Reykjavik some years ago, is excellent).

E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
2 years ago
Reply to  Richard Parker

The Sagas were created significantly later, though.

Nicholas Rowe
Nicholas Rowe
2 years ago

Viking religious devotion consisted of sacrificing captives in sacred groves. Archaeological evidence from some sites indicates cannibalism.
As there was no ideological reason for pagans to kill non-believers, it has been argued that the Viking killing of monks was the result of the latter being involved in converting the pagans.
This conversion eventually took on a forced nature by kings to whom the monks were closely associated. There is evidence that the early Saxon peasantry of Britain hated the monks for detaching them from their familiar culture and form of worship.

Milton Gibbon
Milton Gibbon
2 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Rowe

Good post, though the vikings did have ideological reasons for fighting and killing everyone (non-believer or not) in a way completely at odds with modern (and Christian) sensibilites.

John Rintamaki
John Rintamaki
2 years ago
Reply to  Milton Gibbon

No. A defeated enemy is more valuable as a thrall than a body. Only combatants or criminals were executed. We also have far more evidence of animal sacrifice than human. Both in written sources and archeological finds.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Nicholas Rowe

There is evidence that the early Saxon peasantry of Britain hated the
monks for detaching them from their familiar culture and form of
worship.

I’d be honestly interested in this evidence as this is an area that I’m researching at the moment.

Wayne Smith
Wayne Smith
2 years ago

I loved The Northman. Personally couldn’t sit thru an episode of Vikings. Most historical dramas are pure garbage.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Wayne Smith

I did better than you, I sat through two episodes. I hoped it really wasn’t as bad as the first episode promised – my hopes were dashed!

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
2 years ago

Excellent article. Thank you. And btw I remember that years ago a Mycenaean trade bead was found in Silbury Hill when it was excavated.

jane baker
jane baker
2 years ago

I’m still at The Vikings,the film starring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis. We are just not encouraged to think of the pre -Reformation world.as a very interconnected place with ample,known and often fast trade links. I picked that moment in time as maybe after that countries started to be seen as “near” or “far away”. The Vikings lived up in the ice and snow,wait a minute,they ruled Sicily they were all.over the Mediterranean,in the Balkans,the amazing World City of Mikkelgard drew them and enchanted them,and was the source of much of their wealth.

Jesse Major
Jesse Major
2 years ago

This article was fantastic! Loved it, Razib Khan is a gifted writer.

Jonathan Allen
Jonathan Allen
2 years ago

Signed up on here just to comment that you’ve done an excellent job at not only analyzing the modern world’s inability to fathom the pagan world, but also have provided great historical context without speaking intellectual-ese. Thanks mr. Khan

Prashant Kotak
Prashant Kotak
2 years ago

Very nice, thank you.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
2 years ago

“The Vikings did not have any truck with such hybridity.”

Neither must have Augustus Caesar when he learned that Arminius, who had integrated himself into Roman ways, was back into his old Hermann mode and leading his hordes against him.

Perhaps Augustus arranged a message that was delivered to Hermann prior to battle that said:

“Dear Hermann. Remember when you learned Latin, received our citizenship and served in our army? I would just like to make clear that our Roman world is not so much the antithesis of your … Northman world, for want of a better phrase, such that your ways, your reaches, cannot, should not, remain untempered by the sophistication of our world …. albeit Rome on the sunny shores of the warm-watered Mediterranean, I’ll admit, does give us Romans a great boost in the spirits.
Hermann, remember the good old days? The old instincts are strong, are they not? Hence why you feel you cannot bear (anymore) the, as it may well have turned out for you, the utter strangeness of our own sophisticated world. I know the Northmen have accused you of having been unmanly seated on the fence for too long a time. But they are unfair! Sitting on the fence means thinking almost too deeply. They, those Northmen, go everywhere and taste the good life when it suits them! So don’t let them browbeat you into following their rude and rapacious lifestyles. We, too, do not have any truck with such hybridity as theirs! Tell them that! The parasitical fiends!

“We knew your intention was to eventually go back to the land of ilk and Hun in order to better it. Our relationship was always to have been mutual. Perhaps you saw, when in Rome, those pesky few Christians berating us Romans. And somehow in a flash they were able to conjure up in your mind an intolerance and brutality running through Rome. For our empire to rule, we do indeed have our moments. But they are only streaks of intolerance and streaks of brutality. As I already alluded, our worlds are not the antithesis of each other, eh! And nobody is more intolerant or frankly brutal than those few bands of Christians who sully our squares and fountains with their presence! Even the lions at the colosseum I have noticed are reluctant to launch into them. There’s not much meat in their flowery arguments, besides!

“Well, Herms, me old mate. Come back to our ways. Even the Celts, more specifically the Oirish, I hear are amenable to Rome. I hear they have fighting spirit and scholars in their ranks. The Norse can brag about their uniqueness all day if they want. More fool them! I know you may have distilled too many of the sensibilities of those Christian religious people. And that you are pulled this way and that by both the Norsemen and the Christians. Let us drown those sensibilities that you ingested by downing helpful dollops of beer! And follow it quickly with wallops of choreographed backslapping among you and me and all of our friends in Rome again!

“As for those silly Vikings, they swarm out of their dim peninsulas covered in tattoos and eggs on their faces. On top of their heads, actually. Those boiled eggs on top of their heads, with what look like two spoons being driven into them either side. How very silly! Their silly hats will become nice little curiosities for laughs soon enough on our much brighter peninsula.

“Now look Hermann. If it’s anything to do with that Christian sect, let me tell you that today in the sophisticated, civilised world of ours, the Christians remain an enigma: you and me see them only in shadows and glimmers. And just as well! Their God is all dread! I for one cannot bear to confront that. As you know, Rome has always attracted all sorts. We are sophisticated. But we don’t want to put away our die-tactic instruments forever. Oh that’s a joke. We don’t say sword in the Christians’ presence in case it alarms them too much. We do gore and sophistication, Hermann. Sophistication and gore, rather; in that order. The fierce Viking might blab out “It’s all gore, gore, gore, this life.” We need to temper our superior sophistication with a little gore every now and then, don’t we? That’s civilisation! C’mon Hermann, now you’re so lovely! C’mon, c’mon. Come and join us once more. You must be tamed me old mate!

Augustus (smiley face).

Howard Ahmanson
Howard Ahmanson
2 years ago

At the time of the Teutoburg Forest battle, Jesus was not an adult and He and his mother Mary (and His adoptive father Joseph, if Joseph was still alive) were the only Christians in the world.

Andrea Bertuzzi
Andrea Bertuzzi
2 years ago

a lack of evidence isn’t evidence of the contraire”
If lack of evidence is enough to acquit a murderer in court, it’s often also enough to make an educated assumption about history, especially when it tallies with the evidence we do have.
That is, unless we are earnestly proposing that women leaders existed “in spite of patriarchy”, but none of their contemporaries could be bothered to make even a passing mention of their lives and deeds “because patriarchy”.

Jon Pruitt
Jon Pruitt
2 years ago

Paganism is on the rise, and atheism is declining. The definition of paganism is basically any religion outside of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, associated with old world folklore or traditions of the past. Wicca falls into this category for example.

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Pruitt

The definition is more – a religion that allows me to do what I already want to do and requires nothing of me; certainly not any changes in behaviour or attitude.