If Game of Thrones is Led Zeppelin, full of Tolkien lore and Shakespearean plots, then Vikings is Black Sabbath, full of dark magic and violent plunder. I cannot help but hear Ozzy’s electric howl and Tony Lommi’s ominous power chords when I watch episodes of Vikings. It fills me with the strength and desire to rush bravely into battle with thoughts of death as I gloriously hack opponents with my broadsword, then return home to have an abundance of sex with my woman. But If I should fall and my blood be spilled upon the ground in battle, then I am still the fortunate one because the valkyries will carry me to the great halls of Valhalla, where I may fight and drink with other fallen warriors and the mighty gods who I honorably worship.
This is the world of Vikings. It’s a blend of historical drama and action, accurately told by the writer and creator of the show, Michael Hirst. It’s thrilling, dark, mystical, violent, and sexual. It’s Black Sabbath cranked up to eleven where sacrifices, raids, beheadings, and unwonted worship is as common as a penny in your pocket. There’s been three seasons of this episodic television program and we’ve learned a lot about the customs and culture of these men and women who thrive in the cold north. Allow me to elaborate on some of the more controversial and rousing aspects of Vikings.
The Gods vs God: Christianity teaches the men of the west, in a country called England, that there is only one God, our Lord and savior Jesus Christ. But according to the vikings there are many gods and they choose which god to worship and honor. Odin is the all-father of all the Norse gods. He sacrificed an eye for wisdom and wanders the world with his pet ravens, Hugin and Munin. He rewards those who are curious and willing to explore the vastness of the world for knowledge, like Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel). In the 1st season of Vikings, Ragnar defies his earl and sails west to raid the lands of England, but not in search of treasure and wealth like his counterparts, he is more interested in discovering a new world, inhabited by new people and learning their customs. It’s a journey that pleases Odin and Ragnar is rewarded by the all-father. He returns to his homeland with a priest named Athelstan (George Blagden), captured in a monastery in Lindisfarne. An interesting bond develops between Ragnar and Athelstan through the course of the three seasons. Eventually, the slave becomes a teacher and the master becomes a student to the slave. Both men are torn from their beliefs and struggle between honoring one God or many gods.
The vikings seek guidance from their gods by way of a seer. He’s a blind and twisted old man, concealed in dark robes and speaks to those who seek his aid through riddles. The seer can be a comfort to Nordic men and women, but also the bearer of bad things to come. All men wish to know their destiny, yet a man’s destiny is never entirely predetermined. It is partially up to the gods (or God), but also up to the man and the path he chooses. Therefore, the belief in a single Christian God or many Norse gods is not so different after all. Both vikings and Christians blindly follow the word of their god and accept whatever fate befalls them. I suppose a man’s choice of religion is determined by where he would like to spend his afterlife, either in the halls of Valhalla or upon a cloud in the heavens.
The Blood Eagle: When Earl Jarl Borg (Thorbjorn Harr) attacks Kattegat and fails to murder Ragnar Lothbrok’s wife and children in the 2nd season, he is captured by Ragnar and held prisoner. Vengeance swirls through Ragnar’s mind and he tells Jarl Borg that he would like to “blood eagle” him. We are left wondering what that means, even many of the viking warriors have never witnessed a man “blood eagled” before. We’ve seen beheadings and animal sacrifices on the show, but we’ve never seen a ritual where a man’s back is cut open, his rib cage hacked apart with an axe, and then his lungs pulled out from behind him and placed on his shoulders, to appear like the folded wings of an eagle. It’s a cruel and savage ritual and Jarl Borg must suffer in that position without uttering a sound until he dies, otherwise he will not be allowed entry into Valhalla.
The creators did an astonishing job of filming the blood eagle ceremony. They chose not to show the actual procedure, but instead reveal the trauma and violence through the reactions of onlookers in a surreal fashion. It’s haunting and ominous and it sends a cold shiver down your spine, yet you cannot look away from the brutality. How savage a man must be to perform such a ritual, and how strong a man is who endures it.
Love vs Sex: “A warrior never shows his heart, he reveals it through his axe” is the advice given to Ragnar’s son, Bjorn (Alexander Ludwig), as he grows to be a man and becomes infatuated with a servant girl, Porrun (Gaia Weiss). It’s good advice. A man should carve his way through this world by following his ambition, not his passion. Passion is fleeting, it comes and goes at volatile moments. It can be fulfilling, but it’s rarely ever lasting. Viking men and women enjoy casual relationships and sex. They do not over-analyze the throbbing of the heart or use the word “love” to describe their feelings for a mate. However, Bjorn is a new breed of viking. He openly expresses his feelings and reveals himself. He loves the servant girl and marries her, but after he spends the night with a married woman he learns the difference between love and passion. The same rule applies in today’s modern world of dating and relationships: keep the throbbing of your heart controlled and be careful in revealing your true feelings.
Across the ocean to the west are the English, whose thoughts on love are more Godly. It’s hypocritical the way in which the English claim to love another person, as if their feelings were divine and sent by angels from the heavens, but then bed down with another man or woman. In viking society, open relationships are common and accepted. They welcome the touch and pleasure of another man or woman and do not complicate their vows of marriage by giving it sacred meaning. The vikings are flesh and blood, not the children of God, and they welcome multiple partners, even wives. Sex is good and fun. Love is complicated and serious. Rejoice in life’s pleasures of the flesh, the Norse gods welcome it.
The Siege of Paris: The viking’s siege of Paris in 845 is depicted in the final episodes of season three, showcasing the viking’s outmoded style of fighting against the fortified Frankish forces of Paris. In order to gain entry into Paris, the vikings construct gigantic scaffolds from logs that they float on rafts up to the Paris walls. In their attempt to scale the walls and occupy the city, the vikings endure a horde of horrors from the Frankish forces that they had never encountered before. The Franks fight with crossbows, capable of launching steel bolts at a short distance with deadly accuracy, and a flammable oil that burns the viking’s scaffolds to ash. Most impressive of all is a rolling cylinder lined with spears that impales and crushes those that stand in its path. The viking’s bravery and fierceness is no match for the Frank’s advanced weaponry and Ragnar must go to great lengths in order to siege a city that is considered impregnable. Paris cannot be sieged with attacks from the outside, it must be sieged from the inside, so Ragnar devises a “deathly” scheme to gain entry into Paris and open the gates for his warriors. It’s a brilliant twist of events that concludes the 3rd season.
With each season, Vikings gains momentum and builds in scope. The battles grow from minor skirmishes in the north to epic sieges in far away lands and Ragnar Lothbrok’s status grows from that of a petty farmer, to an earl, then to king. The plotting is simple, yet magnificent with an upward trajectory towards the downfall of King Ragnar or possibly the occurrence of Ragnarok, a series of events and natural disasters that ends the lives of the Gods and results with the world submersed in water. It’s a prediction of mine, but the idea of Ragnarok has already been introduced which leads me to believe that the end of the world may indeed come as a way of concluding the show. I’m excited to hear that Vikings will continue with an extended 20 episodes in its 4th season beginning in February 2016. Let the mysticism, plunder, and Black Sabbath rage on!