Vikings: Paganism and Organized Religion

John offers a personal look at a key thematic conflict running throughout The History Channel's Vikings. Spoilers...

Warning: Contains spoilers for Vikings. This story originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.

I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself.”

Though D. H. Lawrence never met the Meredith boys, he could easily have said these words about my brother and I. Cursed with a poverty-stricken childhood, we nonetheless never let that get us down, finding a world rich with imagination right there in our minds and our own back yard. When we were still quite young, our parents had moved from the relative civilization of the suburbs to a dilapidated house in the woods of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Animals of every kind would regularly come to loiter around the huge cypress tree near the front door, where our mother kept an unending supply of bird seed and corn cobs. It wasn’t unusual for one of us to walk outside and get barely any reaction from the grazing wildlife, as if we were nothing more than just another hungry animal. There was a freeway nearby, the oceanic sounds of which could sometimes be heard crashing through the trees, but mostly it seemed that we were far from regular society.

There were a few meagre attempts to introduce us to religion, but it was never a formal concept in our family. A gaily-painted church vehicle (dubbed the Joy Bus) made a single venture down the long dead-end dirt road that led to our house, opening its door to these two ragamuffin boys, but then never bothered to come back. That was just fine, since we felt like pagan outcasts as soon as we entered their holy building full of strange books and songs. There was something so civilized about what we found there that it seemed almost lifeless. Our church was beneath the canopy of trees that surrounded the house, and our choir was made up of flitting birdsongs.

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Dashing off into the woods, sometimes even barefooted, we had a thousand different things we could pretend to be. Among these, we sometimes imagined that we were Vikings who had just discovered the New World, hundreds of years before Columbus ever sailed the ocean blue. Now, of course, we had little real understanding of the ancient Norsemen whose voyages took them to England, France, Italy, Iceland, and even North America. We just knew that these men and women had set off in boats that looked like dragons, they were fearless and ferocious, and they liked to pull the old blood eagle trick on anyone who dared to mess with them. We had heard something about Odin, Thor, and Loki, but they were basically still brightly-festooned characters from the pages of comic books. When you’re a child, however, that’s pretty much all you needed to feel like you had found your people.

It wasn’t until much later that I really understood the depth of this conflict between the untamed life of pagan belief and the more ostensibly civilised world of organized religion. While asking my mother what happened to us after we died garnered the harsh response you rot and the worms eat you, the strict rules and regulations by which many of my more religious friends lived seemed no more comforting. The truth of things, I felt, rested somewhere on the battle front between these two worlds. This was the thrilling edge of conflict explored so vibrantly in those first couple seasons of the History Channel’s series Vikings. While I no longer live in the woods, I am still fairly destitute most of the time, which prevents me from having luxuries like cable television. Therefore, it was a while before I stumbled across this program, having heard about the savage combat scenes from numerous co-workers. Always a sucker for a sword fight, I immediately set out for my local library to check it out.

While those battles were indeed well-done (and have only become more extensive as the show’s budget has increased), it was the spiritual aspect of the show that won my heart… and my continued, albeit delayed, viewership. I say spiritual, rather than religious, because I feel it gets at something deeper in the core of anyone’s belief. While a bishop may never admit that someone so untamed as a Viking has religion, in a moment of generosity he might concede that this same Viking has a spiritual side. Even if it’s drenched in the blood of sacrifice.

It was this visceral spirituality that struck me like an axe in the opening scene of the series, where the Norseman Ragnar Lothbrok (a brilliant Travis Fimmel) sat, drenched in blood, after one of these ferocious battles. His eyes were still wide and wild from the fight, while he glanced about the field of bodies like a man having a vision. Amidst torn flags flapping in the wind and crows circling above, Ragnar watched as the hooded specter of Death stalked across the gory expanse. He watched, as well, as the spirit of a fallen warrior rose into the sky.

Ragnar went home after the battle, a seemingly simple man, a farmer and a father, though he was never a simple character. While he was the typical Viking on the surface, there were nonetheless many questions lurking within him. It wasn’t until his tribe’s first raid upon mainland England, when they captured a young monk named Athelstan (George Blagden), that he was able to really start asking these questions. Athelstan was in many ways the audience’s gateway into this world of spirituality as well. Though he was more devoted than most of us, his beliefs were also more familiar, with names and symbols that all English-speaking people have known.

We immediately began to see the Christian god, and the gods of the Vikings, through Athelstan’s eyes. What he saw in Ragnar was not what he expected to see. He saw a man who, while different from himself, was nonetheless hoping to find the same answers. The conflict that had begun inside of Ragnar, between what he had always believed and what he was trying to learn, soon infected Athelstan as well. Like his new Viking friend, the monk became a character in spiritual crisis, caught between the attraction to two entirely different gods.

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During those early seasons, it often seemed like the monk could have become a Viking and the Viking might have become a monk. The entwined spiritual conflicts and the duel between pagan and Christian beliefs was an amazing thing for someone like me to behold. I had tried almost everything, of course. I attempted to officially give myself over to paganism, then tried to be a good churchgoing man through my then-wife’s Episcopal church. I tried to embrace Buddhism, then a bunch of New Age nonsense, and have finally ended up somewhere in the centre of everything, a strange place where I am neither believer nor non-believer.

This is the same place where I felt Ragnar arrived in his final moments last season. He had watched his friend Athelstan depart into his own mysterious afterlife, then found the doors of Valhalla closed to him, yet he still sought the answers that only Death could give him. In the end, he turned himself over to King Ecbert, who became the reluctant Pontius Pilate to Ragnar’s eager Norse Jesus. Though he no longer believed in the Viking gods, he spoke as though he did in order to give hope – and vengeance – to his surviving children.

This is the place where we have arrived at the beginning of the fifth season. Ragnar’s children are all grown now, each of them like separate sides of their father. Bjorn is the sometimes absent, reluctant leader. Ubbe is the sensible, compassionate one, and Hvitserk the one who just wants to fight. Ivar, meanwhile, is the cunning and bloodthirsty warrior prone to berserker rages, the one whom history has shown to be Ragnar’s vicious Viking heir. Not that there is much documented history on any of them, of course, which is what gives the show’s writer and producer Michael Hirst room to play with these spiritual and religious ideas. He has grappled with these issues in courtly settings before, in Elizabeth, and through the Emmy Award-winning series The Tudors. However, with few factual restraints to hold him back on Vikings, he has been able to fully unleash his exploration.

For this viewer, that exploration has been a bit stunted since Athelstan’s departure. There were many theological discussions between Ragnar and Ecbert, with each of them finally acknowledging that they were only perfunctorily religious. The Essex king was no more Christian in his final moments than Ragnar was Viking in his, but it was here that the conflicted monk’s presence was most missed. I had hoped for one more conversation, both of them perched outside of misty gates that could have been either heaven or Valhalla. While Lagertha (the amazing Katheryn Winnick) has been my favorite character from the beginning, a fierce figure of independence and warrior spirit, she has not struggled with spiritual issues in the way that her ex-husband did. Floki has embarked upon a quest of his own as well, but where he’s ended up so far has only left this viewer with more questions.

Ragnar’s departure does bring us more roundly back to the harsh, bloody world of the warrior Viking, most amply displayed in his son Ivar. Though crippled due to a brittle bone disease, he is more determined than his father ever was to spread the Norse rule. He is an imposing sight, even without functioning legs, pulling himself along the ground by stabbing it with knives, as if he were furious with the earth itself. I almost prefer to see him like this than with the makeshift braces and crutch which help him to stand in the second and third episode. Even from the ground, he stands much taller than his less brutal brothers, and the blue-eyed intensity that pours from his face is reminiscent of those opening shots of Ragnar in the series premiere.

In the first few episodes of this season, Ivar demonstrates a kind of ruthlessness that stands out even among his fellow Norsemen. He presses the Great Army to invade York and takes immense glee in attacking the city’s churchgoers with axes and swords. He smears a bloody cross into someone’s forehead while women and children cry around him, then grins like a madman as a crucifix is melted down and poured into the open mouth of a priest. When pressed by brother Ubbe as to why he must be the leader, Ivar responds without self-pity: “I want to be your equal, but to do so I have to be better than you.” This guy is the fearless and ferocious Viking that my brother and I imagined out in the woods all those years ago.

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Despite what might sound like a one-note berserker, however, Alex Hogh Andersen displays enough nuance in his performance to hint at a character who is more complicated. Early in episode three, Homeland, Ivar summons a slave girl to his quarters. She seems doomed the moment he asks her what the people are calling him. Ivar the Boneless, she replies. He tells her that a sacrifice is needed to ensure victory, then orders her to disrobe. Even when he instructs her to kiss him, the girl does not seem afraid. She explains that those who are born different are a true sign of the gods, adding that he is destined for great things. Though we get no real explanation, whatever terrible fate was about to befall her has now been averted. Not only does Ivar allow her to walk out of his bedroom, but he grants her freedom from her enslavement.

Meanwhile, we’ve been introduced to Heahmund, an equally battle-ready soldier for the Saxons. Recruiting from The Tudors, Hirst has wisely cast Jonathan Rhys Meyers in a role that is destined to ratchet up the intensity. This man simply has intense written on his face. When first glimpsed at the end of last season, he is solemnly conducting a funeral, just before conducting himself in bed with the widow of the deceased. Since then, he has already hurled a seemingly lusty glance at Judith and repentantly whipped himself with brambles in the woods. Though he’s not been fully fleshed out by the third episode, here is a character whose internal battles might equal those against the enemies he’s sworn to destroy.

Heahmund’s bishop-warrior is an ancient precursor to the Knights Templar, yet he feels very much like a modern commentary. We are living in an age of persistent and growing fundamentalism, where more and more people wish to inflict their ideals upon everyone else. The eighth century was no different in many ways, but the fight was much more graphically drawn between the Hammer and the Cross. While someone like Athelstan was willing to accept other beliefs, and even to consider them, Heahmund seems more intent on destroying what feels foreign to him. To him, the Vikings are not a more open and democratic society with a greater respect for women, they are heathen barbarians. They are pagans and devils, nothing more.

The most thrilling scene of episode three, and the one I suspect will set the future tone, takes place when Heahmund and Aethulwulf’s combined armies attempt to reclaim York. They have been tricked, of course, into believing that the Vikings have lowered their defenses. Aethulwulf is furious and fully engaged, taunting, “Come on out and fight, you cowards!” Though he is above the fray, conducting the attack, Ivar can’t resist his own nature. He is next seen howling in his chariot, racing into the battle-soaked courtyard. Even when his wheels are overturned and he is surrounded, he is erupting in bloody berserker rage. “I am Ivar the Boneless!” he screams, “You can’t kill me!”

It is his ferocity alone which makes the other army pause, which draws his fellow Vikings into the heart of the battle. Ivar is howling, laughing, his face awash with crimson. He hollers at his enemies, which stretch beyond just the Saxons: “You are going to die!!” While he leans against the cart, his face twisted into the crazed image of rage that will surely bedeck the eventual Blu-Ray release of season five, total sword-slashing, arrow-spiralling pandemonium breaks out around him. Heahmund – the warrior-bishop and complete antithesis of Ivar the Boneless – stands boldly, shield-less, amidst the wildly swinging weapons. You can see the burning need to attack Ivar all over his features, but he cannot approach. He pulls his sword, points it at the laughing son of Ragnar.

“Your reign is over, heathen,” he says.

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But it’s quite obvious that everything is far from over. No, this conflict is just getting started… and the poor young man inside of me, the one who both lived in the woods and then bowed before an altar, is just dying to see how it all plays out.