By Larissa Tracy
During its first two seasons, the popular History Channel series Vikings triggered a vigorous debate among scholars and amateur historians about the show’s authenticity—particularly the gore and violence. But separating truth from fiction, it turns out, is harder than it sounds.
The image of the savage Viking, covered in the blood of his enemies, revelling in the slaughter around him, has been a staple of modern media representations of medieval Scandinavian raiders since the 1950s.
In recent years, there has been an attempt to rehabilitate the Viking on screen. Often branded “revisionist” by critics and scholars, this view pays closer attention to the influence of medieval literary sources, including thirteenth century Icelandic sagas, challenging the bloodthirsty image of the “visceral Viking”.
Of the more recent adaptations that have attempted to capture the nuances of Viking Age society, none has done so with more acclaim than the Vikings. Rather than glorify violence as a social norm, as earlier films were wont to do, Vikings attempts to present bloody acts within their social context—in a more metaphorical frame of human behavior. Vikings emphasizes the capacity for brutality in every society.
Creator/director Michael Hirst set out to craft what he thought was the most authentic portrayal of the Viking world on screen. He is on record explaining that while the violence was not meant to be gratuitous, for authenticity the show needed excessive levels of brutality. But the series presents horribly gruesome acts as regrettable and rare, rather than as common sadistic pleasures.
The most striking and controversial scene of violence in the series, thus far, takes up a significant portion of “Blood Eagle,” Season 2:Episode 7. The “blood eagle” punishment is performed on Jarl Borg (Thorbjørn Harr) for attacking Ragnar’s village, killing many of his people, and driving his family into the wilderness while Ragnar is in England. When he is taken, Borg is sentenced by law to be executed in this way—an anachronism itself because capital punishment was a relatively rare feature of medieval Scandinavian law.
“I think that I’d decided quite a long time ago that Jarl Borg would die from blood-eagling because Ragnar would never forgive him for attacking his children,” Hirst told Daniel Fienberg of HitFix in 2014. “We’ve kind of established that Ragnar is a guy who loves his family and the worst punishment of all in the Viking world is the blood-eagling.”
But is it? Is this simply the most brutal punishment in a catalog of Viking atrocities, or a modern presumption? This is where Hirst’s authenticity suffers from modern misconceptions about actual practice.
The blood eagle is not usually among the catalogue of violence attributed to the Vikings; it only appears in a small selection of texts, almost all of which have to do with the legendary Ragnar loðbrók, who is said by chronicles and sagas to have been active in the ninth century as a raider, a king, and a conqueror of England. This association may be what led Hirst to believe it would be an authentic action for his Ragnar.
For decades, however, scholars have debated the accuracy of reports that this form of punishment was used—and have largely failed to come to any definitive conclusions. According to Saxo Grammaticus in his Danish History, the Icelandic Ragnars saga loðbrókar, and Ragnarssona þáttr, blood-eagling is the punishment meted out to King Ælle of Northumbria by Ragnar’s sons in return for having Ragnar thrown into a pit of poisonous vipers. Ælle is subjected to variations on this horrific execution in the many versions of the Ragnar texts as revenge.
It is entirely possible that this ritual was a feature of Viking society; it is equally possible that it is simply a literary motif where the worst criminals are treated to the worst punishments the mind can imagine. The textual evidence is contradictory and often subjective—especially in relation to the blood eagle. There seems to be little evidence that it did happen, or if it did, that it was common practice.
The “blood-eagle” scene in Vikings is done with care and with feeling, but it is likely based on a fantasy.
So while the series Vikings strives to represent a more nuanced view of Viking society, one that is neither exclusively bloodthirsty nor excessively passive, it still plays into what has become an indelible image in the modern imagination—that of the stoic Viking who embraces the worst possible brutality when necessary. But the textual and historical evidence suggests that needless cruelty was not woven into the native fabric of Viking society.
Really, if you want to see that, watch Game of Thrones.