Two Historical Fiction Authors View VIKINGS, Episode VIII

Welcome back to our series on The History Channel's VIKINGS. Sandi Layne, author of Éire's Captive Moon, is with me again to chat about last night's episode.

Lissa: I admit, I didn't enjoy this episode as much as I have the previous ones.

Sandi: Me, either. 

Lissa: Between the Viking orgy and Athelstan's drug trip, a lot of the episode was taken up by things that didn't really advance the plot.

Sandi: I concur. But Ragnar's offering of Athelstan as a sacrifice — this man he'd seemed to hold as a friend — was interesting. More later...

Lissa: The sacrifice was going to be one of his friends, no matter what. I think, in a way, he was honoring Athelstan by saying he was a worthy gift to offer the gods

The cinematography was awesome, in both the intoxication scene and sacrifice scene. But my True Love became impatient. "Okay, he's tripping. We get it."

Sandi:  It was rather...extended. 

Lissa: We've already discussed that human sacrifice is believed by many scholars to be somewhat of a rarity during this time, but I have to praise the producers for their attention to detail. They seem to have based this scene off of the writings of Adam of Bremen about the Temple of Uppsala, sticking very close to his account, though scholars question how much of it is truth and how much of it was exaggerated tales he was repeating. (Support for at least the stories is provided by the Osberg tapestry, which shows bodies hanging in a grove of serpent-trees.) The one thing that isn't questioned is the existence of the temple itself. Which was pretty spiffy, if you believe the descriptions.

Sandi: This is my concern with heeding stories and sagas as history, which is why, I guess, I haven't bought into them as much as I might have. I will have to remedy that, but not today. The research I did for Éire's Captive Moon indicated that human sacrifice was not a part of the Norwegian experience by the early 9th Century, so I usually side-eye that kind of thing in the literature. 

Lissa: Yep, when pretty much all of your recorded history is written by people who despise you, it's not exactly reliable. I've encountered the same thing in my new Tudor novel, Under These Restless Skies. Many stories of Anne Boleyn's behavior as queen has been taken from the imperial dispatches of Eustace Chapuys, who absolutely hated her. Even knowing that, historians seem to have included many of his tales in the "official" narrative of her life, making her seem petty and spiteful.

1555 Woodcut of Gama Upsala. It was supposedly wrapped
in a gold-covered chain that sparkled so
brightly, it could be seen for miles.
Sandi: But the Temple of Uppsala was indeed remarkable. A cultural landmark that stood for centuries.

Lissa: But certainly not within walking distance of Kattegat. Especially in that pink gown, Lagertha! That gown was NOT made for hiking, girl!

Sandi: That did rather surprise me.

Lissa: When I saw how barren Ragnar's house was at the beginning of the episode, I knew he was crushed by the death of his child, andit turned out to be true. Sitting on the floor in front of a dead fireplace, asking the eternal questions associated with loss: "What did I do to deserve this?"

Sandi: That was remarkable.I had never seen the earl's residence without a crowd.

LissaYet another one of those delicate touches by the director, the significance of which is probably lost on most viewers, though they might have caught an impression of barren loneliness. But the jarl's hall was the social center of the village, sort of a combination of a court house and tavern. For it to be empty indicates something is very, very wrong.

Ragnar asks Athelstan if he will come with him on the pilgrimage, which I didn't catch at the time, but made a lot more sense when the priest asked Athelstan if he was there of his own free will.

Sandi: When Lagertha quietly asked Ragnar "Does he know?" and Ragnar answered in the negative, I was all Dun Dun Dun....!

Lissa: I had assumed she was talking about the orgy-tastic celebrations to ensue. I knew there would be an orgy. Just knew it. What's the use of being a pagan if there aren't any orgies?

Sandi: And, by the by, the orgy sequence was tastefully handled, overall.

Lissa: Seeing Ragnar drinking and brooding while Lagertha was collecting the sacrifices was painful, as was the distance between them. My heart broke for her when she begged Ragnar to stay with her instead of heading back outside into Woodstock--I mean, the festival. And drat that man, he went!

Woodcut of the idols in Gama Uppsala
You may have heard a horrible screech sounding all the way from Ohio when Ragnar asked Odin's statue WHO would give him his sons. I'd hoped against hope... but it seems the series is heading in an unpleasant direction.

Sandi: I saw that coming when Lagertha lost the child. I see Ragnar as a man who sees his destiny and will do what he can to achieve it. He believes he is prophesied to have many sons and, let's face it, "There are old pirates and there are bold pirates, but there are no old, bold pirates." Substitute Vikings in there and this might be applicable.

The man wants to procreate.

Lissa: *mutters darkly about Henry VIII*

Sandi: You know all about the pressures of being the man in charge...Oh! Speaking of procreation... I enjoyed the small moment about Gyda growing up. This was well handled (and makes me think (hope?) that there are plans for Gyda coming up) and also served to point to Lagertha's age, as well. Her daughter is able to bear children now. She's a woman. Lagertha's childbearing years are thus symbolically truncated. But Lagertha being strong and awesome, she handled this with love and tenderness as well as nostalgia. I loved that scene.

Lissa:  I agree: beautifully done! Pride, tinged with bittersweet.

I wonder if Gyda felt it was a blessing to become a woman at this event.

Sandi:  Something that did occur to me, yes. Did Bjørn go off to learn a thing or two (ew, maybe, but if he's a man in his culture, yeah?) and would Gyda then be expected to go and do likewise at a future event? Though, as they only go once every nine years, it'd hardly be inappropriate at the "next" gathering.

Lissa: Athelstan heads into the temple, apparently still blissfully unaware of why he is there. I wonder if he felt betrayed or wounded by Ragnar's decision to sacrifice him, or if he understood the meaning behind it. Very Biblical, the priest asking him to deny his Christian faith three times, but then finding the cross clutched within his palm...

Sandi: This bothered me, as a Christian. But then, there is Biblical precedent with Peter denying Christ three times and still being appointed later to "feed my sheep." Three times. Athelstan was just acting on the life-saving expedient and, in terms of the context, I understood him.

I just didn't approve.

Gama Uppsala By Carl Larsson
Lissa: I wondered if the priest recognized the significance of it and intentionally asked him to deny Christ three times. I think Athelstan was being sincere... He feels he has lost the right to call himself a Christian because he has strayed so far from the faith, and so he was able to meet the priest's eyes and say "No." I'm not entirely sure he would go back, even if he could, but part of him still can't let go entirely.

I would compare it, in a way, to Lagertha's bittersweet reaction to Gyda's maturity: Recognition of growth and change, yet sorrow for that which has been lost.

Sandi: I think the priest did the thrice-repeated question because the powerof three is a universal concept. The Irish had triads, even when their culture was largely pagan, for example. The "rule of three" or the threefold law is something understood by wiccan communities. I felt that this was something that might have been asked of any questionable sacrifice.

Lissa: "His heart is corrupt," the Seer pronounced afterward. "His face is not pleasing to Odin." He's a heretic, AND he's ugly! I know what the Seer meant, but I still found it incongruously amusing at the moment. And Ragnar leaning forward to whisper that Athelstan's faith saved him once again...

Sandi: "Your God came through for you, this time." Yeah. I liked that. But I am not happy with Ragnar, even so. The actor is doing a GREAT job with the role though. I see a slow slide toward someone different than the determined explorer from the first couple of episodes.

Lissa: He is. His grief, yet pride, when Leif laid down on the altar shone through those remarkable eyes. As a viewer, I can't take my eyes off him in a scene. He has an amazing hypnotic quality; so does the actor who plays Floki. The actress who plays Lagertha is amazing, but these two men really were born to play those parts. The casting department deserves an Emmy, without a doubt.

Sandi: Oh, yes. I concur. Ragnar displayed friendship and also a sense ofthanks when Leif walked to the sacrificial altar. Beautifully done.

Lissa: And another small ache in the heart when Floki started to rise to offer himself as the sacrifice, to be stayed by the gentle hand of his lover. "Not you."

Sandi: That was a lovely moment. Small and understated and perfect.

Lissa: That expression on his face when he looked around: "Anybody? Okay, I'll do it!" as if the question was who would run to the store to pick up more beer. It underscored his faith, and his love for his family, that he's so comfortable with the notion of dying for them.

What a bizarre introduction for King Horik! He didn't have Floki's mischief, and so it just seemed mean-spirited, throwing the rooster at the sleeping priests and kicking them awake.

Sandi: King Horik (well, in my reading) was a king of the Danes in the early 9th century. I like this chicken thing. I wonder if there's a story about him that touches on that?

Lissa: I can't recall reading anything about it, but I'm certainly no expert. I do know that he was vehemently opposed to the spread of Christianity within his realm, so the irreverent nature of his morning "chicken attack" seems somewhat incongruous.

Now, Ragnar and King Horik are a team. I caught the warning when King Horik noted he didn't appreciate his earls being independent in their raiding campaigns... I wonder if Ragnar took it to heart. Ragnar's being sent to bring another jarl to heel... The "twist we will not see coming?" Time will tell, I suppose.

Sandi: Horik was polite but very, very clear. "Don't mess with me like you did with Haraldson. I will break you."

Lissa: Trouble in Paradise between Rollo and Siggy! She's jealous and he's indifferent. She certainly took him to school, though, carefully setting food in front of him while she explained he wasn't going to get very far without her. Did Ragnar even consider bringing his brother to the meeting with the king? The director did such a good job with that scene, Siggy's paring knife seeming to bi
sect his throat as she chatted of him needing her help for effective betrayal.

Sandi: Oh, yeah. That was very smooth of her. She was out alone in the forest, near a fire...and Rollo was intensely involved with "enjoying the gifts of the gods" with a beautiful blonde. Nice one, Rollo. 


  1. Hi Ladies,
    As a fan of the "Vikings" show, I enjoyed your blog. Sometimes I love the characters, and sometimes I want to slap them!

    In my history "nerdness" Vikings have become a passion for me long before the TV show. So, I noticed comments about Viking human sacrifices and the significance of 3.

    If you look at Olof Skotkonung (king of Svea from 1008 -1022), he had converted to Christianity and wanted to do away with the 9th year human sacrifice. His son, Anund Jakob built support to keep the old ways, thus, exiling his father to Gotland. And those human sacrifices? They continued until the late 1000s/early 1100s.

    You also mentioned the significance of three. In cases of divorce, the wife had to gather witnesses and denounce three times at her lintel and three times by the marriage bed that was no longer married to her husband.

    There are many interesting overlays between Norse mythology and Biblical truth, not the least of which is the recurrence of the number three: Odin creating the world with his 2 brothers, the Holy Trinity, the 3 main roots of Yggsdrasil as a tree of life in Norse belief, the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, the serpent Nidhogg eating a root of Yggdrasil, and the serpent doing his damage in Eden, etc.

    But in the case of Athelstan's three denials? Like breaking marriage vows in Norse culture, I think that was simply acknowledging the significance of three. The show's creator, Michael Hirst, lived in the world of academia first and then moved to entertainment. He's one of the few in entertainment I trust to honor facts and culture. And that has me sad for what lies ahead for Lagertha!

    Rock on with your Viking writing!! Love Viking stories.

  2. I have really enjoyed your commentary about the show. Just wanted to add a bit about the priest asking Athelstan 3 times to deny his God. You touched lightly upon Peter denying Christ after his arrest, but I think it is an important piece of this scene. One can almost see Athelstan recalling that Biblical scene as he hesitates before answering for the third time, knowing that his God is testing him and that he's going to fail. Lots of resonance!!! Also, I very much appreciate your comments about Uppsala, which I know little about. It looked like a Buddhist Woodstock, and I had my doubts. After reading your commentary, though, I have to give the set designers due credit.


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