Part of its charm is the perfect mixture of fact and fiction – but to what degree is the show Vikings historically accurate?
It can be argued that Vikings helped change the viewing public's perception of the History Channel.
Before its release in 2013, the channel was mainly associated with rather dull historical shows involving a large number of crusty old historical experts or outlandish concepts, such as the Pyramids of Giza being created with the help of extraterrestrial beings.
However, this all changed when Vikings premiered on March 3, 2013.
The show itself is simple enough – it is based on the tales and exploits of Ragnar Lothbrok, the famous Viking warrior and scourge of Paris, whose life was written down in a number of sagas and stories.
The series follows Ragnar's evolution from peasant farmer to Viking leader, later ascending the throne as a king while juggling familial and communal responsibilities and confronting enemies both on and off the battlefield.
The later seasons follow the exploits and adventures of Lothbrok's sons, including Björn Ironside.
The series was shot on location in Iceland, Ireland, and Norway – all countries with a proud Viking history.
A significant amount of praise for the show was for what some critics called "the historical accuracy" that underpinned the show.
With various plotlines, from the raid on Lindisfarne to historically accurate clothing, many critics felt this was one of the best representations of the early Viking Age (c. 750 – 1100) to hit small screens.
The show creatively combines elements from Hedeby, Birka, Oslo, and a classic Norwegian fishing village to form the fictional setting of Kattegat. Source: HISTORY Channel, screenshot (Copyright, fair use)
Bursting the bubble
Now we here at The Viking Herald hate nothing more than being party poopers.
We always aim to promote anything that helps spread the fascinating history of everyone's favorite early medieval raiders, traders, and colonizers.
Despite the brilliance of the show Vikings, it is essential to remember, first and foremost, that this is a work of fiction.
Let us zoom out and look at some of the more prominent themes in the show to test their historical accuracy.
When we first meet Ragnar (played by Australian actor Travis Fimmel), he is on a battlefield somewhere in the "eastern Baltic," and he, with the help of a sundial, plans to sail west (and not east to the Baltic) to secure wealth and his reputation.
This directly opposes the wishes of the local chieftain, Earl Haraldson (played brilliantly by Irish actor Gabriel Byrne), who wishes to continue using his resources to fund Viking raids in the Baltic.
Ragnar faces resistance since many locals do not know of "lands in the west," i.e., the British Isles. This is where the first bubble should burst.
Regardless of their location, almost all early medieval Scandinavian warriors and traders would have had at least some knowledge of the British Isles.
Furthermore, it is highly illogical that they could sail vast distances to the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea for that time yet not venture in the opposite direction. Thus, the first plot hole appears.
However, it is true that the early beginnings of the Viking Age indeed began with Vikings who headed eastward, and recent discoveries in Estonia have even pushed back the "start date" of this age by decades.
The show intertwines the mostly mythical Ragnar Lothbrok with the historical figure of Rollo, inventing a brotherhood for dramatic effect in the series. Source: HISTORY Channel, screenshot (Copyright, fair use)
Famous family members
Whilst Ragnar is the main star of Vikings, his character leaves historians puzzled.
There is considerable debate about whether Ragnar Lothbrok was a single historical figure or if his exploits were a composite of several individuals.
Nonetheless, his stories are very real and form the basis not only of this show but also of a series of sagas, most notably the Saga of Ragnar Lothbrok.
The show accurately portrays the brutal Viking raid on Paris, which at the time in 845 was just a small village, an attack that is said to have been led by Ragnar himself.
This is in stark contrast to the very real historical figure of Rollo.
Rollo was a Viking who so frequently raided the coastal communities of the Frankish realms that, in 911, he was granted a significant tract of land by the Frankish Emperor Charles the Bald.
This arrangement was underscored by a sentiment echoed by former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson: "Better to have your enemies inside the tent pissing out, than outside the tent pissing in."
In simpler terms, it's wise to keep your friends close and your enemies closer.
Essentially, Charles the Bald delegated the security and maintenance of this part of the Frankish realm to Rollo.
However, it's her past role as a shieldmaiden that has left historians in a quandary.
While a recent discovery of a female warrior in a Viking grave at Birka has been made, this does not conclusively prove the "shieldmaiden" myth.
Current academic consensus suggests that while women may have fought alongside men as Vikings, they were likely only a select few.
To date, we have not found sufficient archaeological evidence to support the claim that Viking forces included a significant number of female warriors.
- READ MORE: Women and power in the Viking Age - A primer
Lagertha embodies the shieldmaiden myth, but research suggests that such roles for women in Viking warfare were exceptional rather than common. Source: HISTORY Channel, screenshot (Copyright, fair use)
One of the breakout characters of the first season of Vikings is Athelstan.
Captured during the raid on Lindisfarne, this Anglo-Saxon boy is a devout Christian. Much of what we know about the Viking Age has been shaped by records of (often) antagonistic Christian monks.
Perhaps the most famous description of a Viking raid on the monastery at Lindisfarne in 793 was recorded thanks to some of the monks who were spared the sword.
Throughout the season, Athelstan is seen in a state of inner turmoil with the "pagan" practices of his captors.
For example, he is revolted when a thrall (spoiler alert) willingly joins Earl Haraldson in the afterlife by jumping on his funeral pyre.
The disgust and inner turmoil Athelstan displays are fairly historically accurate.
People from Viking societies were perceived as "pagan" and worshippers of false gods, at least according to contemporary Christian monks.
Indeed, there was inner turmoil within these societies as the centuries-long process of the Christianization of Scandinavia gained momentum during the later stages of the Viking era.
Athelstan was not the only foreigner who was appalled by some practices of the Vikings.
For a true account of what people from other cultures and civilizations really thought of the Viking societies, there is an insightful account by Ibn Fadlan, a 10th-century Arab diplomat and explorer.
On a trade mission in Eastern Europe, he encountered "Volga Vikings" – people from Viking societies who had settled along the prosperous Volga River trade route, connecting Scandinavia with the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world.
Contrasting with Athelstan's faith are the spiritual beliefs of his Viking captors.
In the penultimate episode of the series, not only is Athelstan's faith tested, but the main characters also go on a pilgrimage to Uppsala.
Historians believe that Uppsala was indeed a center of religious worship for adherents of the Old Norse religion, as it housed a great temple there.
In terms of religious strife and practice, the first season of Vikings gets a great big tick from us here at The Viking Herald.
Athelstan, a devout Anglo-Saxon monk captured by Vikings, faces a profound inner conflict between his Christian beliefs and the Norse pagan practices. Source: HISTORY Channel, screenshot (Copyright, fair use)
And a final special shoutout...
So, aside from the historical nitpicking we have done, do not let this deter you from the first season of Vikings.
It is an excellent introduction to this wonderful historical period, and the show's creators have done their best to capture the mood of early medieval Scandinavia and its surroundings.
A special shoutout should also be given to the show's costume department – critics have agreed that the costumes are historically accurate, and there is not a horned helmet in sight!
Season 1 of Vikings can be streamed on Amazon Prime Video. Available here.
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