A Historian Watches: The First Episode of Vikings

I’ve not watched The History Channel’s series Vikings, mostly because I suspect it would annoy me. However, the urge to show off has won out, and I am now watching the first episode and commenting on the historical accuracy and authenticity of what I see. So, here goes.

Eastern Baltic 793
793 is the year of the first Viking raid on what will one day be England. I suspect the choice of date was no accident


And here we meet our protagonist, Ragnar Lodbrok. Umm … but didn’t we just get told that we’re in 793? Ragnar Lodbrok, if he existed at all (and we’re not certain that he did) probably wasn’t born until around 810. This does not augur well …


Broken axe
This was an extremely poorly-made axe. It’s broken after just a few good swings against it from a sword, and it appears to have just been made of a tree branch. Does this man’s village not have a smithy or something to make proper weapons?


Weird armour
Literally 30 seconds in and we’re already on the fantasy armour with absolutely no basis in history. Is this guy meant to be wearing a stegosaurus costume? That is the only reason I can think of for those spines running up his back


More fantasy armour
More fantasy armour. I can only assume the inspiration here was wicker baskets


Too many corpses
This chap here and his brother are the only two men left alive at the end of this battle. I can’t imagine that there has ever been a battle in which one side suffered 100% casualties and the other suffered 99%


Pretty good shield.png
This shield, seen here abandoned in the heather, is actually pretty good from what I can see. Kudos to the shield designers


Studded leather.png
I suspect fantasy armour might be a bit of a common occurrence in this series. This unfortunate man appears to have been wearing studded armour from Skyrim. It is apparently so useless that a raven’s beak will get through it. No wonder he’s dead, frankly


Well-made axe.png
Now that’s more like it, a proper axe. Huzzah! Notice how the wood for the haft has obviously been carefully fashioned. Also, well done for avoiding the – all too-common in Viking fiction – double-headed axes we so often see. A single-headed axe is completely realistic, not to mention easier to use. Well done all round


Odin walks the battlefield. If this is a hallucination or something then great, it services the story nicely. But if not, then I must point out that no actual evidence has ever been found to suggest Aesir stepping onto fresh battlegrounds


This looks like it’s meant to be one of the Einherjar, the dead who feast in Valhalla, taking this warrior (clad in heavy metal-inspired fantasy armour?) back to the Corpse Hall with him. Now I know it’s just mythology, and not strictly speaking historical at all, but in Norse belief it’s the Valkyries who do this, not the Einherjar


No armour.png
As far as casual Viking clothes went, this is a pretty  good costume. But why is he not wearing, you know, armour? That’s the one thing you really, really want to wear to a battle, surely?


Helmet and coin
Helmets of this design are among the most frequent discoveries associated with the Vikings, so it’s 100% accurate. The coin is also very good, and I must commend the prop designers on taking the irregular shape of coins at the time into account. Top marks in this shot.


Good shield, bad hair.png
That’s quite a thin shield, but some shields were thinner than others. Its design is fine, historically speaking, though it would probably have been decorated with a  painted-on monster or something. No idea what’s going on with this boy’s hair though. I know you can’t see it in this shot but it’s shaved at the back – almost as if from a modern buzz cut. Viking men and boys tended to wear their hair long. Not unkempt, mind you, just long.



There’s nothing wrong with this house, per se, but it is bigger than average. Are we to believe that Ragnar and family belong to the up-and-coming Viking middle class?


This young lad is called Bjorn, and he’s Ragnar’s son. This is true, Ragnar Lodbrok (if he existed) did have a son called Bjorn, and he’ll one day be given the nickname ‘Ironside’. But he had four other sons as well, Ivar, Ubba, Halfdan and Sigurdr, and not one of them makes an appearance here. It’s weird because they all have a major impact on the history of Europe, and I’d have thought it would be a golden opportunity to have several ‘this is what this guy was like as a boy’ moments


That looks like a tiled roof to me, when it should be thatched


Fur bed.png
Here we see Ragnar and wife Lagertha (looking strikingly like Kate Moss) lying in bed together under what look like reindeer pelts (at least over Lagertha’s chest). Marks for accuracy there – reindeer pelts are actually very comfortable and have been commonly used by Scandinavian peoples for thousands of years. She is asking him, quite nicely as it happens, not to sleep with too many women while he’s away. In fact, fidelity was quite important to Vikings, as were marriage bonds, whereas as this scene would suggest that a little bit of infidelity is absolutely fine. Maybe it’s just their relationship, but that’s not representative of the attitudes Vikings had toward their marriages


ragged furs
Ragged fur alert! We have very little evidence to suggest that the Vikings actually wore furs – wool was more common – and if they did it would have probably been shaped to the wearer. Not, as seen here, stuck onto the wearer haphazardly


‘Earl’ is a 9th century English corruption of the Danish ‘Jarl’ (pronounced ‘Yarl’). Ragnar should have said ‘Jarl’


I refuse to believe that he’s gone his whole life without ever once hearing of the Frankish Empire. At this point in time it dominates Europe, in a way no state has done since the Romans. Its merchants travel from the Middle East to Norway and stories of its wars travel even further. Ragnar comes from a society of far-travelling explorers and traders and would, almost certainly, have at least heard of the Frankish Empire, if not the Saxon kingdoms in Britain as well


ugly rapists.png
You can tell just by looking at these men that they’re immoral types. But I’m wondering what on earth that hood is made of. Leather? Lycra? Latex? Whatever it is it’s unsupported by archaeological evidence and should be removed at once


sweat bands.png
Are they meant to be wearing 8th century sweat bands?


massive horses.png
For early-Medieval Scandinavian horses these are massive. Vikings generally rode little pony-sized creatures


This village is apparently called Kattegat. There is no such settlement as Kattegat. Kattegat is the stretch of water between Sweden and Denmark


This guy here is called Rollo. Rollo is a Francoisation of the Old Scandinavian name ‘Hrolfr’. And would this be the same Rollo who became Count of Rouen in 911 (over a century after our current date of 793), wasn’t a brother of Ragnar Lodbrok and wasn’t even born until 846? Surely not


new god.png
This is a none too subtle reference to Christianity. At this point that religion has been around for nearly 800 years. I’m not sure what the threshold is for ‘new’ but it’s got to be fewer than 800 years, surely?


no idea.png
I have absolutely no idea what he’s meant to be holding. I think it’s just meant to “look old-timey”


This gent has apparently pleaded guilty to charges of theft, and as punishment has to “run a gauntlet of stones and turf”, whatever that is. In reality a thief would merely have to pay back the value of what he took. If he couldn’t pay he lost the protection of the law


Weird earrings.png
Is she wearing crucifixes in her ears? Crucifixes. In a pagan society. Why?


This man has been accused of murder and hauled before the Jarl. Historically this was none of the Jarl’s business. Murder cases had to be settled by the family of the victim. Everyone had a blood price – wergeld – directly proportional to their perceived worth in society, and a murderer need only pay their victim’s blood price to make amends. If they couldn’t pay then they became outlaws, and anyone could do whatever they liked to them. But there was no formal court process in Viking society, which appears to be what’s happening here


Apparently that thief’s punishment is to run through a crowd of people being pelted with vegetables. I’ve never heard of anything like this ever taking place. Also can’t help but notice those horses. They’re big by modern standards, but in the 8th century they’d be genuine giants


fancy knitwear
There’s no evidence of fancy knitting from the 8th century. So what’s this costume all about?


arm rings.png
These are arm rings, and they’re incredibly well attested by sagas and stories. Thousands of of them have been found by archaeologists all over Europe and the Middle East. What’s not true, and what’s depicted here, is that they were given when a boy became a man. Arm rings were earned, a little bit like medals, for great deeds in battle or good service to a lord. A lord was expected to be generous with arm rings, and the most generous are celebrated as “ring givers”


I’ve never seen any evidence that a lord’s wife would kiss boys becoming men. It just doesn’t seem at all likely


Russia is called Russia because from the 860s onward it was colonised by a tribe of Swedish Vikings called the Rus, rather like how England is named after the Angles who invaded in the 400s. In 793 Russia didn’t even exist as a name


dressing gown.png
Is this meant to be an 8th century dressing gown or something?


I have no idea what this man is meant to be. He appears to be some sort of druid/oracle figure in contact with the gods. But is he diseased? Is he cursed? Has he abused too many substances? I just have no idea


bone house.png
Look at all those bones just hanging in long strands from the ceiling. Now I can’t speak for this guy’s taste in decor, but there is no need to go to lengths like this to prove you’re in touch with the gods. Anyone who cared to could learn to read the runes and omens, and most of them lived perfectly normal lives. Also, where is that eerie green light coming from? An LED bulb in 8th century Scandinavia is unlikely so what’s the source? It’s almost as if it’s being artificially lit by a technical crew


Mouth of Sauron.png
Oh, wait, I know where I’ve seen this guy before



Oh good Lord, where to start? Well there’s the eye makeup for one thing. I’ve always been skeptical of depictions of Vikings wearing copious eyeliner and eye shadow . Then there’s what looks like a 1980s leather jacket over clothes with no historical basis. I think this character might be my least favourite, and he hasn’t said anything yet


cold much.png
Does he not get cold in that ludicrous costume?


Small axe.png
For a battle axe this would be perfect, especially if it was used with a shield. It’s small and fast and ideal for a fight situation. Axes for felling trees, however, tend to be much bigger and heavier than that, simply because trees are bigger and harder to cut through than people are


lagertha on top.png
This is clearly meant to appeal to modern sexual tastes. In Viking culture it was taboo for a woman to get on top of a man like this. Any man that did have sex this way would be thought weak and effeminate, mercilessly mocked and, quite possibly, ostracised from the community


big knife.png
For what he’s doing surely a smaller, more precise knife would be better? You’d think that would be obvious but apparently not


metal cup
This isn’t too implausible – he could have got it in a raid – but given how Ragnar’s complained several times about how poor he is it is unlikely that he’d have a metal cup like this. Wood is more probable


Quite apart from the obvious moral problems with making a move on your brother’s wife, would you really do it while he’s JUST OUTSIDE? Surely there’s a more opportune moment to be all creepy like this?


a wild odin appears.png
A wild Odin appears and Ragnar appears to be hallucinating again. Either he’s mentally ill or he’s high. Either way he’s in no fit state to lead men into battle


modern rivets.png
Modern rivets. Viking lonships were actually held together by nails and very strong glue


smallest longship ever.png
This longship isn’t very long is it? I think maybe twenty men would fit in this boat, when really they’d be built for more like fifty or sixty. You need a sizable force for a successful raid, after all


dragon prow.png
Incorrect use of the dragon head on the prow. These were detachable and were only put when raiding to scare the spirits of the land the Vikings were attacking. At this point in our story Ragnar is still at home in Scandinavia, and would remove the dragon head to avoid angering his homeland’s spirits


fantasy armour.png
Did I mention the fantasy armour?

2 thoughts on “A Historian Watches: The First Episode of Vikings

  1. How about “The Last Kingdom”?
    A TV adaptation of the historical novel in The Saxon Stories by Bernard Cornwell, published in 2004. This story introduces Uhtred Ragnarson, born a Saxon then kidnapped by raiding Danes who raise him from age 11, teaching him how to be a warrior.
    Did you watch that?
    I read the books and have just downloaded the video.
    I hope it stands up, (unlike The Vikings which seems decidedly not to have).


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