Crossing North 20: The Northpeople

Dr. Lauren Poyer in England.


While Robert Eggers’ 2022 film, The Northman, was still in theaters, Lauren Poyer, Assistant Teaching Professor in Scandinavian Studies here at the University of Washington, was a guest on the podcast American Prestige to talk about the film’s interest in portraying a “historically accurate” Viking Age, as well as its medieval inspirations, and the popularity of Vikings in the United States. With the permission of the hosts Daniel Bessner and Derek Davison, we bring you that interview.

Jump to Show Notes


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Colin Gioia Connors:  Welcome to Crossing North: a podcast where we learn from Nordic and Baltic artists, scholars, and community members to better understand our world, our communities, and ourselves. Coming to you from the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle, I’m your host Colin Gioia Connors.

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The Northman premiered in U.S. theaters on April 22, 2022. Set in Viking-Age Scandinavia, the film tells the story of Prince Amleth and his quest for revenge on the uncle who usurped his father’s throne. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the film is loosely based on a legend recorded by the twelfth-century Danish writer Saxo Grammaticus. In the press tour for the film, both the director Robert Eggers and the film’s Swedish-born star and co-producer, Alexander Skarsgård, stressed the film’s historical accuracy and cultural authenticity. Critical and audience reviews were divided. Some lauded the film as the best take yet on a “Viking mindset,” while others criticized the film’s heavy-handed narrative. 

While The Northman was still in theaters, Lauren Poyer, Assistant Teaching Professor in Scandinavian Studies here at the University of Washington, sat down with Daniel Bessner and Derek Davison on their podcast American Prestige to talk about the film’s interest in portraying a “historically accurate” Viking Age, as well as its medieval inspirations, and the popularity of Vikings in the United States. We are happy to be able to share that interview with you today.

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Daniel Bessner: Hello, Prestige Heads and welcome to American Prestige. I'm Danny Bessner, here, as always, with my friend and colleague and comrade, Derek Davison, and we are very excited to be joined today by Lauren Poyer. Lauren is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Department of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Washington, and we're here to discuss The Northman. But before we do that, Lauren, thank you so much for joining us.

Lauren Poyer: Thank you for having me. I'm excited to talk about— this is the first time I'm talking about this film since I saw it last week, so—

Daniel: Oh, perfect. [*laughs*] Oh, God, so we're gonna get ready for the hot takes—or the cold thoughts, as it were.

Derek Davison:  All the raw thoughts, yeah. Like the raw meat that those people took to the theater? Did you guys see that? I'm sorry. I don't mean to derail the conversation.

Lauren: [*gasps*] Oh no.

Daniel: Oh— yeah, I did see that. That was like—

Derek: The white nationalists who took, like, raw meat into the theater with them. [*sarcastically*] Yeah, that must have been fun. Good times.

Daniel: Yeah, that was so crazy. But maybe we'll talk a little bit about that. But like, why don't we just start at the beginning. And so Lauren, before we actually get into The Northman, I was just wondering if you could maybe talk a little bit about the ways Vikings are presented in contemporary American culture or, really, international culture. In recent years, it does seem like there's been an explosion of Viking content— you have the show Vikings, obviously, and you have all of the rip offs that came from them and, sort of, other similar stories. I know there's one—I forget the name of it [The Last Kingdom]—that's about kind of like early Anglo Saxons and things along those lines. You have an Assassin's Creed game being made about Vikings, you have Game of Thrones, which is not quite Vikings but it's like the War of the Roses plus, like, Viking vibes a little bit in, sort of, the sea peoples. So I was just wondering, what role do you see Vikings as playing in American popular culture?

Lauren: It's funny that you want to start with that question. I actually made a joke in my Old Norse language class a few weeks ago about why Vikings are so popular that caused a lot of contention in my class—a couple people came to office hours afterwards just to ask about it. I made a joke, I said, “America loves Vikings because America loves police.” [*laughter*] So hot take right out the gate, I guess.

Daniel: [*laughing*] That is scorching. That's what we're for.

Derek: That’s fiery. Nice.

Lauren: Yeah, well, so, I think there's a couple of reasons why Vikings are having a moment or especially were having a moment in the 2010s. And I think we cannot discount the influence that Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings had on an entire generation of media consumers that, like, those films in the early 2000s were, like, genre changing and genre defining for fantasy broadly, but especially like medieval fantasy, and I think it rekindled or kindled in the millennial generation, especially, like, an interest in medieval Europe as an imaginative space. And so you get now 15-20 years later, a whole generation of people who have grown up reading Lord of the Rings, seeing the films, maybe playing Dungeons and Dragons, and so they're looking for, like, what are the historical underpinnings or inspirations for all of this media that they love so much? And I think there's something especially attractive about Vikings because of the longer history of their representation in Europe and North America, which is always tied up in a sense of, you know, national destiny, and victory, and power, and a lot of, like, masculine-coded words, and Manifest Destiny, you know, and so a lot of, kind of, to a certain extent unexamined American values around imperialism are super tied up in Vikings. And I don't I don't think that Vikings the television show, like, The History Channel show, is necessarily like, the production team was like, “Oh, I'm gonna make a show about imperialism,” right? But I think the idea of, you know, the rugged individual, typically male, explorer who can go out on his own and discover something new and strange, and gets to also love his family and would never kill women and children, and always fights for the right thing while encountering strange new lands. I mean, that's— that's not Vikings. That's Columbus. You know, like, I see a lot of parallels in the kinds of stories that are told with Vikings.

Daniel: So here's a question that is probably a bit outside of your area, but I'm curious if you know— were Vikings sort of popular characters in the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries during a, sort of, the era of high colonization out west?

Lauren: Yes. Yes, they were. So, the first English language translations that we have of the sagas—medieval Icelandic literature—which, most of which is written down after the end of the Viking Age, but a lot of it takes place in the Viking Age. The first translation we have of the Icelandic sagas into English was actually in the 1860s. So, like, during the Civil War, which is always a trip for my students to learn. I think it was William Morris's translation of Njáls saga. So it’s an English, like, British English scholar who's translating it, but those stories, once translated into English, kind of trickle out into the, you know, the expanding middle class in the Anglophone world. And by the 1890s, I mean, you have the genre of historical fiction in, you know, late Victorian England and in the US where people are writing and consuming, like, pulp novels about Vikings. So they're very much part of the Anglophone consciousness of, like, exploration. And they're also very much tied up in larger movements of, like, —or larger interest  in racial science, the idea of, like, the “Anglo Saxon race” or the “Nordic race.” And so there's a lot of interest in combining those narratives or, like, comparing those narratives of the Viking Age in Scandinavia to the lived experiences of people in the late 19th, early 20th century in America, yeah.

Daniel:  And of course, also, I mean, we know Seattle, well, there was a large Scandinavian immigration to the United States in parts as well and large German emigration of people from the German principalities pre-unification. So do they also bring sort of this like Norse mythology thing? Because I think today in a lot of people's minds, at least somewhat Vikings are associated with like, the far right, particularly, you know, the Nazis use of Runic symbols and the classic things, but before that, in the United States, were these stories brought over, you know, from from Scandinavian, and also Germanic immigrants are not really it's mostly the English translation that seems to spread throughout the bourgeois household effectively.

Lauren: I would say, we do have some evidence that Scandinavian immigrants brought over, even you know from Iceland, medieval manuscripts, because those were mostly owned by families until the early modern period when they were collected and then put in, you know, the Library at the University of Copenhagen. So we do have, there are some medieval Icelandic manuscripts of sagas that have been donated to, like, Harvard and Yale, and Cornell, I think, as well, that were brought over by immigrant families. But a lot of the cultural awareness of the sagas and of medieval Scandinavian literature really was disseminated from the top down, like, from the Academy, and then from, like, middle class printers. Yeah.

Daniel: No, that makes a lot of sense. And the connection you made to Tolkien is really interesting, because of course, he was a linguist. And so the way that he sort of used his language skills to create a kind of a pseudo-Nordic race with the elves, and their special language, and they're all blonde, and they're tall, and they live forever, is really compelling. So how did the popular representation of Vikings change or not change, I guess, over the course of the 20th century, when you know, America is finally stretched from sea to shining sea and, you know, formal colonization, at least on the continent, comes to an end? Is there a transformation in the image of the Viking, in particular, how does World War II, and when you're fighting the Germans, affect Vikings? I'd be curious about maybe how it develops over the first half of the 20th century up to and including World War II.

Lauren:  Yeah, well, I can say to start, even if the sagas themselves weren't widely read or popular among a lot of immigrant communities in the US coming from Scandinavia, especially from like Norway, there certainly was an interest in kind of emulating Nordic heritage in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, because of, you know, the process of racialization that all different ethnic groups undergo as they come to the United States. And so you have this interest in, kind of, ranking different immigrant groups based on, like, different ethnic groups based on how white they are. And so the myth of Leif Erickson discovering America was just like Columbus was for Italian immigrants— a way to for them to kind of claim, like, “Oh, we belong in America, we are a part of America, you know, we're part of this melting pot, and we deserve to have equal economic access and opportunity.” And so Leif Erickson Day, you know— SpongeBob, “Hinga Dinga Durgen” Day— was, in fact, a response by Norwegian and Swedish immigrant communities to Columbus Day becoming a thing that they were, like, “Oh, we should have one of those too.” 

I would say, post World War II— In my, one of my classes, I teach the 1958 Viking film [The Vikings], which I teach it, almost, I don't mean to, but I ended up teaching it as a Cold War film, because it's— it has this very Shakespearean tone of two cultures, the Vikings and the English, that represent two different sides of the moral coin, and these cultures will never be able to integrate. And it's such a tragedy that these two great civilizations are, kind of, separated by fate. And you have this love affair between a Viking character and an English woman, but it's never going to work out because they can't be together. And I'm like, this feels like, you know, it's 1950s America, this feels like the Soviet, like, the Cold War, like Soviet Scare to me.

Daniel: Very much. So it becomes inflected by geopolitics, right? So I think I wanted to just make clear before we dive into The Northman, which to me, seems like a show that's inflected by geopolitics, and this is sort of the role that the Viking plays in the American imaginary. And I think it's so interesting and so smart, and our listeners are gonna love that point about how it's, like, so connected to this image of colonization and this image of taming the untamable land. And in some sense, I think what's really interesting about Vikings is about how the literal taming makes the man— is that the landscape makes the man, and the Viking makes the landscape, and how they go back and forth, which is so tied up in ideas of Manifest Destiny and Indigenous dispossession, and that's so interesting. So why don't now that we get that little precede just to provide people with a bit of a context, why don't we get to The Northman? So I guess first off, what's your ultimate take on it? I think one thing that it's been getting a lot of play for is being supposedly historically accurate. The director Robert Eggers is really interesting, because his whole oeuvre, including The Witch and The Lighthouse, are basically designed to like put you into a subjectivity, a pre-modern subjectivity, in a sense, particularly with The Witch in this show. And so what I find so interesting about him is that what I think his major contribution is, is that things that appear fantastical to us are just part of living in a Viking world. So I was just wondering what you thought? Maybe we could just start with your hot take—what you thought— is it accurate? is it very inaccurate? And then we could just go from there and whatever you want to hit because I have a million questions [*laughs*].

Lauren: I would say that, in some ways, it is very accurate. I was very happy and pleased to see a lot of more recent scholarship on the Viking Age, especially archaeological and like material culture discoveries, be incorporated into the film. Because we, you know, a lot of the Viking media from the last decade I see, it's just kind of recycling the same tropes from 50 years ago, which were being recycled from 50 years before that, you know, and so this time, I was like, “Oh, these are things that the public might not necessarily know are like, archaeological realities, or material realities of the Viking Age.” So that was very fun as someone who studies this period, but I think my ultimate hot take was that— I didn't like it, like, as a film. Like, I thought that the ethnographic interest of the film distracted from the movie, like, the narrative. Like, by the end— can I talk about spoilers?

Daniel: Oh yeah, yeah, this is a spoilers-full podcast. And the plot isn’t important; it's Hamlet.

Lauren: Okay, great. Yeah, it's just Hamlet. We all know Hamlet. I think this is— yeah, by end of the movie, I'm sitting there in the theater. I had invited a couple of friends to go with me—some of whom are also medievalists and some of whom are more like film buffs—you know, and I get to the final climactic fight when they're on Hekla and they're, like, fighting naked and on lava, [*Daniel laughs*] and, yeah, I just started laughing. I can't, I was just like, “I'm so bored. Why are we doing this? Like, I don't care.” And it's not even like, “I'm so conflicted about this anti-hero protagonist who's morally ambiguous.” I was like, “No, I'm, like, so detached from this movie. I'm thinking about, well, you know, which train am I gonna catch to get home?” [*laughter*]

Derek: Yeah, so I watched it, like, I went, slipped out one evening last week to go see the movie, knowing that I was going to have to come back and work, do some more work. So I'm somewhat similar to you. Like, by the end of the movie, the last, like, quarter of the movie I— my mind was on, like, what am I going to be doing when I get home and have to go back to work? So I felt the same way. I kind of like slipped, it kind of like slipped past me. But I'm curious, you know, without—well, we've already spoiled it. For anybody who didn't realize that this was Hamlet, we've already, you know, we've established that this was the basis of Hamlet. I'm curious about the Amleth legend, and if you could talk a little bit about that, and the— its origins, where does it come from? Where do we, where does it come from in terms of the body of Norse myth? Are there, sort of, sources behind that, that kind of, you know, that it draws upon? Or what are the sort of roots of the legend?

Lauren: Yeah, so the film draws its bare, like, bare bones, broadest plot from Saxo Grammaticus’ version of the story of Amlettus of Denmark. Saxo Grammatik was a 12th-century historian in Denmark, who was very interested in, kind of, the national project or, I suppose, pre-national project of creating one history that synthesized a lot of other histories for Denmark specifically. This, like, synthesis project of creating a national history is actually really popular in the 12th and 13th century. So Iceland does it too, with sagas, and you've got English historians doing the same kind of things. So it’s how do you marry all these disparate facts about the known world into one mega story? So Saxo Grammaticus—

Daniel: Why? What's happening at this moment, as a historian, I'm curious?

Derek: That’s sort of a nation building period, right, for Scandinavia? They are part of that process.

Daniel: What is the push for these myths?

Lauren: Well, I would say in Scandinavia, specifically, at this point, you're a few generations, and by a few, I mean, like, 200-300 years out from Christianization as a process, so you have the consolidation of— the beginnings of the consolidation of the nation state. And at the same time, this period about 1050 to 1200 and the High Middle Ages is like, kind of a renaissance of of theological and historical interest. So there's also a huge like, Christian bent of like, marrying all of these different narratives of, you know, pre-Christian or pagan or heathen past. How do we fit that into salvation history, you know, God's plan for the world? So, Saxo wrote this absolutely enormous text that you read a bit of in grad school, you know, but if you—if you study Saxo, like, you study Saxo, like, that's what you do. So he wrote in the 12th century, the story of Amlettus, one of the princes of Denmark, and most scholars, you know, the consensus is that he [Saxo] is pulling from oral traditions that no longer remain [today]. The only other instance we have of this, besides Shakespeare's Hamlet, which was composed right around 1600 I think, is Amlóðar saga, which is much, much later— early modern. It only exists in paper manuscripts in Iceland, so, The Saga of Amlóði. But people have argued that The Saga of Amlóði might actually not be connected to Shakespeare's Hamlet at all, but is instead a continuous oral tradition that Saxo was also pulling from that was retained in Iceland, which is entirely possible. That's one of the things I talk a lot about in my sagas course here at UW is that there's a lot of oral tradition and even a lot of myths that we just know nothing about. There's even references in, like, the stories we have from the 13th century, again, about, you know, Thor and Odin and Loki and the different gods, there's, you know, a couple of references to a god named Ullr. We know very little about him. Presumably he was really popular. There's whole regions of Scandinavia that have lots of, like, towns and places named after him, so he must have had a very large cult following, but like we don't—we don't know. So like why not? Why not a Hamlet story? [*laughter*]

Daniel: So maybe if we go to Saxo, and he seems to be, like, probably the main inspiration here, what does that story tell? What are its major themes? What is it trying to express? Because obviously The Northman and Hamlet—I would imagine—are spins on that. So in the context of this sort of nation building project of the 12th century, what is Saxo trying to express with this myth that becomes foundational to the North Atlantic culture? You know, one of the big ones?

Lauren: Yeah, so the story of Amlettus that Saxo tells, Amlettus—Amleth is very clearly the hero of the story. He's the perfect prince in that he manages to escape an attempted assassination, you know, and he also plays the fool as it were. I think the Latin is like imbecillus or something— That's another thing: Saxo writes in Latin. So this is a huge Latin work, a great example of, like, High Middle Ages learning. Amleth successfully goes—returns, and avenges the death of his father, and then is later betrayed and dies, but is buried and is, like, venerated after his death. And he's so cool the whole time. He like outsmarts his uncle, he has two wives, and they're both really hot. And in fact, the second wife was sent by the King of England to kill him, but she ended up marrying him instead, because he was too much…

Daniel: He had too much swag.

Derek: [*laughs*] Yeah, he was too much man.  

Daniel: —too swagged out. Is there a Gertrude character, or mother character rather, in the original? So is it the same classic mother-betrays-father-for-Uncle they-kill-dad? Is the prince dealing with that?

Lauren: Yeah, broad strokes, it’s the same. I will say the addition of her being a slave, or having formerly been an enslaved person in the in The Northman in the film, that's—as far as I know— not in Saxo’s version. So that's a change that they made that— that's a change I think I like, actually.

Derek: Yeah, kind of gives her a reason for doing what she did. I agree.

Daniel: Beyond just being a woman and sort of a gendered stereotype. It gives her motivation.

Derek: Right. Obviously.

Lauren: Yeah.

Daniel: So let's go to The Northman, then, because you said that one of the interesting things about it, and when we're thinking of sort of the Viking-Anglo canon, is that it took a lot of the new research, particularly material discoveries seriously. So could you maybe talk about what was that? And maybe it might be useful to compare to the show Vikings, like, what does Vikings do badly that this does well, and things along those lines—not badly in an artistic sense, but in terms of historical accuracy sense—these aren’t documentaries, so they don't have to follow it—but I'm just curious, like Eggers prides himself on research.

Lauren: Yeah. I watched a couple of interviews that Eggers did about The Northman and what exactly he was proud about. And he talked so much about the construction of the Viking Age farm that they built in Iceland. And then also, a lot of the clothing that characters wear. All of their costumes were based on real archaeological excavations, which is true. What's not true, obviously, is who's wearing them and what they're doing. But I was really happy to see the costuming in this film. People think of the Middle Ages as being just, like, dirty and gray. And this film is very dirty. And this film is very gray. But at least the characters have embroidery on their tunics. [*laughs*] Like, people care about how they look. And we see evidence of that in the medieval period in Scandinavia as well. So it was really nice to see that like, oh, this person has a dyed green tunic and this person has a blue one. And they all have, like, fun little collars and things. That was really satisfying. But like, I think there's a Wired interview with Neil Price, where he walks through—he's at the University of Uppsala—who walks through all the different weapons, that those are all from Viking Age graves. Same with the big one, which is depicting slavery at all. I think that's one thing that Vikings, the History Channel's Vikings show gets wrong, that they're not interested in rendering visible that labor, whereas The Northman really is interested in rendering that labor visible. So when they're constructing the farm, Fjolnir’s farm farm in Iceland, and we get these, kind of, long montages of slave labor putting the farm together in the, kind of, drudgery of those days. That was— that was really, I think important. That's something I see is, like, oh, I can use this in my teaching, right? This is one of the only modern Viking films that includes an interest in slavery, and like, the manacles that they wear around their neck when they're being marched over Iceland, which— that's not right, but fine. Them marching, that is. The manacles—

Daniel: That’s an American image, I think, from American popular culture. 

Lauren: Well no, the manacles are real. That's a real thing. 

Daniel: Really?

Lauren: I meant the actual, the actual cuts that they make in the film, when they're walking across Iceland, they just picked like three landscapes in Iceland, and they were like, this is cool. This is cool. This is cool. To communicate—

Daniel: So the manacles are real? Interesting.

Lauren: Yeah. So there's, I think it's at the Birka excavation in southern Sweden, at one of the trading ports, has been found some of these manacles that are the right size for a human neck. It's difficult to determine exactly how those manacles would have been used, because we know that like Viking Age peoples in Scandinavia also traded horses and cattle and sheep and goats and so like a human neck and a goat neck, not too different, right. But, but we know— we know that there was a significant underclass of enslaved peoples, especially on larger farms in Scandinavia.

Daniel: What was the nature of that slavery? Was it was it a form of chattel slavery? Could people work for their freedom? Were they considered like, what is the role? Were they considered, quote-unquote, part of the family, or were they considered someone external to the social group? Could could there be intermarriage? Because as you noted that the mother character played by Nicole Kidman was a former slave. So could you talk a bit about the nature of Viking slavery?

Lauren: Yes, I can. The biggest thing to take away about Viking Age slavery is that it's not the same across Scandinavia. Scandinavia is, you know, hundreds of miles wide, and there's hundreds of years long is the Viking Age. And so slavery in eastern Sweden on the Baltic Sea probably looked really different from slavery in, like, western Iceland. But we do have for example, in the sagas, Laxdæla saga, a very famous saga of the Icelanders, one of the main characters of that saga, Óláfr pái, which translates to Olaf Peacock, his mother was an enslaved person. Her name was Melkorka. And she was an enslaved— she was an enslaved Irish princess, who was bought by Olaf’s father at a slave market—I think in Dublin, though I might be misremembering, and we know Dublin was also a very large slave market. Most of the slaves that are described in the sagas of Icelanders that talk about the Viking Age in Iceland, most of the slaves that are named have have names that are of Celtic origins. And we know from, like, matrilineal mitochondrial DNA, that a significant percentage of the female population in Iceland at time of settlement was Celtic, or was from the British Isles. So we know— we know that it happened. Some slaves we do have on the books, some slaves do have some rights in the Viking Age, so you cannot kill your slave. And some we know some enslaved peoples did buy their freedom, or were gifted their freedoms. So that same saga, Laxdæla saga, one of the Viking Age chieftains who's actually a woman, Unn the Deep-Minded, when she dies, she bequeathes some of her land to some of her slaves, whom she frees and then gives them a farm and their own valley. So it is possible in terms of, like, in-group/out-group, I'm going to lean really heavily on this Celtic thing again, because Iceland is more my area. But we know, we know therefore, right, that people were speaking—this was a multilingual environment. That character, Óláfr pái, Olaf Peacock, he speaks both Old Norse and Irish in the saga. And that's important because he goes to Ireland and, like, communicates and meets his grandfather, his mother's father, and like, chats with him for a bit in Irish. So we know there's multilingualism. What we don't see is any evidence of that multilingualism really in the written record, except in personal names. And that's most likely because that was considered to be the language of the underclass, it was not a prestige language and not the one that people used. I'm just rambling but I have more. Can I tell you another example? 

Daniel: Yeah, please. Give us as many as you want.

Lauren: There's another really famous saga, called Egils saga, where—and this actually is good because we can talk about the game, the Viking rugby game—

Daniel: Good, great. Let's go let's do that and go into the rugby game and then let's go into a question about gender because I think that's that is huge. 

Lauren: Yeah, so there's a scene in Egils saga where Egill—the main character, the protagonist of that saga—his father in a rage kills his nursemaid, which is often how the term, the Old Norse term is translated. She has an Irish name, and Egill is so angry that his father in a berserker rage has killed his nursemaid that Egill kills one of his his father's favorite slaves. So we have this kind of tit for tat moment. Egill at the time, I think, is like, seven years old. So this is foreshadowing for Egill, he grows up and it does more, wreaks more Viking havoc, if you will. But he's— the fact that he's so angry at the death of his nursemaid shows that there is at least, at least in the 13th century, right, some sympathy for personal relationships on farm spaces with enslaved peoples who work on your farm. But that doesn't mean it was good. Right? 

Daniel: Right. [*laughs*] It's never good to be a slave. Right, basically. Yeah. And so how does that connect? I'd love to talk for a second about the Viking rugby game and if that is proto-rugby, Is that realistic? What is that?

Lauren: Yeah, I brought up Egils saga about it because there's also a scene in Egils saga when, again, he's like, seven— he's a child. There are a couple of scenes when he's a kid and does these very precocious things where he's a sore loser at a ballgame, kind of like this one. Egill is a chieftain’s son, and he and the other boys are playing a game, a ballgame. And the other boys are bigger than him. And so Egill loses and becomes so upset that he kills one of the other boys who's playing. And that in the saga is not really framed as, like, a good thing. Like a chieftain’s son should not lose his temper that way. And Egill famously has a very short temper—doesn't have very good control over his own emotions. He's kind of a tragic figure in that he's like, he's just too big for the world. He's—his body's too big, he has too much aggression. He has too many deep thoughts, like, he's a warrior-poet, is what the genre of saga that his saga is. So as for the game in The Northman, we do have multiple references to ballgames like that, that would have been played as leisure activities by people in Viking-Age Iceland. And I think—so that's really cool.

Daniel: Were they that brutal? Like, they've depicted them as, like, extremely brutal. 

Lauren: Well, yeah, in the film it seems like they were pitting groups of slaves from two different farms against each other and, like, [*with horror*] having them kill each other for sport. Like—as you got eliminated [in the film’s depiction of the sport], your body is kind of dragged off the field. I would say, and this sounds very… I would say that's not a good use of one's slave labor, speaking quite practically.

Daniel: Right, if you imagine them as capital, yeah.

Derek: It's not good value for the money.

Lauren: Yeah, Fjólnir spent a lot of money on those people— [*again, with horror*] which is an awful sentence—

Derek: Yeah, I felt weird just saying that, actually— “It's not good value for the money— return on investment.”

Lauren: [*in rapid agreement*] Yeah, yeah yeah. [*everyone laughs*] However, I do want to talk a little bit more about the way slavery is depicted in this film, but after the game before we do before we do gender. So, we do have references to ballgames in the sagas, though as far as I know, they are not between enslaved peoples. They're between, like, free men, or even landowning farmers and their families. They're the male relatives. And it was a kind of a friendly way to spend time with people in your region. That said, we do also have evidence from the sagas of things like gambling, and things like horse fighting, which is basically the Viking-Age equivalent of, like, cockfighting, where you can goad two horses to attack each other. And so there, it's entirely possible that you could have had slave fighting rings for sport— forcing your slaves to inflict pain on each other as a form of entertainment. I'm not aware of that in the corpus, but I think that thematically for The Northman, it fits in quite well, because The Northman wants you to see the brutalities of slavery and come away thinking “that was bad.”

Daniel: Yeah, absolutely. And so I think that brings us very naturally to the question of gender. But before we get into it, I just want to highlight it on the show Vikings—one of the most compelling characters is of course Ragnar Loðbrók’s wife Lagertha. And I think that introduced the concept of the shieldmaiden into American popular culture even though it's existed before. So could you maybe—this is probably the same answer [*Iaughs*] you know, Scandinavia is huge and there are lots of different cultures—but what is, I mean, what is the role of women is too large of a question, but is there a character like the shieldmaiden? Or do women fight in Viking battles? What is—broadly speaking again, this is way too broad a question, I'm just asking you broadly, so you could just zoom in on whatever you want listeners to know.

Lauren: I would say one big takeaway. Gender is very much tied to class, [*pauses*] both today and in the Viking Age. There's a real, there's a famous— there's a scene. It's not a famous scene. It's just a scene from one of the first episodes of The Last Kingdom, where the love interest for season one. Unferth—no, what's his name, the main character— doesn't matter. His father has the same name [Uhtred]. He stumbles across his love interest. And she's standing, like, waist deep in a lake, washing clothes. And he's like, “Wow, so domestic. I'm so aroused right now.” It's very romantic. And he’s like he gets in the water and they like kiss and stuff. And I'm like, “Okay, what's happening?” Noble women don’t wash their own clothes. Right? Slaves, enslaved women or itinerant washer-women who were this kind of labored underclass. Even if they had their freedom, they weren't necessarily tied to one household. They're the ones doing the manual labor of laundry, right? That's not noble women. So there's—not only Scandinavia—lots of cultures, but there's also lots of women who do different things. Noble women do have—in the texts that survive—quite an important role in the day-to-day management of the household, like, the entire farm. Like, they hire and fire workers. There's, in Njáls saga a married couple: Gunnarr and Hallgerðr, Gunnar and Hallgerd. They fight for like 100 pages over how to manage food stores in their household, like, they fight over money all the time, and how to manage all their employees on the farm. They hire a lot of tenant workers, and that's a big source of conflict in their marriage. So they, women held important roles practically, and then they also held important roles ritually. So this actually is a pan-Scandinavian, even into, like, the British Isles, like Germanic, broadly Germanic thing, that women had a ritual role in feasting. Women traditionally are the ones who brew ale. So that's a kind of magic in itself— you're transforming one liquid into another. I mean, that's one of Christ's miracles [*laughs*]. It's a very big deal to make beer, to make alcohol. And so women, noble women, will be the ones to welcome guests and to serve them ale, and not in like, “Oh, I'm going to be your server for this evening” kind of labor class working thing, but rather, “Welcome to my home. I am divvying out our resources to welcome you, my guest,” kind of mode. There's, if you've read Beowulf, it's like that. This particular film, The Northman, I really enjoyed seeing women in the roles of religious specialist as well. And then also, so we have the Valkyrie character that Amleth's girlfriend… Olga? Yeah, yeah. That she has supernatural ability. And then there's also Björk in the film who is— [who] gives us, kind of, prophecy, which is very much like a fantasy saga, like popular saga that medieval people would have told, you know, a heroic saga, generic expectation that you have some kind of prophecy about the fate of your hero. That was really cool to see her in there. But that I think is working off of more recent archaeological evidence. This is another example of that— Not too long ago, some excavations were done in, again, in southern Sweden, where we found, like, the top of like a crook, like, a cane or like a bishop's crook that has like a little animal figurehead on it in the grave of a woman, indicates from the Viking Age, which indicates that she probably had some sort of shamanic role or religious specialist role. And there's also Ibn Fadlan’s Account of the Rus, which is a 10th-century description of—

Daniel: Oh, we'll get into the Rus in a second. Derek has a few questions about that. 

Lauren: Yeah, there’s women in there who also are serving as this kind of religious specialist role. I personally was really excited to see the male shaman in this film.

Daniel: Could we talk about that for a bit—the Viking ritual as displayed in the film. Well, actually—shieldmaidens: real or not real?

Lauren: [*laughs*] Is Wonder Woman real? [*Danny laughs*] That's— that would be my answer, that like, we have stories of Wonder Woman— like Wonder Woman was super popular in the 50s and 60s before women could enlist in the military as foot soldiers. But

Daniel: Gotcha. There doesn't seem to be evidence, basically.

Lauren: Well, what evidence would we look for? We would look for bodies of women who either are buried with other soldiers or fighters or who have wounds, evidence of wounds on their bones, right? We do have a grave in Sweden, Bj581 out of Birka, of a woman who is buried with a bunch of weapons with other men around her who also are buried with weapons. So very clearly, she had some kind of martial role. But we do also have several mass graves from the Viking Age, that very clearly, it's mostly young men who died in these battles, and we don't find any female skeletons. However, that one female grave from Birka, 581— Bj581, that was a reanalysis of that grave relatively recently, because it had originally been sexed male, right? Because of all of the fighting stuff with it. So I think that that discovery kind of calls for a reexamination of the material evidence that we have, I think, Vikings, the television show, you have Lagertha, and you have a lot of women who fight. But then inThe Northman, you only have one, just that one. And I feel like that's almost swinging the pendulum, like, too far the other way.

Daniel: Interesting. So it's open, and open to material things. So I know, Derek has a question. Sorry, Derek, but I just want to— we're on the ritual part. So maybe we could just talk a little bit about what you thought about the display of Viking ritual, the use of bodily fluids, the loot, use of flatulence, I think has gotten a lot of play. And is that real? What do we know? —all that good stuff.

Lauren: So, a lot of the poetry that we have is—and even some of the sagas are—very interested in blood. Like, there's a very famous myth that is how Odin got the “mead of wisdom” that allows him to, like, be so wise and speak all of the poetry. And it involves dwarves killing a giant named Kvasir, and then fermenting his blood into mead. And so this transmutation of liquid from one liquid into another, and then that newer one having magical properties, is a pretty strong, like, motif across Scandinavian mythology. And I already talked about how women brewing ale— that's a kind of magic, you know. And a lot of magic in the sagas, is— you imbibe it. So there's like, “Oh, someone knows that this drink has been poisoned,” right? There's a scene in Egils saga where Egill is able to prevent a poisoning by cutting runes on his hand and then putting, clasping his bloody hand onto the cup and it bursts as a sign that there's poison there. Which actually is, I think, an allusion to The Life of St. Benedict. St. Benedict has a very similar scene where God—

Daniel: I was thinking the same thing.

Lauren: [*laughs, and then sarcastically*] Of course, yeah, duh. [*everyone laughs*] But in terms of, yes, the use of liquids, I would say is not wrong, or at least is based on larger patterns in the myth tradition from Scandinavia.

Daniel: What about psychedelics? And I'm sorry, flatulence and then psychedelics.

Lauren: Oh, no, we can do psychedelics. So we know that at least some people did them. And that's so vague—we've found some evidence in graves, at least one burial that I know of that we found henbane seeds in the grave. Henbane is something also I think called like, deadly, stinging nightshade, or something like that. And it's, it's a hallucinogen. So most likely would have been used for medicinal purposes or for you know, ritual religious purposes. We don't have any physical evidence of using, like, psychedelic mushrooms, right, from Viking-Age Scandinavia, but it's all organic materials— like, those degrade, they decompose, we're not going to be able to find them. And what we do have is, you know, people drinking in the mythology and in some of the later sagas, people drinking potions that do create some kind of altered state. I get this question from students like every quarter, did the Vikings do mushrooms? [*laughter*] And, and I always tell them, I say like, I wouldn't rule it out. But there's also a lot of ways that humans can enter altered states of consciousness.

Daniel: Right, like the berserkers.

Lauren: Yeah, and much more common cross-culturally and in the Arctic is to use some of these other techniques. So things like hyperventilating or, like, changing your breathing patterns, spinning is another one, drumming is another one, chanting, or like, low chants. And you see that in the film, right? The production team had, really had a ball, I think, with kind of recreating or reimagining what kinds of trance aids would have been available to people in the Viking Age. I also felt at the same time kind of uncomfortable with those scenes, because a lot of what we know about how to induce trance states in the cultures of the Arctic, specifically come to us from ethnographic work with Sámi people, the Indigenous people of Northern Scandinavia, and not dissimilar from here in North America, it was illegal for a large part of the last several centuries for Indigenous peoples to practice their own religious traditions. So we go to see The Northman and we're like, “Oh, wow, cool. They're doing, like, shamanic trance.” And it's like, well, Native Americans couldn't practice their religion legally until the 70s, you know.

Daniel: Right, there is a colonialism inherent in the project.

Lauren: Yeah, again, “inherent in the project” I think is a good way to phrase it. Because like, if you want to depict what it most likely would have been like, then you're going to do this, but your audience isn't necessarily going to know the history of that. I felt the same way—[*apologetically*] really quickly— I felt the same way about some of the choices they made with depicting slavery, like the scene when Fjólnir buys Amleth when they make it to Iceland, and he does it by, like, inspecting their teeth. That's not in the Old Norse corpus anywhere— that's coming out of, you know, global slave trade traditions, American ideas about you know, and true experiences that happened to enslaved peoples. You know, that stuff like that, or I'm like, “Okay, we're borrowing from other traditions to kind of flesh out this world.”

Daniel: [*reminding*]...The flatulence. And then that's, that's to Derek after that.

Lauren: So um, there's that same famous story about Odin getting the mead. The story goes that he drinks a lot of it and then transforms into the shape of a bird and flies back to Asgard. And the giants who have the mead chase after him, and so Odin, in order to like, lighten his load, he vomits out the good mead, he regurgitates it and the Æsir catch it in some big buckets back in Asgard. And then he also shits out, can I say that on your podcast? [*laughs*]

Daniel: Oh, yes, yes. We’re a swearing podcast.

Derek: [*sarcastically*] How dare you. [*laughter*]

Lauren: Okay. He also shits out some of the mead from his back end. And Snorri Sturluson, our 13th-century author of the text that this myth comes to us in, says, “And that's where bad poetry comes from.” [*laughter*]

Derek: Sure. [*more laughter*]

Lauren: So yeah, there's fart jokes. There's also a pretty long history of having, kind of, a court poet who will speak truth to power.

Daniel: Like Willem Dafoe.

Lauren: Yeah, both the power of the king but also the power of the king’s maybe-enemies who are coming to visit, you know, and so, you can say a lot with humor. Like, the more dick jokes you make, the less people take you seriously, but the closer to actually calling a spade a spade you can get. So, some of the skaldic poems we have are quite, quite humorous in like, body humor kind of way.

Daniel: Quite ribald, if you will. [*laughs*]

Lauren: Yes. [*laughter*] Oh, but the shaman character! The male shaman character from the film, I got so far away. I loved how they did his costuming—that he visually communicates a kind of of queerness, like, sexual queerness by wearing the brooches that are associated with upper class women. Again, that's the kind of thing where it’s like, I don't know if your average movie goer would get that, but I was like, “Okay, so he's kind of in this sexually ambiguous space—

Daniel: Liminal space.

Lauren: —yeah! …and holding William Defoe's head between his legs as he's receiving the vision as if he's, like, giving birth, you know, and having these kinds of, like, labor contractions as he's shaking and doing this.” It was so— it was so cool. That's my favorite. That's my favorite scene. [*laughs*]

Derek: [*laughs*] So I had a question, and this actually kind of led into it. Before I say this, I want to let everybody know, like, one of Danny's passions is the lives of the Christian saints. [*Daniel laughs*] So when you start talking about St. Benedict, it's right up his alley.

Daniel: It's all I can talk about. [*laughter*]

Derek: Anyway, when we catch up to Amleth after the betrayal of his father, and you know, it's— time passes. And we catch up to him in this scene where they're doing, you know, what you talked about a little earlier, this low chanting, kind of, you know, trying to achieve an altered state of consciousness so they can go into battle as berserkers, you know, the kind of people who wrestle a horse to the ground or, like, kill somebody by kicking him in the face. And I'm curious about the portrayal of the berzerker in the movie and how that aligns with, sort of, the mythic portrayal of the the Viking berzerker warrior. And then, you know, what the connection is between that and the actual, you know, ways that Vikings fought, or  that we can sort of surmise that they fought?

Lauren: Yeah. [*hesitatingly*] Ooh, the berserker question. [*Daniel laughs*] I would, I would…  Okay, so there are a few different written sources that describe berzerkers, not as individuals, but, like, kind of as groups. So Snorri Sturluson, 13th century historian—

Daniel: Friend of the pod[cast]. [*laughter*] 

Lauren: Oh yeah, hell yeah. [*laughter*] 

Derek: Absolutely. [*laughter*]

Lauren: He wrote down a lot of the myths that we have that we call, like, Norse mythology—that was him. He also—another text is attributed to him—Ynglinga saga, which is a saga that is in the history of the kings of Norway, which is named Heimskringla, which means just like “all around the world.” So he wrote Heimskringla, a history of the kings of Norway, and the first text within the history of the kings of Norway is called Ynglinga saga. And he starts with the first King of Norway, of course, Odin, [*sarcastically*] duh.[*laughs*]

Derek: [*laughs, and then sarcastically*] I mean obviously.

Lauren: Yeah, well, he actually starts with Thor, who he says comes from Turkey.

Danny: Oh, interesting.

Lauren: Yeah, well, it's because the Greeks and Romans hold a lot of prestige in the 12th and 13th century in Europe broadly. You actually get a lot of interest in the British Isles as well, these historians that I was talking about earlier, they all want to be able to trace themselves back to the Mediterranean somehow. And so Snorri makes this argument that like, well, because Thor's name is Thor, he must be from Troy, or maybe from Turkey, but like, he was from the Mediterranean, and then went north. And from him comes the line of kings of Norway. And he talks about Odin and some of the magics that Odin was able to do, and thereby trick people into thinking that he was a god, which, again, very common strategy for these salvation history historians—euhemerism—saying that they weren't actually gods, the pagan gods, they were just men who tricked people, they were charlatans, right. And he describes Odin's followers as acting like animals, as you know, being as strong as wolves, but also howling like wolves and entering this kind of altered state of consciousness. Snorri is writing in the 13th century, right? So that's one thing. On the other end, we have a first-century text—so over 1000 years before, and like 700 years before the Viking Age—Tacitus writes an ethnography of basically everybody north of Rome. And he calls it Germania, you know. And in it, he describes a bunch of different tribes of, like, basically everything from Rome up to Finland, based on second and third-hand accounts, and he describes the [*facetiously*] “German” —I’m putting quotation marks, this is an audio medium— the [*again, facetiously*] “Germanic” troops. When they fight, he describes them as being very loud, that they yell a lot, and that they bite at their shields. This is actually confirmed in the Lewis chess pieces, which are a Viking Age, material artifact where the knight figures are depicted holding their rounded shields in front of them and gnawing at the top of them— the berserkers have these kinds of, like, madness associated, this bloodlust associated with them that they are like animals. Whether or not this is a thing that people actually did is, to a certain extent, impossible to prove. But certainly in the cultural consciousness, you have this image of the berzerker.

Derek: Imagine the dental work they would have needed [*laughter*].

Daniel: And it's in the British Museum. If anyone wants to visit it, it's really, it's a really cool chess piece.

Lauren: Yeah, the dental work. It's funny you mentioned that. Olga, when Amleth has a vision of her as a Valkyrie, she's got, kind of, looks like braces across her teeth. She's got these indentations on her front teeth. That's also an archeological thing. There's at least one grave with multiple bodies in it that we found that showed that the… I think it's on the east coast of England. Don't quote me on that, but it's, you know, Viking Age excavation where people have filed into the denton, the enamel on their front teeth and then dyed it red. So certainly, part of the Viking-Age strategy of Norse raiders was to intimidate the opponent, you know, being very loud, being very terrifying looking. So, to that extent, I'd say yes, when I teach about berserkers in my sagas course, I often will point out to my students, that in the sagas anyway, they're not usually the good guys. By the later part of the medieval period and in Icelandic literature, berserkers are almost just like an obstacle that the hero has to overcome. So some berzerker will come and threaten a town or threaten to marry the farmer's daughter, and the farmer is too poor and too weak and too old to defend himself, and so here comes our hero marching in to defeat the berserker. You know, they kind of become like caricatures of themselves. But even in the big sagas, like Egils saga, Egill is descended from people who maybe are werewolves, his grandfather maybe was a werewolf, or at least a shapeshifter. He enters a kind of berserker rage several times. And he's—it's not good. The sagas are really interested in how concentrated power should be or if power should be concentrated at all. Like, who gets to decide how we act as a community? Is it the one strong guy who can fight everybody else? And a lot of the sagas say, No, that's actually a really bad way to organize a society. [*laughter*]

Derek: So I had another— oh, sorry, go ahead. 

Lauren: No, I was just going to answer your question about is this actually how Viking Age peoples fought.

Derek: Yeah, sure.

Lauren: Viking Age people… [*laughs, then in a self-mocking tone*] It depends on where you are. [*Daniel laughs*] But one of my favorite facts to say is that the majority of raids in the Viking Age perpetrated by Vikings were in what we would call now Scandinavia, right? So like, you're not going down to, like, Spain and raiding, although they did also do that. Most of the time, you're going up into areas of Norway, and Sweden, and Finland, or Denmark, and you're fighting with the chieftain next door, or you're collecting taxes on behalf of the chieftain who's amassing power down in southern Norway, you know, so you're there as a representative of the new king of Norway, “give me all your money, or I'll burn your house down” kind of situation. [*Danny laughs*] So, and they do go in very quickly and come out very quickly. They hit on the coast. 

Derek: Okay, so it’s really hit and run. Take what you can carry, basically. So on that, on the king of Norway, which is a good segue, actually, to my my other question: I want to ask about somebody who's sort of mentioned in the movie, he's actually a fairly major figure, I think, in at least Scandinavian myth, I don't know the history or the historicity behind him. But when we catch up to Amleth, and he finds out that Fjólnir is, you know, still out there, we learned that he's lost his kingdom and been kind of driven into this exile in Iceland, and he's lost his kingdom to Harald Fairhair, who's kind of legendarily the first king of Norway, I think. I mean, in a historical sense, not to, you know, insult Odin or anything. But I'm curious. I was curious, what can we say about him? I mean, you know, he's obviously not a focus of the movie, but it was interesting that there's this like, passing reference to him. And, you know, I knew enough to know that this is like a, you know, fairly important figure. What can we say about him from a historical versus kind of a mythological perspective?

Lauren: Yeah. So, King Harald Fairhair uniting all of Norway is the big story, right? And it's questionable. What is Norway, really? [*laughs*] Norway's only been Norway for you know, less than 200 years. Actually over 200 years. 1814 was over—oh, we're all getting old aren't we? [*laughter*] It's over 200 years ago. Yes, King Harald Fairhair is traditionally associated with uniting much of southern Norway, of what today we call Norway. King Olaf Tryggvason, a couple generations later, probably actually did a lot, a lot more for, like, conversion to Christianity, and kind of getting these different regions more fully under his thumb. I will say in terms of the settlement of Iceland, the sagas of Icelanders are incredibly consistent in their depiction of the motivations for settlement, that almost all of them start out: “In the days of King Harald Fairhair was a poor innocent farmer who owned his own farm in Norway. And King Harald Fairhair came and said, ‘pay me taxes or leave, or I'll burn your farm down.’ And so he packed up and took all of his wealth and all of his family and moved to Iceland, where he settled in such-in-such valley. And it's been called that ever since,” you know. And a lot of those— that's every single saga that starts like that. There's also an entire book about the settlement called Landnámabók, the book of settlements, that describes, that names all of the different households, all the different farms all around Iceland, many of which date back to, you know, the late 9th century. When I teach that text, I say, this is a way to establish land rights, right? This is the reintroduction of private property, right? Or like, the “we're imposing conceptions, legal, and conceptions of private property, that we own this land because we've lived here a long time in Iceland.” Whether or not King Harald Fairhair actually did that? Again, how would we know? We would know from what people wrote about him, and so the fact that the sagas are so consistent points to that potentially being a real thing, that there were changes in taxation policies, potentially with him rising in power and consolidating power in the south that pushed people out. It's also though, a narrative that is very, like, pro-Iceland, both in a contemporary sense of like, Iceland being this very small island nation, whose own sense of national identity in the 19th century was very tied up in its difference from Denmark and Norway, its own cultural distinction. But then even in the medieval period, right, this idea that like, “oh, we, the Icelandic chieftains, the nobles, are somehow victims of Norwegian hegemony, and our, you know, we should be united in our strategy of how to deal with power relationships with the Norwegian crown,” you know, because Iceland goes under the power of the Norwegian crown in the 13th century, which is when a lot of these stories are being written. So you see Norway not really depicted very positively in a lot of these stories. And that may very well be a reflection of contemporary events, just as it is a telling of, you know, potentially real historical events.

Derek: That’s really interesting.

Lauren: Yeah, it was a fun little Easter egg when he was like, “Fjólnir has been pushed out to, like, the backwaters of Iceland.” I was like, [*sarcastically smug*] “Ha!” [*laughs*] And you compare the size of farms in Norway, from, like, the 6th and 7th centuries to the size of farms in Iceland from the 9th and 10th centuries—the farms in Iceland are way smaller. Like way smaller. And the material culture—forgive me Icelanders—is far less rich. There’s just not as much stuff. And of the stuff we have there’s not as much gold—we have huge gold deposits in Denmark and in Norway, large graves. The graves in Iceland are much smaller by comparison, much poorer. So there may very well be something to that. We know that Iceland when it first started being settled was thought of, not like a trading post, but an outpost, where you would go out to collect seasonal goods, like walrus and things like that. And there are also scenes in the sagas where Icelanders will come to the king’s court and people will make like, passive aggressive comments about their clothing, [*laughter*] because they don’t dress fancy enough.

Derek: So it’s a frontier. It’s a frontier community, basically. Country bumpkins.

Lauren: Yeah, basically, yeah.

Daniel: So, we’ve been going for a little over an hour, so why don’t we actually end on this question. And we could probably do more on this, and Lauren, we’d love to have you back.But one of the interesting things about this show is that it depicts Ukrainians— [*laughs*] not Ukrainians, you know, um, proto…? I um…what would be the way to describe them? Because of the geo-political situation right now with Russia, Ukraine is obvious. We’ve talked about it before on the show, and it is ironic that they go to Kiev in the movie. So maybe you could talk a little bit about what do you think they were trying to depict there. So maybe you could end on that and we could maybe have you back in the future.

Lauren: Yeah, so you could call them the Rus.They are also often called the Kievan Rus, which is a later medieval empire. And there is this longstanding question about whether or not they were Vikings, right? Because it was a cultural continuum. So in some ways they very much are, but in some ways they very much aren’t. And there is a lot of national interest in Russia, Ukraine, and in Sweden, and Denmark, and Norway of claiming the Rus as being Vikings, or being part of the Russian empire, or, you know, being a part of the longstanding tradition of Ukraine being an independent state, right? How we talk about them—you bring up a really good point—is very much based in contemporary politics, and that was true in the 1960s as well today. So I usually call them the Rus in class. I saw an interview with [Alexander] Skårsgård where he actually talked about why they chose it, and maybe he was just being kind of flippant in his answer. He said that in the original script they were going to go to the British Isles, but that that had been done so many times before that they wanted to go somewhere different. And so they decided to go east. A lot of the depictions of Vikings we have are very much focused on the west because the sagas of Icelanders are such a rich mine of material. We have a lot less written material coming out of Sweden from the same period, like, just immediately after the Viking Age, but we do have a lot more archaeological stuff. So I think that was probably just part of Eggers’s historical interest in depicting things that are very well known in scholarship but aren’t depicted elsewhere. And he made an interesting choice, too, with the funeral ritual Fjólnir has for his son in Iceland, that that ritual is described by Ibn Fadlan’s Account of the Rus. That is a Rus’ian ritual. So I have a whole day in my mythology class where we talk about, “Is this actually a Viking ritual or not? What is a Viking? Is it a time period? A territory? Or [*sarcastically*] a lifestyle?” [*laughter*]

Daniel: Or a vibe?

Lauren: Or a vibe! [*laughs, and then sarcastically*] Aren’t we all Vikings?

Daniel: Yeah, that’s so beautiful and really a beautiful note to end on. Lauren Poyer, thank you so much, we would love to have you back on again to talk all things Vikings. We really appreciate it and we really appreciate that you were on American Prestige.

Lauren: Thanks so much for having me. This was a lot of fun.

[*outro music starts*]

Colin: Our thanks once again to Daniel Bessner and Derek Davison for allowing us to share this interview with Lauren Poyer. You can listen to other episodes of American Prestige at or wherever you get your podcasts.

Crossing North is a production of the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at the University of Washington in Seattle. Today’s intro was written, edited, and produced by me, Colin Gioia Connors, and our intro music was used with permission by Kristján Hrannar Pálsson. Links to his music can be found in the show notes for this episode or on our website. Visit to learn more about our podcast and the classes we teach. If you are a current or prospective student, consider taking a course or declaring a major. Lauren Poyer regularly teaches Old Norse Language, Scandinavian Mythology, Sagas of the Vikings, and Vikings in Pop Culture. You can find complete course listings for the Scandinavian Studies Department and Baltic Studies Program at Once again, that’s

[*outro music ends*]


Release date: October 7, 2022. Interview with Lauren Poyer originally released on American Prestige on May 13, 2022. Replayed with the permission of Daniel Bessner and Derek Davison of American Prestige.

Introduction written, edited, and produced by Colin Gioia Connors.

Theme music used with permission by Kristján Hrannar Pálsson.