Disclaimer: This blog post definitely contains spoilers. So, my dear readers, do not read this blog post if you have not, but soon plan to watch the entire series of Vikings.
Assuming that readers of our blog have heard of, or even seen, History Channel’s series Vikings should not be too far fetched. The first episode of the six season strong series aired in 2013 and its grand finale came in late December 2020. The historical drama’s plot is set in the late 8th and early 9th-century and revolves around the legendary Viking Ragnar Loðbrók and his sons. Watching this series, one gets the impression that Ragnar and his sons basically conquer the world throughout all six seasons. One Viking family’s quest to explore, pillage and seize every piece of earth they happen to set foot on. Hence, the entire series does come across as a depiction of a seemingly raging colonial expansion of Vikings such as Ragnar Loðbrók and his folk.
Vikings depicts the multiple journeys of its characters across the world (or at least what was known of it in the Early Middle Ages). This includes England, Francia, the Mediterranean, North Africa, Iceland, Russia — and finally even Greenland and the Golden Land aka America. The first season starts off with Ragnar’s venture to England, which portrays him as the leader of the “first” Viking attack on British soil – the famous raid on the monastery of Lindisfarne in Northumbria in 793 (Hirst S1E2). England, more precisely Wessex and Northumbria and its Kings Ecbert, his grandsons Alfred and Aelle, are central in the depiction of colonial enterprises throughout all seasons of Vikings. Not only Ragnar, but also his sons, Björn, Ivar, Hvitserk, Ubbe, and Sigurd continuously return to England and try to raid it, defeat its Kings or even establish settlements. Thus, if we are to follow a simple definition of colonialism as a form of domination and exploitation by some individuals over other individuals that often resulted in the formation of settlements by the former (Horvath 46 & 47), we soon learn that Ragnar and his folk, to some extent, confirm this notion over the course of the entire series.
Not long after his first raid in England, Ragnar learns about Paris from a young monk he has taken hostage from Lindisfarne. Intrigued by the tales of this prosperous and rich city, Ragnar rallies together an army of Vikings to set siege to Paris. In the beginning, Ragnar is depicted as a raider, with the only interest of exploiting places such as Lindisfarne or Paris. However, he soon realizes that these places, especially England, also comprise fertile land which shifts his focus from raiding to forming settlements. His best friend Floki, the supposed mastermind behind the revolutionary boat engineering that enabled Ragnar’s raiding missions, displays a similar development over the course of the series. He accompanies Ragnar and later also his sons on many raiding missions. At first, he makes clear that he does not share Ragnar’s desire to establish settlements in England. However, after losing his wife and surviving his friend, he sails off into the blue, fully prepared to join his dear wife and Ragnar in death. Instead, he arrives in Iceland and believes it to be Ásgarðr, the home of the gods (click here for more on Ásgarðr). Absolutely thrilled by his discovery, he returns to Kattegat, and searches for volunteers to return to Iceland and start a settlement in this “promised land”. Jerold Frakes mentions „the West“ as „quasi-paradisical lands“(172) , a description which Hirst and his team seem to have adopted in some form, when it comes to their characters‘ ventures into these particular regions of the world (more on this topic will follow, also check out Solenne Guyot’s review: The Latin Discursive Tradition Behind the Icelandic Accounts of the First European Journey to America in connection to this). A small fun fact about the character Floki: he could indeed be based on the historically argued “founder” of Iceland, Floki Vilgerson, who lived in the 9th century (Mark).
Another interesting character in Vikings is Ragnar’s oldest son Björn. Following his father’s example and inspired by a map of Europe, which he claimed in the raids on Paris, he embarks on his own journeys. In season four and five, Björn lays his gaze upon the Mediterranean. He sails along the coast of Francia and finally arrives in the city of Algeciras at the Strait of Gibraltar where he comes into contact with the Saracens in Spain. After this successful raid he returns home again, only to soon after embark on a second trip towards the Mediterranean (S5). This time Björn ends up in Byzantine Sicily where he meets a Byzantine commander who offers him a job as his bodyguard. This hints towards an interesting and highly discussed topic in Viking history — the so called Varangians, assumed Viking mercenaries, who worked as bodyguards in the Byzantine Empire. Michael Hirst and his team made absolutely sure to include everything! Anyway, because of his short engagement as bodyguard, Björn even ends up somewhere in North Africa (probably Tunisia) on a short and bumpy camel ride through the desert. In comparison to his father, however, Björn keeps to his initial plans of raiding wherever he sets foot on. He surely travels to many places, but the only settlement that interests him, is his home town Kattegat.
Ivar, one of the youngest sons of Ragnar, behaves similar to his brother Björn. Despite his disability (deformed legs) Ivar is the most dangerous and cunning of the brothers. He gets to go on a father-son trip to England in season four and returns home without his beloved father, who is killed by the Saxons. Enraged by their father’s death, Ragnar’s sons assemble the Great Heathen Army, (for more about heathens and heathenry: look up Nuria Singenberger’s blog post) an army with warriors from all over Scandinavia in season five. Once more, this hints at a marking point of Viking history — the invasion of England by the Great Heathen Army in the late 9th-century, an army coalesced of Danish, Norwegian and Swedish warriors (Williams). The Great Heathen Army is, due to its immense force and Ivar’s cunning strategies, successful and the sons of Ragnar get their desired revenge. Ivar, boosted by his triumph, wants to continue the raids in England. Most of his brothers agree to join Ivar on the quest to go North and conquer the city of York in Northumbria. Long story short — they manage to seize the city and occupy it for a while. After some time, Ivar decides to leave York and return to Kattegat, to make himself king. Once again he succeeds. However, having reached the height of his megalomaniac existence, his downfall soon follows suit. Ivar finally has to flee Kattegat and goes into self-exile. His exile leads him over the Silk Road to the land of the people called Rus (season six), who define themselves as former Vikings. Nevertheless, one has to be aware of the fact that the Rus’ actual ancestral relationship to Scandinavia, aka the Vikings, is still discussed up until today (Williams). To conclude on Ivar’s development in the series; he had the possibility to settle permanently in York, but he decided against it and, as his brother Björn, rather focussed on Kattegat. Hence, another son of Ragnar travelled far (voluntary and involuntary), but did not entirely follow in his father’s footsteps.
Finally, there is one son who displays colonial interests similar to Ragnar: Ubbe. In season six, Ubbe expresses his desire to follow Floki, who has been in Iceland. He intends to search for a wanderer named Othere, as he heard rumours about the latter’s accidental discovery of the Golden Land (aka Vinland aka North America). Determined to find out what happened to Floki and to find this mysterious Othere, Ubbe and his wife Torvi set sail towards Iceland. They arrive in Iceland and manage to find Othere. He tells Ubbe about the land he named the Golden Land and how he sailed by it after getting lost in a storm. Ubbe is eager to leave Iceland then, in search of this supposed paradise. He gathers several volunteers among the Icelandic settlers and embarks on his new mission. As luck would have it, they get into a storm and end up in a rather desolate and unknown land which turns out to be Greenland. However, things do not go well there amongst the settlers and Ubbe, Torvi and several others have to flee. After a long journey without food and water they finally glimpse the Golden Land. It offers a beautiful landscape drenched in golden light, with an abundance of edible creatures and fertile earth. This again takes up the previously mentioned definition of the „paradisical lands of the West“ (Frakes 172). A land, as Frakes describes it, „where grapes not only grew wild but were immediately intoxicating direct from the vine, where wheat grew wild, and salmon all but clogged the rivers“ (172). A true paradise for Ubbe and his folk. For all Lord of the Rings fans out there, it almost comes across as an enlarged valley of Rivendell, only the elves are missing. Anyway, there are no elves but there are, of course, Native Americans. At first, Ubbe and the others only hear the Natives at night, and Othere directly starts to call them “Skrælings” (click here for more information on „Skrælingar“). After a while, Ubbe, Torvi, Othere and the other settlers meet the Native Americans, which behave friendly towards them and even offer help through food offerings and so on. Nevertheless, peace does not last long, as one of the settlers repeatedly asks for gold and finally ends up killing the son of the matriarch of the Natives. The matriarch calls for justice and Ubbe symbolically kills the criminal in front of an assembly of Native Americans and Viking settlers. At the end of this ceremony one daughter of the matriarch walks up to Torvi and addresses her with the words “You understand that when we said you were welcome to this place, we did not mean that you were welcome to possess it” (S6E20, 37:00 – 37:10). What a meaningful statement to include in the very final episode (released in the year 2020) of a series about a group of people, the Vikings, who are depicted as mostly aggressive conquerors of the world. This hints towards the current situation of Native Americans in the United States brought on by colonialism (for further information on the topic click here). With Ubbe’s quest to find the mystical Golden Land, the saga of the raging expansion of Ragnar’s family seems to have come to completion.
Watching Vikings, its viewers receive many (more or less accurate) insights on the history of Viking expansion by following Ragnar, Floki, Björn, Ivar and Ubbe’s stories. One could argue about how ‚colonial‘ their journeys truly are. Nevertheless, to refer back to the beginning of this post — Ragnar, Floki and Ubbe travel the world not only to raid, as Björn and Ivar, they also want to form settlements.
In the end, this map shows all known Scandinavian colonial movements and settlements over the course of four centuries (8-11th century). You will quickly notice that the events depicted previously have actually been part of a four century long period rather than an approximate time span of 60 to 80 years, in which the family of Ragnar Loðbrók in Vikings supposedly executed their raging colonial expansion. Also, remember that the series is set in the late 8th and early 9th-century. As Mél Müller — whose article, How to Tame Your (Post)Colonialism, can be found on this blog as well — would say: Becoming aware of this, it almost seems a bit like throwing together the magic of oral tradition of the heroic age that assembles a panoply of historical characters in a very anachronistic fashion, and the more modern megalomaniac influence of a single family we know from a certain space opera, into Viking era.
In the end, however, Howard Williams appropriately states
[…] the ambitious geographical and temporal sweep of Hirst’s narrative is remarkable. The show is able to explore many interleaving stories featuring different settlements and spaces, stories and characters in Scandinavia and beyond, encapsulating multiple generations of raiding and exploration in the Baltic, England, Frankia, Byzantine Sicily, Islamic Spain and North Africa, Russia[,] Iceland [Greenland and North America].Williams, Howard. ”The real Vikings: the early medieval world behind the hit drama.” History Extra, 2020. Accessed 22.01.2021.
Frakes, Jerold C. “Viking, Vínland and the Discourse of Eurocentrism.” The Journal of English and Germanic Philology, vol. 100, no. 2, 2001, pp. 157–199.
Hirst, Michael. „Vikings.“ The History Channel, Season 1-6, 2013-2020 https://www.history.com/shows/vikings/. Accessed 10.01.2021.
Horvath, Ronald J. “A Definition of Colonialism.” Current Anthropology, vol. 13, no. 1, 1972, pp. 45–57.
Mark, Joshua J. „Vikings TV Series – Truths and Fictions.“ Ancient History Encyclopdia, 2018, https://www.ancient.eu/article/1285/vikings-tv-series—truths-and-fictions/. Accessed 22.01.2021.
Nielbock, Markus. Map: „Scandinavian Settlement.“ ResearchGate, 2017, https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Map-of-Viking-expansion-between-the-8th-and- 11th-century-Their-origins-are-the-Norwegian_fig5_319350335. Accessed 22.01.2021.
Williams, Howard. ”The real Vikings: the early medieval world behind the hit drama.” History Extra, 2020, https://www.historyextra.com/period/viking/real-history-behind-drama-vikings-ragnar-lothbrok-who-how-accurate-fact-fiction/. Accessed 22.01.2021.