8 myths and realities of the Vikings to enter ‘The Northman’

There are a lot of movies, series and video games about Vikings. But the reality is that most they don’t stick to history and what few records there are about viking culture. However, this 2022 that ends, because Robert Eggers took a huge dive to write The Northman.

The Northman based on the legend of Amleth (The history of Denmark, HERE the differences between Hamlet and Amleth) against a story of revenge that integrates several elements from different Icelandic sagas that make this film not only the first historically accurate production, but one of the most exciting and impressive of 2022 and beyond.

The movie, which has been praised by directors like Edgar Wright or Alfonso Cuarón, is a real show starring Alexander Skarsgård. HERE is our review. The same here we decided to plunge a bit between the myths and realities of the Vikings to confirm that The Northman It is the best thing we will see related to this culture.

Myth: They called themselves Vikings

The word Viking describes an action, not a person or ethnicity. So the people who lived in southern Scandinavia and Denmark in tribes and clans called themselves according to the region: Northmen, Nordics or Danes. And in this way they were called in the rest of the known world.

Viking, as we were saying, is an activity that, according to some historians, was carried out in the summer in relation to trade and plunder, especially in naval expeditions. Referring to a person as a “Viking” It began to be used until the 19th century. So if you see a Viking movie, series or video game where they call themselves this, you will know that there is not much historical precision… but it is not anything serious either.

Ethan Hawke is King Aurvandil / Photo: Focus Features

Reality: they did catch the spears

One of the most exciting scenes in The Northmanand that can be seen in the trailer, is when the character of Amleth, reunited with the group of warriors known as berserkers, they arrive at a village to raid it and get slaves for sale. Before starting the attack, the protagonist, dressed in the skin of a wolf, catches a spear and returns it with force.

This looks amazing, and when we thought that it would only work in terms of entertainment, we discovered that eThis action comes from the Icelandic sagas where men are described in combat catching spears. For example, in the story of Asmund (berserker killer)this character catches a spear, and when he is wounded by another, he manages to return the one he caught and pins his opponent to the mast of a ship.

Myth: They were dirty

When one thinks of the Vikings, we assume they were irrational, violent and dirty people, especially the latter. In movies or series, we always see them with the stained skin, the dirty beards, the tangled hair, the rotten teeth (those of the protagonists, strangely, are always perfect) and having sex covered in mud.

But there is nothing further from this. Vikings were extremely clean peopleand we know this because different archaeological discoveries reveal un pile of cleaning utensilsa to hold nails, hair brushes, hair pulling tweezers, ear cleaners or toothpicks, all belonging to the Viking Age (approximately 790 to 1100 AD).

Nicole Kidman as Queen Gudrún in 'The Northman'

Nicole Kidman as Queen Gudrún in ‘The Northman’ / Photo:
Credit: Aiden Monaghan / © 2021 Focus Features, LLC

Reality: the berserker warriors

It is well known that Northmen practiced different rituals related to magic. But there is a special, which we also see on the tape, related to berserk rage, which could be described as a euphoric or ecstatic state to increase the intensity of battles and clashes.

In these rituals, the warriors took as totem to an animal, such as a wolf or a bear, to prepare for battles. This is how we see Amleth in The Northman entering a state that gives him the tools to storm the village. The berserkers were one of the “elite” groups of warriors along with the úlfheðnar. One of the big differences between the two groups is that berserkers used to be associated with bears (the English word is bear, and phonetically it is similar) while the úlfheðnar with the wolves.

These warriors/shamans they used to use animal skins to leave their human nature and become a predator closer to the divine world, a union with the animal world. They were called among the Vikings as “Odin’s Men” To get to this point, records indicate that they had to go through a long process. One of the most popular Icelandic sagas explaining the dynamics of the berserkers is that of Egil Skallagrímson with the character of Kveldulf.

Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth in 'The Northman'

Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth in ‘The Northman’ / Photo: Focus Features

Myth: the horned helmets for battle

If you ask someone to describe the figure of a Viking, they will probably tell you about tall men, with a huge beard, white and wearing a horned helmet. Maybe everything else is real but the horned helmet is not, at least not as the movies and television have shown us: man in the middle of battle with an uncomfortable and ugly helmet.

There is a theory that this element in the clothing of the Vikings was added by the Christians in Europe to describe the Vikings and make them look more savage and barbaric, justifying, in some way, their religious transformation. The horns of the helmet would represent, in that case, the horns of the devil.

Some believe that the horned case came from Richard Wagner. And how is this? It was until 1876 with the staging of Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung), which were drawn in this way to the Vikings. The other bet is that the artists of the 19th century were the ones who popularized this image related to the Nordics.

*Helmets with horns or that simulate horn have been founds, but they do not belong to the Viking age. They are much older; in fact, two thousand years before than the rise of the Vikings.

Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth

Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth / Photo: Focus Features

Reality: they preferred beards

We already saw that the Vikings were not those dirty people that we were led to believe. And actually, cleaning was part of the take care of your image. Among men, in relation to his hair, but especially his beard. The Vikings, ideally, they had to have a good beard not only to be more attractive, but to be associated with the ideal image of the group.

In an interview, Robert Eggers said that during his investigation for The Northmanhe discovered that men in viking times who did not have a beard were rejected in many ways. He said this when talking about some productions about Vikings that have come out as vikings 1958 starring Kirk Douglas, whose character had no beard.

Check out the spectacular trailer for 'The Northman' with Anya Taylor-Joy and Alexander Skarsgård

Alexander Skarsgård in ‘The Northman’ / Photo: Focus Features

Myth: They were a state

This is related to the way they referred to them. As we told you, they didn’t call themselves Vikings, and actually, they did not belong to a state, but were divided into different tribes and clans throughout Scandinavia and Denmark, spreading as they discovered territory (they even reached Greenland where they failed to survive the climatic conditions).

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Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy in ‘The Northman’ / Photo: Aiden Monaghan / Courtesy Focus Features

Reality: teeth as a combat tool

Robert Eggers is known for seamlessly blending the reality elements of his stories with those of a supernatural or magical world. The Northman is not the exception with the presentation of a Viking man, which sticks to Norse mythology. For example, the belief in Odin or the Valkyries.

In the trailer we see a possible valkyrie, a woman riding and we can see her teeth, which seem to be carved. This is important, because Vikings used to alter their teeth (central incisors) by making horizontal grooves. The reason? It is not known for sure, but many believe that it was an element decorative; a form of intimidation for the battles; or a symbol of status for the warriors.

Image from ‘The Northman’ / Photo: Focus Features