Is Robert Eggers’ stunning new Viking movie The Northman “historically accurate”? Should we care? If anyone can put the boring question of “accuracy” in historical fiction to rest, it’s Eggers, whose past films have likewise displayed an uncanny ability to channel the vibes of a time through a witch’s brew of visual references, archaic language, and primal emotions. That’s why historians like the writer-director’s movies, even if they’re not “faithful”—they grab at the gestalt of a vanished time, and immerse us into it.
Eggers, a person who thinks very hard about sources, agreed to speak about the research process that produced some of the elements that make The Northman feel so extremely Viking, even though the source material for the legend of Amleth, who was also the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is shrouded in layers of mystery. Our conversation, which covers everything from the werewolf bar mitzvah to the shrunken-head soothsayer to the Valkyrie who emphatically does not have braces, has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Rebecca Onion: Let’s start with the coming-of-age ceremony, in which Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) and his father Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) go underground and pretend to be wolves. I’m curious whether this ceremony is something we can find in the historical record.
Robert Eggers: This ceremony is the most hypothetical thing in the film. Every other ritual is based on an archeological find, or something from a saga text, or a firsthand account from the Viking Age. This was something that was that Sjón [Eggers’ co-writer on The Northman, an Icelandic novelist, poet, and screenwriter] put in very early on, when we were early in the research phase. For thematic reasons in the story, it was important to have this initiation with young Amleth, but it was a process of then taking this idea and then continuing to ground it in reality and research.
So, for example, the ritual chamber itself is based on a burial chamber in Orkney [an archipelago off Northern Scotland], from way before the Viking Age. And the idea is that basically as the Viking diaspora is happening, they found this ancient site of religious significance and build their temple on top of it. And so then this ancient burial chamber becomes a special ritual chamber that they’ve adopted.
And the artifacts within the ceremony, like the mask that Willem Dafoe wears, are replicas of archeological finds. We don’t know that that mask was used in religious ceremonies, but it does seem to have the face of Loki scratched into it, and we thought that was cool. The rattle that he uses in the ceremony is also a museum replica of an archeological find. Nobody knows what those rattles are about, but we made the decision that they were part of some religious ceremony, because one of the more popular academic theories is that they were used to scare away evil spirits. So it seemed that in a ritual context, that was a good place for it.
The New Yorker says it was in the smoke, in this scene, but that’s wrong, it’s actually in the stuff that they’re drinking. And henbane is something that we find in burials of people that we believe might have been seers or sorcerers. So again, theoretical.
Twice in the film, first in this ceremony, and then at the conclusion, Amleth touches or tastes the blood of a person, and sees what’s basically a family tree inside their body, with bodies hanging from it. Where did this idea come from?
If you read a saga, the first segment usually describes the lineage of the saga’s protagonist. Son of, son of, son of, son of, son of, son of, son of, and so on. And this was a visual way to do it.
It integrates the idea of Yggdrasil [the world tree in Norse mythology], but even more than that, an image from the Oseberg tapestry. Most every story that we have from the Viking Age, it’s from sources that were written 200 years later. And the runic inscriptions we have from the Viking Age usually say, “Sven was great. Here he lies.” Or, like, “I shagged so-and-so in this cave.” It’s really not much. But the Oseberg tapestry is a visual story that we actually have from the Viking Age. And one of the images on there is this arboreal structure, covered with hanging bodies. That’s where we got this idea.
And the idea that you could touch blood and see this tree—was this something they believed?
No, no, no.
OK, that’s just a cool idea. Cinematically interesting.
Not that I know of! You can ask Sjón, maybe he can tell you an Icelandic folktale that has that, but as far as I know, no.
All right, so we see Amleth become a berserker, and attack a village with a band of men.
Actually, I don’t think we even say what they are in the movie.
Oh, right! I shouldn’t assume! Are those supposed to be berserkers, then?
I think berserker is the contemporary term that people know of, but there were two types of berserk warriors, at least two, that were these elite warriors of Odin. And one were the berserkir, which are the “bear shirts.” But we don’t know if “bear shirt” means a shirt made out of a bear skin or a person wearing bare skin. Neil Price, one of the archeologists working with us, believes as a good Viking kenning [or poetic phrase], it means both. And so the warriors transform in their minds into bears, or werebears, in their rage on the battlefield.
And then the other types are the Úlfhéðnar, which are wolf warriors. The thinking is that bear warriors were probably huge, and would fight like bears, and the wolf warriors are more agile.
In the movie, Amleth’s character is the size of a bear with the agility of a wolf, is the idea.
Before battle, would these warriors call on each other to transform into bears or wolves, as they seem to do around the fire in the film?
I think it was a more popular theory years ago that these warriors would get into this ecstatic place from doing hallucinogens. But I don’t think you could really fight if you were on mushrooms, much less be the elite fighting squad and the bodyguards of kings. I don’t see how that is possible. The more current theory that we’re using in the film is that it was a shamanic war dance that got them into this trance.
Amleth ripping out the throat of his enemy, as he does in the course of this raid, comes from Egil’s saga, in which the poet Egil Skallagrímsson records that his father was a werewolf and he had berserker tendencies. He wins a fight by ripping someone’s throat out with his teeth.
In Iceland, Amleth finds a shaman in a cave who tells him where his sword is, and that shaman uses a preserved head of Willem Dafoe’s character, Heimir the Fool, to deliver his message. Was this something that Vikings believed, that heads of seers could tell the future after death? Did they shrink heads?
In the mythology, Odin keeps the head of Mímir [another god], which he’s mummified with herbs, and Mímir’s head is able to tell Odin prophecies. That’s where we got that idea.
There’s a lot of Norse religion in the movie. There are references to the Norns (fates, in Norse mythology) and to Odin and Freyr. How did you decide that Amleth’s Uncle, Fjölnir, would be allied to the god Freyr, and Amleth’s to Odin?
Ethan Hawke’s character Aurvandil, Amleth’s father, is a king and warlord, so it makes sense for his god to be Odin. And then Amleth has his daddy issues, which is probably going to keep him aligned with the cult of Odin. But also, as a berserker—they are Odinic warriors.
We felt Fjölnir, having a chip on his shoulder, is going to not want be a part of the same cult as his brother, the king. There were a lot of people who move to Iceland and worship Freyr. He’s a fertility god. He’s an earth god. And if you’re living out an existence as a farmer, you were generally a worshiper of Freyr or Thor. So it made sense, to us, that Fjölnir would worship Freyr.
I think a lot of people are going to wonder about the human sacrifices, both the thwarted sacrifice to Freyr, and then the sacrifice at the funeral of Fjölnir’s older son. There is evidence of human sacrifice at Viking funerals, I remember.
Yes. First, there’s the sacrifice that doesn’t end up happening, and with that one, even the way the woman who is going to be sacrificed is bound we based on a bog body [a body mummified in a bog], a Germanic bog body from a slightly earlier period than the Viking Age. But the one inaccuracy is that her feet would’ve been incredibly clean, but we made a mistake—we made her feet dirty, even though they would’ve been cleaned.
But then pretty much everything in the funeral scene is based on Ahmad ibn Fadlan, an Arab traveler’s, description of a Viking funeral. There are three big differences. One is that the funeral that Ibn Fadlan witnessed was 10 days long. And the other two big differences are that funeral was probably for a Viking who was part of the cult of Odin, because they burned the ship so everything can go to straight up to Valhalla really quickly. Whereas, this character in our film is a worshiper of Freyr, so the ship is half-buried in the earth, the way we think the Oseberg funeral in Norway [which resulted in the preservation of the tapestry with the tree on it, among other finds] was carried out.
And then the last thing that does not happen—well, maybe it happened, we just don’t see it on screen—is that the enslaved woman who’s sacrificed would have been raped by all of those retainers. That’s a scene we did not include. The assumption in both this funeral and the funeral Ibn Fadlan witnessed is that this unmarried, dead Viking man needs a bride to be with him in the other world.
When Amleth finds his sword, the king he takes it from is seated upright in a burial mound, in a ship. Where did you get this idea?
It’s very common for a saga hero to get his sword from a burial mound, and it’s very often that they break into the mound to get their sword. It’s very often a magic sword, and they have to fight the undead owner of the sword in the burial mound. And the swords are often ancient compared to the story in which it’s taking place, because these old swords have old powers, which was an idea I liked. And having him sitting upright on the throne, or the high seat—we see people buried in every conceivable position that you can imagine. That position is based on one of the Lewis chessmen [from medieval Scotland].
In the final scene, Amleth and his uncle fight at the Gates of Hel. Was hell a word Vikings would have used to describe a fiery place like that?
Yes, Hel is both a goddess, whose name is spelled H-E-L, and it’s also where she lives. Probably Hel wasn’t such a bad place, but the descriptions we have, we don’t know. The descriptions we have of Hel are based on Snorri Sturluson, who was a Christian Viking. So his interpretation of a pagan hell seems quite similar to Christian hell. We don’t know how much of his interpretation and description of hell is based on his Christian lens. Snorri interprets Hel as basically where you go if you don’t get to go to Valhalla. It’s a shameful place to go because you didn’t die in battle.
Amleth and his uncle fight naked for their last battle. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the way it looked, but was that something that might ever have happened between Vikings?
The naked sword fight on a volcano is something that I just wanted to do, and it seemed elemental, and it seemed right. Based on the research that I’ve done, I’m sure a Viking would say, “This is nonsense.” But how I was able to justify it is that it seems to me in the Viking Age, nudity was pretty taboo. When nudity is described, it tends to be either in a ritual context or in some kind of context where it’s aggressive … you think about the berserkers as “bare shirts,” maybe that nudity is to show their fearlessness: I don’t need armor because I’m that ferocious and that powerful. It’s intimidation. The final sword fight could pull from both ideas: in some ways, that duel is a ritual. And also, there is the offensive intimidation of the two men being naked.
I did want to mention one last thing, just because a lot of people are talking about it. The Valkyrie who carries Amleth away does not have braces. They’ve excavated Viking skulls that have horizontal grooves carved into their teeth. And the current favorite historian’s hypothesis is that it was just something to look cool, to look badass, and that they filled those grooves with some kind of pigment. We chose black for the Valkyrie, but Harald Bluetooth [the king who unified Denmark in the 10th century] might have been called Harald Bluetooth because he had blue enamel in the grooves in his teeth. Maybe! We don’t know, but that’s where we got that.