Photo: Aidan Monaghan / Focus Features
The Northman Writer-director Robert Eggers is known as a particularly exacting filmmaker when it comes to historical accuracy. Eggers got his start as a production designer, and the sets for his films are built from scratch using historical methods. His scripts are just as dense, incorporating historical and literary sources on both a macro and a line-by-line basis.
Eggers’s primary sources for The Northman were the Icelandic sagas, stories about the great families of medieval Iceland written by anonymous authors in the 13th and 14th centuries. Those tales are rich with detail, some of which may fly over the heads of viewers who aren’t familiar with Viking culture and beliefs. Some elements in the film look so wild – psychedelic visions, mummified heads, human sacrifice – that they may seem like fiction. But as you’ll learn, they’re all very much based in real history.
The Northman opens in 895 before fast-forwarding a couple of decades as our hero, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), matures from a frightened boy into a hardened warrior. In the year 914, Amleth boards a ship bound for Iceland, then a sparsely populated Viking settlement less than 50 years old.
All over northern Europe. We begin in the fictional kingdom of Hrafnsey, which press notes for the film describe as “located somewhere around the Orkney and Shetland Islands” (ie, off the northern coast of Scotland). Once we skip forward in time, The Northman shifts to two real-life locations: the Land of the Rus – which encompasses modern Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus – and Iceland, which was settled by Vikings in 870.
The Northman is partially based on the tale of Amleth, which is told in books three and four of Historia Danica, a legendary history of the Danish people written by the scholar Saxo Grammaticus in the early 13th century. William Shakespeare took the premise – an exiled prince vows revenge after his uncle kills his father and marries his mother – and used it as the basis for Hamlet. (He also rearranged the letters in the main character’s name.)
Interestingly, in the original story, Amleth is described as a fool, a detail that both Shakespeare and Eggers chose to set aside for their versions.
Norse paganism had a strong element of shamanism, which – to reduce a complex, ancient global practice to one single sentence – allows a worshiper to directly experience the spirit world rather than passively worship it. This communion is achieved primarily through trances, psychedelic and otherwise, that impart profound spiritual wisdom. In The Northman, Amleth and his father, King Aurvandil (Hawke), drink a potion given to them by their tribe’s shaman, Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe). The resulting hallucinatory experience reveals to the young Amleth the nature of the Viking cosmos and his place in it. The likely culprit here is Amanita muscaria (aka fly agaric), a mushroom native to the Northern Hemisphere with an eons-old connection to shamanic spirituality.
Aurvandil is known as the Raven King, and ravens follow Amleth throughout his quest to avenge his father’s death. (Ravens are also associated with Odin the Allfather, the king of the Norse gods.) But for his son’s shamanic initiation, Aurvandil humbles himself by acting like a dog, connecting with the animal spirit that will guide them on their journey.
After leaving his homeland, Amleth joins up with the berserkers, a shamanic subset of Viking warriors from whom we get the English phrase “going berserk.” Berserkers were divided into two categories: the ones who wore bear pelts and the ones called Ulfhednar, who favored wolf pelts. Both were known to get themselves pumped up before a raid with ritualistic chanting, dances, and, more than likely, psychoactive potions. By the time they attacked a village, the berserkers often believed they had transcended their human bodies and become their totem animals (thus the ripping out of throats with bare teeth).
That’s the ash tree Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life, the center of the Viking cosmos. Yggdrasil has three roots: one stretches to the well of Urd (more on that in a bit), the second to the realm of the frost giants, and the third to the world of men. The tree itself holds up the nine worlds of Viking mythology and connects all of them. Amleth sees his ancestors hanging from the tree when the mysteries of Viking shamanism are first revealed to him, and he has a vision of his children sprouting from Yggdrasil when he finds out Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) is pregnant.
Odin, the most shamanic of the Norse gods, hung upside down on Yggdrasil for nine days and nights, a trial that ended with Odin receiving the wisdom of the runes.
It’s necromancy, so the latter. Necromancy, or communicating with the dead, played a prominent role in Icelandic witchcraft and sorcery over the centuries. Perhaps its most ghastly manifestations were necropants, which were made by flaying the body of a man who had agreed to donate his skin to a wizard from the waist down – penis and scrotum included. The dead man’s skin was then cured and fashioned into a pair of pants. The necromancer would tuck a coin into the scrotum before putting on the necropants, thus ensuring prosperity as long as they were worn. Historians are skeptical about whether anyone actually made necropants or if they’re simply a folk belief. But it’s a cool, gross idea.
Who the characters in The Northman worship says a lot about their priorities. Amleth and his fellow berserkers invoke Fenrir (aka Fenriswolf) – a mythological wolf representing chaos – as they prepare to charge into battle in the Land of Rus. Son of the trickster Loki, Fenrir lies bound by a magical chain made by dwarves on the mythical island of Lyngvi in Lake Ámsvartnir (Old Norse for “pitch black”). There, he awaits Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse. That’s when he will break free, swallow the sun, and kill Odin.
Meanwhile, Freyr (aka Frey), the god to whom Amleth’s uncle Fjölnir erects a temple at his settlement in Iceland, is a patron of fertility and agriculture. The brother of Freyja, the goddess of love and beauty, Freyr was widely worshiped in Norse society. But according to myth, Freyr gave up his sword to marry the giantess Gerd – an action the warlike Amleth would view with contempt.
She’s one of the Norns, the female immortals who spun the threads of fate for every human being according to Norse belief. (In the film, Björk holds a drop spindle in her hand.) If you had a successful life, it was because you were blessed with a benevolent Norn. If your luck kept going from bad to worse, an ill-tempered Norn was to blame.
The three primary Norns – similar to the three fates of Greek mythology – were named Urd (Became), Verdandi (Becoming), and Skuld (Will Become), and they dwelled in a magnificent hall under one of the three roots of Yggdrasil. The well of Urd is where unborn souls waited to be carried into the world by storks, which is where the idea of storks delivering babies comes from.
In short, yes. Peter Archer’s The Book of Viking Myths references a document from 921 in which an Arabic traveler named Ibn Fadlan wrote about the funeral of a Viking chieftain where a slave girl was killed and buried along with her master. Fadlan described the ritual leading up to the girl’s death, during which she was raised up three times before being strangled, like so: “The first time they raised her she said, ‘Behold, I see my father and mother.’ The second time she said, ‘I see all my dead relatives seated.’ The third time she said, ‘I see my master seated in Paradise and Paradise is beautiful and green… He calls me. Take me to him. ‘”
Not just Valkyries: Some mortal Vikings got decorative dental work as well. Grave sites have been found in Sweden, Denmark, and England with skulls whose teeth were filed into patterns of crescents and horizontal lines. Modern historians don’t fully understand why this was done: It doesn’t seem to be related to social status, nor does it appear to be an initiation rite. Maybe it just looked cool and scary?