5 things to learn from epic new documentary Vikings: The Rise and Fall

Vikings: The Rise and Fall is a new documentary series from National Geographic which immerses the viewer in the complex and often brutal society of the legendary Scandinavian raiders. 

Photograph by National Geographic
By Simon Ingram
Published 10 Jun 2022, 17:57 BST

CHOOSE A WORD to describe the Vikings and the word ‘fearsome’ seems never far from the tip of the tongue. But were the Scandinavian raiders really that bad – or simply victims of bad PR? And exactly where did their atmospheric sagas end, and their history begin?

Using cutting-edge research, new National Geographic documentary series Vikings: The Rise and Fall aims to tackle some of the more persistent questions about these raiders head-on. Over six weeks and covering two centuries, the series considers the Viking age in entirety from all sides – and may (or may not) cause you to reconsider one of the most mythologised people ever to board a boat. Here’s a little of what you’ll learn.

Superstition made them fearless, honour made them relentless.

At home in Scandinavia, Viking society was a complex, perpetually competitive tapestry of chiefdoms – which placed an extremely high value on valour and honour both across factions and within them. ‘Competing siblings would try to gain a name for themselves by winning glory in warfare outside the kingdom,’ says Professor Søren Michael Sindbæk of the University of Aarhus, Denmark in Vikings: The Rise and Fall, ‘to come home – and win the farm. Or the chieftain’s seat. Or the kingship.’

(These are the world's most spectacular Viking artefacts.)

Viking re-enactors display their armour before battle at the festival of Slavs and Vikings in Wolin, Poland. 

Photograph by David Guttenfelder / National Geographic

With the importance of honour won by violence imprinted on children from an early age, it’s fair to say that Vikings had a markedly different view of death – and one that made them nihilistic foes, given their unwavering belief that perishing in battle was nothing to be feared. Quite the opposite, in fact: glory awaited beyond the sword. “Valhalla seems to have been seen as a reward,” says Professor Terry Gunnell of the University of Iceland, in the documentary. “One good way to get people to be prepared to die in battle… is being rewarded for dying in battle.”

(Kinder, gentler vikings? Not according to their slaves.)

They were weaponised by Christianity

Given this attitude, however wily the Vikings were in their trading – and evidence suggests they were wily indeed – simply doing business left a vacuum in their thirst for honour won in battle. But there was a way to satisfy both. As put by Professor Stefan Brink of the University of Cambridge in Vikings: The Rise and Fall, “you can become rich in two ways: you can trade. Or you can raid.”

The Holy Island of Lindisfarne was believed to be the first major target for Viking raiders outside of Scandinavia. Taking advantage of the sanctity of the church, they chose the location for the ease of access, its unguarded nature and wealth within. The abbey and Lindisfarne castle were later additions. 

Photograph by Paul Williams / Alamy

When it came to choosing their first targets, the Vikings showed some predatory reasoning, which – coupled with their own brand of superstition – made their initial raids seem especially brutal. The first attackers targeted monasteries, which had the myriad benefits of being peaceful, isolated, easily accessible by water – and dripping in trinkety wealth. While untouchable to Christians, to the heathen raiders they were simply easy prey, and effortlessly subdued with the shock and awe of a brutal attack.

Consequently, the raid on Lindisfarne in 793AD was, as Dr Clare Downham of the University of Liverpool describes it in the documentary, ‘a momentous occasion of psychological impact on the English people.’ The idea spread from that first attack at Lindisfarne to the monastery at Jarrow a year later, Iona in 795AD – and most dramatically Portmahomack, in Scotland, in a series of raids that culminated around 800AD.

A Viking attack and slave kidnap in the late 10th century on an unspecified location in England, as depicted in a 19th century woodcut. 

Photograph by North Wind Picture Archives / Alamy

“The raiders, who ‘trampled upon saint’s bones’, were ideal characters to personify the power of God’s wrath.”

The Vikings had their own ritual habits, too: one was to burn down their targets as they left, as happened at Portmahomack, which is one of the few sites where physical signs of a raid have been found. For their part, it was to destroy evidence – but also to ensure no vengeful spirits followed them home. For the Christians it was a terrifying way to end an already terrifying act – and the church used it to its advantage. The raiders, dressed in their strange clothes and bearing exotic weapons who ‘trampled upon saint’s bones’, were ideal characters with which Christians could galvanise believers, and personify the power of God’s wrath. (After pillaging France and Spain, Viking raiders set their sights on Rome.)

Later Anglo-Saxon chronicles of the attack on Lindisfarne say ‘immense whirlwinds, flashes of lightning and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air’ in the days before the raid – which led to much rumination by Christian leaders about who on Lindisfarne could have been harbouring ‘some great guilt’ to have brought on such a penance. 

They weren’t just trying to pillage, they were trying to escape

The time of the Vikings followed a period of climate instability, and mass movement of people. The fall of the Roman Empire and consequent vacuum gave rise to the Migration Period, lasting from around 300AD to 800AD, and that saw the movement of many different peoples throughout Europe to settle their former territory – the Huns, the Goths and the Franks amongst them. There then followed what some scholars refer to as the ‘Late Antique Little Ice Age’ – a period of global cooling – which accelerated around 570AD, and has been attributed to the effects of three major volcanic eruptions, which made life more difficult the further north you lived. (Giant volcano behind mystery global apocalypse found.)

Scandinavia, with its rugged landscape and hard winters, offered little in the way of natural resource to the Vikings, who were compelled to journey beyond its shores not just in search of riches – but richer soils. 

Photograph by Michal Hlavica / Alamy

In the 10th century came a warmer period, which brought prosperity to Europe, and gave the Scandinavians – whose natural resources were lean at the best of times – seriously itchy feet. This, combined with the fearsome reign of kings such as Harald Fairhair, caused them to refine their seafaring skills and set off beyond the horizon. (Why researchers are excited about a viking comb.)

Finding warmer, more fertile lands ripe for farming and a more amenable climate, the Viking raiders gradually became less inclined to journey home – and instead set about settling, and blending their own culture with that of their subdued hosts. This period of more sustained roots-laying seems to have gained renewed purpose with the arrival of Ivar the Boneless – ‘king’ of the disparate Vikings, so much as one existed – under whose bloody campaign a Viking army arrived in Eastern England and began a sustained march towards York. His aim was not pillage, but conquest – and also, it seems, revenge.     

The infamous ‘blood eagle’ may have been real

This rumoured, gruesome form of execution gained profile thanks to depictions on screen and in video games in recent years – but the jury is out on whether it really was (or wasn’t) dished out to individuals deemed deserving of a singularly brutal end. It has been speculated this was the fate to befall Ælla, King of York, in revenge for the death of leader Ragnar Lodbrok – father of Ivar the Boneless, who is said to have administered the punishment as the Vikings conquered York.  

The Lärbro St. Hammars I picture stone on the Swedish Island of Gotland depicts scenes believed to be from Viking life. This one shows various violent activities, and depicts in the centre of this image a figure apparently being bent over a dias or altar and assaulted with a weapon from behind, while a figure holds a bird – possibly an eagle – and the symbol of Odin's knot above. Many believe this to show the blood eagle rite as a human sacrifice. 

Photograph by Armands Pharyos / Alamy

The sources, as was typical for the Vikings – who kept no records and whose history was orally woven into mythological sagas over generations – are murky, and no direct archaeological evidence has been found. But the information there is suggest a practice that was either a ritual sacrifice to Odin, or a method of avenging a very serious offence (or at the very least imparting a message of deep unhappiness) upon one’s foe. According to a description in Harald’s saga and another in The Tale of Ragnar’s Sons, the unlucky victim suffered the carving of the skin of the back, forceful cutting of the ribs from the spine and the extraction of the lungs, which were then spread like wings – hence, ‘eagle’ (and indeed, ‘blood.’)

Such is the curiosity, a study in Speculum Journal by medical and historical academics recently discussed the blood eagle in excruciating detail, concluding that the atrocity was anatomically possible – though given the trauma on the body and likely rapid exsanguination, had a purpose likely intended as a symbolic message in death than an especially protracted ending to life. The study ends with the line: ‘The blood eagle was thus no mere torture: it had meaning.’

They were way, way ahead of Columbus

The word Viking denotes a profession; it wasn’t a term for a people or culture. Those around the Vikings augmented an organised community of traders, artisans, master boatbuilders and sailmakers. The latter innovation was a particular watershed; according to Professor Søren Michael Sindbæk in Vikings: The Rise and Fall, the sail had “not been used, until that point, in Scandinavia. Fitting a large boat with a sail… was a great threshold. It costs [a] lot to produce such a sail, with all the ropes and the rigging they require.” Sails of 120 square metres were made from flax or woollen canvas – the latter from the fleeces of some 200 sheep – by skilled weavers over a two-year period. The sail, without question, represented the true value of a boat. And it would take the Vikings a lot further from their homeland as history has long suspected, though arguably never fully acknowledged.

A location map reveals the point at which the Vikings set foot in North America, some five centuries before Columbus. 

Photograph by Jan Bowen, NatGeo Staff

Scandinavian sagas – Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red – spoke of Vinland, a far-cast outpost on the western edge of the Viking world. As usual, history mingles with myth, but cut wood at a supposed European settlement, in Newfoundland’s L’Anse aux Meadows has been radiocarbon dated to 1021AD – pinpointing a date that dovetails with the sagas, and offers the tantalising possibility that the stories they record are based in truth.

As to why the Vikings found themselves so far west, the reason is surprisingly practical. In around 982AD, Erik the Red is said to have travelled some 400 miles east of Iceland to the uninhabited land he called Greenland – with academics suggesting he bestowed the optimistic name as a kind of reverse PR spin on ‘Iceland’ to encourage settlers to reap its verdant and bounteous farmland. What Greenland didn’t have – and what Iceland also conspicuously lacked in robust quantity – was trees. Trees meant boats, houses, and the ability to trade valuable walrus ivory found in bulk in the new territory, so a source was needed. According to the sagas, Erik the Red’s son, Leif Erikson, was the one who made the perilous journey across the Labrador Sea to Newfoundland, where pine, spruce and alder forests were abundant.  

Recreation of a sod-roofed Viking dwelling at L'Anse aux Meadows National Historic Site, Canada. This place is believed to have been an outpost from which Vikings could transport supplies and materials.  

Photograph by All Canada Photos / Alamy

Studies on the site at L’Anse aux Meadows revealed a temporary homestead that was contained artefacts such as a grinding stone and a hat pin, as well as habitation layouts that were unmistakably Norse. The lack of a permanent settlement, and the theory that the scale of the land that lay beyond Newfoundland wasn’t fully grasped, may have led to the knowledge of Vinland being ignored, or not accorded the significance it deserved. But the dating of the cut wood in 2021 provided final, incontrovertible proof that the Vikings were present and hard at work in North America almost 500 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.   

Vikings: The Rise and Fall begins 21 June on National Geographic. Find out more here and watch the trailer below.  

Vikings: The Rise and Fall – Watch the Trailer
New series coming to National Geographic burns the myth about one of history's most feared peoples
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Vikings: The Rise and Fall – Watch the Trailer

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