Talking about Robert Eggers’ “The Northman”

In the spring of 2018, M. and I were preparing for a week in Salem, Mass., so we watched several movies about Salem, witch trials, etc. One of them was The Witch, directed by Robert Eggers.

At the time, I had more to say about Three Sovereigns for Sarah, but I will admit that visually and experientially, The Witch stayed with me longer.

Now Eggers is back with a new “Viking blockbuster,” The Northman, and people are talking about it.

At Amor et Mortem, Anna Uroševic starts her review,

You know that a newly released film has made quite an impact on you when, hours after you’ve left the theater, you obsessively muse upon its indelible imagery and the effect of the moviegoing experience is all you seem capable of discussing with family and friends. In fact, you’re filled with missionary-level zeal in urging people you care about to go see the film as a matter of vital importance. . . .

The plot of The Northman is very straightforward, as no-nonsense as a spear hurtling towards your face (and we see plenty of those in this film): loosely based on the tale of Amleth as recorded in the 12th-century Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus, it’s a revenge narrative of a young Scandinavian prince looking to kill his uncle, the man responsible for the treacherous act of fratricide/regicide by killing the prince’s father, the rightful king.

Pagan historian Tom Rowsell was dubious at first after movies, TV series, and games created what he calls “a wave of Viking invasions of popular media, many of which, including History Channel’s Vikings series and the Assassins creed Valhalla video game, copy the ‘biker Viking aesthetic.'”

But his blog post “The Northman: Pagan Themes Explained” sings The Northman’s praises after studying its Pagan elements, even while still faulting its color scheme:

I consider this to be the best Viking film ever made and I expect it will be remembered as such for some time. But while I had hoped this would mark the long awaited end of the biker Viking-age aesthetic which has so permeated popular culture over the last decade, its tawdry mark can still be detected. Not so much in the costumes, but more in regards to the colour palette and score – the former consists of the rather familiar Hollywood medieval drabness with which historical dramas consistently deny the era’s vibrance. The score, while competently composed by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, and effective in keeping the adrenaline pumping while the blood flows across the screen, will date the film since it owes much to the recently invented percussion driven fusion of neo-folk, world-music and martial-industrial that has become the stereotypical “le Viking music” of our time. Widely perceived as authentic because it uses medieval instruments, the combination of far flung elements such as didgeridoos, Siberian drums and Mongolian throat singing would have been as unfamiliar to Vikings as it was to anyone before the likes of Hagalaz Runedance and Wardruna invented it some 20 years ago.

These are, however, minor quibbles with an expertly crafted film which is well cast, with actors pulling off some phenomenal performances (Nicole Kidman deserves particular praise for her role as the detestable Queen Gudrún). Eggers is certainly among the greatest filmmakers of his generation and regardless of how well The Northman performs at the box office . . .  it will be remembered as a cult classic of cinema history.

At the British newspaper The Guardian, TV-film critic Steve Rose’s whiskers are quivering over the possibility that The Wrong People might like the The Northman too much — but then here is someone who thinks that Jane Austen’s novels credibly could be used as  vehicles of far-right propaganda. The costuming of the leading characteer, Skarsgård, reminds Rose uncomfortably of Jake Angeli, the “QAnon shaman,” who had his fifteen minutes of fame on Jan. 6, 2021. Like we should ban wolf pelts forever. But he admits that The Northman is a “piece of rousing, skilfully made entertainment,” even while spending 90 percent of his review on Those People and what they might be thinking.

As another blogger wrote, it  “takes Heathen cosmology and religion seriously [which] is just a breath of fresh air.”

A Historic Shaman’s Drum is Restored to the Sámi People

The drum was used in divinitory rituals. (Photograph: Trustees of the British Museum)

In the fall of 2021, Sámi[1]Also called Laplanders, who live in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and a bit of Russia people living in Norway asked the the queen of Denmark and the  Danish National Museum if they could have one of their old-time shaman’s drum back.

The drum belonged to a Sámi shaman, Anders Poulsson, who was arrested and imprisoned, according to court records. It was confiscated and became part of the Danish royal family’s art collection before being transferred to Denmark’s National Museum in 1849. . . .

“Through this drum, we will be able to explain so much about Sámi history. It tells a story about emancipation and the Sámi struggle to own our culture,’ added [the president of the Sámi parliament, Aili] Keskitalo. “The drum is the key to explaining our heritage.”

Nomadic Sámi people, about 1900. (Wikimedia Commons)

The drum, confiscated in 1691 as part of a larger effort to turn the animistic Sámi into good Lutheran Christians, went to Denmark because at the time Norway was ruled from Denmark, a “union” that lasted four hundred years and ended in 1814.

Now the wheel — or the drum — has turned.  The Danish royal family, which technically owned it and had loaned it to the museum, has agreed to return it.

It is the first Sámi drum to be repatriated from abroad and the only one in the collection . .  .  Now undergoing conservation, the drum will go on display as the centrepiece of a new exhibition on 12 April.

The formal handover of the object is an event of huge significance, according to Sámi film-maker Silja Somby, who is making a film about rune drums to be shown during the Venice Biennale in August. They are, she said, “like bibles for us. Each has its own special meanings and symbolisms”. . . .

Rune drums were once a central aspect of their nature-based religious life. When a noaidi struck a reindeer-skin and birchwood rune drum with a reindeer-antler hammer, a brass ring would move across its surface. Depending on how the ring moved in relation to the symbols on the drum (painted in a red dye made from alder resin), the noaidi would divine future events. The drumming would also help the noaidi enter a trance and travel in different realities, for example among the spirits of the dead.

Notes

Notes
1 Also called Laplanders, who live in northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and a bit of Russia

Scandinavian Style, 1400 BCE

egtved-textile-belt

(National Museum of Denmark)

The acidic peat surrounding this grave of a Bronze Age girl, labeled a “priestess” for her elaborate jewelry,  preserved her clothing and hair but not her skeleton. The burial was found in 1921, but only this month did analysis reveal that, for instance, the wool in her skirt came from the Black Forest region of German, but also that she herself may have traveled back and forth.

The Bronze Age teenager was wearing a wool skirt belted with a large bronze disk with spirals on it.

“She looks, in a way, very modern, in this kind of miniskirt and a kind of T-shirt,” [Danish researcher Karin] Frei told Live Science. (Her unique fashion sense has inspired scores of Pinterest-worthy re-enactments.)

Rethinking Bog People

In college I had a work-study job in the library, and my favorite part was shelving books, because I worked alone, deep in the stacks, and if I found something interesting, I could skim it quickly and either check it out or come back for it.bogpeople_thumb[2]

One day I rolled my cart up to the rows of books awaiting reshelving, and there was one whose spine read The Bog People — Glob.

Was this for real?  BogGlobBog?

It turned out to be serious anthropology: Here is an American Anthropologist review (PDF) from 1969, when it was published. Pagan sacrifices? Medieval murders? I think I learned the word liripipe from reading The Bog People, rather than by joining the Society for Creative Anachronism.

The bog mummies are so fascinating because of their state of preservation. They are not just bones – you can see them as individuals, often wearing the clothing in which they died.

People create stories about them, such as Lindow Man, the so-called Druid prince. Did he suffer a ritualistic Robert Graves-ish triple death — clubbing, throat-cutting, and strangulation?

Others, such as Ronald Hutton, offer a simpler explanation: the so-called throat-cutting was the accidental slash of the peat-cutter’s spade, the ligature merely a cord holding an amulet or piece of jewelry, and the cause of death was a straightforward bludgeoning — why, no one knows.

Archaeologists debate whether the bog bodies were simple crime victims or ritual-murder victims. Were they locals or outsiders? Ordinary people or celebrities?

Because some bear horrific wounds, such as slashed throats, and were buried instead of cremated like most others in their communities, scientists have suggested the bodies had been sacrificed as criminals, slaves, or simply commoners. The Roman historian Tacitus started this idea in the first century A.D. by suggesting they were deserters and criminals. . . .

Niels Lynnerup, a forensic anthropologist at the University of Copenhagen who has studied bog bodies, believes that they were sacrificed—but the enigma, he said, revolves around why.

You look at their faces, and you wonder how they ended up tossed into a pool in a bog.

 

Literary British Paganism and an Unusual Thor’s Hammer

Photo from National Museum of Denmark

¶ Ethan Doyle White reviews Ronald Hutton’s Pagan Britain and Marion Gibson’s Imagining the Pagan Past (free PDF download). The first I have, but the second might actually be more valuable to anyone studying contemporary Paganism, for it looks not at “not at paganism [sic] itself, but instead explores how pagan deities – both native and foreign – have been interpreted in British literature from the Early Medieval right through to the present day.”

After all, at least nine or ten centuries elapsed between the effective end of cultic Paganism in that area and the mid-twentieth century revival. Hutton, too, has written on how literary works kept the old gods in public consciousness (at least that of educated readers) during  eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

¶ Speaking of the last era of old European Paganism, archaeologists have discovered an unusual Thor’s hammer talisman — unusual in that it was plated with precious metal and bore a runic inscription.  It was found in Denmark and dated to the tenth century.

Danish Pagans Gaining Recognition

Articles from Scandinavian papers here and here summarize efforts by Forn Sidr, which means The Old Custom in Norse, to be an officially recognized religion in Denmark, able to perform legal marriages and so on. (Links are via Religion News Blog.)

The Danish Forn Sidr is not to be confused with this one, which is what you will find in a Google search. The English-language version of the Danes’ website is here.

My students always display expressions of amazement when I tell them that a Danish baby is automatically a member of the state Lutheran church unless he or she opts out. This Danish site would enlighten them.