Friday, August 9, 2013

Sex, snot and Vikings

Come on, what did I expect? I watched the first two episodes of Vikings on SBS last night and I didn’t actually vomit. However, I do need to vent quite a bit of spleen.

Ragnar Lothbrok preparing to murder monks on Lindisfarne
(and no, this was not the first Viking 'discovery' of England, whatever the series might imply)

It began with the snot.

Remember the scene in the second episode in which, before embarking on their voyage to the West, Ragnar and his companions engage in what looks like an arcane ritual face-splashing and snot sharing? A slave-girl, the one Rollo so recently raped, passes around a wooden trough and each Viking solemnly clears his nostrils into the communal washing water. Erk! Are we to understand this as some kind of gross pagan ritual undertaken to appease the gods of the sea? Or is this just evidence of standards of Viking hygiene, i.e. worse than non-existent?

Nope, it is simple abuse of an historical source.

Let me explain. Some years ago I presented a conference paper entitled ‘Sex, snot and sacrifice’. It concerned the 10th century account of Vikings by Ibn Fadlan, a cultured man of Muslim faith from Baghdad.  Baghdad was centre of exquisite civilization, but Ibn Fadlan was exiled on a mission through the wilds of central Asia. In his account he relates colourful tales of the peoples he meets, generally contrasting their barbarity with the Islamic culture of his home. One of the peoples is a group of ‘Rus’, tall, fair-headed traders and slavers sailing upon the Volga. These Rus are generally accepted to be ‘Vikings’. Ibn Fadlan is fascinated by these impressive physical specimens, but expresses certain reservations about their personal habits. Memorably, he describes the morning hygiene routine of the Rus:

Every day the slave-girl arrives in the morning with a large basin containing water, which she hands to her owner. He washes his hands and his face and his hair in the water, then he dips his comb in the water and brushes his hair, blows his nose and spits in the basin. There is no filthy impurity which he will not do in this water. When he no longer requires it, the slave-girl takes the basin to the man beside him and he goes through the same routine as his friend. She continues to carry it from one man to the next until she has gone round everyone in the house, with each of them blowing his nose and spitting, washing his face and hair in the basin.

Fadlan’s disgust partly stems from cultural and religious difference. For this Muslim, ritual washing is necessary before prayer and after impure activity such as intercourse. The Rus are barbarians who worship idols in his account.

And then there is the sex.

Ragnar's brother Rollo 
(played by Clive Standen)

Of course the TV series has Vikings engaging in rough-and-ready sexual activity. Vikings are randy rapers and pillagers, are they not? Of course the hero, Ragnar Lothbrok, does not rape – but his nasty elder brother does. Again, Ibn Fadlan is evoked. The Rus he met on the Volga, he says,

are accompanied by beautiful slave girls for trading. One man will have intercourse with his slave-girl while his companion looks on. Sometimes a group of them comes together to do this, each in front of the other. Sometimes indeed the merchant will come in to buy a slave-girl from one of them and he will chance upon him having intercourse with her, but <the Rūs> will not leave her alone until he has satisfied his urge.

You can see why purveyors of popular Vikingism love this source!

Did the maker of Vikings, Michael Hirst, bone up on his Ibn Fadlan before filming the series? Perhaps, but Fadlan’s account is more readily available in excerpt form than in its entirety and in this form the civilization/barbarity theme is effaced. Then there is Michael Crichton’s novel, Eaters of the Dead, used as the basis for the 1999 movie The Thirteenth Warrior, in which Crichton cleverly combines Ibn Fadlan’s account with the Old English tale of Beowulf

Ibn Fadlan, played by Antonio Banderas in the movie, is the narrator and central character. Both the book and the movie make much of the morning ablution scene, although surprisingly enough the Vikings’ rampant sexuality is distinctly underplayed. Crichton’s Vikings may be barbarians, but they are admirable barbarians and the effeminate Ibn Fadlan is shown to learn valuable lessons in masculinity under their tutelage.

I have the feeling that the series is promoting much the same image as Crichton of its Vikings – impressive physical specimens with healthy sexual appetites (only a bad guy would actually lower himself to rape), yet barbarians all the same. And everyone knows that to qualify as a barbarian you must be dirty. Perhaps Hirst needs to read a few more primary sources, in which Vikings are in fact the dandies of the medieval world, whose standards of grooming and hygiene were such that the Anglo-Saxons worried their women were losing their hearts to those damn Viking posers.

As a thirteenth-century chronicle tells us:

The Danes made themselves too acceptable to English women by their elegant manners and their care of their person. They combed their hair daily … and took a bath every Saturday, and even changed their clothes frequently, and improved the beauty of their bodies with many such trifles, by which means they undermined the chastity of wives.

So come on, break out of the sex-and-snot stereotype, Mr Hirst! You're no different from the 10th-century cultural snob Ibn Fadlan in modelling your Vikings as the antithesis of the civilization you come from, as unwashed barbarian hyper-masculinity. 


Janet said...


I'm glad I did my usual trick of nodding off to sleep halfway through. My husband recorded it. My daughter is married to a Dane - thank goodness they've improved their hygiene

I enjoyed your rant, Venitia

Cassandra Samuels said...

Wow! I never knew that I never knew all this. The stereotype is so well ingrained in our minds that it is hard to think they may have had any redeeming hygiene rituals. Thanks Venetia.

Maggi Andersen said...

Having a large amount of Viking in my DNA I prefer to believe the chronicle, lol. Vikings were an impressive race physically. I wonder what other races were doing at the time, I can't imagine they were more particular with their hygiene most of them, more likely to be worse.

Venetia Green said...

Thanks for reading my rant, Janet, Cassandra and Maggi! There were all sorts of other points I was tempted to raise, but the post was quite long enough already.
The thing about the Vikings is that, what with their invading Britain, Ireland, France, etc. quite a lot of Caucasian people can trace a link to them. I think we still like to feel we have something of the blonde barbarian in us, if at a safe distance.

Alison Stuart said...

Ewwww... I only watched the first episode. Not sure I want to watch any more! I did remark that it was refreshing to see a viking program WITHOUT helmets with horns!
Thank you for this timely and fascinating post, Venetia!

Alison Stuart said...

I forgot to add...that my view of viking history is now entirely coloured by too much watching of Horrible Histories...

Venetia Green said...

I think I'd have been relieved at the presence of horns, Alison, coz at least then they'd be taking the piss!
And I can't believe I've never watched that episode of Horrible Histories. Guess what I'll be watching tonight?

Jemi Fraser said...

I haven't watched that yet - not so sure I want to see the snot scenes!! It's always interesting to see how people clamp onto one idea in history and base the rest of their ideas on it!

Barnabas-Francis MacPhail said...

The monks at Lindisfarne were portrayed in Franciscan habits with Rosaries neither of which existed until around 400 years later. Historical inaccuracy is ridiculous in this day and age of the internet - it is just plain laziness!!

Elizabeth said...

As I recall Eaters of the Dead (the book) did not downplay slave rape. I was surprised to find that major aspect of the book left out of the movie. But I could be wrong--maybe it downplayed rape but still included a lot of public sexuality. Also, I'd love to read more about the primary sources you used to support the clean/hygienic version of the viking story. When I first ready Eaters of the Dead I was very interested in the idea of sharing snot--did Ibn Fadlan really describe such a practice? Isn't it possible that they really did this but were regarded as hygienic nonetheless? (For example, maybe they did this semi-privately? Perhaps it added to their hair styles like a medieval gel or had some real or imagined medical benefit.)