The Northman

The Northman ★★★½

Robert Eggers weakest movie for me and it’s still pretty cool. Often silly, but also pretty cool.

I’m so glad we got Óðinn’s Eye (shameless plug) out a good six months before this movie dropped. I mean, millions of people saw this and maybe, I don’t know, thirty or forty thousand people read our comic book - maybe less, maybe more, I don’t look at the numbers - so it doesn’t really matter, but there are certainly some thematic similarities going on between the two. Most of which are inevitable, considering the similar subject matter. We’re certainly pulling from the same works and inspirations, though we come to very different visions.

Anyway, the point is, I did a huge amount of research in this space for like two years. So here’s my handy guide to having more fun watching and thinking about The Northman.

- The two ravens we see at the beginning are most likely Huginn and Muninn, the ravens that bring Óðinn the gossip of man. When a raven appears, it means the Allfather (the Hanging God, etc. Óðinn has many, many names) is watching.

- Ethan Hawk’s character is named King Aurvandill. Aurvandill is a figure in Germanic mythology. Thor, one of Óðinn’s sons, tosses Aurvandill’s severed frozen toe into the sky to form a star. Aurvandill, like many characters in the myths, changed and morphed and became different things to different cultures and peoples over time, but he was mostly associated with the rising “star” Venus.

- Amleth, our protagonist, was the character from Germanic legend that directly inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

- Gudrun, Amleth’s mother, and Aurvandill’s queen in this film, is the name of the wife of Siegfried in Germanic heroic legend. She is believed to have her composite origins in Ildico, last wife of Attila the Hun, and two queens from the Merovingian dynasty, Brunhilda of Austrasia and Fredegund, Queen consort of Chilperic I. According to the Atlakviða Eddic, “She caused the death of three kings of a nation, bright lady, before she died.”

- The Seeress, played by Bjork, tells Amleth that he will beget a “Maiden-King” daughter. This might be a reference to the Nítíða saga. A medieval Icelandic romance saga composed in probably in the fourteenth century. The saga questions gender and power and seems rather progressive considering the time and place during which it was written.

- The pretty badly CGI rendered vixen that Amleth encounters in Iceland is most likely a fylgja, a supernatural being who aids a person in achieving their fate (there's a lot of dissonance around fate in old norse belief systems. On the one hand you can’t outrun it - so they’re a predeterminism people. On the other hand - you need help achieving it. It’s no more filled with logic holes than any modern religious belief, though). Many believe that your thread of fate was woven by the Norns into that of a companion animal's, so that you both shared the same fate. This animal companion would scout ahead of you in life, discover the traps and also the glories of your fate, and try their best to keep you on the path.

- The scene with the he-witch (uncommon that men operated in this space, but not impossible) with the severed head of the jester Heimir, echos back to Óðinn’s keeping of the herb-embalmed head of the wise man Mímir, who had previously brokered the sacrificing of Óðinn’s eye in exchange for wisdom - or poetry, depending on the translation - as counsel.

- The magic sword that Amleth quests for is called Draugr in this film, but in fact, a draugr is what the undead warrior who slumbers in the tumulus grave mound with the sword in his hands is called. A Draugr, or a barrow-dweller with the potential to be an again-walker, is a monster from Germanic legend. We saw Game of Thrones make a lot of these characters with their white-walkers. The burial mound in the film is found near the mouth of Hel because in various late Icelandic sources, many different figures from Norse mythology are buried with items that will facilitate their journey to Hel after their death. This is obviously one of them. You can see that this great king of ancient times was buried with his longboat. A common way to mound the wealthy dead in Norse cultures.

- The ball game they play here is real, though we don’t know too much about its actual rules. It’s called Knattleikr.

- The volcano in the film is Hekla, which erupted in 874, and has had many eruptions since.

- The depiction of Hel here is not really inline with most Norse depictions, and is very influenced by Christian teachings of the after-life. In fact, almost everything referenced in this movie, and most of what we know about Germanic mythology, was recorded after Christianization. This was something that, in our comic book, Óðinn’s Eye, we tried to deal with. Our book takes place some three hundred years before this movie, and we really tried to tear the Christian influences away from the Norse mythologies in our work. An impossible task (but a fun creative one) not the least of which because Christian teachings themselves have roots in the ancient Indo-European migrations. There is no PURE culture. Everything has touched everything else going all the way back to before memory.

- And as usual, with all viking related pop culture media, we are once again led to believe that ancient norse culture had one single afterlife called Valhalla, where Allfather’s corpse hall and battlefields are located. But there were several afterlives (Hel being one of them, and not a place of damnation, like Hell is) and it wasn’t necessarily how you died that dictated where you went. Sometimes the Valkyrie made the choice of which afterlife you were bound for on their own. Allfather Óðinn’s battlefields were not even the only endless war-games happening in the afterlife either, as the dead continued their training and battle preparation for when Ragnarok would come and they would all have to choose sides in the many great battles that would manifest at the end of All Things.

Okay, I’ll leave it there. I had fun watching this. It's a little cold. It's a little distant. I don't think it's a fair representation of the the way the norther European peoples viewed themselves or thought about their heroes, fate, or myths, it's relentlessly modern in that way, but I enjoyed looking at the video game style imagery.

(If you're interested in reading more about Pre-Germanic and Germanic thought pre and post Christianization, check out my write up of VIRGIN SPRING.)

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