The Northman is a cinematic depiction of Viking society in the late ninth century. Co-written and directed by Robert Eggers (who previously directed two horror movies) and starring Alexander Skarsgård (who had long been interested in Viking history and mythology and was instrumental in getting Eggers involved), it is a refreshing attempt at historical realism in an age where having an all-White cast is seen as culturally subversive. Worse for our current cultural literati, it provides a positive portrayal of what would be seen as extreme “toxic” masculinity among White men at a time when emasculated White men are common throughout the media. Surprisingly perhaps, the film has gotten excellent mainstream reviews, with many commenting on its stunning visual qualities (it was filmed in Northern Ireland) and its gripping storyline. I completely agree. It kept me enthralled from beginning to end. If you want to see the movie, I suggest not reading this until after you’ve seen it. Lots of plot giveaways.
What interests me here is how accurately the film comports with Viking culture as presented as a prototypical Indo-European culture in Chapter 2 of my book, Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition.
Swearing an Oath
Fundamentally, The Northman is a tale of revenge—a common enough human emotion, but here with the added twist that Amleth (the main character, played by Skarsgård) has sworn an oath to avenge his father, King Aurvandill. Aurvandill had been killed by his brother, Amleth’s uncle Fjölnir who then seized the king’s wife and property. Revenge is thus Amleth’s all-encompassing duty.
It is difficult for us to imagine the importance and seriousness of swearing a public oath in a religious ceremony in traditional Indo-European (I-E) culture. I-E culture was fundamentally individualist—one of the two powerful strands of Western European individualism, along with northern hunter-gatherers. And within I-E cultures, reputation, in this case as an 0ath-keeper) is far more important than kinship in determining one’s status. Thus avenging his father is an absolute, religiously tinged duty, far more important than, say, seeking a quiet family life. Duty above all else. At the end of the movie, Amleth has succeeded in escaping his uncle’s farm where he and others had been held as slaves and after killing many of his uncle’s people, including his eldest son Thorir, his wife (Amleth’s mother, played by Nicole Kidman), and her young son by Fjölnir, Gunnar. But he hadn’t killed his uncle, so he goes back to his uncle’s farm for the final confrontation, despite earnest pleading from his pregnant (with twins) wife to accompany her to safety among anther branch of Amleth’s kin.
Oaths were a central component of the Männerbund (other terms: korios, comitatus), “the warrior brotherhood bound by oath to one another and to their ancestors during a ritually mandated raid.” The formation of voluntary war-bands held together by oaths, camaraderie, and a common self-interest was a fundamental characteristic of these chiefdoms. This was a time when social status and rank were still openly determined by one’s heroic deeds and by the number of followers or clients one could attract and retain.
In the absence of kinship ties, reputation becomes the standard for relationships. Andrew Fraser notes that oath-taking was and remains a peculiarly English pre-occupation, so much so that “the commonplace spectacle of Third World immigrants reciting oaths of allegiance at naturalization ceremonies is calculated to warm the hearts of WASPs committed heart and soul to the constitutionalist creed of civic nationalism.” Oath-taking is a public affirmation that is fundamentally about one’s reputation. It is, of course, a bit of WASP egoism to assume other peoples have a similar sense of public trustworthiness:
WASPs are trusting souls. For that very reason they can be exploited easily by those who promise one thing and do another. … Mass Third World immigration imposes enormous risks upon Anglo-Saxon societies grounded in unique patterns of trusting behavior that evolved over many centuries. If newcomers do not accept the burdens entailed by the civic culture of the host society—most notably the need to forswear one’s pre-existing racial, ethnic and religious allegiances—they are bound to reduce the benefits of good citizenship for the host Anglo-Saxon nation. (Andrew Fraser, The WASP Question (Arktos, 2011), 57, 64)
All evidence indicates that these groups will not forswear such allegiances, any more than Jews have forsworn their ethnic and religious allegiances despite centuries of living among Europeans.
Berserkers and Shape-Shifting
Two characteristics of I-E culture apparent in the film that always struck me are the berserkers and shape-shifting. Young boys “had to go out and become like a band of dogs or wolves—to raid their enemies.” All young men went out on raids as part of their initiation into the group. Berserkers attacked their enemies in a trance-like frenzy that is apparent in several scenes. Emotional intensity at a fever pitch that was embedded in religion. Odin the god of the Männerbünde is also the “god of battle rage.”.
The concept is connected to a belief in shape-shifting wherein the soul is disengaged from the body and can roam as a wolf or a bear, at which time it can engage in superhuman heroic deeds. Snorri Sturluson, the medieval chronicler of the Norse sagas, writes: “Woden’s men went without hauberks [armor] and raged like dogs or wolves. They bit their shields and were strong like bears or bulls. They killed men but neither fire nor iron hurt them. This is called berserkgangr.” Young men were initiated into the Männerbünde by mock hanging and were taught berserker techniques.
Amleth as a Berserker
Amleth as a Shape-Shifting Berserker becomes a wolf.
Hypermasculinity of Norse Society
Indo-European culture was far from sexually egalitarian—what one might term “hyper-masculine.” Lotte Hedeager’s Iron Age Myth and Materiality: An Archaeology of Scandinavia, AD 400–1000 paints a picture of a completely militarized society in which male sexual penetration was a marker of power, while being penetrated was, for a male, the ultimate insult. Accusing a man of having been sodomized was a grievous accusation, with the same penalty as for murder. Older males lacking the power or ability to penetrate took on the status of women and were even ridiculed by slaves. Women were seen as legitimate spoils of war and raiding, and such women were typically enslaved.
This is relevant to the plot of The Northman: Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún, was originally captured by Amleth’s father, Aurvandill, whom Gudrún describes as a rapist whom she passionately hated. When Aurvandill is killed by his brother Fjölnir, she becomes Fjölnir’s wife and bears him a son. She has much more positive feelings toward Fjölnir than for Aurvandill. Women as spoils of war.
The following passage from Hedeager gets at this hyper-masculine, completely militarized culture that appears to have been characteristic of I-E culture in northwestern Europe at least from 2500 bc until the Middle Ages:
In the extremely competitive and aggressive Scandinavian society in which blood feuds were taking place everywhere, often lasting for many years and several generations …, the concept of honour evolved around reputation, respect and prestige [i.e., not one’s place in a kinship group. as was typically the case in non-individualist cultures]. Social life and reputation were hierarchically organised and arranged according to dominance and submission, powerful and powerless. At the bottom of the social scale, female thralls [slaves] were routinely subjected to rape and traded as sexual subjects. In the account of a Viking market at Volga in 922, the Arab diplomat Ibn Fadlan describes how the Vikings (the Scandinavian Rus) regularly had sex with their slaves, often in public, and in groups of both sexes. This activity took place both in front of potential buyers and their own formal partners, whether wives or girlfriends, who seemed unaffected … . Rape of a free woman, however, was a serious matter … .
Within this social hierarchy, power was explicitly connected with metaphors for penetration—by the sword, penis, or tongue. Those who penetrated—with words, with weapons, or with the phallus—were the powerful (“males”); those who became penetrated were the powerless (“females”). In a social setting, sexuality provided a symbolic code for dominance and submission, throwing light on power and thus status differences … . The most severe accusations in the Old Norse society evolved around “effeminacy” and penetration, implying that sexuality and hostility were two sides of the same coin.
I was surprised by the scene toward the end when Amleth reveals himself to Gudrún as her son. I expected Gudrún to be overjoyed at seeing her long-lost son, but instead she lashed out at him and admitted that she had asked Fjölnir to kill Aurvandill and Amleth, and that she prefers Fjölnir and their new son Gunnar. Amleth kills her after she attacks him, and he accidentally kills Gunnar. Assuming this could actually happen, it would indicate that despite the relatively low position of women, they could seek power by influencing men. The evolutionary psychology of her choice is a bit muddled; both Amleth and Gunnar are her sons and if anything, she should choose to favor the older (because he is already of reproductive age), but I suppose the hatred engendered by Aurvandill raping her overshadowed everything else—an example where a proximal mechanism (hatred of being raped, attraction to another’s relative kindness) trumps ultimate evolutionary logic. She was a prize in the fratricidal war between Fjölnir and Aurvandill, but apparently Fjölnir was relatively kind to her. Nevertheless, within the context of the story, the audience had been led to see Amleth’s quest as noble, to hope for his success, and to see Fjölnir as evil. The sudden reversal toward the end is jarring.
I-E Social Mobility
Another point of intersection with traditional I-E culture is that social mobility was possible. Men who had talent as warriors could move up in the culture—essentially it was a free market culture based on military talent, either organizational or fighting ability. Here Amleth is chosen as a slave by Fjölnir because of his physique and presumed fighting ability, and later, Amleth is on the side of Fjölnir and Thorir in an extremely violent game (Icelandic: knattleikr) where players club their opponents to gain an advantage, quite possibly with lethal consequences. Amleth excels at the game and comes to the rescue of the young Gunnar who is about to be murderously clubbed by an opponent. As a reward, Thorir lightens Amleth’s work load, and he allows him to supervise others and to be married to the beautiful Olga with whom he had already developed a bond. But he tells Amleth that he will always be a slave.
This reminds us that I-E culture had a strong role for reciprocity rather than total despotism. At the heart of I-E culture was the practice of gift-giving as a reward for military accomplishment. Successful leaders were expected to reward their followers handsomely. Oath-bound contracts of reciprocal relationships were characteristic of I-Es and this practice continued with the various I-E groups that invaded Europe. These contracts formed the basis of patron-client relationships based on reputation—leaders could expect loyal service from their followers, and followers could expect equitable rewards for their service to the leader. This is critical because these relationships are based on talent and accomplishment, not ethnicity (i.e., rewarding people on the basis of kinship distance) or despotic subservience (where followers are essentially unfree). But progress from slave to completely free was slow, and, according to some scholars, could take several generations. Amleth will always be a slave in Fjölnir’s eyes.
Another thing that surprised and frankly horrified me was the aftermath of a successful raid on a Rus fortified village when many of the villagers were herded into a thatch-roofed building and then burned alive. The raiders made off with booty and some slaves (presumably the able-bodied men and desirable [fertile] females) but seem to have murdered the rest—men, women, and children. Such behavior was not typical of many of the I-E groups that invaded Europe. Instead of simply raiding, conquering I-E groups typically developed settled among the people they conquered and developed relationships of domination and subordination between the new military elites and the conquered peoples, providing protection in return for service. This is a prescription for feudal-type societies dominated by military elites with mutual obligations to the people they dominate, but in which kinship ties between elites and the people they dominate are relatively unimportant and ultimately permeable. But the raid on the Rus village is not intended as a permanent settlement, with disastrous consequences for the villagers
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The Northman depicts a society that is quite foreign to contemporary sensibilities. It’s unlikely many of us would want to live in it—unless one was able to be a male in a successful Männerbund. But, as it is said, uneasy lies the head that wears the crown—a lesson that could hardly have been lost on Fjölnir. In any case, there’s no denying that the society selected for strong men—something we definitely need now.
The deep question is how such a violent, hierarchical culture developed eventually into the highly egalitarian Scandinavian cultures we see today. My short answer is that the I-E’s dominated a far more egalitarian hunter-gatherer majority and that the latter eventually came to dominate the area—a theory spelled out in Individualism and the Western Liberal Tradition.
 Ibid., 239; emphasis in text.
 Ibid., 364.
 Duchesne, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, 398.aa
 Hans-Peter Hasenfratz, Barbarian Rites, trans. Michael Moynihan (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions, 2011; original German edition, Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany: Verlag Herder, 1992), 49.
 Michael Speidel, “‘Berserks’: A History of Indo-European ‘Mad Warriors,’” Journal of World History 13, no. 2 (1992): 253–90, 253–54.
 Hasenfratz, Barbarian Rites, 64–65.
 Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language.
 Lotte Hedeager, Iron Age Myth and Materiality: An Archaeology of Scandinavia, AD 400–1000 (London: Routledge, 2011).
 Ibid., 115–18.
 Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, 238.
 Ibid., 303
 Ibid., 343.
 Duchesne, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, 438.
 Ibid., 379.
 Interestingly, Duchesne describes Stalin as a classic despot. Stalin, from Georgia, is said to have had a despotic Oriental personality, surrounding himself with “slavish characters” and continuing to need “choruses of public approval to reinforce his ego.” Duchesne, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization, 424.
 Herodotus, Histories 7, 136.
 Haak, et al., “Massive Migration from the Steppe Was a Source for Indo-European Languages in Europe.”
 Kristian Kristiansen, et al. (“Re-Theorising Mobility and the Formation of Culture and Language among the Corded Ware Culture in Europe, Antiquity 9, no. 356 (2017): 334–347.
 Haak et al., “Ancient DNA, Strontium isotopes, and osteological analyses shed light on social and kinship organization of the Later Stone Age, Proceedings of the national Academy of Science 105, no. 47 (November 25, 2008): 18226–18231
 Ibid., 343.
 Anthony, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language, 343.