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.
I had the immense pleasure of seeing Robert Eggers’ The Northman (Focus Features, 2022) yesterday and I’m still very much enthralled by it. I greatly encourage anyone with even the slightest interest in Old Norse Religion–whether that interest is based in academia or in a lived personal spiritual tradition or both–to see this film at once. Let it transport you to 9th century Northern Europe, from the desolate coasts of the Orkney Islands to the lushness of the Dnieper River in Kievan Rus to the majestic valleys of Iceland. Indeed, the overall effect of the film on me was equivalent to an intense 2-hour-plus shamanic journey to a sensational Otherworld brimming with wonder and terror. There are thoughtful and deliberate evocations of Old Norse Deities, chiefly Odin and Freyr, that are sustained in the film and add to the feeling that, if you honor these Gods, you’re partaking of something akin to religious communion just from the very act of watching this movie. But make no mistake, as a member in the audience, viewing this film is not a passive experience. If you’re a Heathen or a Witch or a Pagan, this film will call you to participate at a Soul Level. You will, frankly, be shook.
Why Couldn’t Studying Shakespeare’s Hamlet in High School Have Been as Awesome as This Movie?!
NOTE: Spoilers lurk ahead!
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.
This is the story that, roughly 400 years later, would come to inspire Shakespeare’s Hamlet (though it was doubtful Shakespeare learned of it by directly reading Saxo Grammaticus). But that’s about where the similarities end between Shakespeare’s tragedy and the much earlier Old Norse work that inspired it: Shakespeare’s brooding Prince of Denmark, for nearly five acts, spouts soliloquies about ethics and identity, doubts the evidence of his senses when it comes to the ghost of his slain father, and generally engages in a high degree of moral hand-wringing, behaviors that preclude him from the necessary act of killing his murderous uncle Claudius. The Northman’s protagonist, Amleth (played by Alexander Skarsgård), by contrast, has no doubts and no inner, self-sabotaging deterrents from his unwavering pursuit of vengeance for his father’s murder. Even as a young boy, Amleth speaks his life’s purpose into a personal mantra, reciting it with grim resolve:
I will avenge you, father.
I will save you, mother.
I will kill you, Fjöllnir.
This determined young man is the Tony Robbins of the Viking era: we know he’s going to manifest his life goal because he’s going to grow into a hero/anti-hero who’s larger than life. And we can’t help but cheer him along in his bloody quest.
Fate and Family Values
The screenplay of The Northman was jointly done by Robert Eggers and the internationally acclaimed Icelandic author, Sjón. Eggers, known for his love of history and meticulous attention to authentic period detail in the sets, props, and costumes of his films (you can read my review of his 2016 debut film, The Witch, here), was greatly aided in the production of this film’s comprehensive representation of the Viking worldview by archaeologist Neil Price and literary scholar Johanna Katrín Fridriksdottír.
There are comparisons being made between The Northman and early 1980s sword-and-sorcery/fantasy films like Conan the Barbarian (1981) but to me, it’s more accurate to say that The Northman is the summation of every Icelandic Saga I’ve ever read (especially my favorite, Grettir the Strong, with a good deal of influence from Njal’s Saga) as well as every 20th century book by H.R. Ellis Davidson, chiefly Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (Penguin Books, 1964), which details the Old Norse religious worldview with detailed descriptions of the kinds of rituals Viking-era people performed to appease Deities such as Odin or Freyr.
Those rituals, deeply grounded in a shamanistic understanding of the levels of Reality (given visual metaphor by the World Tree known as Yggdråsill) and the interrelatedness of the human living (present and future) and the human dead with Gods and Spirits and the Land, are given poignant, authentic, and visually astounding expression in The Northman. We see in the shamanic, nonordinary consciousness state of mind that Amleth does when his father, King Aurvandil War-Raven (played by Ethan Hawke–who knew his voice could be so gruff!) and mentor Heimir the Fool (played by the endearingly leering Willem Dafoe) begin to instruct him in the wolfish ways of the Berserker. Amleth also learns that the lineage of kings he belongs to in a wondrous Wyrd-thread spun by the Norns can trace its origin point to Odin Himself.
“Always live without fear,” Heimir informs young Amleth, “for your fate is set and you cannot escape it.”
In a nod to the Norse Myth of Odin receiving counsel from the head of Mimir after the latter is decapitated, The Northman features an unforgettable scene of a cave-dwelling “He-Witch” (played by my favorite Icelandic actor, Ingvar Sigurdsson: he who played Grendel in the 2006 Beowulf & Grendel opposite Gerard Butler), shamanically evoking the spirit of Heimir to speak through his decapitated, well-preserved head to Amleth once the latter tracks his foe Fjöllnir (played by Claes Bang) to Iceland.
The Rus: Depictions of the Slavs and Witchy Women
The Fate-full catalyst for Amleth, discovering that his murderous uncle Fjöllnir has fled to Iceland to set up a farmstead there with the abducted Queen Gudrún (played by Nicole Kidman), happens when Amleth and his gang of raging Berserkers, sailing deep into the land of the Rus, attack a village of Slavic people. The Rus men, no match for the Berserkers’ savagery and axes, are slaughtered within minutes. The children, horrifically, are rounded up and burned alive in a building while the women are gathered and clapped into iron chains, taken as slaves. I’ll admit, even though I knew that a scene like this would be featured in the movie, I was unprepared for it emotionally: The sight of a line of women as newly captured slaves, marched off single-file by the massive iron rings around their necks, had me spontaneously burst into tears. I can only chalk it up as a powerful triggering of some awful past-life recall. I clasped my hand to my mouth to stifle my cries of horror and stared wide-eyed at the scene of human trafficking and misery unfolding before me.
Mercifully, the camera angle panned not long after to Amleth, wearily approaching a wooden building that we the Pagan/Heathen/Witch audience members can immediately and unequivocally tell is a Sacred Precinct, a temple dedicated to Slavic Gods. And sure enough, Amleth encounters a female Seer (played by Björk). Standing before a massive wooden statue of Svetovit, the Slavic God of War and Divination (I did an inner happy dance upon beholding this statue!) Who looks out into the four cardinal directions (hence He has four faces), the Seer begins to pluck at her spindle and cryptically utter words of prophecy before an amazed Amleth. This is no ordinary woman, and Amleth recognizes her uncanny presence and respects her for it, but an avatar of the Slavic Goddess Mokosh, a Fate-spinning Mother Goddess often depicted holding a skein of carded sheep’s wool. The Seer affirms Amleth’s understanding of his Fate and sets him off on the next leg of his journey, which involves trading in his noble stature and disguising himself as a slave in order to board the ship bound for his enemy’s shores. It is at this moment Amleth’s fate becomes woven with a fellow slave’s, Olga of the Birch Forest (played by the amazing Anya Taylor-Joy). The two join forces as co-conspirators against Fjöllnir in Iceland with a love element added to the mix; in the future, Olga will bear Amleth fraternal twins, and we see their little strands of Wyrd join the Tree of Kings, Amleth’s Odinic family tree.
Olga is also a powerful Witch in her own right, a devotee of Moist Mother Earth, into Whose bosom she offers prayers of gratitude and petitions for Her aid, knowing that Amleth’s cause is just. Towards the end of the film, when Olga boards a ship bound for the Orkney Islands, she powerfully utters spells (and here I think Anya Taylor-Joy spoke her lines in Russian rather well) to unleash the North Winds and send her ship sailing fast on its mission.
A Treasure Trove of Literary and Other References for Old Norse Enthusiasts
Not long after arriving in Iceland, Amleth discovers the reason why his uncle Fjöllnir relocated there: the lands he stole by murdering his brother King Aurvandil were, in turn, stolen by the Norse King Harald Fairhair. So Fjöllnir fled to Iceland and traded in his regal (albeit stolen) garb for a farmer’s tunic and breeches, but farming life in Iceland is precarious, to say the least, especially when there’s an active volcano on the island(!), so it’s no surprise for a Heathen/Pagan/Witch audience member of this film to learn that Fjöllnir and his household are all devotees of the ithyphallic God Freyr, the Lord of Peace and Plenty.
So in the brothers and Kings of this film we see the contrast between the Aesir (King Aurvandil War-Raven is a devotee of Odin) and the Vanir (the false King Fjöllnir is a devotee of Freyr). Intriguingly, and I am certain this was an intentional detail on Eggers’ part, when Aurvandil is murdered, he is surrounded by men with spears who form the six-sided rune Hagal as they stab him. Hagal, the rune of Chaos. Hagal, the rune of Hel, Odin’s enemy, the Daughter of Loki Who keeps Odin’s son Baldr imprisoned in Her hall in the Underworld.
But things come full circle at the climax when the murderous Fjöllnir and the vengeful Amleth meet for their reckoning, where else, but in the Gates of Hel located deep within the smoldering horrors of the active Icelandic volcano.
Again, these are all poignant details rooted in Old Norse cosmology that would fly past the attention of a mundane audience member, but clued-in, runically savvy Heathens/Pagans/Witches get it!
Interestingly enough, as I was deciding what to wear and accessorize myself with before leaving the house to go see this film with a dear friend who is a fellow Polytheistic Pagan (but one who does not honor the Gods of the Norse in his own domestic cultus), something told me to put on my beaded gemstone and deer antler necklace I made years ago that honors the God Freyr. I haven’t worn it in a while, but I felt compelled to put in on at the last minute. And I think that, and all the scenes of cultic sacrifice to Freyr in the movie, was hugely important and almost like a personal message to me.
Another depiction of verified-by-historical-sources sacrifice detailed in The Northman is the amazing scene of the ritual slaying of both horse and slave girl to accompany their master, the slain Thórir (played by Gustav Lindh), son of Fjöllnir, into the Afterlife. The literary source of this moment comes to us from a 10th century Arab chronicler and diplomat to Vikings in the Rus, a man named Ibn Fadlan, who witnessed a Viking funeral on the Volga River and recorded in painstaking detail the treatment of the slave girl and the elaborate ritual that preceded her throat cutting.
I wanted to clap when I saw this scene! The only other film that I know of that has depicted this detailed sacrificial killing was in the wonderful 1999 action-adventure film, The 13th Warrior.
Again, if you’re familiar with this academic research, if it means something to you personally, you just unlocked a new level of understanding and appreciation for the painstaking research that went into The Northman. If you’re not familiar with it, if Ibn Fadlan’s travels along the Volga River have never crossed your historical radar before, then this scene was merely a bizarrely grotesque, maybe even over-the-top, dramatic moment for you in this film.
Unforgettably Atmospheric Cinematography and Music Score
Detractors of this film will surely focus on the unapologetic depictions of violence, but remember, it’s not there to be gratuitous: Robert Eggers is dedicated to immersing you in a worldview that is clearly alien from your own. We are products of the ages we live in. Amleth the Northman is a product of his age. Just as the villagers and beleaguered family in The Witch, Eggers’ debut film, were products of their Colonial America mindset. Just as we are products of our age.
But don’t let that Viking-era violence dissuade you from experiencing the many wonders of this film, one which is enhanced by its gloomy cinematography of stunning landscapes (Scotland, Ukraine, Iceland) and Otherworldly music. Mark Korvath scored The Witch and I was wondering if he would do so here. He didn’t; The Northman was scored by Björk’s collaborators Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, and that’s more than okay by me. The pounding vocals during the fight scenes (especially the climax inside the volcano), the folk songs in Icelandic, ritual music everywhere with period stringed instruments and percussion accompanying frenzied heart beats…I thought the music was perfect and exquisitely done, harrowing at times. Bravo!
A Bold Work Needed to Jolt Us Out of Trite Hollywood Fare
The Northman is a breath of fresh air on so many levels. For me, it seems like there is little to want to see on the big screen. I’m not into films based on comic book characters and their seemingly endless, and now increasingly interconnected, story lines and franchises being churned out every few months by major Hollywood studios. What’s worth seeing on the big screen? This movie is. It demands being seen at your local cinema house, enveloping you in Dolby Surround sound. Watching this at home on your own TV, no matter how big your screen and how good your sound system is, is not going to cut it. Treat this like the Otherworldly immersion that it is and go see it with fellow members of the human race. Viscerally react to it together.
I don’t think Odin would want it any other way.