Still waters

Vikings feast at Ravensborg, Knox City, Mo.

I’ve already savaged the History Channel Vikings TV series in this space, but I have something new to say about it today. I think I may have found the source of one of its (many) errors.

Watching the two episodes I endured, I got the impression that the script writers had blocked out their story first of all, based on their preconceptions of what Viking life was like, and then went hunting through history books for authentic details to sprinkle around, sometimes without any understanding of context.

One of the many moments I disliked in the series was when, on the eve of a voyage, the Vikings brought out a ceremonial bowl of water and passed it around, splashing it on their faces and blowing their noses into it, as a sort of corporate team building exercise.

I knew where this idea came from – the 921 AD account of Norsemen in Russia by the Muslim diplomat Ibn Fadlan (whose account formed the basis for Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead, on which the movie The Thirteenth Warrior was based). Ibn Fadlan describes, with palpable disgust, how the Viking company washed up this way in the morning. There’s no suggestion of any greater purpose; it’s just the northerners’ culturally inferior standard of hygiene.

I’m still reading Robert Ferguson’s The Vikings: A History (almost half way through; enjoying it), and I found there the following passage:

With the Volga flowing by outside, the economy would seem unnecessary. Perhaps some bonding ritual was involved that reinforced the group identity and strengthened its internal loyalty.

It would appear that Ferguson’s book was one of the sources the TV writers skimmed, and they grabbed up this bit of speculation as just the kind of gross-out detail they were looking for. But Ferguson doesn’t footnote the sentence. It’s just a guess.

My own guess, based on a conversation with author Michael Z. Williamson, who’s a Middle East war veteran and has some familiarity with Islamic customs, is that what offended Ibn Fadlan was simply the fact that the Norsemen washed in still water in a bowl. Under Islamic law, true washing always requires running water. Still water is unclean. Even if the thralls refilled the bowl for each man, it would still be a pollution in Ibn Fadlan’s eyes.

He was also, in the opinion of most historians, not beyond exaggerating from time to time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.