The Odinic versus The Freyic: Pagan Morality & Moral Ambiguity in The NorthmanC. J. Miller
Robert Eggers’ The Northman has been widely praised for its stunning visuals, compelling performances, the creativity of its reimagination of Skakespeare’s Hamlet story (itself inspired by Saxo Grammaticus’ Amleth), and for the rich and engrossing world it creates, but criticism has also described the plot as rote, shallow when it tries to be profound, and nihilistic.
Reception aside, it is a thoroughly pagan film. This may seem an asinine observation, so obvious it is not worth stating, but in fact the pagan themes go much deeper than mere aesthetics. The Northman is certainly bleak, violent, and tragic, but it is far from amoral. While Amleth is clearly the protagonist, and Fjölnir clearly the antagonist, several key revelations introduce an element of moral ambiguity, contravening expectations of a traditional “good guy versus bad guy” narrative — and yet, each man behaves in accordance with a moral code determined by his fate, as well as by the opposing cults they have devoted themselves to: the Odinic for Amleth, the Freyic for Fjölnir. On the exoteric level, the story is a relatively simple tale of revenge, albeit with some plot twists and pagan motifs and aesthetics overlaid upon it. But on a more esoteric level, the film explores the contrasting, and in this case conflicting, spiritualities and moralities of the cult of Odin and the cult of Freyr, as well as the tangled web of fate that binds us all.
The film opens with a shot of two ravens flying over a fleet of ships on the stormy grey North Atlantic, establishing a recurring Odinic motif with the very first shot. King Aurvandill returns to the seat of his small kingdom from a successful campaign, his triumphal procession laden with stolen treasure and slaves. Seeing him riding up the snowy path towards their hall, his wife Gudrún exclaims, “Odin has brought him home.” In light of later revelations, this may not be exactly a remark of gratitude to the god, but a recrimination.
As Aurvandill greets his family at his hall, the audience is introduced to his brother Fjölnir. Even his name has significance for the Freyic motif, as according to Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga Saga, Fjölnir is the name of Freyr’s son. A lewd innuendo from the court jester Heimir alluding to Gudrún’s infidelity draws an angry rebuke from Fjölnir: “Silence, dog! By Freyr, you slander your lord and mistress!” Fjölnir swears upon his god to emphasise his scorn, and thus within the first few minutes, the two main deities in the film are both invoked. Aurvandill comes to the defence of Heimir the Fool, who we later learn also acts as the King’s Odinic shaman, because he is not only an old friend, but also serves an important priestly function for Aurvandill’s chief deity. Fjölnir, on the other hand, has no such regard for Heimir, for not only is the old fool threatening to reveal his affair with Gudrún, but Fjölnir also has no reason to respect him, as he does not share in their worship of Odin.
When Aurvandill later mentions preparing his young son Amleth to succeed him, Gudrún protests that “he is still a puppy,” one of many instances of Amleth being personified as a dog — or more accurately, as we later see, as a wolf of Odin. This is to become a recurring motif throughout the film.
There is a somewhat bemused look on Gudrún’s face when Aurvandill insists he must not grow old, but must die by the sword in battle — a fate befitting a man dedicated to Odin. And as we see later, indeed he does, which relates to one of the film’s primary themes: fate, and in this case specifically, a fate which is influenced by the god to whom one is most devoted, though this fate often manifests differently from how one expects.
Amleth’s initiation ritual is one of the film’s key sequences. On their way to the place of initiation, Aurvandill tells his son, “This is the same path I walked with my father, and he with his; Now, it is our path to walk.” Of course, this refers both to the literal path towards the place where the ritual will take place, as well as to the path of fate of Odinic kings.
The ritual takes place in an Odinic temple with a large runestone depicting the one-eyed god flanked by his ravens. Amleth and his father descend a ladder into a pit under the temple, symbolically passing through a portal to the underworld — the spirit world, the world of his ancestors. Though still very young, once the ritual is completed, Amleth will ascend the ladder to the over-world as a man.
Aurvandill instructs Amleth to follow his lead, and the two drop to all fours, snarling and howling, acting as wolves. Heimir the Fool, now acting in his capacity as an Odinic shaman, challenges them: “Who barks? Is it the wolves of the High One? Or is it the barking of the village dogs?” Setting bowls full of liquid before them, he instructs them: “Drink the mead of knowledge, to learn what it is to live and die in honour, to be in battle slain, and in death rewarded by the Valkyrie’s embrace.” From this initiation onwards, Amleth’s fate is not his own to determine. Indeed, perhaps it never was.
Whatever substance was contained in the bowls that Heimir called “the mead of knowledge” induces a trance-like state. Heimir and Aurvandill speak in prophecies, of which two of the most important fragments stand out. Aurvandill tells Amleth that should he fall by the enemy’s sword, Amleth must avenge him, or forever live in shame. This Amleth swears to do. Heimir follows up, “And live always without fear, for your fate is set and you cannot escape it.”
When Amleth is made to place his hand in the open wound in his father’s belly to witness in his blood the “Tree of Kings,” Amleth’s vision of an ethereal family tree shows him his ancestors hanging from branches of the tree by their necks, as Odin did, and as was the historical method of human sacrifice to the hanged god. In his vision, Amleth sees his father hanging from the tree, and himself above him, holding the branch from which his father hangs, having succeeded him as King.
Aurvandill meets his fate in the very next scene, receiving a death in battle of sorts, though it is more like a murder, and he is quickly overcome by his brother’s men. Fjölnir’s fratricide, and his capture and presumed rape of his brother’s wife Gudrún, set Fjölnir up as the clear antagonist of the film, but later events will call into question whether, set against Amleth, he can accurately be called the “bad guy.”
Years later, Amleth is a grown man in the prime of his life and, exiled from his Kingdom, has become an Ulfheðinn (literally, “wolf hood”). He travels with a pack of other warriors dedicated to Odin in the long tradition of the warrior Männerbund that can trace its origins all the way back to the proto-Indo-European *kóryos (war band), packs of unmarried young men led by older lifelong warriors who would leave the tribe to go raiding and warring together in an initiation to adulthood before rejoining the tribe and settling down as fully-grown men. With his fellow Ulfheðnar, he leads a life of raiding, rape, and pillage, still without having avenged his father as he swore to do. In a ceremony led by one of these older lifelong warriors who doubles as an Odinic priest wearing a horned helmet, the young warriors chant and perform a spear dance around a fire wearing their wolf hoods, then drop to their knees and enter a trance, transcending their everyday selves and ritually transforming into wolves of Odin.
The next morning, they conduct a raid on a Slavic village that introduces an element of moral ambiguity to Amleth’s character. In a bloodlust and battle-frenzy, the Ulfeðnar slaughter the villagers, rape the young women, lock the old folk and children in a barn and burn them alive, and sell all those remaining into slavery. Amleth not only actively participates in these atrocities, but in his battle-frenzy appears to enjoy them, even falling upon a Slavic warrior and tearing his throat out with his teeth while howling like a wolf. The film never directly morally condemns him for these actions, and he does not seem conflicted about them. The only thing that seems to weigh on his conscience is the fact that he is far from home raiding when he should be seeking revenge, delaying the fate he knows he must face.
In the raid’s aftermath, Amleth has a vision of a seeress weaving threads — a recurring motif, and a reference to the Norns weaving the threads of fate — who reminds him of what he must do. The next morning, he overhears that a shipment of slaves is bound for the land of a man called Fjölnir the Brotherless. Upon further inquiry, he learns that Fjölnir was exiled from his Kingdom not long after murdering his brother, and is now the middling lord of a sheep farm in Iceland, which the man bearing this news scoffs and sneers at. Reminded of his fate, and guided by a raven, Amleth disguises himself as a slave and sneaks aboard the ship bound for his uncle’s land.
Fjölnir is next seen at his new home in Iceland, engaged in manual farm labour beside his servants and his young son Gunnar. Farming and other such economic, earth-based activity are suitable for a devotee of Freyr, the god primarily associated with peace, prosperity, and fertility. When young Gunnar protests that they are doing slaves’ work, unbecoming of a lord and chieftain, Fjölnir explains that it is never certain whether a man will spend the next Yuletide as a King or a slave, and it is best to be prepared for both — a lesson he learned through direct experience when his Kingdom was absorbed into that of King Harald Fairhair of Norway, and he was sidelined to a backwater as the meager lord of a sheep farm. Both his and Amleth’s lives have taken unexpected turns, but there is a contrast between Amleth’s life as an Odinic warrior and Fjölnir’s as a Freyic farmer.
Meanwhile, his shipment of slaves arrives. While Fjölnir inspects them, he warns a disguised Amleth that if the latter should prove as untrustworthy as a wolf, he will put him down himself. Clearly, wolves have a negative association in his eyes – natural, of course, for a farmer with livestock, and especially for one who has no reason to feel affinity to them, since he is not devoted to the deity primarily associated with them.
That same night, while sneaking around the farm, Amleth witnesses a flock of ravens bothering Gudrún outside her bedroom window with their cawing. On the surface, this very brief scene primarily serves as Amleth’s first sight of his mother since childhood, and a reminder of his purpose: avenge his father, rescue his mother, kill Fjölnir. But on the symbolic level, it further reinforces the motif of the opposing cults: to Amleth, wolves and ravens are good omens, symbols of his god, and even allies; to those in the Freyic cult, they are bothersome, or even threatening.
Direct introduction to Fjölnir’s Freyr-worship comes when Amleth, in his guise as a slave, carries a bundle of straw into Fjölnir’s temple. A priestess reminds him that he enters as a servant of Freyr, which he appears to bristle at, and instructs him to lay the straw at the feet of a large statue of the god. Inside, Fjölnir is wearing white religious vestments, ringing a bell, and singing Galdr, a chanted prayer to his god Freyr.
The next night, while sneaking around the farm again, Amleth follows a vixen to a cave. Inside is a He-witch who seems to have been expecting him, singing Galdr and playing a drum with a stick made of a vixen’s skull and tail, implying the vixen Amleth followed may have been a manifestation of the He-witch shape-shifting and controlling the animal to lead Amleth to him. He holds the severed head of Heimir the Fool, whom he says told him of Amleth. “Poor Heimir,” Amleth remarks in a nod to the Yorick of Shakespeare’s version. The He-witch reveals that Fjölnir cut out Heimir’s tongue, gouged out his eyes, and then killed him, a grave provocation and insult to the cult of Odin. The He-witch works his magick to make Heimir’s head talk, evocative of Odin’s conversation with the severed head of Mimir. Heimir instructs Amleth that he must obtain a magical sword from a barrow with which he will enact his revenge.
Once Amleth has obtained the sword and begins his campaign of terror against his uncle, the first two of Freyr’s men to fall victim Amleth’s revenge are dismembered, butchered, rearranged, and nailed to the side of a barn in a gory likeness of Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse, a further provocation to the Freyr-worshippers. “By Freyr,” swears Fjölnir, “we will have our revenge.”
The next night, during another religious ceremony, in which Fjölnir’s priestess intends to offer a female slave as a human sacrifice to ward off whatever evil force is haunting his farm, wolf howls interrupt Fjölnir’s prayer. When he returns to the temple he finds the slave girl gone, and another of his men disembowelled and hanging upside-down, leaking his entrails onto the bound and gagged priestess of Freyr, who lies on the floor. This is a mortal desecration of the sacred space, and a flagrant mockery of Freyr. Gudrún remarks, “It seems that Freyr has chosen his own sacrifice.” A grim-faced Fjölnir insists, “This is not the work of my god.”
In one of the film’s most pivotal scenes, Amleth reveals himself to his mother Gudrún, only to have his whole world turned upside-down: she reveals that she had conspired with Fjölnir in the murder of Aurvandill, whom she hated, and in order to prevent Amleth seeking revenge, assented to her own son’s murder as well. She complains of Aurvandill’s greed and savagery, contrasting this with Fjölnir’s gentle strength and kindness. She was not always a noble, but a slave, and Amleth, she reveals, was born of rape, for Aurvandill had been nothing more than a brutal raider and slaver himself, a sort of life befitting a man of Odin’s cult — though, of course, not the only one possible, as priests and poets were also devoted to Odin. Again, a degree of moral ambiguity is introduced: the assumption that Aurvandill must have been the “good guy” is thrown into question, and Fjölnir’s actions take on a new light, motivated not only by envy, but also mercy.
Gudrún reveals her slave brand, in the same spot on her upper chest as Amleth’s. Aurvandill had taken her as a slave before he took her as a wife. The Norns weave together the threads of fate, and as his father before him, Amleth too later takes a slave for his wife. Amleth, Gudrún, and Olga all bear the mark of slavery; like all of us, all are slaves to fate.
In shock and enraged by these revelations, Amleth storms over to where Fjölnir’s elder son Thorir lies sleeping, and murders him in his bed, taking his anger out upon him. To further mock Fjölnir, Amleth cuts out Thorir’s heart and steals it.
The next day, Fjölnir’s men manage to capture Amleth. As Fjölnir beats and tortures him in a barn, Amleth shows no fear, insisting that Fjölnir cannot kill him because it is his fate to die in battle. Further, he taunts Fjölnir: “Odin the All-Father will vanquish your god of erections,” the most pointed reference in the film to the competing cults of the gods. Later, a flock of ravens use their beaks to cut the bonds that hold Amleth, freeing him from the barn.
That evening, during a funeral ceremony for Thorir, his body is laid in a ship, and a fine horse and servant girl are sacrificed to accompany him to the hereafter in a Freyic funeral rite. Freyr is associated with horses, and especially with horse sacrifice, and was also said to own a ship called Skíðblaðnir (“slat-built” — that is, made from wooden slats), although laying a body in a ship, whether a real one or simply stones arranged into the shape of one, was a relatively common Germanic funerary practice, and may not have been exclusive to the cult of Freyr. Regardless, the attention to detail and respect for the subject matter are astonishing for a relatively mainstream film.
The Northman‘s most morally muddy turn of events occurs when Amleth is hunting Fjölnir for their final confrontation, and is ambushed by his mother Gudrún. He kills her in self-defense, and when her young son Gunnar flies at him and stabs him several times, Amleth kills him, too. Nothing must get in the way of his revenge — even if it means slaying his own mother and a young child.
Fjölnir comes upon the scene too late. A broken-hearted and shattered man, he solemnly hoists the bodies of his wife and young son to his shoulders, and tells Amleth to meet him at the gates of Hel, where both can finally meet their fate.
To frame this series of events in terms of good and evil in the conventional understanding is wrong-headed, and indeed impossible. Murdering Fjölnir’s young son and his own mother seems wicked, but it was unintended, the result of Amleth’s single-minded pursuit of revenge. To forsake his ancestors and let his father’s murderer get away would be unthinkable as well. In a sense, Fjölnir brought about this horrible fate himself when he murdered his brother. On the other hand, he did this to save the woman he loved from a brutal king who, in the conventional understanding, could not be said to be a “good” man at all. Aurvandill himself, though, as a devotee of Odin and presumably an Ulfheðinn in his own youth, had acted in a way befitting a man of the Odinic cult in his raiding and slaving, and had at least had enough honor to marry the woman he had taken by force and raise their son, Amleth, as his heir. Questions of the “good guy” and “bad guy” we might expect from a Hollywood film are thus irrelevant here: It is more accurate to describe these events as tragic and ill-fated.
Amleth and Fjölnir become entangled in a tragic web of intertwining fates, each morally obligated to enact revenge on the other. Their fates are bound up with each other’s, destined for conflict, and the men’s conflict takes on a spiritual dimension due to their devotion to two different cultic traditions: the Odinic and the Freyic. It is fitting that the two men end up slaying each other in their climactic battle at the gates of Hel, the film’s name for an active volcano in Iceland. It is a suitably violent end to a tragic and bloody tale, and while it is certainly fatalistic, The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw is wrong when he calls the film nihilistic, even if this was meant as praise. Far from nihilistic, The Northman clearly portrays a deeply pagan morality, in which family and honor are paramount, and there is a moral duty to pursue one’s destiny.
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