#Vikings is an intriguing insight into an era vastly different from our own. Tradition and ceremony were regarded with upmost importance, and a life without the gods was a life without meaning.
Over the years, the show has branched off to tell not only the legendary sagas of Ragnar and his fellow Scandinavians, but the story of the devout Christians of England and France. But while the Northmen may appear to be wildly different from their conservative foes across the sea, they're all connected by the same guiding force: Religion.
Spiritual belief is a long-running theme that drives the entire narrative of Vikings, giving us a deeper insightful into the identity and lifeblood of each and every character on the show. In fact, its even more vital to the story than the pivotal concept of revenge— which, although central to the show's events, is merely a reflection of the religious influences that motivate both viking and christian.
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From the very first scene in Vikings Season One, we see Odin scouring the battlefield for dead warriors to take to valhalla. This established not only a strong spiritual element for the show, but showed that the gods were a very real thing to the vikings.
Ragnar has close ties with Odin in both symbology and alleged ancestry. His best friend Floki is even more closely linked to the gods, being one of the most intensely religious characters on the show. He lives his life almost in service to them, and takes his beliefs very seriously; This is reflected every more so in his hatred of Christianity, which basically defines him.
If Floki's devotion to his religion is intense, then Athelstan took it to the next level. The kidnapped monk-turned-slave held fast to his faith even when living amongst the vikings. Hell, he even turned down a threesome with the hottest couple in Kattegat because he was afraid God would be watching. Now that's dedication.
His adoption of the old ways meant a complete rebirth of his identity. Years later, he eventually abandoned servitude to the one true God for a more individualistic lifestyle; One that permitted him to fight, drink and yes, even have sex.
The Cause Of Crisis
Athelstan's presence amongst the vikings not only showed the stark contrast between their two worlds, but posed both an opportunity and a challenge to Ragnar and his way of life. His fascination with christianity lead to an amalgamation of norse spirituality and christian symbology for both Ragnar and Athelstan, as well as creating a jealous rift between Floki and his beloved best friend.
Despite the affordances of his new beliefs, Athelstan again found himself questioning his conversion. He cast off his new norse identity and found solace in Jesus once again, which lead to his untimely death at the hands of a disapproving Floki.
Similarly, Rollo's agreement to be baptised by the Christians in exchange for a ransom payment painted him as a traitor in Floki's eyes; An accusation that the other vikings eventually began to agree with, leading to a sense of distrust amongst the Kattegat residents. For Floki, Ragnar's baptism — although proven to be nothing more than part of an elaborate ruse — is even more of a betrayal against the gods, since his death means he will now go to heaven, not valhalla.
When Ragnar is pretending to be dead inside his coffin, Floki says the following painful words to his fallen friend:
"You betrayed us. You betrayed your heritage."
His disdain of Christianity is matched only by Aslaug, who resents her husband's fascination with Athelstan's faith. It caused even more of a divide between the two, and slowly destroyed their marriage— especially after her remarks about Athelstan's death being insignificant due to him being a Christian.
Of course, Ragnar's experimentation with Christianity is one of the most heavily featured dilemmas on the show. What first started out as an innocent curiosity evolved into a serious predicament for the King, as he struggled with exploring Christianity whilst still maintaining his identity as a viking.
As his life slowly fell apart around him, he began to discredit the gods, who had failed to lead him to glory. Eventually he set aside his pursuit of greatness to the pursuit of death, completely denying the influence of the gods on his life and his fate. For Ragnar, a life without the gods was suddenly all the less meaningful and, to a degree, far less worthwhile. Would he have been so willing to hand himself in to Ecbert if he still held a strong beliefs in the gods?
Religious beliefs have significantly aided character development on Vikings, but how much has it actually impacted the narrative as a whole?
Almost every key event from the last four seasons has been massively influenced by religion. This is because the characters who made the choices that led to those events were completely driven by their core religious beliefs— or loss of them.
Floki has always jealously despised Athelstan, but his discovery that Athelstan had thrown away his viking bracelet as a symbol of abandoning his norse faith was too much. This offence to the gods was sufficient justification for Floki to kill Athelstan. If it were not for his rediscovery of Christianity, Athelstan may very well still be alive:
In fact, Floki himself probably wouldn't be alive if it weren't for his religious beliefs. When their battle plan was shown to be rapidly falling apart during the siege on Paris, Floki contemplated suicide for a brief moment, before quickly stopping himself. Why? Because a viking cannot get to valhalla by taking their own life: They must die in battle, like a true warrior.
It's this same bravery that is echoed by Ragnar in his final moments, when he delivers a rousing speech on his excitement to feast with Odin after his defeat at the hands of Aelle— despite his earlier conversation with the Seer, where he completely denied the gods' influence on his destiny.
Aslaug and Floki's shared hatred of Christianity is something that leaves a strong impression on Ivar. Aslaug asks Floki to mentor Ivar in the ways of the old gods, encouraging him to "teach him to hate the christian god as you hate the christian god". Fostering this hatred in Ivar from such a young age undoubtedly contributed to his dangerously unpredictable personality that we've seen in Season 4B.
For the French and English christians, their disgust at the vikings' barbaric, heathen ways is what reinforces their hatred of the pagan culture. They feel threatened not only by the violence and war that vikings bring with them, but their general debauchery, which seems like a direct threat to their christian way of life. This provides a pretty clear explanation for Ecbert's slaughter of the viking settlement in Wessex. His dependency on religion for guidance is also reinforced by his drunken conversation with Ragnar after his capture in Season 4B:
"If there were no gods, then anyone could do anything, and nothing would matter. You could do as you liked and nothing would be real and nothing would have meaning or value."
Now that Ragnar has gone to valhalla (or perhaps even heaven), his brother is back in the spotlight. Despite renouncing his viking heritage for a life of French nobility, Björn's voyage to the Mediterranean has sparked old passions. He refuses to cave to Gisla's threats, declaring that his love for the gods is still stronger than ever— and stronger than his love for her:
"I cannot deny that part of myself which is still viking, no matter how hard I try. When you hear thunder, it's only thunder. But for me, it is still Thor beating his hammer."
Ragnar's desire to rejoin his fellow vikings isn't motivated by treasure or glory, but by his continued belief in the old gods and the old ways. That decision will surely have a massive impact on the show's future events, for both the vikings and the French christians.
How much do you think religion has influenced the narrative of Vikings?