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Historical Inaccuracies in 'Vikings'

The History Channel, after years of airing shows like “Pawn Stars” and “Ancient Aliens,” is experimenting with its programming with the new scripted drama, “Vikings.” The show, created by Michael Hirst (“The Tudors”), tells the story of Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel, “The Baytown). In the pilot, Ragnar and the Norsemen sail to the lands in the West, though they are unsure if these lands even exist.

Although the show is based on a legendary historical figure, many aspects of the show are not historically accurate. Joel Robert Thompson, a Rutgers graduate student specializing in Viking Age Studies, noted discrepancies between the show’s portrayal of the Vikings and actual historical events.

“The idea that the Scandinavians did not know that England or anything to the west existed is absolutely ludicrous,” he said. “Trading routes along the North Sea date back even before the Roman invasion of Gaul in the 1st century B.C.”

More aspects of the show that fall into these inaccuracies are the assembly and execution scenes that take place in the pilot. In one scene, the Vikings gathered in an assembly to decide whether a man was guilty of murder. The man was executed after the Vikings voted unanimously.

“The true beauty of early Viking Age society was the absence of any form of corporate groups requisite to police or carry out, as in the show, an execution,” Thompson said.

In fact, the Vikings did not possess the institutions to carry out this type of sentence, and executions weren’t even a form of punishment within the Viking society at all.

“The highest form of punishment was outlawry, that is to say, an organized form of ostracism,” Thompson said. “The man would be banished—the Norse word ‘skoggangr’ for outlawry literally translates as ‘forest-going,’ that is to say he would be forced to live within the forests rather than within society.”

However, Thompson clarified that “Vikings” did get something right. The show included a detail about how a man may pass two households before announcing a slaying if he fears they are related to the slain, but not a third.

It’s arguable that the creators of “Vikings” sacrificed historical accuracy for a show that would bring in better ratings. Filmed in Ireland, the show provides a beautiful backdrop even though it doesn’t provide historical facts. For viewers looking for history, Thompson recommends the Icelandic movie “Ultaginn,” “a rather faithful reproduction of Gisli's Saga,” according to him.

“Vikings” airs on History Channel, Sundays at 10 p.m.

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