Yesterday Ubisoft released the awesome trailer for Assassin's Creed: Valhalla.
I adore the other AC entries, and more importantly, I am a massive Viking nerd, so it's safe to say that I was excited.
I have dedicated years of research to Viking Age Scandinavia and Norse Mythology in order to write my fantasy trilogy "The Hanged God".
I have visited countless museums and sites, combed through archaeological findings, deciphered rune-stones and read Viking Age law-texts. I also spend my best summers sailing onboard the world's largest reconstructed Viking warship. I know my Vikings.
So, I thought it would be fun to share some of my knowledge of Vikings with you all by taking a look at the Assassin's Creed trailer shot by shot and talk about the historical accuracy and influences Ubisoft pulls from.
First off, I should say, that as a writer of fiction I know very well that it is impossible to be 100% historically accurate, nor is that my expectation.
Even historians and archaeologists aren't 100% in agreement about what the past really looked like, but more importantly, in fiction, our goal is above all to tell an engaging story.
Sometimes that means that we have to ignore historical facts, or twist certain facts or events to our advantage in order to make our plot work and create the piece of fiction that will be the most engaging to our audience.
That being said, I think this can be fun and we can all learn something both about the Viking Age and about visual story-telling (aka, why some things aren't historically accurate). Let's dig in...
Beautiful opening shot (in truth this whole trailer is beautiful, it needs to be said).
There is A LOT to say about this opening shot, but let's start simple.
Look at those sharp, snowy mountains. Although it's a common belief among non-Scandinavians that all of Scandinavia looks like this, with huge mountains and fiords, it does not.
Fiord, snow, mountains, pine trees. We're in Norway. There are also places in Sweden that could fit this description, but this is meant to be Norway. We are told as much in the short description of the game which states that our hero, Eivor, will lead "a clan of Norse warriors across the icy North Sea to flee Norway's endless war and dwindling resources."
That's all good for now, but the fact that we're dealing with Norwegian warriors is going to come up again later, so let's make a mental note of it.
Moving down from the mountains, we see this stunning structure. This is a perfect representation of a stave church.
Stave churches are Christian churches from the Viking Age.
Yes, you read that correctly: Christian. There were many stave churches throughout Scandinavia even before the Norse populations officially converted to Christianity.
This particular model, is almost identical to a very famous stave church which still stands today in Norway.
The Borgund stave church.
It's thought to have been constructed around the year 1200 and is now a museum that you can visit in Norway.
Other stave churches also survive in Scandinavia. Many of them were built around the same period as the Borgund stave church. The earliest archaeological evidence of them we have is from the 12th century.
Assassin's Creed: Valhalla (ASV from now on) takes place in the 9th century, so a few centuries earlier than the eldest known stave church. This does not necessarily make the presence of a stave church an inaccuracy.
The Gulating Law (a Norwegian law text written down in the 11th century and that dates back to the 10th century) has sections that talk about the building of churches, so we know that Christian churches were built before the 12th century. Whether they took the form of stave churches however, is uncertain and little more is known.
To sum up: we have a 12th century style Christian stave church at the top of the village.
It looks very cool, so one can hardly blame Ubisoft for wanting to include it.
Whether it will act out its function as a Christian church in the story remains to be seen. It would be very cool if it did. That would put some possible religious tension in the story from the very start.
Okay, moving on to something else in this opening shot...
(I told you there was a lot to talk about)
Look at all of those lights twinkling away. It looks so cosy and snug.
There is only one minor issue: Viking Age Scandinavians (let's just call them Norsemen from now on) did not have windows in their homes. The Norsemen did not master glass in the way we do today, so if there were windows in their houses as shown here, there would be no glass and the cold North wind would blow straight through the house and make the winters feel especially icy. The fire would really have to be burning hot to want to open up to the outside in cold conditions like these.
Without those lights though, this town would look dead and not very welcoming at all, so I suppose that it is to usher us, future players, closer that our kind Norsemen are letting the icy wind into their homes.
Last, I have two super nerdy details that I just made me smile, but I'm a nerd and that is why we're here, so...
Since it's difficult to see, I have circled the ship's steering oar (today we use rudders fixed to the bottom of the boat). These steering oars are all in the water.
It is a little known fact, but on the Viking ships I know, we twist the steering oar out of the water when we're in harbour. My understanding is that submerged in the water all the time the wood might absorb moisture and weaken it.
Now, it's clearly icy cold, but the ships are in the water. Freezing waters around the hull of the ship could cause a lot of damage, so that makes me worried.
Norsemen made shelters on land for their ships to over-winter and for them to be repaired. These ship-houses were called Naust (which is still the word for boathouse in Norwegian).
Pictured above is a reconstructed Naust at Nordvegen History Centre in Avaldsnes.
Everyone! We did it! We completed our run-down of the first screenshot!
Well done. We've got more work to do, though, so let's move on.
Here we can see more clearly that there is indeed no glass in windows. Those houses would be very cold.
"But if the Norsemen heated their houses with fires and had no windows, then wouldn't the house be full of smoke?" one might ask, and that's a good question.
This is why longhouses had smoke-holes in the middle of the roof. You can see one on the large longhouse in the screenshot above, it's like a chip in the middle of the roof.
By using a smoke-hole you would retain a lot of heat, but the smoke had an escape. It also provided dramatic light for storytelling.
(As pictured in this great photo from Trellborg's Yule celebrations)
The longhouse in ACV also looks very large compared to the archeological standard. It's certainly larger than any reconstructed longhouse I've seen and it appears to be 2 floors as well.
In the above screenshot we also see our hero's awesome axe, which is most definitely too awesome to be used to chop wood. (Fear not, we'll have a proper talk about axes later)
What really grabs my eye here is the clothes our Norsemen wear.
The women seem to wear tunics like the men, and no dresses with pretty brooches and beads hanging between. There is also a surprising lack of jewellery and ornaments. Everything I know about the Norsemen suggests that they were a bit vain when it comes to their fashion.
They liked bling, and they liked colours, decorations. Anything to make their outfit pop!
A common item also seems to belt pouches, which we see none of here. I would also expect to see people wear personal knives in their belts, at least as working tools.
As far as colours go, I see a lot of dark blue, and then some grey and black.
I don't know for certain when these colours became the standard for Viking representation, but I see them a LOT these days. I suspect it might have become more common with History Channel's "Vikings" TV show, in the same way as these half shaved hairstyles the ACV men seem to be sporting too.
Let's get something straight:
Blue was a rich man's colour in the Viking Age
In order to dye their clothes blue, a Norseman would either need a lot of bundles of woad (pictured) or indigo dye which could only be purchased abroad.
It was expensive to make indigo blue fabrics. To date, the blue clothes we have found have almost exclusively been found in the graves of wealthy Norsemen.
As far as black goes, true black wasn't possible to achieve with natural dyes at the times, so black often referred to a dark blue/brown colour.
This might be dangerous knowledge for future assassins, but in the sagas, they wore this dark colour when they were about to go murder someone
So whenever I see someone in a Viking Age story wearing dark blue/grey, I shudder in fear of the murder that's about to be committed.
In daily life most Norsemen were fond of colours like red, orange, yellow, green and even purple.
Pink would not be uncommon, as the strong colour of a fresh red dye would soon fade to a nice pretty pink.
So when you're frolicking about as a Viking Age Assassin, don't be afraid to put on that pink garb.
You know you want to. *clears throat*
Okay, moving on...
I love the detail here of the boy standing with a wooden axe.
That is all. I just had to point that out.
Well... since we're here, let's talk about the haircuts.
As far as I can see, the depiction of the men with half-shaved heads, seems to mainly stem from the male heads on the Oseberg wagon (like our moustached gentleman here). Even though, those depictions do not show a long braid at the back.
Hair doesn't survive well in the ground for archaeologists to examine hairstyles, so we know very little about Viking Age haircuts, and it could well have taken on the fashion that they have gone with both here and on the "Vikings" series.
What we do have is the incredibly long, preserved hair of a woman who is commonly referred to as the Elling Woman or the bog-woman.
She was 25 years old when she died around year 280 BC, and she wore her hair in an intricate braid (pictured).
We can see from Viking Age art that plaits was still very much a fashion trend during the later Viking Age.
Norsemen were very well groomed for their time. They used combs for their hair and beard (which was also braided). They used ear-spoons to scoop out earwax, plucked their eyebrows with tweezers and Saturday was called bath-day in Norse.
Although the 10th century Arabic explorer Ibn Fadlan noted that they washed their faces and heads every day, he was not impressed. Because the Norsemen shared a washing bowl and they would blow their nose out over it when they were washing. As a clean Muslim, that was clearly a step too far for Ibn Fadlan. For the English women however...
With their clean and bleached beards, and skin that smelled of soap, the Norsemen were quite popular among the opposite sex on English soil.
As the 13th century monk John of Wallingford noted:
"[...] they were wont, after the fashion of their country, to comb their hair every day, to bathe every Saturday, to change their garments often, and set off their persons by many frivolous devices. In this matter they laid siege to the virtue of the married woman, and persuaded the daughters even of the noble to be their concubines'."
The English women were smitten.
We really need to talk about those shields, but I'll save it for the battle scenes later.
For now, let me just tell you that this particular raven motif is from a coin made in York in 939. It's a very famous motif (depicted here).
On another note, I'm glad to see that shield-maidens are a thing in this game . I hear that we can even play Eivor as a shield-maiden, which is very cool.
There is still much debate in the Viking interested community about whether shield-maidens really did exist or if they're just figures in the old sagas with no real-life counterparts.
Thankfully, nowadays it's less controversial to say that shield-maidens were real than it was when I began to write my stories, but even with more recent archaeological findings of what appears to be female warriors, there is still a resistance on that front.
When I first did research into this, I was frustrated to see that when a weapon had been put into a male grave, he was obviously considered a warrior, but when it appeared in a female grave, then quite clearly it was ceremonial.
In recent years there has been a boost to reexamine this idea, and with popular instalments like ACV including shield-maidens, I think the push will only get stronger. So, sincerely: thank you, Ubisoft!
I'll also note here that there is a real absence of mentions of the Northern Lights in Norse sources. I suppose that for a Norsemen, the Northern Lights were simply there, as normal as the earth beneath their feet, and it looks damn cool in this context.
Now let's first talk about the idol statue here. I don't know who this particular idol is supposed to represent. A parted beard is usually attributed to Svend Tveskæg (literally: Svend two-beard) who was the 11th century king of Denmark, and not a god.
This man seems to have two eyes, so it's not Odin. If it were Thor, he would likely have been holding his iconic hammer, Mjölnir. If it had been Tyr, who is commonly associated with war, then he would be missing one hand, and I can't see if he is. If it had been the fertility good Frey then I think we would have seen his erect sexual organ (if that's allowed in this media).....
Yea, let's move on.
From the Arabic traveller most famous today for recounting a Rus burning ship burial (as seen in the 13th warrior), Ibn Fadlan (yes, the same dude as before), we know about these statues:
"As soon as their boats arrive at this port, each of them disembarks, taking with him bread and meat, onions, milk and nabidh, and he walks until he comes to a great wooden post stuck in the ground with a face like that of a man, and around it are little figures. Behind these images there are long wooden stakes driven into the ground. [...] Then he leaves what he has with him in front of the wooden post."
The men are described doing this to gain the favour of their gods in order to be able to sell the goods with which they return home. Ibn Fadlan continues:
"Sometimes the sale is easy and after having sold his goods he says: "My Lord has satisfied my needs and it is fitting that I should reward him for it." Then he takes a certain number of sheep or cows and slaughters them, distributing part of the meat as gifts and carrying off the rest to set before the great idol and the little figures that surround it. Then he hangs the heads of the sheep of cows onto the wooden stakes which have been driven into the ground."
In ASV we see animal skulls propped on poles, but what Ibn Fadlan tells us of animal sacrifices is a little different and he is not alone in his tale.
Another Arabic traveller, Ibrahim ibn Ya'qub, visited the town of Hedeby in year 965 and recounted the following:
"They gather together for a religious festival to honour the gods, at which they eat and drink. Those that intend to sacrifice an animal set up a pole in front of their house from which they suspend a piece of the animal whose sacrifice they are offering; beef, mutton, goat or pig. In this way everyone can see that they plan to sacrifice to the gods."
Not only does it appear to have been more of a household by household kind of deal, they would also usually sacrifice animals like cows, horse or pigs whose meat could be cooked and enjoyed at the village feast.
Indeed, what better way to honour the gods than to get drunk and roll around on a full belly?
Still this is fairly accurate and it makes for a really cool viewing experience.
Uh-uh... Vikings and Horns. Let me get it out of my system.
Viking Age Scandinavians did not wear horned helmets.
"But this is not a horned helmet," you might say. No, it is not, but it is horned head-gear and today that seems to be used mostly because modern content creators think: "we can't have vikings and NOT show a horned helmet. People expect it." Fair enough, I say, and I much prefer to see it like this than on warriors.
Very few helmets from the Viking Age have survived, but none of them with horns, I can assure you.
The most famous helmet is likely the Gjermundbu helmet from Norway (pictured), which was found intact. You can read more about horned helmets in the Viking Age here and a longer paper about how we came to associate the Viking Age with horned helmets here.
The instances where Norsemen are described with horns or wings or antlers on their heads, we generally ascribe to ceremonial purposes. So, in fact Ubisoft, do follow the popular belief here by having their Seid (magic) practitioner wear horns/antlers. Much better than other inclusions of this trope I have seen. Thank you!
Notice the rune on her beaded necklace (we know Norsemen were fond of such necklaces as they're often found among grave goods).
The rune on her necklace is Peorð, basically the letter "P". In the anglo-saxon rune poem from the 9th century, it is described as follows:
"Peorð is a source of recreation and amusement to the great, where warriors sit blithely together in the beerhall."
Doesn't that quite accurately describe the feast that follows a sacrifice which we read about earlier? Great choice, Ubisoft!
Also note the tattoos on the back of her hand. I can't speak about the art-style of the tattoo since I can't really see it, but it is indeed commonly believed that Viking Age Scandinavians had tattoos. This again is thanks to the Arabic traveller Ibn Fadlan who recounted the following about the Rus:
"From the tips of his toes to his neck, each man is tattooed in dark green with designs, and so forth."
Unlike we see in other religions, Old Norse myth believers did not seem to have a priest or indeed a priestess. Instead the archaeology suggests that the Chieftain would have acted as the religious leader.