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.
That being said, women were often connected to magic (Seid) and foretelling (you can read more here). So again, this is just an interpretation, and it's visually stunning isn't it?
Let's have a closer look at this woman's jewellery.
The neck-ring/torc collar situation is not in the viking style. Around the neck, Norsemen typically wore the beaded necklaces that this character also wears, or simple torcs, or pendants. This is a ceremony though, and for such purposes unusual clothing and accessories might have been worn.
There was a lot of trade going on for Norsemen in the Mediterranean area so it's not unthinkable that there would be foreign influences for things such a jewellery, there is just no evidence for me to back up that choice of necklace. As for the rest...
Earrings are uncommon finds in Viking Age excavations.
Much more common are necklaces, pendants, arm-rings and finger-rings.
That being said, a few earrings have indeed been found for this time period in Scandinavia.
Pictured is a gold Viking age earring find from an excavation last year.
As for the woman's two brooches, they're very much in the Viking Style.
Pictured we have similar brooches found in Birka, which was a large trading city in Viking Age Sweden.
You'll notice a reoccurring motif of the circle divided into three identical parts. That's very common of the Viking Age, and it's also what the woman above is wearing. Well done, Ubisoft.
Make-up is also on point. Because, yes, both men and women are believed to have worn make-up around the eyes.
Again we turn to our Arabic sources where Ibrahim ibn Ya'qub writes about Hedeby (which was a trading town in southern Denmark at the time):
"Both men and women use a kind of indelible cosmetic to enhance the beauty of their eyes."
The gold rectangular pendants on the ring the woman wears on her head look like "Guldgubber", which are small gold-foil plaques.
These are purely Scandinavian and are mostly from the 5th to the 7th century, so pre-dating what is commonly known as the Viking Age.
It isn't known what their purpose was but it is often guessed that they were used to ceremonial or religious purposes. So, another win.
This all is called a blót sacrifice.
You can read more about them here.
I really appreciate the respect that's given to blót sacrifice and the gods in this ACV portrayal.
Now, this is just absolutely stunning and beautiful. Four Viking ships sailing into the sunset! Please, take me with you!
We also get a different angle on the harbour of this town and everything looks fine. With five ships I might have expected the harbour to be a bit larger, but that's no big deal.
Really I just wanted to gush over that beautiful screenshot.
Aaand we're sailing. First, let's talk about the depictions of ravens on the sails and the shields. It seems to be a reference to the Viking Raven Banner, as it is commonly known.
The raven banner is often said to be a Viking banner, as in a banner that all Viking Age Scandinavian warriors fought under, but this isn't true. Norsemen were not that... tight.
Norsemen commonly fought among each other.
Scandinavia was not really grouped into kingdoms and countries the same way other Europeans were at the time. Danes and Swedes would happily attack each other, but two Dane Chieftain might also attack each other with just as much joy.
The earliest source we have about the Raven Banner is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle entry for the year 878, which records that Ragnar Lodbrog's sons came with the banner:
"There also was taken the war-flag (gudfani), which they called "Raven"."
Ravens are very common symbols all throughout the Viking Age, closely connected to the god, Odin, who had two ravens by the names of Hugin and Munin. These two ravens brought him news from far away.
As far as the idea of a banner goes, each Chieftain had his own war-flag (gudfani), and in the case of Ragnar's sons, theirs depicted a raven.
Yes, for any fans of the show "Vikings", this game does indeed take place at the time Ragnar Lodbrog's sons attacked England. Perhaps that is why ACV has chosen many of the same art direction as the TV show, in terms of clothes, hair styles, and colours.
The Raven Banner carried by Ragnar's Lodbrog's sons is mentioned in other later sources too. Among them is The 12th century Annals of St. Neots:
"Further it is said that if they were going to win a battle in which they followed that signum, there was to be seen a raven, gaily flapping its wings. But if they were going to be defeated, the raven dropped motionless. And this always proved true."
All of the accounts agree that the raven banner was originally made by Ragnar's sons and brought to England that way, but it pops up many times in later history too.
For example, it's also depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry (pictured here), which depicts the much later Norman conquest of England.
As far as ACV is concerned, these Norsemen seem to have the same banner as Ragnar's sons who were Danes, and during the same period as well. Period wise it's a good call, I reckon, and I wonder if it'll tie into the story somehow. I also expect that we will meet Ragnar's famous sons, and that would be very cool.
I should add that the raven is always referred to as a banner, and not as an image on sails or shields, which one might think the sources would have recorded too, if that was the case.
It seems to have resembled a weather-vane, which were ornaments on Viking ships that clink nicely in the wind. Above you can see the gold weather-vane my ship in Denmark sails with at the fore of the ship (instead of an animal figurehead). Next to it we have a coin from the year 941 which depicts the Raven Banner in the middle, which looks suspiciously similar to a weather vane.
Ouch. Yes, this does happen, I can confirm. Viking ships lay low on the water and do not have a high edge, so water often sprays over the side, and it also often looks cool like this.
About the animal figurehead... Not all ships had animal figureheads, as depicted in this transcribed drawing a bored Norsemen carved long ago.
The one above is direct copy of the one in the Vikings TV show (here's an image so you can compare). The ships also seem to be the same size and type as those in the TV series, which were built on the Norwegian model. Since Eivor is meant to be Norwegian, it makes more sense here than it did in the TV show.
Sometimes after a huge wave splashes in, the outlook also comes through it looking as badass as Eivor here, although most of the time, he would just be soaked to the inner layers.
And that's never pleasant. Speaking from experience.
Ah this game is going to be SO beautiful if this trailer is anything to judge by.
I'll keep it brief here. All I'll say to this is:
THANK YOU Ubisoft for putting the steering oar on the right side of the ship!
This shouldn't have to be said, but it has been done wrong so many times recently that it's a relief to see the steering oar on the starboard side where it belongs.
The word starboard comes from Old Norse and means steer-board, aka the side from which the ship was steered. It grinds my gears whenever this is wrong, so thank you!
It's time we talked about axes.
Here we have our different types of axes divided by type and year too.
A, G, H, I, K and L are slim axes, which were common tool axes.
The M class of axe, starting around 950 (so after the time during which ACV is set) are broad-axes, also called Dane axes, and they were purely battle axes.
B, D, E and F are the bearded axes.
The bearded axes were intended to work with wood, particularly making planks and beams for building.
Finally C, T, X and Y are Eastern axes, or Slavic axes which were also found in Viking Age Scandinavia but seem to not have originated there.
What our hero displays above seems to be a type of E2 axe, so a bearded axe, and a very modern one for his time period.
Battle axes were often decorated with precious metals (like the Mammen axe here). Eivor's and his friend's axes only seem to have the shaft decorated in this this way.
In other good news their axe shafts are completely straight, as they were in the Viking Age. Bent shafts are later period.
The spikes depicted on the axe in ACV seem unlikely for a Viking Age axe, however certain eastern type axes had the back of the axe stick out in a short hammer shape.
As far as spikes go, for the Viking Age I haven't seen any source on it, but it looks cool and it like it would really hurt to be knocked around with that.
So with a super modern type of axe-head for his time and with the shaft decorated as it is, I can confidently conclude that:
Eivor is a fashionista.
It's appropriate then, that the next thing we're about to talk about is some of his fashion choices. Particularly his belt, which we get a really nice view of here.
It's 100% authentic. Viking Age belts were quite narrow and often decorated.
Here we have some drawings of different Viking Age belt elements. The small studs were set along the leather, as Eivor has done above, typically towards the end bit which would hang loose, like Eivor's.
(I'm telling you, he knows his fashion, you better get him into that pink tunic)
Other elements of his attire are obviously more Assassin's Creed style (minus the cap), which is totally fine, but that just makes it all the cooler to see these Viking Age details.
A short note about the fur he wears, Arabic sources often describe Norsemen as wearing fur, but I would argue that in battle it would probably get in the way and be way too warm to fight in properly.
Wow, they have really raided.
Either they have a ton of ships, or they have been at it all day and been going fast too, because that's a lot of fires to set and a lot of places to sail to.
This scene is everything. Seeing them play with the kids is exactly the Norsemen we needed. Yes! Also seeing them build a town in the background is pretty cool.
It looks like they're building another stave church.
An idol is being raised, and note that it is not the same carving as in the blót sacrificing scene earlier. This one might be Odin..? Why do I feel like I only see one eye..? Wishful thinking, perhaps. In any case, notice the smooth, horn-less helmet on this statue.
Let's also note that tall tree in the background is a great detail, which reminds me of the enormous ash-tree Yggdrasil from Norse mythology.
The time has indeed come, dear reader. I think we have our villain. Here is Ælfred the Great, King of Wessex and eventually King of the Anglo-Saxons. Let's dig deeper.
Before Ælfred came to the throne, his brother Ætheldred was seated on it. In the year 865, a large army of unified Dane Chiefs under the direction of Lodbrog's famous sons arrived on the Coast of East Anglia. They settled on the British Isles and sought to take over the lands.
Together, this large company of Dane Chieftains were referred to as the Great Heathen Army.
The Great Heathen Army journeyed north to Northumbria where they soon deposed the King of Northumbria and instated one of their own choosing.
With his brother, the King of Wessex, Ælfred marched on the heathens. There was lots of back and forth, and eventually, in the middle of the war, King Ætheldred died.
Ælfred became king and inherited a war against the Great Heathen Army of Danes. With his army severely hit and a lack of resources for war, he was forced to declare peace with Ragnar's sons. Over the next decade, Ragnar's sons managed to take East Anglia, Northumbria and even Mercia.
This left only Ælfred's Wessex.
This is where we find him in Assassin's Creed Valhalla.
(There is his name if we were ever in doubt)