‘The Northman’: Psychedelics Played a Key Role in 1 Viking Scene

Robert Eggers’ new film, The Northman, is a medieval revenge story that also explores fascinating facets of Viking culture. When talking about the initiation ritual seen in the movie, Eggers revealed that the scene was informed by a psychedelic believed to be used by Vikings in ancient times. 

'The Northman' Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth shirtless covered in blood holding a weapon in each hand
Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth | Focus Features

Robert Eggers tried to make ‘The Northman’ historically accurate 

Eggers and Icelandic author Sjón Sigurdsson wrote The Northman as a Viking version of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And while the story is fictional, Eggers tried to incorporate as much of the Vikings’ real-life history and culture as he could. 

“I didn’t take any liberties, except with stuff that we don’t know, because it was 1,000 years ago,” he told IndieWire. “I did try my damnedest to do everything as historically accurate as possible.” 

Eggers did extensive background research for the film. And he consulted with experts who provided insight and perspective on how the Vikings lived. 

“I had the finest Viking historians and archeologists working with me,” Eggers said.  “I had people in the living history and experimental archeology community. We had a massive amount of Viking experts working on the film. Everything is super considered.” 

Psychedelics played a key role in ‘The Northman’ ritual scene 

In one scene in The Northman, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) takes psychedelic drugs for a royal initiation ceremony and begins hallucinating. According to Eggers, the intense scene was produced based on the researched effects of a psychedelic known to be used by some Vikings. 

“We don’t know for sure, but some Viking graves from people we know to be Völvas or witches or seeresses have henbane seeds,” he revealed in his chat with IndieWire. “So in the initiation ritual, we decided that they’re drinking the vision mead of knowledge, or something like that, with henbane in it.”

“I read about what it’s like to be on henbane and we incorporated that into the sound design and the visuals of the scene,” Eggers added. “It was a fun choice.” 

Some aspects of the scene were made up

While Eggers tried to reflect as much of the Vikings’ real culture in The Northman, there were some things he had to fabricate. When talking to IndieWire, the filmmaker revealed that he didn’t have any historical references for the costumes in the ritual scene. 

“The academic consensus was that Vikings didn’t have special clothing for rituals,” Eggers explained. “But the academic consensus is also that rituals involved splattering blood over everybody.” 

After talking to archeologist Neil Price, and realizing the characters would be covered in blood during the rituals, Eggers decided to create special clothing for the characters. “So, based around a lot of other ideas we saw in sagas and archeology, we did invent the ceremonial clothing for rituals,” he noted. “That was total invention, but also based on stuff.” 

The Northman stars Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Alexander Skarsgård, and Nicole Kidman. It opens in theaters on April 22.

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