Who were the Viking shieldmaidens? (Assassin’s Creed Valhalla)

With guest co-host Alice Bell!

Take another horn of mead, friend. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is out and trying to rehabilitate the rowdy reputation of the Vikings. It pits you against the dastardly Saxons as the axe-wielding Eivor, a raider whose gender is up to you. To find out more about the Vikings and the reason why we’re seeing more women on the Viking battlefields in our popular media, we’ve spoken to Dr Cat Jarman, a bioarcheologist who explains how historians can learn about the people of our past. Clue: it’s all in dem bones.

Click “more” for links and transcription.


Journal of Anthropology article about Birka burial

River Kings by Cat Jarman is out in February (Guardian Bookshop)

Follow Dr Cat Jarman on Twitter

Assassin’s Creed Valhalla review by Alice (Rock Paper Shotgun)

Hnefatafl is a viking board game

Who is best: male or female Eivor? (Rock Paper Shotgun)

A chat with Norse expert Jackson Crawford, aka “The Cowboy Viking” (Videogamer)

Thank yous:

SFX from various promo trailers. Fenrir growl from this GameClips video. Ending music is from the Assassin’s Creed Valhalla soundtrack.

Interview music is Hidden Past by, yep, Kevin MacLeod
Link: https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3873-hidden-past
License: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Episode Transcription:

Dr Cat Jarman (soundbite): So some of the written records do talk about women fighting…
Narrator: They are heartless.
Dr Cat Jarman: We do know of other cases of women from that period in positions of power, who would be in charge of forces and in charge of other people. So that’s definitely quite a likely interpretation I think.
Narrator: Godless barbarians.
Dr Cat Jarman: And the Valkyries are these creatures that essentially swoop down onto the battlefield, pick the slain warriors and take them to Valhalla, to Odin.

Brendan Caldwell: Hi there, and welcome to Hey Lesson, the podcast where we ask smart people stupid questions inspired by video games. I am your host, Brendan Caldwell. And today we are talking about Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, an action game where you play a Viking pillaging the coastal towns of England and slurping up druggy water that lets you visit the mythical realm of Asgard. But as we do every episode, we want to ask a deeper question about the game’s theme. This time we want to know: who were the Vikings? Specifically, who were the Viking shieldmaidens? Keep listening to hear from a top tier bioarcheologist who will help us answer that question, but also here to help us out is Alice Bell, deputy editor of PC games website, Rock Paper Shotgun. Hi!

Alice: Hello Brendan. How are you?

Brendan: I’m good. How are you? How are you enjoying the druggy water?

Alice: It’s delicious, thank you for asking. I like that that’s your… that’s the key element for you. That’s the main bit.

Brendan: Yeah, I was watching a lot of the trailers and stuff and that’s what I took away.

Alice: Well, why not?

Brendan: You’ve been playing a good bit of this game and I know you’re a fan of the series. It comes from like a long line of historical murder simulators. Can you tell anyone unfamiliar with the assassins or maybe who hasn’t played an Assassin’s Creed game in a while: What is Assassin’s Creed Valhalla all about?

Alice: Assassin’s Creed is a series of action adventure games where you play interesting assassins throughout history. Sometimes, you know, it’ll turn out that you had a pivotal role in the American revolution. Sometimes the French revolution. No all revolution based, but often, it seems. And in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, you are a Viking raider or raider/settler combined. I suppose you’re part of the, the, I think the “Heathen army” I think they were called, of invaders that, uh, came and tried to settle in the UK in the eight hundreds, I think like 870-something maybe? And yeah, the drinking drug juice is incidental.

Brendan: But like, so what, what else do you do in it? You just wander round? Like what does it look like? Is it, is it a third-person walk-aroundy thing?

Alice: It’s third-person. So over the shoulder, and you play Eivor, a big buff viking. You can be either male or female and actually there is a lore explanation for that that’s kind of quite important, I suppose. There is like a framing narrative for Assassin’s Creed that people, I think most people, stopped caring about. But, um, but that’s still there if you pay any attention to it. So as you said basically you’re trying to forge a new life for yourself and, uh, some of your… “tribe” is the wrong word. Your group, your family of Vikings, having left Norway and, uh, you’re settling in the Midlands basically. And it’s half wondering about the countryside in sort of autumn-ish and then a lot of stabbing people and raiding monasteries, burning down churches. So it is kind of a mix of being a peaceful settler and doing trading with the local Saxons and stuff and being like, “Hey, I’m cool.” And then 50 percent burning down churches and stealing stuff.

Brendan: Uh, you said you can play as as a man or a woman Eivor. Is it [pronounced] Eye-vor or Ey-vor?

Alice: Uh, Ey-vor, which is disappointing to me because I wanted to be able to call the male version “Guyvor” if it was pronounced Eye-vor, but it’s pronounced Ey-vor.

Brendan: He-vor and she-vor.

Alice: There you go.

Brendan: Which one did you choose?

Alice: She-vor, shay-vor.

Brendan: Okay. This is important because a lot of media about the Vikings has happily taken up the idea that women in the Viking era were on the battlefield. They were shieldmaiden. So they were fellow warriors and stuff like that. Like if you watch the TV show Vikings and things… and to find out more about this, I have spoken to a bioarcheologist, Dr Cat Jarman. Uh, she’s also the author of a book called River Kings, which isn’t out yet, but it’s going to be, and she’s the advisor for, uh, a new museum on the Viking Age in Oslo. So here’s what she had to tell us about shieldmaidens and the Vikings in general.

[Interview begins]

Narrator (soundbite): This is a time of conquest of Vikings.

Brendan: First of all, can you please introduce yourself to our listeners? Who are you and what do you do for a living?

Dr Cat Jarman: Hi. Yeah. My name is Cat Jarman and I am an archeologist and a bioarcheologist,

Brendan: Bioarcheologist. What is the difference between that and a archeologist without the bio?

Dr Cat Jarman: So archeologists work on all sorts of materials, um, objects basically. So the difference between us and and historians is that we don’t mainly work with texts. We work with things that are typically in the ground. Bioarcheologist work specifically with human remains. So a lot of my work is based on working with ancient skeletons.

Brendan: So it’s a bit like being a forensic investigator, but for crime scenes that happened a thousand years ago.

Dr Cat Jarman: Yeah. Very, very cold crimes basically. So we try and work out as much as possible about people from their bodies basically, rather than just their things.

Baddie viking (soundbite): Eivor Wolf-kissed is no more. That name is dead to this world.

Brendan: So you look at things like bones or teeth, for example.

Dr Cat Jarman: That’s right. So we look at graves, so skeletons and we look at the kind of physical evidence and it can be anything from, uh, just stuff like how tall you are and if you’re a man or a woman, if you were injured or killed or if you had diseases. And then what I specialize in is actually looking at some really detailed chemical analysis of teeth and bone that tell us stuff, like what sort of food you ate, where you grew up, uh, even looking at genetics.

Brendan: So can you tell what the person looked like? In the video game Assassin’s Creed, Valhalla, your characters have tattoos all over them and they have very stylish asymmetrical hairstyles and stuff like that. Is that something you can find out from Romanians? Or is that something you find out somewhere else?

Dr Cat Jarman: Yeah, unfortunately we haven’t got much evidence like that because skin and hair doesn’t really preserve very well in the, in the ground. We can sometimes get that sort of thing if in extreme environments. So if you have a frozen body, for example, there was a really old skeleton in the Alps, in the Italian Alps that actually did have tattoos preserved. But in the Viking age, we don’t find that. So we don’t really know very much about hair we don’t know about tattoos from those sources themselves. We do get some information from written sources. So there is one source, uh, that actually relates to, likely, Scandinavians found in, in Russia who, uh, are described as having tattoos covering their bodies. So there’s some, but apart from that, we know very little. So it’s a lot of it is guesswork.

Narrator (soundbite): And at the tattooist, you’ll customize Eivor’s look.

Brendan: When you do work on teeth and bones and stuff, how does that process itself actually work?

Dr Cat Jarman: We start with the skeleton itself and we have to take samples from it. So that’s quite an invasive process and we try and take as little as possible because these are, these are real people from the past and you then take that to the lab and then you try and extract whatever it is that you want from it. And when we work with bone, that’s usually something called collagen, which is what a lot of your skin and your hair, your nails, and your bones is made up of. Inside that collagen there’s a lot of chemical information that we can analyze. So there’s a bit of lab work. You take the samples, you sort of chuck in lots of chemicals. It’s very much like cooking. You just follow a recipe and then you sort of add whatever you need, really. And then eventually you stick that into a machine like a mass spectrometer or something like that… then you take what’s usually a liquid and it analyzes that for whatever evidence you’re looking for. And then you get typically just numbers in a spreadsheet, and then you have to try and interpret those numbers. So it’s, uh, it’s quite tedious. You have to be very patient. And then after that, you’ve got to do all the analysis basically.

Goody viking (soundbite): Our task will not be an easy one.

Brendan: In the game you come to England as a raider in the year 873 AD, as an invader. Is that what most Vikings would have been in this time period?

Dr Cat Jarman: I think an awful lot of the Vikings that go out of Scandinavia at that time will be Raiders. And they’re definitely the ones that we hear about the most, but we know that some also did come as settlers. So some came quite peacefully. Uh, but we don’t necessarily know how many, we don’t know where… but it’s mainly the raids that we hear about. A lot of Vikings were traders as well. Uh, we have evidence from that with things like trading weights – scales, very much like the scales we use today – that date to the ninth century that show us that some of them were a little bit more peaceful.

Brendan: When you say scales, you mean that they would’ve carried these scales with them on their trading voyages to weigh one good against another?

Dr Cat Jarman: Yeah, exactly. And they’re quite small. So they’re little handheld things and they’re just two sort of little balls that hang and suspend up. And… some are found loose in the ground and others are found in graves. Some people are buried with them and, um, they normally are used for quite small quantities. We also find weights, which are the ones that correspond to certain values. So we know that they would be weighing up things like maybe silver, maybe other precious metals and then trading them for whatever else up that has been lost in the archeological record.

Another bad viking (soundbite): You will be worth your weight in silver – to the ship!

Brendan: Again, you’re not specifically a trader, you’re a bit more violent than that. It lets you play as a Viking woman or a man. And either way, the character is basically the same. They are a seasoned fighter, a very strong warrior. In archeology circles. There have been articles discussing the likelihood of women on the battlefield in that era. Uh, and in popular culture, we hear them called shieldsmaidens, but I want to know from you: did shieldmaidens exist, were they commonplace? What’s the deal?

Dr Cat Jarman: That’s the million dollar question. I wish I could answer it properly. So we don’t quite know still, which is why there’s so much debate around it, but actually there’s been some quite exciting new evidence recently and lots of it from bioarchaeology. So some of the written records do talk about women fighting. The problem is that most of those sources are much later. So they date to the 12th or the 13th century. So actually after the Viking age. They also aren’t necessarily completely reliable accounts. Some of them are from the mythology, so that’s the religious beliefs. So there’s things like the Valkyries and the goddess Freya who goes into battle. She’s… the goddess of warfare. And the Valkyries are these creatures that essentially sweep down onto the battlefield, pick the slain warriors and take them up to Valhalla to go to Odin. Whether they actually represent real people, we don’t really know. Some of the Saga literature – which is Icelandic, right, they are stories written down mainly in Iceland in the 12th and 13th century – talk about women fighting as well. But again, if you’re talking about 873, that’s nearly, you know 300-400 years afterwards. So we… we don’t know if that’s real.

Narrator (soundbite): Now go, claim your place in Valhalla!

Dr Cat Jarman: The other thing that we have, and that’s now quite exciting, is…every now and then we do get some graves with weapons in. And very recently there was one very famous case from a site called Birka in Sweden that everyone thought was a man. It was, uh, somebody buried with lots of weapons with two horses, always put down as this sort of ultimate warrior. And then a new ancient DNA analysis actually show that this was a genetically female body, not male after all.

Brendan: That site, that grave site in Birka, when was that found?

Dr Cat Jarman: So it was actually dug up… I can’t remember now if it was the 18th or 19th century. 19th century, I think. But at the time they couldn’t tell just from the skeleton itself, if it was a man or a woman. So it was really just the new DNA that gave this whole new angle.

Brendan: So someone like you, a bioarcheologist came along, cooked up a bone dish, did the mass spectrometer in the lab and figured out, actually, these people a hundred years ago or whatever were wrong,

Dr Cat Jarman: Essentially. Yeah. So this is through DNA analysis… taking a sample of the bone and getting some numbers coming out on a computer screen. We do quite a lot of that. Another thing that I’ve been working on is looking again at bones and teeth and looking at mobility because we actually, we have traces of where we grow up and where we live in our bones and teeth, which I think is a really bizarre, but very exciting thing. And so we can look at where in the world we might have grown up what sort of climate, what sort of environment and looking at that, we used to think that all the women in the Viking age more or less stayed at home, and it was the men who went out raiding or moving or, you know, whatever they were doing. And now we’re actually seeing that a lot of those women were also moving out of Scandinavia. They weren’t just staying at home on the farm. They were part of that outwards [movement]. If they’re raiding or migrating, we don’t really know, but they were definitely out there.

Map-wielding viking: Eivor, Sigurd, I gave you England and it’s four kingdoms, Mercia, East Anglia, Northumbria, and Wessex.

Brendan: What other kinds of things would you find in a Viking grave? Like, not just weapons, what other things would they be buried with?

Dr Cat Jarman: The Viking graves vary enormously. There are people who are buried with absolutely nothing. And, uh, we don’t quite know why. Some of it might have to do with status. So if you’re not very wealthy, you haven’t really got things to put in the grave with you. And other times it’s about belief. So for example, when people converted to Christianity, there wasn’t this belief that you had to have things with you to the afterlife because in Christianity you’re not meant to do that. So some of it has to do with religion, but, um, at other times we don’t know, maybe it’s just preference, so some people just have one or two things, maybe a saw and maybe a knife. Some things definitely relate to what that person did, or at least that’s what we think. We don’t quite know. Uh, so it could be… somebody who’s a trader could have a balance. And some of those weights that we were talking about earlier. Or somebody who does a lot of textile work, would have textile equipment, like a spindle whirl, which are useful for making yarn or wool.

Baddie viking (soundbite): Ah, your father’s axe, the weapon of a coward, a scorn-snake,

Dr Cat Jarman: Some of the most wealthy [graves] are absolutely spectacular. You have full ship burials. So you have people buried in an entire big Viking ship with, uh, animals. Quite a lot of Vikings are buried with animals…

Brendan: Really!?

Dr Cat Jarman: Yeah. Yeah. So it can be anything from dogs to horses and cows. Usually they are thought to be sacrifices that are then needed for the afterlife.

Brendan: It’s not a case of them killing their pet dog and saying, “you’re coming with me”?

Dr Cat Jarman: In some cases, I think that is the case. It was one… definitely several graves where there is just a dog. There’s one big ship grave actually in Estonia where several dogs are buried alongside the warriors and things like weapons as well. But they’ve looked at the, um, teeth and bone of those dogs. And it’s shown that they came from the same place that the humans came from. So they had taken them on a raid with them, these dogs, and then they had been killed to follow their owners so that they could be together in the afterlife.

Brendan: In Assassin’s Creed you also get a wolf as a pet, but this wolf is… is pretty big. You can ride this wolf around as if it’s a horse. You haven’t found any giant wolf bones by any chance?

Dr Cat Jarman: No. Yeah, no. I would love to find a giant wolf, but so far from my knowledge, no giant wolves.

Soundbite: [Fenrir, the wolf god growling]

Brendan: I read that in the Birka burial site, there was also a game board buried with the woman there. What could that signify? What could that mean?

Dr Cat Jarman: Yeah, games are actually quite common in graves. There’s quite a lot of them that have either a whole set or just some pieces. Um, they’re usually thought to be from a game called Hnefatafl, which is a bit like checkers or sort of a very simple version of chess and, uh, usually get the board and you get these pieces. Sometimes there are glass, sometimes there are bone and really beautifully carved. And we think that they are very, very popular games to play socially, but some also think that they might have something to do with strategy. So, you know how playing chess is a lot about strategy and tactics that is sometimes associated with military function. So it’s thought that these, these kind of military leaders are using these games as a way of kind of maybe practicing or negotiating strategy. If that’s true, I don’t know, but it’s, it’s quite an interesting theory.

Brendan: Yeah. Because it means that whoever this woman is, she might have not just been a warrior on the field, but if she was buried with such splendor, she might’ve been in charge of other warriors.

Dr Cat Jarman: Exactly. And I think that’s part of the key. Uh, some people have said, well, she doesn’t actually have any discernible injuries on her body. And she doesn’t, we can’t sort of prove that she was very strong, that she definitely wielded weapons. But if you were in a sort of high-power, military position, then you weren’t necessarily the one on the battlefield wielding an axe all the time. You could be at the back and actually commanding the troops. And we do know of other cases of women from that period in positions of power, who would be in charge of forces and in charge of other people. So that’s definitely quite a likely interpretation, I think.

Eivor (soundbite): So I raise my horn to the Raven clan, the best of friends… and fighters!

Brendan: So you look at human remains and you look at other objects as well. I think one of the things you talk about in a recent book you’ve written is a bead from a necklace or something. How can a single bead help us to learn what the Viking world was like?

Dr Cat Jarman: That’s right. So this is the book, uh, River Kings, which… I’ve just finished writing. And it’s coming out in February next year, which follows a bead of a material called carnelian, which is a semiprecious stone that was found in this mass burial of, uh, likely Viking warriors in Repton, in Derbyshire in England. And the bead itself comes most likely from India. So my question in that book was basically how do you get this bead from India to Repton in the ninth century? And what can that tell us? Why do the Vikings interact with the silk roads for example, or these networks in Eastern Europe? And then when you do that, you start to find these amazing stories of individual people who have traveled. Things like the accounts of, uh, tattooed individuals in Russia, for example, and then you find the same sort of evidence, you find the same scales and weights. You find all these objects in England and in Scandinavia, in Russia, in Turkey and, you know, all these different places. So people have moved and that’s, that’s kind of what the bead is telling us, I guess.

Eivor (soundbite): Randvi! Your husband returns, bringing gifts to share.

Brendan: You’ve called the book river Kings. I think a lot of people think of Vikings as sailors of the sea. You know, they go over the oceans, but why are they considered the rulers of rivers?

Dr Cat Jarman: So this is exactly what I wanted to look at, because that’s how they’re typically [seen]. It’s these big journeys across the North sea or off to Iceland and Greenland, or even North America that people tend to think about, but actually an awful lot of the Viking expansion happened on the rivers. And one of the really sort of exciting things is that these ships, these boats could do both. So you could actually take a boat across the North sea and then you could go up the rivers of England. So a lot of the ways, if you look at the raid and the attacks, they are very much along rivers. So Repton, for example, that’s on the river Trent and you can get there from the North sea. It’s really the rivers that are the absolute key to understanding these movements. So I have called them River Kings because I think that that’s essentially the slightly unknown part of the Viking world that we tend to forget about.

Brendan: Makes you wonder if the Vikings could have created canals they probably would have loved it.

Dr Cat Jarman: Yeah, absolutely. There are some places where it’s suggested that they did make canals and they did sort of make some of the… maybe starting with a natural riverway and then making it a bit bigger, making it even easier to move across. Other places they actually went over land. So the boats were taken out of the water and then pulled across land for really quite a long way and then stuck into another river on the other side again. So, you know, if you, if you couldn’t get through it on your boat, you just had to take it over land instead.

Brendan: Cat Jarman, that’s all the questions I have. Thank you for talking to us about this topic.

Dr Cat Jarman: My pleasure. Thanks.

Narrator (soundbite): A journey beyond kingdoms and into the soul of a warrior.

[Interview ends]

Brendan: That was Dr Cat Jarman, bioarcheologist. If you want to hear more from her, you can listen to the full unabridged interview by becoming a supporter of the show for $2 a month. Uh, for $2, you get a longer version of the interviews we do with all of our experts. Just go to patrion.com/heylesson, or click the show more button in the show notes to find a link to that. This week’s interview with her is a bit shorter than normal. It’s only 25 minutes or so but others are much longer. And your two bucks a month gets all of the previous full length interviews. So that’s good. And as well as that, you’re just helping us out.

Alice: It’s really good as well. She’s like Bones from the TV show Bones, but real.

Brendan: Yeah. It’s just like bones, but for the distant past. Alice…

Alice: Yes.

Brendan: Our friend Eivor, the protagonist of Valhalla. What do you reckon she wants to be buried with when she’s buried?

Alice: Well, uh, I think definitely the bones of, uh, whichever mighty steed you pick. I have the wolf steed.

Brendan: Rideable wolf.

Alice: The rideable wolf, which is, it’s actually quite annoying because, uh, if you get off it, um, and it stays in the vicinity then it howls fretfully, uh, which is quite annoying. And then bones, best raven friend, satellite drone raven. Cause you, you have one of those.

Brendan: What, like a little bird that tells you if land is nearby or what?

Alice: So a feature of the recent Assassin’s Creed games is that you have, uh, you had a best friend eagle that would fly in the sky. Uh, and then you could look through its eyes with the power of being really good friends with it. And then you could scout the land out and like spot enemies and things. But for this Assassin’s Creed obviously it’s a raven with cause that’s more thematically appropriate. So yeah, the bones of your raven… and then probably, uh, her weapons as well. You can get different weapons to my weapons and gear. So I favored the axe and shield, which I would’ve thought is what people mostly associate with Vikings… hitting people with big axes, right?

Brendan: Yeah. It feels Viking enough to me. What about Eivor as a person, does she feel sufficiently Viking? Does she believe in Odin? Is she happy to steal a Bishop’s hot and go to the toilet in it or whatever it is Vikings do?

Alice: So they shout some terrible things as they’re raiding monasteries. I should say, you cannot harm… I mean, you can harm civilians in it, but if you do the game tells you off, basically it says like…

Brendan: Vikings didn’t do that, stop it!

Alice: It says you’ll be “desynchronised”, which is the game’s way of saying that they will make you reload if you kill too many, um, non-violent NPCs. So you can’t actually murder any bishops. And also if you look around the monasteries and stuff, most of the time, it turns out the bishops were like evil anyway, so it’s fine. They’ll have like a diary saying “oh I love stealing food from poor people” or something. Um, but, Eivor as a person, they’re quite, they’re very confident. They’re very brash, but will have like words of wisdom for children or maybe someone who’s at a crossroads in their life. They’ll always have some sort of nice saying to, to help them. And they are.. so you have like a little kind of town, which you’re, um, building up and gets bigger as you go. And there are… you just can have female warriors in your little crew and nobody comments on women being involved at all. It’s not made a thing.

Brendan: Nobody’s stopping you.

Alice: There’s no issue with it, nobody cares… Cause there was in, uh, an earlier Assassin’s Creed game – which was pirate themed, which was called Assassin’s Creed Black Flag – one of the pirates was just very obviously a woman in disguise. And then that was revealed in a cut scene. It’s just like, “but you’re a woman!” But in this… there’s women around with big axes and shields and that, and also some of the soldiers you fight are women as well. They’ll just be in the mix. There’s no differentiation made really.

Brendan: That town, Ravensthorpe. Is that something that you build as you go along, like, or does it grow as you complete missions? Are you actually lifting like wooden beams and laying foundations and stuff?

Alice: It’s sort of somewhere in between the two. So you turned up and there are like tents… this tent is where you can put a shipyard, like a shipbuilder’s hut. And this tent is for the, uh, the blacksmith. So, um, the reason you have to go raid monasteries (it’s like a “core loop”, as we would say) is that you need currency called, uh, it’s literally just a currency called “raw materials”, which you can only get from monasteries. They just have boxes of raw materials.

Brendan: The Catholic Church, always hoarding the raw materials.

Alice: So yeah, you have to go and get raw materials from monasteries and abbeys to then use them to build bits of your settlements. So if you want to get tattoos and cool asymmetrical haircuts, you need to build the tattoo hut.

Brendan: I see.
Alice: Well, it’s probably not as useful as like any of the other huts, which can give you like XP and stuff for completing challenges, but I’m pretty sure that it’s the hut people will build quite early on because they want to give their Eivor, like, a cool haircut.

Brendan: How do you feel about the tattoos and the haircuts now that you’ve learned there isn’t all that much historical evidence for, for having an asymmetrical haircut? Is it still cool? Or is historical accuracy even cooler?

Alice: Yeah. I mean, well, I had already… [comedy smug voice] I already knew that.

Brendan: Oh, I’m sorry.

Alice: Um, I already knew there was only one [historical] source of that, because a couple of years ago I interviewed, um, for an article about God of War’s depiction of the Norse gods, I interviewed an man called Dr. Jackson Crawford. He’s an old Norse specialist. So a language specialist, you know, translates all the Eddas and stuff, uh, at the university of Colorado, Boulder.

Brendan: This is that Viking cowboy!

Alice: The Viking cowboy who… he has a YouTube channel and he actually did translation work for Assassin’s Creed Valhalla.

Brendan: Wow.

Alice: Yeah. And he told me that, yeah, there’s only one source for that, but he talks about how the appearance of Vikings in pop culture is basically filtered through like what looks cool on screen, right? Like whatever is fun for an audience as well. And he mentioned an interesting thing that happened with God of War, which is that a colleague who worked in translation (who has also worked on Assassin’s Creed doing translation – her name is Maja Bäckvall, I think) she noticed that in God of War, her translations that she sent were changed and made less accurate, but it looks like what they were doing was trying to make it so the runes kind of looked like the words themselves. So the player…

Brendan: Like English…

Alice: Well, so the player could sort of transliterate them almost. Yeah.

Brendan: Oh, I see. Okay.

Alice: So the player experience goes before the historical accuracy, which you can sort of understand that not many people are going to notice that you’ve got the runes wrong. And very few people are going to try and learn runes from a video game, anyway.

Brendan: We heard from Cat about what the Vikings got up to when they weren’t murdering and pillaging and raiding and so forth. In Ravensthorpe for example, what’s the major pastime for all of the other NPC villagers? Do they, do they play Hnefatafl? That board game?

Alice: There is a dice game you can play, but I don’t think it was called that. The main thing pastime thing, that you do is, and pastime is perhaps the wrong word. Uh, but it’s “flyting”. It’s the kind of recreational thing which is sort of, I mean… they tried to style it as “yeah, it’s like the rap battles of the past” but it’s more like, you know in Monkey Island, in Curse of Monkey Island, where you did the insult battles?

Brendan: Like, that old adventure game, where you had to have an insult ready to reply against, uh, another person who insults you?.

Alice: So instead of having an actual sword fight, you would insult someone and your response had to rhyme. It’s basically that. So someone will quite slowly say an insult to you in sort of ABAB [rhyming scheme] and then you have to, you have to respond appropriately. And so you have a little timer set. I can’t think of a good example.

Brendan: Well you’re not, you’re not a professional flyter. I wouldn’t ask that of you.

Alice: I am not, but it would be… if I was like: ”Brendy you’re rubbish and your feet really smell”. And then… you’d be like…

Brendan: I’d be like: “At least I’m not a minion of the goddess Hel”.

Alice: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. And then if you do well in that, you can win money basically. And also your charisma goes up.

Brendan: Of course, everyone knows if you win a poetry competition, your charisma goes up.

Alice: Sometimes you’ll have… you’ll be like breaking someone out of jail or something. There’ll be little cut scenes where someone will be like, stop. You can’t do that. Um, and then you can respond to that by being like, “screw you, I’ll kill you.” And then you get in a fight. Or! You can, if your charisma is high enough, you can do a sort of charismatic response. To persuade them.

Brendan: You just tell them a poem. And they’ll be like, “Oh yeah, no, sure. Let them out of prison. No problem.”

Alice: Well, you’d think that, given how you earn charisma points, but every single time I’ve done it, you’ve just threatened to kill them right away. Which I think isn’t really very persuasive… well it is very persuasive, but it’s not, you know, eloquent.

Brendan: Traditionally the Assassin’s Creed games have a lot of big cities, uh, or they, they have in the past had lots to climb. But this one looks very green and unspoiled. It’s like England before there were any huge towns or cities. Um, what do you climb in this one?

Alice: There are medium towns and cities, so there are some places… like York and places like that exist, and Norwich, although it’s “Northwic”… and London exists as well. Um, so there are some sort of medium sized buildings you can climb and jump around and trees as well. But the tallest bits are mostly Roman ruins, which do not exist anymore… at least not in the size they are depicted in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. But that’s also why you have your wolf steed to ride around on, to sort of cover the open spaces. And your longboat as well, which you ride up and down on rivers.

Brendan: Oh yeah. How important are these rivers, this network of rivers? Cat was telling us that that’s the backbone of the Viking economy. So how does Eivor get along on the rivers?

Alice: So you can go quite fast up and down the rivers to travel. I mean, like, I can see how it would be very important if Eivor did not have access to fast travel.

Brendan: [laughter]

Alice: So I used the rivers a lot the first time I went somewhere, [that] kind of thing. But it’s, it’s got… your crew can sing. Uh, and there’s also, you have like a little mate on your ship called Bragi who can tell stories, um, which is a reference to the Norse god Bragi who told stories and stuff as well. I think. I believe so. It’s shown that it is culturally significant, I would say, but like, I don’t know how much players will actually find themselves using [the rivers] outside of the times they are forced to, unless they really enjoy it, which I could see they would.

Brendan: Do you ever take the boat and go and sail anywhere else? Do you ever go to Eastern Europe or Russia or Turkey?

Alice: There is DLC… there’s post-launch content planned, uh, where you will go elsewhere, including Ireland.

Brendan: Oh yeah. I remember seeing this, you go and introduce the snakes to Ireland or something.

Alice: That’s the sort of thing.

Brendan: Is there any, you didn’t notice any cosmetic option in the game that includes a nice bead necklace made of a semi-precious stone sourced in India?

Alice: No, sadly not. I’m afraid, but they do… I mean, slightly spoiler-y but you do… actually it’s not really a spoiler because they’re in it from like the first minute of the game. But, um, you are technically not an assassin in this. You’re just a big Viking, but you are friends with some assassins who call themselves the “hidden ones” at this point. And they have come from… I can’t remember if they explicitly say, but… Jerusalem? you’re my thing. I think that’s where the order was, I can’t remember. But basically, they came back with your mate who traveled to, I guess the middle East or Asia, who went on like a big trip and has been gone for a couple of years. So it does reference that the Vikings traveled much further afield than just Europe.

Brendan: That’s cool.

Alice: I can’t remember if it says explicitly where they’re from. It’s just like, “yes, it was very hot there”. Assassin’s Creed has really confusing lore though. Cause the first game is set during the crusades, in and around Jerusalem, but then it turns out the assassin’s order was founded in Egypt, uh, around the time of Cleopatra. So yeah.

Brendan: Because this is a video game with RPG elements. You can also get romantic with people. So I want you to tell us what many of the listeners have probably been shouting to hear… Does Eivor ever end up smooching anyone? How many people can Eivor smooch in the Viking era?

Alice: There is quite a bit of smooching. There are a couple of people at your camp that you can sort of smooch. One of the hunters who runs the Hunter hut, you can sort of like go on dates with her, and the dates are like shooting flaming arrows and stuff. Cause she’s a rough, tough wilderness girl. And what else you can… this is a little bit spoiler-y but your, uh, your brother’s wife starts to fancy you. So you can smooch her. I got two experience points for that.

Brendan: [real big laugh]

Alice: Uh, there are some people out in the world that you can meet and smooch. There’s quite a few, there’s a mix of male and female smooch options. And they are all open to you, whether you’re male or female Eivor. And it’s always kind of like, it’s a bit rough and tumble… every time I’ve smoothed someone it’s been outdoors or in like a ruined stone tower or something. It’s not very comfortable smooching.

Brendan: It wouldn’t be back then. That’s how they did it at all. In Roman ruins.

Alice: I suppose you’ve got to make the best of it, haven’t you?

Brendan: All right. That’s all we have time for. You’ve been listening to Hey Lesson with me, Brandan Caldwell and my guest co-host this time. Alice Bell. Thank you very much for joining us, Alice. Uh, where can people find you on the internet? Can they find you on the internet?

Alice: No. They can’t, I’ve basically scrubbed my presence from the internet.

Brendan: Well, is there anything you want to offer them as a bread crumb trail?

Alice: Uh, you can find more opinions of mine, about Assassin’s Creed, and many other things, including Vampire-themed bath bombs and other stuff – I write about indie games as well – at RockPaperShotgun.com, the best PC gaming website ever in the whole world.

Brendan: Never heard of it.

Alice: Do you have to do, like, a disclosure?

Brendan: Um, I think if people have listened to other episodes, they’ll know that I did use to work with you and others on Rock Paper Shotgun, and they probably know this considering maybe 50% of the guest co-hosts I’ve had on are from Rock Paper Shotgun. I was saying to… because I had even Matt Cox who was once a writer there as well (on our bonus podcast that patrons get for $5 a month). I was telling him, yeah, I’m cannibalizing the entire Rock Paper Shotgun staff, both former and current.

Alice: You’re doing great work for us. Because, you know, every week you have to say “Rock Paper Shotgun” again. So…

Brendan: It works out. It’s a good deal. Good deal for me. Have you noticed, Alice, there’s no ads or sponsors on the podcast?

Alice: Do you know what, I have. And I really appreciate it. How do you manage that, actually?

Brendan: Well, what it is I do, right, is… if the listener likes the podcast, they can support the show by becoming a regular donor and they get extra goodies, including access to the full interviews with scientists, docters, experts, all of the experts that we’ve had, like I’ve said. And in those interviews they mentioned much more, they talk about far more interesting stuff like, um, uh… [cannot think of an example because he is bad at selling his own show, the fool] … I don’t know. Other tiers of support will also get you bonus episodes, behind the scenes videos, loads of stuff. And uh, they get that just by going to patreon.com/heylesson, or following the links in the show notes. That’s how I… that’s how we get no ads. Do you know how poor it makes us to have no ads? It’s incredible. So it’s good that we have these patrons.

Alice: Yeah. Yeah. And you explain it so eloquently that I think it sounds like a really good investment.

Brendan: It’s a good deal. Anyway, that’s all we have time for. Thank you, listener. Please give us a review on iTunes if you’ve got a moment that helps us too. I’m also on Twitch every Thursday evening to talk about the latest topic or play a game related to the topics of our show. So if you’re on Twitch, uh, check that out at twitch.tv/heylesson and until next time, thank you again, Alice.

Alice: Thank you for having me.

Brendan: How do the Vikings say goodbye in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla?

Alice: Uh, they just kind of… you know, those cool handshakes where you grasp someone else’s forearm?

Brendan: We can’t do that in a completely auditory medium.

Alice: No.

Brendan: Skol?

Alice: Skol.

Brendan: Skol!