The Northman’s Corpse God

Joe George

With its images of loincloth-clad warriors leaving carcasses in their wake, The Northman is a full-bodied affair.

The movie’s approach to bodies can be seen in one of its earliest moments, in which Heimir The Fool (Willem Dafoe) welcomes two visitors into his cave. His muscles illuminated by flames, Heimer drops bowls of broth and fish before his guests and tells them to eat. Although they are King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) and his young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak), the royals obey the fool. They crawl toward the meal like beasts, snapping and growling, shoving their faces into the bowl to lap up the food.

Heimir's eyes grow brighter as he bends over to stare at his king. “You are dogs, who wish to become men,” he bellows. “Prove you’re not a dog.”

The king pauses for a moment and then answers with a mighty belch, much to Heimir’s delight. Turning to Amleth, Heimir repeats the command and receives a similar answer, this time in the form of a fart.

Although certainly an unusual way to acknowledge someone’s humanity, these bodily functions are very much in line with The Northman’s worldview. Directed by Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse), who co-wrote the film with Icelandic author Sjón, The Northman retells the 12th-century Nordic legend of Amleth.

The story follows Amleth’s quest for revenge against his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who murders his father at the beginning of the film and captures his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Raised by Scandinavian berserkers, Amleth (played as an adult by Alexander Skårsgard) begins his quest by posing as a slave on the Icelandic farm where Fjölnir now lives in exile. With the help of a fellow slave, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), Almeth watches, waiting for his chance to strike.

Throughout the film, the camera focuses on flesh and blood. Early on, as part of a berserkers’ raid on a village, Amleth pulls himself up walls with his muscular arms, slices his sword along opponents’ necks, and tears out his victims' throats with his teeth. Eggers captures the carnage with long, unbroken shots. Characters cry and sweat, shouting at the sky and leaving globs of spittle on their chin. They stare down the camera and the camera stares back, devoid of compassion.

Throughout the film, the camera focuses on flesh and blood.

In one of the movie’s most striking later moments, set on Fjölnir’s farm, Fjölnir’s grown son Thorir (Gustav Lindh) awakens to find his two friends dismembered, their heads and legs and torsos rearranged in an outline of a horse and pinned to the roof of their hut. In the face of this ghastly display, Thorir shrieks in rage and horror, blaming the atrocity on “Christian swine.” Terrified, another man asks, “Could it be the Christians? Their God is a corpse, nailed to a tree.”

The blame is misplaced, but the theology isn’t entirely wrong. Our God is a corpse nailed to a tree. Incarnation is a central tenet of Christianity—the belief that God took corporeal form and interceded in history. We believe that God, in the form of Jesus, was indeed nailed to a tree, that nails and thorns and a spear pierced his body. And we believe that he walked again in that body three days later, before ascending to heaven.

This corporeal nature of Christ cannot be separated from Jesus’ mission to reveal God’s love for humanity. As put in John 1, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” Because God became flesh, “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” What’s more, God in flesh as Jesus worked by touching other bodies, as demonstrated in stories where he healed a blind man with spit and mud or approached those whose bodies were deemed unclean, such as the woman “subject to bleeding” and the 10 men with leprosy.

At the culmination of his ministry, Jesus’ own body was broken and pierced. After the resurrection, it wasn’t until Thomas felt these wounds that he believed he was in the presence of the risen Christ. In their book Body Becoming, theologian Robyn Henderson-Espinoza shares a vignette from Rev. Anna Golladay, co-host of the Activist Theology podcast. Golladay reads Thomas’ story not as one of doubt, but as a story that "illuminates embodiment as a path to healing.” Thomas did not want an incorporeal God, who existed only as an idea or spirit, but a real and embodied God, who understood our pain and made a physical impact on the world.

Thomas’ interaction with the pierced and risen Christ provides inspiration for Golladay, who says that it’s “not coincidental that we [Christians] are called the body of Christ.” In the same way that God became human, sharing physical space with us, we too “interact and experience one another, and God, in full and authentic ways” by placing our bodies in places that need love, comfort, and justice. We worship our corporeal God by following the model of Christ, becoming living sacrifices.

The broken and bruised bodies filling The Northman underscore our vulnerability, with shot after shot of people beaten and pierced in horrific ways. But the movie also reminds us that bodies can be used for love and affirmation, as when Aurvandill smothers young Amleth in a hug or when the adult Amleth and Olga lay together on a forest floor.

The Northman even emphasizes tenderness at the end of the visit to Heimir’s cave. In a scene that recalls Thomas’ encounter with Christ, Aurvandill removes the bandages around his waist to reveal a wound he suffered during a previous battle. Aurvandill beckons Amleth to put his fingers into the wound. When Amleth complies, he receives a vision of a tree of kings, with his ancestors’ bodies sprouting from the branches like fruit.

With images like these, The Northman reminds us that being human means living in a vulnerable body, as part of a larger community. Sharing in that vulnerability, Christ suffered his wounds on our behalf, offering Thomas and all of us a model for how we should live for each other. Christianity, after all, is also a full-bodied affair.

Topics: Movies