I had a very interesting experience recently where I was reading, for fun, the book Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live, edited by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller. I came across a reference to one of the writers calling the show the ‘Viking Death Ship’ in the early eighties.
The story goes, Michael O’Donoghue, one of the shows most brilliant and tempestuous early writers, was asked to come back to the show in the early eighties as a head writer. He both needed the money and, apparently, hated the way the show was now. He was determined that the show was on its last legs. So he decided that he would act like the show was a burning ship, hence he called it the ‘Viking Death Ship.’
Here are some extracts from the book:
Dick Ebersol: “He wanted to give it a ‘Viking funeral.’”
Bob Tischler: “And he said ‘It’ll be fun, and by the way, the show is just going to go down anyway, so don’t worry about having to be stuck on the show.’ And he actually described it as a ‘death ship.’”
Neil Levy: “So I went and asked Catherine O’Hara. She wasn’t really interested. But I talked to her and she came down. Then she saw the flaming Viking ship going under and she went, ‘Uh-oh, gotta run.’”
Tim Kazurinsky: “He wanted to destroy the show. His motto was ‘Viking Death Ship. Let’s all go down in the Viking Death Ship.’”
I know that the image of a Viking burial by burning boat is one of those pervasive and omnipresent misconceptions about the Vikings, just like the horned helmets and the gruff Viking exterior. This concept is one of the romanticisms about Vikings passed on to us from Victorians. And yet, unlike the horned helmets we do have one reference to a burial at sea in a burning ship. In Ibn Fadlan’s account of a Norse burial, no doubt somewhere in Sweden, he describes a combination of a burning boat funeral and human sacrifice. It is in fact very hard to tell how common or widespread this practice may have been because all archaeological evidence was, well, burned and then sunk.
But it is a very moving image, and it is interesting to see in this reference just how pervasive it is.
But this lead me to another test of the pervasiveness of this image, which was equally intriguing. I did a Google search of Viking burial, as if that would give me an idea of how engrained in pop culture this image was. When I searched the first things that came up seemed to give a fairly accurate description. I must confess to being a little disappointed because I know, I know from references like the one above and from just living in a North American culture, that this flaming burial at sea is an engrained and accepted thing. However, as others have no doubt encountered, it is hard to find sources for things that people ‘just know.’ And yet, on closer examination of those sources, you will find that many of them have to deal with the idea of being burnt at sea, and discuss where that tradition came from because the idea is so omnipresent, somehow.
Perhaps the most telling of popular culture is doing a google image search for ‘viking burial.’ Then you see at first glance the top twenty or so images, as opposed to the top three results for text, and there there is a remarkable presence of burning ships.
I think it is really interesting that O’Donoghue referred to the show as this Viking pyre ship, because I think it reflects the way that people use the medieval as simple descriptive vocabulary as opposed to a reference to an actual historical/medieval fact. I don’t think anyone would care to know that the reference is not necessarily correct, because in these three words we have a popularly accepted image, with cultural weight behind it. The fact that it is medievalism is very interesting to us, the medievalists, but it is secondary to the fact that it is pop culture. It is just interesting to think about how it got that way.