The 10th century chronicle of the violent, orgiastic funeral of a Viking chieftain
For the 10 th century holy man and jurist Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, the violent, orgiastic, drunken spectacle put on by mourning Vikings in Bulgaria must have been shocking.
In Ibn Fadlan’s Muslim tradition, loved ones cleaned the deceased person’s body, said prayers over him, placed him in a shroud and buried him in a relatively shallow grave the same day he died – the grave was shallow so the dead person could hear the call to prayer.
In the Viking tradition, if it was a chief who died, he was placed in the ground while his burial clothes were prepared for 10 days, during which his followers drank and had sex with doomed slave girls “purely out of love.” On the day of cremation, the Viking’s body was exhumed, then his companions burned him, along with volunteer slave girls or boys who were slain, slaughtered dogs, horses, cows and chickens, food offerings, his weapons and his ship.
For many years people have been fascinated by Vikings. Their reputation as rapacious, violent, deadly marauders up and down the coasts of Europe and farther east are famous. But in recent years people have been repairing Vikings’ reputations by celebrating their awesome epics and stories, their wonderful religion and their workmanship and skills.
- Norsemen transformed international culture, manufacturing, tech and trade during Viking Era
- New study reveals Vikings could navigate after dark using sun-compass and mythical sunstone
In a blog 2013 in the Wall Street Journal , the writer attributes many good qualities to the Vikings:
We now know of the skills of these alleged barbarians as boatbuilders and navigators of genius; as blacksmiths, silversmiths, swordsmiths and wordsmiths; we know the truly intricate magnificence of the celebratory skaldic poetry that was composed and handed down from generation to generation as memorialised history that had no need of the written word; we remain fascinated by the loyalty of the Vikings to their Asatru, a faith so very different from Christianity, and the worship of a family of gods – the Aesir – as fallible and mortal as any human beings, to whom they prayed and sacrificed not for moral guidance but for the hard currency of success and protection, for victory in battle, fish in their nets, fat on their cattle and grain in their fields.
ILovePhilosophy.com has a translation from Arabic into English of Ibn Fadlan’s entire written account of the burial process of one of “the filthiest of all Allah’s creatures,” as Ibn Fadlan calls the Vikings. Before you read, be warned that Fadlan described a very disturbing scene onboard the deceased Viking chief’s ship-come-pyre just before the Viking and a slave girl’s remains were burned to death.
A page from Ahmad Ibn Fadlan’s manuscript on his travels for the Abbasid caliph (Gilwellian/ Wikimedia Commons )
In 921, the Abbasid Empire Caliph Al-Muqtadir sent Fadlan as part of a diplomatic mission to the king of the Volga Bulgars. Ibn Fadlan was a faqih, an expert in the law and Muslim faith, though his life prior to his mission is largely unknown to history.
Ibn Fadlan wrote about 30 pages of text on what he observed during his trip, including the Viking death rites. Some excerpts follow:
I was told that when their chieftains die, the least they do is to cremate them. I was very keen to verify this, when I learned of the death of one of  their great men. They placed him in his grave (qabr) and erected a canopy over it for ten days, until they had finished making and sewing his <funeral garments>.
In the case of a poor man they build a small boat, place him inside and burn it. In the case of a rich man, they gather together his possessions and divide them into three, one third for his family, one third to use for <his funeral> garments, and one third with which they purchase alcohol which they drink on the day when his slave-girl kills herself and is cremated together with her master. (They are addicted to alcohol, which they drink night and day. Sometimes one of them dies with the cup still in his hand.)
Ibn Fadlan said it was customary when a chieftain died for his family members to ask slave girls and boys, “Who among you will die with him?” If they volunteered, they were not allowed to back out. Usually, Ibn Fadlan wrote, slave girls made the offer. One girl volunteered for the spectacle Fadlan saw. “Every day the slave-girl would drink <alcohol> and would sing merrily and cheerfully,” he wrote of her.