The Funeral of a Viking

The 10th century chronicle of the violent, orgiastic funeral of a Viking chieftain

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A map showing Viking expansion between 8 th and 11th century. (Wikimedia Commons )

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On the day of the cremation, Ibn Fadlan arrived at the river and saw the dead Viking’s ship was beached and it had been hauled onto scaffolding.

They [mourners] advanced, going to and fro <around the boat> uttering words which I did not understand, while he was still in his grave and had not been exhumed.
Then they produced a couch and placed it on the ship, covering it with quilts <made of> Byzantine silk brocade and cushions <made of> Byzantine silk brocade. Then a crone arrived whom they called the “Angel of Death” and she spread on the couch the coverings we have mentioned. She is responsible for having his <garments> sewn up and putting him in order and it is she who kills the slave-girls. I myself saw her: a gloomy, corpulent woman, neither young nor old.

They exhumed the body, which Ibn Fadlan wrote hadn’t begun to stink, and removed the alcohol, fruit and a pandora they had buried him with. They clothed his body in trousers, leggings, boots, a silk caftan with gold buttons and put silk headgear with fringes and sable fur on his head.

They placed the Viking on the quilted cushions in his ship’s pavilion and laid alcohol, fruit, herbs, bread, meat and onions next to him. The Vikings chopped a dog in two and threw it on the ship. They put his weaponry next to him. They made two horses gallop until they sweated then cut them up and put the flesh on the ship. They also slaughtered a cow, a rooster and a hen and flung the dead animals onboard.

Meanwhile, the slave-girl who wished to be killed was coming and going, entering one pavilion after another. The owner of the pavilion would have intercourse with her and say to her, “Tell your master that I have done this purely out of love for you.”
At the time of the evening prayer on Friday they brought the slave-girl to a thing that they had constructed, like a door-frame. She placed her feet on the hands of the men and was raised above that door-frame. She said something and they brought her down. Then they lifted her up a second time and she did what she had done the first time. They brought her down and then lifted her up a third time and she did what she had done on the first two occasions. They next handed her a hen. She cut off its head and threw it away. They took the hen and threw it on board the ship.
I quizzed the interpreter about her actions and he said, “The first time they lifted her, she said, ‘Behold, I see my father and my mother.’ The second time she said, ‘Behold, I see all of my dead kindred, seated.’ The third time she said, ‘Behold, I see my master, seated in Paradise. Paradise is beautiful and verdant. He is accompanied by his men and his male-slaves. He summons me, so bring me to him.’

Prow of a Viking ship in a museum in Oslo, Norway

Prow of a Viking ship in a museum in Oslo, Norway (Photo by Karamell/ Wikimedia Commons )

Ibn Fadlan reported that the girl took off her bracelets and anklets and gave them to the Angel of Death and her daughters. The doomed slave girl drank alcohol and chanted. “The interpreter said to me, ‘Thereby she bids her female companions farewell.’” She drank again, and the crone-angel dragged her by her head into the pavilion. The men banged their shields so other slave girls couldn’t hear her screams, which might have made them later not volunteer to die with their masters.

Six men had sex with the slave girl. Then they and the angel-crone killed her with dire violence.

Then the deceased’s next of kin approached and took hold of a piece of wood and set fire to it. He walked backwards, with the back of his neck to the ship, his face to the people, with the lighted piece of wood in one hand and the other hand on his anus, being completely naked. He ignited the wood that had been set up under the ship after they had placed the slave-girl whom they had killed beside her master. Then the people came forward with sticks and firewood. Each one carried a stick the end of which he had set fire to and which he threw on top of the wood. The wood caught fire, and then the ship, the pavilion, the man, the slave-girl and all it contained. A dreadful wind arose and the flames leapt higher and blazed fiercely.

Comments

A comparison that I never think before. Thanks for the post

As has already been mentioned but previous comment we judge their rights as barbaric while being blind to our own barbarism. All societies have barbaric practices but because that society accepts it as a norm it's not seen a barbarism. What can be surmised is the lands that were home to the Vikings (Scandinavia) are now the apex of civilization. Arguably, Norway leading the pack, has the highest standards of living on the planet (figuring living standards for entire populace not just the aristocratic caste). They must have done something right.

The problem is that we see the events from our modern point of view. If we want to understand why this girl was lifted up on men's hands and why they did what they did,we should understand that wikipedia's info isn't enough. Because if you don't know anything about a Golden Gates game and 12 boys who guard the gates and play roles of two "angels", about old tradition of "say my greetings to my dead relatives there...", about animal sacrifices: why dogs, why hen, why horses...without knowing who were the people of Ibn Fadlan's story, it's just a description. The author forgot to tell about the wooden pillar on the top of a barrow which is a symbol of central axis of the world, the worlds tree...The story of burial has more important details than just a sexual rituals which are not clear and understandable for modern minds.

Fascinating article, Mark. I just have to wonder why you started it in the context you did. Does the fact that they had bloody rituals negate their skills as craftsmen, artisans, sailors and soldiers? If you look back, I can't think of a single ancient culture (this ritual dates back that far) that didn't have human and animal sacrifice. Is Ibn Fadlan more civilized because the founder of his religion single-handedly decapitated 500 nonbelievers in a single day? Are we more civilized because we prefer to kill people with a bomb dropped from 30,000 feet from a drone flown by someone 6,000 miles away? The only thing that makes us less brutal is the increased degrees of separation between us and death.

Mark Miller's picture

Hi Adam. I think I will let my article do my talking except for this: I think Ibn Fadlan was probably far more civilized than those Vikings. Ibn Fadlan can’t be blamed for what the founder of his religion did.

Thank you for writing.

Mark Miller

 

 

 

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