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