What Really Happened at Viking Funerals? It’s Not What You Think!
Like many ancient societies, the Vikings believed in an afterlife, and these were based on the religious beliefs they held. The current understanding of Viking funerary practices has been discovered in both archaeological and textual sources. One of the best-known accounts describing a Viking funeral is to be found in the writings of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a member of the Abbasid embassy that was sent to Volga Bulgaria.
What Did the Vikings Believe About the Afterlife?
Like many other ancient cultures, the Vikings believed that it was possible to take their worldly possessions into the afterlife with them. Therefore, an important feature of Viking funerals was the grave goods. The Vikings believed that warriors who fell in battle would earn the right to enter Valhalla, an enormous hall located in Asgard, the domain of Odin. There, the fallen warriors would feast and fight until the arrival of Ragnarok. Therefore, it was essential that dead Vikings be equipped by the living with the gear necessary for their journey to and stay in Valhalla. Apart from Valhalla, other Viking realms of the dead include Folkvangr (also for warriors), Helgafjell (for those who have led good lives), and Helheim (for those who died dishonorable deaths).
Funeral of a Viking - grave goods were buried with them for their journey and stay into the afterlife. ( igorigorevich / Adobe)
One of the most important objects required by a dead Viking was a warship. As the Vikings were great sea-farers, they believed that ships would also provide them with safe passage into the afterlife. Although the warship played a prominent role in Viking funerals, there was no typical ‘one-size fits-all’ custom and variations existed according to the status and wealth of the deceased.
Vikings Traveled to the Afterlife by Ship but Not by Sea
Archaeology has revealed that some Viking burial mounds were meant to resemble ships and stones were used to outline the shape of the vessels. Higher ranking Vikings, such as chiefs and kings, were even able to have actual ships accompany them into the afterlife. In some cases, the boats would be buried with its contents, while in others, they would be burnt before the burial. There is also the popular belief today that Viking ships would be set on fire before sent off to sea, though there is no archaeological proof for this practice if it did occur.
Funerary stone settings around Viking burial mounds. (Bunnyfrosch / Public Domain)
Apart from their ships, warriors entering Valhalla would be required to bring their weapons and armor along, and hence these objects were part of a Viking’s grave goods. Archaeologists have found that blades that were part of a Viking’s grave goods would usually be broken or bent. This was meant to symbolically signify the final death of the individual, as the Vikings believed that a warrior’s soul was linked to his weapon. Additionally, the destruction of the blade served as a deterrent to grave robbers.
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Archaeologists have found that blades were part of a Viking’s grave goods. (Petr / Adobe)
Why Was Human Sacrifice Part of the Viking Funeral?
Viking funerals also involved human sacrifice, as servants and slaves were sent by this means to serve their dead master in the afterlife. The human sacrifice, however, depended on whether the deceased was cremated or buried. For the former, those accompanying the dead would be burnt alive, whereas for the latter, their bodies would be placed in a specific position so as to ensure that they would arrive in the afterlife.
If the deceased was cremated the human sacrifice would be burnt alive to accompany them to the afterlife. (Erica Guilane-Nachez / Adobe)
Consequences of an Inadequate Viking Funeral Ritual
Grave goods also served to ensure that the deceased was satisfied in the afterlife. The Vikings believed that if the dead were not appeased, they could return as a draugr (or revenants) to haunt the living. These undead beings could cause much trouble for the living, including crop failure, defeat in war, and pestilence. If a draugr was suspected of causing such troubles, the Vikings would exhume the recently dead and look for signs of undead activity. When a draugr was identified, the Vikings would rebury the body with more grave goods, assuming that the person had been a highly respected person in life. Alternatively, a wooden stake could simply be used to pin the body to the ground and the head chopped off, so as to kill the creature.
A draugr aboard a ship, in sub-human form, wearing oilskins. (Groshek / Public Domain)
A Detailed Account of a Viking Funeral
Lastly, a few words may be said about Ahmad Ibn Fadlan’s famous description of a Viking funeral. Ibn Fadlan was a 10 th century Arab who was part of the embassy sent by the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad to Volga Bulgaria (in modern day Russia). A detailed account of the Volga Vikings, including the funeral of a chieftain, may be found in Ibn Fadlan’s writing, known as the Risala. One of the funerary rituals recorded in the Risala is that of a peculiar form of human sacrifice. According to Ibn Fadlan, a slave girl had volunteered to accompany the dead chief into the afterlife. Before being sacrificed, however, she had sexual intercourse with six different men, so as to collect their ‘essence of life’ for the dead chief. It must be pointed out, however, that such a ritual was rare. Ibn Fadlan’s description of a Volga Bulgarian Viking funeral may be unique to that area and is not necessarily representative of Viking funerals elsewhere.
Top image: The Funeral of a Viking - painting 1893. Source (Manchester Art Gallery / Public Domain)
By Wu Mingren
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