By Jackson Crawford, University of Colorado, Boulder
Taken together, all the sources on Norse mythology paint a richer picture than the straightforward distinction Snorri paints of weapon-killed men going to Valhalla, and all the other dead going to the realm of Hel. For another perspective on the Viking conception of death, we turn to an outsider’s fascinating account.
Journals of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan
In AD 922, a traveler named Ahmad Ibn Fadlan journeyed north from Baghdad. He encountered a group of Swedish, or Swedish-descended Vikings, in the area of what is now Kazan, Russia. During his time among these Vikings in Russia, he took many notes about their practices, and one day he was informed that one of their leaders had died.
The Vikings had placed their leader, wrapped in cloth, in a temporary grave, roofed it over with wood, and then buried the whole thing while they prepared for the grand, true funeral.
The leader’s crewmen approached their fallen chieftain’s slaves and asked which of them would die with him. One female slave volunteered. This won her several days of feasting and merriment, perhaps worth volunteering for in a desperate slave’s mind.
Meanwhile, fine clothes were prepared for the dead man, and his belongings were gathered together.
A Grand Funeral
On the day of the funeral, the Viking crew brought the dead man’s ship ashore and mounted it up on a wooden platform. On the ship, the Vikings laid out a fine bed with rich, imported silks.
An old woman, who Ibn Fadlan said the Vikings called the Angel of Death, presided over all these proceedings.
Now the dead man was dug up out of his temporary grave and dressed in the fine clothes that had been made for him. He was placed on the bed in his ship, surrounded by a feast of mead, fruit, and meat, and by his weapons from life.
As the sacrifices began, a dog, two horses, two cows, a rooster, and a hen were cut in half and both pieces were placed in the ship.
Volunteer for the Dead
The slave girl who had “volunteered” went around to the different Vikings this day and had coital relations with each of them, and each of them gave her a simple message of loyalty to their chieftain, to be taken to him in the life after.
At sunset, the slave girl was brought to the empty wooden frame of a door and lifted over it by the men, three times in succession. She was given a chicken, which she ripped the head off of and threw away. The body of the dead chicken was then put into the ship as everything else had been.
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About three centuries later, Danish writer Saxo Grammaticus, never knowing of Ibn Fadlan’s account, would write of wanderers in the underworld who came to a river.
They cut off a rooster’s head, threw it across the river, and heard the rooster crow from the other side—apparently a symbol of the regeneration of life in the afterworld.
Coming back to our first-hand funeral account from the cold banks of a river in Russia, Ibn Fadlan heard that this slave girl had declared that above the empty wooden doorframe she saw the afterlife, with the dead of her own family and of her master seated there.
The Volunteer’s Sacrifice
The girl was now brought to the boat and, in the company of the Angel of Death, she was given deep drinks of mead until she was intoxicated and befuddled. The Angel of Death dragged her then to the bed beside her dead master and choked the girl with a rope while some of the Vikings stabbed her.
With all these gruesome sacrifices completed, the living people left the funeral ship on the water. The closest relative of the dead man then stripped naked and walked backward toward the ship with a lit torch held out between his knees.
Similar Customs In Icelandic Saga
A separate story is told by the Icelandic writer of The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal. It tells of a witch who, in a similar manner, walked backward naked around her house with a torch between her knees, when she attempted to cast magic spells on her enemies.
While not funereal in purpose, the similarity in detail is striking. Perhaps one needed to approach supernatural powers—living or dead—in a way that did not show one’s face to them.
Varying Burial Customs
With the ship burning to ashes, Ibn Fadlan noticed a Viking pointing at the wind that had already picked up and said that a god had sent the wind to blow their dead leader to the afterlife even sooner.
While this most famous Viking funeral of all was a cremation aboard a ship, as were the funerals of the god Balder and the mythical hero Sigurth, accounts in the Icelandic sagas tend to describe the burial of the dead in mounds. Apparently, Norse funeral customs were different from place to place, and from time to time, as they were in our own century.
Common Questions about an Outsider’s Account of Viking Death Rituals
In AD 922, a traveler named Ahmad Ibn Fadlan journeyed north from Baghdad. He encountered a group of Swedish or Swedish-descended Vikings in Russia. During his time among these Vikings, he took many notes about their practices.
The sacrifices at the funeral begin with a dog, two horses, two cows, a rooster, and a hen being cut in half with both pieces being placed in the ship. Moreover, a volunteering slave was also sacrificed.
No, Norse burial customs varied from place to place and from time time to time. While there were cremations aboard a ship, accounts in the Icelandic sagas tend to also describe the burial of the dead in mounds.