May 7, 2014

Funeral of a Viking Warlord

On the occasion of a new exhibition of Viking Treasures at the British Museum comes this story of the funeral of a Viking warlord in the 10th century

Human sacrifice, a female angel of death and why the Vikings were even more savage than you thought

Another chronicler, an Arab traveller named Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, came across Vikings in what is now Russia, and was scandalised by their lack  of hygiene.  They were tall and their bodies ‘perfect’ in shape, he recorded, but they were ‘the filthiest of God’s creatures’, as dirty as ‘wild asses’ and had shocking sexual habits.

These were displayed at an extraordinarily lavish but dreadful ritual he witnessed for a chieftain who had just died — in reality, an orgy, a pagan gang-bang, no less.  A third of the man’s possessions went to his family, a third on the clothes for his funeral, and the remaining third on booze for his wake, ensuring everyone was drunk enough to perform what came next.

At the centre of the ten-day proceedings was a slave girl from his household, apparently a volunteer, who would be cremated with her master. A boat was hauled on land and a couch placed on deck, covered by a tent. The chief’s body was dressed to the nines in stockings, trousers, boots, and a tunic of brocade with gold buttons, and propped up on the couch. Mead, fruits, and flowers were laid beside him for his journey into the afterlife, along with his weapons.

‘Then they brought a dog, cleft it in two halves and laid it in the boat. Then they took two horses, cleft both of them in twain with a sword and laid their flesh in the boat. ‘Then they brought two cows, cut them in two likewise and laid them in the boat.’

Meanwhile, the ‘maiden’ who was to die had death duties to perform — ‘she went here and there, and entered each of a series of tents where the head of the household quartered within had intercourse with her, saying “Say to thy lord, I have done this out of love of thee”.’

The climax of the ceremony approached with the poor girl being lifted onto a platform. ‘Behold, I see my father and mother,’ she called out, before being let down. Then she was lifted up again and declared that she could now see all her dead relatives. Lifted a third time, she cut off the head of a live chicken, and announced: ‘There I behold my lord sitting in paradise, and paradise is fair and green, and around him are men and servants. He calls me. Bring me to him.’

‘Then,’ wrote the chronicler, ‘they led her to the boat. She took off the two armlets that she wore and gave them to the old woman whom they call the Angel of Death, who was to kill her.  ‘The slave girl then took off two anklets and gave them to the two maidens who had waited on her, the daughters of the old woman known as the Angel of Death.

‘Then the people lifted her onto the boat, and men with shields and staves gave her a bowl of mead, whereupon she sang a song bidding farewell to her friends and drank it. ‘She was given another beaker, took it and sang for a long time, while the old woman was urging her to finish the goblet, and to go into the tent where her lord lay. I saw then how disturbed she was.’

The now frightened girl hesitated — ‘until the old woman took her by the head, made her go into the tent and also entered with her. Whereupon the men began to beat their shields so her shrieks would not be heard. ‘Six men went into the tent, and all had intercourse with the girl. Then they placed her beside her dead lord. Two men seized her by the feet and two by her hands.  ‘The old woman took out a rope into which a loop had been made, and gave it to two of the men. The old woman jabbed her with a broad-bladed dagger, while the two men strangled her until she was dead. The relatives of the dead man then took torches and set fire to the ship.’

It was over in a great blaze — master cremated, slave girl sacrificed, a brutal and violent end, but a death seemingly in keeping with the way Vikings chose to live and die.

This vividly-told story from the 10th century is remarkable, not just for its content, but for where it took place — on the banks of the River Volga, which runs through what is now modern Russia. It indicates how far and wide the daring of the Vikings took them, in what was almost an obsession to find new lands and wealth to plunder — economic migrants prepared to risk all. From Denmark and Norway, they went wherever sea and rivers would take them.
Posted by Jill Fallon at May 7, 2014 9:03 AM | Permalink