Erfiøl: Beer and Burial in The Viking World

Various articles have been making the rounds of late about the apparent discovery of a female warrior grave in Birka, Sweden.[1] There is evidence, the researchers claim, that that woman interred was a ‘high ranking officer’ in the Viking Age and therefore extrapolate the idea that she was powerful because she had access to these masculine tools of violence.

I have so. many. thoughts.


Viking Swords from National Museum of Ireland- Archaeology. Own Photo.

I was ecstatic to write about this topic because I actually get to use my thesis *jumps up and down* ahem, which I wrote about gendered symbolism in Viking burial practices.[2] I could spend hours waxing poetical on a plethora of tangents about all things Viking graves, especially as it relates to ideas of warrior women. However, for the sake of your sanity, I will endeavor to spare you most of this and focus instead on beer and burial.

But the ideas brought up in these articles are interlinked with today’s topic. Since the emergence of this research, some journalists have been quick to sensationalize the original study: think pictures of Xena warrior princess juxtaposed with romanticized depictions of fierce warrior women defending their homelands and violently raiding new locales. Concluding that if women were warriors, than they could be powerful. These also appear to presume that the only real or desirable power in the Viking world could be achieved in tandem with roles and items generally associated with masculinities.


Whalebone plaque and sei∂r staff from National Museum of Ireland- Archaeology. These may represent a powerful female Viking magic practitioner. Own Photo.

Leaving alone the idea that violence = male, there are many (read: many, many, many) issues of assuming gender or lived reality based on either items included in burial or on osteologically determined biological sex. .[3]

For example, I have argued that funeral practices and grave goods are potentially more about the living than the dead. ‘The funeral’ was a time when power and treaties needed to renegotiated, heirs needed to express their families continued dominance, and enemies needed to be reminded of their power. It is an anthropological phenomenon that burials become more elaborate when the people who are creating them are threatened. Symbols of power are often included in burials to represent just this, and can possibly be linked to transitional or chaotic periods. In this instance, it doesn’t mean that this burial is not that of a female warrior; but, as with all archaeology, it is important to err on the side of caution, and present multiple possibilities before perhaps deciding what is the most meaningful explanation.[4]

I’m going to steer away from these assumptions because I want to demonstrate that Viking women didn’t have to be warriors to hold or achieve socially powerful positions. So for this article I want to further examine this theme of burial and forms of female power. But this is Braciatrix, so I am going to add one further element: beer.



Tune Stone (c) Skadinaujo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5]

In 1627 in the parish of Tune, a man by the name of Dr. Peder Alfssøn, came across a remarkable find. Located within the walls of the town churchyard was an impressive, and rather large, runic stone. His recounting to a colleague in Copenhagen is the first recorded documentation of the stone, but from his discussions with locals it is clear that the people of the village were aware of its existence for some time, though perhaps more as a mere passing curiosity than as an object of some significance.

Dating to between 375/400 to 520/530 CE, this is oldest legal source for female inheritance in the Scandinavian world.[5] And while it is prior to the Viking era, what it reveals is a ritual that carried on through that period.

The stone has two brief passages, written on both sides of its rock face. While side A is concerned with WiWAR (this capitalization is deliberate) who created the memorial, it is side B that is crucial for our purposes. There are several competing interpretations as to the exact phrasing, but I have chosen the following:

For WodundaR, a stone

Three daughters prepared

A funeral feast, the noblest of heirs.[6]


Various Viking bowls and buckets. Could possibly be used to hold beer. From National Museum of Ireland- Archaeology. Own Photo.

Here, clearly etched over a millennium and half ago, is a reference to a funeral feast prepared by the man’s heirs, his daughters. And this funeral feast is particularly interesting because of the importance placed on one integral element: erfiøl, that is, funeral beer.

Funeral beer, or inheritance beer, is well attested to in the medieval legal texts of Norway. The GulathingsLov, a series of medieval law tracts stated ‘And when men are dead and the heir will make beer after (them)’.[7] During the Christian period this would become known as såluøl or soul beer, and included the role of a priest in the course of the ceremonies.[8]

And what function did the funeral beer play in these elaborate burial rituals? In Fagrskinna, the importance of consuming drink was highlighted,

 And he who arranged the funeral feast was not to sit in that man’s seat whom he inherited until the men had drunk the funeral beer…and in the last place there should be filled the bragafull and then he who held the funeral feast  had to make a promise at the bragafull and so should all who participated in the funeral feast. And then the heir would enter into the seat of the man who  had left the inheritance. And then the inheritance was fulfilled and the praise was accomplished after the dead man, but not before that.[9]

FYI: A bragafull is typically translated as ‘best cup’ or ‘chieftains cup’ used in ceremonial occasions as depicted in this passage.

So essentially, the heir or heirs of the deceased were to commission a funeral beer and it was not until they had consumed this ale and made their oaths that they could officially claim their inheritance.[10]

We have archaeological evidence that these sorts of ritual ceremonies took place in large halls such as the one in the village of Borg, on the Lofoten Islands.[11] And seriously, my trip to Norway is the vacation that keeps on giving. I was actually there in June. Behold! All the photos:

While the use of the saga materials to ascertain Viking ceremonies is – cue the favourite words of academics everywhere – problematic[12], they do provide an interesting source for funeral feasts, when used in tandem with archaeological materials and legal texts. There are many references to this happening in accordance with a male burial, such as Håkonar saga goda.[13]

But what is critical for our purposes is the funeral of Unnr attested to in Laxdaela Saga [14]


Replica Viking boat sailing in the Lofoten Islands, Norway. Own Photo.

According to this narrative, Unnr was a truly remarkable woman. Described as ‘peerless among women’, in her lifetime, she had buried her father, a chieftain, her husband, the king of Dublin, and her son Thorstein. After the death of her son, she decided that it was crucial to escape the war in Caithness, and so she commissioned the secret building of a boat and departed with vast amounts of wealth and her remaining kinsfolk.

…men deem that scarce may an example be found that any one, a woman only, has ever got out of such a state of war with so much wealth and so great a following.[15]

After arriving, she laid claim to an extensive portion of land in Dalasyla in north-west of Iceland, which she generously portioned out to her followers.

She was honoured and revered in her lifetime and was an extremely powerful matriarch of her family.

Though exhausted and at the end of her life, Unnr was determined to marry off her grandson. She was intent on preparing an elaborate feast and invited all the leading figures from surrounding areas to attend. She greeted and entertained each of her guests with the care and attention for which she was renowned. And in her final act, she gracefully retired to bed and never woke up.

Unnr was found in the morning, sitting upright.

Every one thought it a wonderful thing, how Unn had upheld her dignity to the day of her death.[16]

And while her life was truly an exceptional story of courage and resolve, it is in her death that we find references to these critical funeral feasts. Merging the wedding celebrations with her funeral, Unnr was treated to an elaborate send off, complete, we can assume, with her funeral feast beer, consumed by her heir, her favourite grandson.

The consumption of funeral beer and its link with inheritance and high social standing is just one of the possible ways in which women could achieve power in the hierarchies of the Viking Age. These women, both those referenced on the Tune stone and Unnr, were potentially powerful landowners who likely commanded respect during their lifetimes.

But it is also here, in the runic stones and depictions of funeral feasts, that we can see beer, and the rituals surrounding its consumption, played a critical role in the maintenance and creation of power.



[1] Hedenstierna-Jonson C, Kjellström A, Zachrisson T, et al. ‘A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics’, in American Journal of Physical Anthropology (2017) pp, 1-8

[2] Christina Wade, Gendered Symbolism as a Medium to Negotiate Power as Evidenced in the Viking Burials of Ireland, (TCD, 2017).

[3] If you are interested in further theories besides my own regarding the conception of women warriors I would first encourage you to read Judith Jesch’s response to the Birka grave: And also look into Carol Clover, ‘Maiden Warriors and Other Sons’ in Journal of English and Germanic Philology 85 (1986); and Megan McLaughlin, ‘The Woman Warrior: Gender, warfare and society in medieval Europe’ in Women’s Studies Vol. 17 Issue 3-4 (1990); and S.J. Lucy, ‘Housewives, Warriors, and Slaves? Sex and Gender in Anglo-Saxon Burials’ in Jenny Moore and Eleanor Scott (eds.), Invisible People and Processes: Writing Gender and Childhood into European Archaeology (Leicester, 1997). While these articles are on the older side, they provide an interesting introduction to conceptions of female warriors and social roles in the Viking world.

[4] See for example, Wade, Gendered Symbolism, pp. 40- 50. Further sources: Kelley Hays-Gilpin, ‘Archaeology and Women’s Ritual Business’ in David S. Whitley and Kelley Hays-Gilpin (eds.) Belief in the Past: Theoretical Approaches to the Archaeology of Religion (Walnut Creek, 2008), p. 247; Roberta Gilchrist, Gender and Archaeology: Contesting the Past, (London, 1999), p. 36; Douglas R. Davies, Death, Ritual, and Belief: The Rhetoric of Funerary Rites (London, 1997), p.1; [4] Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology (London, 1970), p. 93. Terhe Oestigaard and Jakim Goldhahn, ‘From the Dead to the Living: Death as Transactions and Re-negotiations’ in Norwegian Archaeological Review Vol. 39, No 1 (June 1, 2006), p. 27. Neil Price, ‘Passing into Poetry: Viking-Age Mortuary Drama and the Origins of Norse Mythology’ in Medieval Archaeology 54 Vol. 1 (October 2010), p.131; Mike Parker Pearson, The Archaeology of Death and Burial, (Stroud, 1999), p. 32.

[5] Bernard Mees, ‘Further Thoughts on the Tune Memorial’, in Norsk Lingvistisk Tidsskrift Volume 33 (2015), p. 49; for more information on the stone please see Frans-Arne Stylegar, ‘The Tune stone and its archaeological context’.

[6] Bernard Mees, ‘Weaving Words: Law and Performance in Early Nordic Tradition’, in Guus Kroonen, Erika Langbroek, Arend Quak, Annelies Roeleveld (eds.) Amsterdamer Beitråge zur Ålteren Germanistik. Band 70, (Amsterdam, 2013), p. 136.

[7] Olof Sundquist, An Arena for Higher Powers: Ceremonial buildings and religious strategies for rulership in late iron age Scandinavia, (Leiden, 2016), p. 482, translating and quoting Gulathingslov NGL 1, 14: er men verda dauder, oc vill ervingi ol efter gera. Men in this case can also be translated as people.

[8] Sundquist, An Arena for Higher Powers, p. 482.

[9] Ibid., p.489; citing and translating Fagrskinna, Isl, Forner, 29, 124.

[10] This is supported in other sources such as Snorri Sturlsson’s Olafs Saga Tryggvasonar, Ch. 35, whereby Kng Sveinn engaged in the same ritual.

[11] Sundquist, An Arena for Higher Powers, p. 487.

[12] Here’s another thing I could spend hours debating. Sagas written 200-300 years after the people they discuss are dead as a viable source for Viking…anything.

[13] Sundquist, An Arena for Higher Powers, p.487.

[14] all paraphrasing taken from this translation: 1880 translation into English by Muriel A. C. Press.

[15] Laxdaela Saga, Ch.4; 1880 translation into English by Muriel A. C. Press.

[16] Ibid. ch.7.


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