Hollywood Lied: Separating Fact from Fiction about Viking Funerals

For many of you, hearing the phrase Viking funeral may conjure up images of a small boat drifting off shore containing a body of some sort of male chief. In this boat with him may be other bodies, humans sacrificed to accompany him on his journey to the afterlife, perhaps if he’s lucky, Valhalla. As the boat continues its voyage, an arrow, shot from a bow belonging to one of his peers, lands in the centre, engulfing the boat in flames and burning all to ash.

Does that sound like what you think all Viking funerals were like? At least, Viking funerals for high-status men?

What if I told you this was wrong?

In my next two articles, we are going to learn about Viking funerals and burial rituals.  Spoiler alert: They were very diverse and multifaceted, as were the Vikings. To start with, we are going to talk about where that whole burning boat with a body on it funeral came from.

Ibn Fadlan was a Muslim diplomat who travelled to Northern Europe, encountering the people known as the Rūs in the early half of the tenth century, specifically dating circa to 921-922 CE.[1] The Rūs were a group living in the Baltic regions and Northern Europe and were particularly active in the Volga region and the Caspian Sea.[2] Originally from Sweden, by the time Ibn Fadlan encountered them, they had been living in the region for a long time.

 Ibn Fadlan recorded the death of a great man of the Rūs and what he presented as an example of voluntary human sacrifice. After the man died, a slave girl volunteered to accompany him in death, she drank and feasted for several days while his body and burial boat are prepared.[3] The day of the ceremony arrived and along with a dog, two horses, two cows, a cock and a hen, the human girl is killed by the so-called ‘Angel of Death’ who Ibn Fadlan referred to as a ‘witch, thick-bodied and sinister’.[4] This is after what amounts to several days of rituals, including rape, culminating in a quite brutal end for the slave girl who was consequently stabbed and strangled to death.[5] After placing her body on the boat along with the other sacrifices, the closest male relative to the deceased man walks backwards to the boat with a torch covering his anus to light the boat on fire and complete the funerary rituals.[6]

            Sound somewhat familiar? But there are a few problems with using this source as an example of a Viking burial. In the first place, the account itself is full bias, possible fabrications, and some translation issues. While scholars, like Gerhard Bersu and  David Wilson, appear to have accepted Ibn Fadlan’s testimony as wholly tRus’tworthy,[7] not all scholars agree with this interpretation and cite a few serious points of concern with using this material. I am one of these scholars.

More recent researchers, such as Marianne Moen, have questioned the validity of Ibn Fadlan’s accounts.[8] Moen concluded that using this source must be done with much caution and she does not put much faith in his chronicle being a ‘true historical account’.[9] One of the central concerns with the use of Ibn Fadlan as a source is he did not speak the language and only was able to communicate with the Rūs people through the use of a translator; a translator whose ethnic background is unknown.[10]  Judith Jesch also commented on the difficulty of utilizing sources that make use of a translator, specifically referencing Ibn Fadlan’s account, clarifying that some of the events he described he could not have seen, but must have only been told. [11]

This language barrier was an impediment to understanding the rituals. Thus Ibn Fadlan is perhaps an untRus’tworthy narrator, insomuch that he couldn’t understand the language of the people. There might have been any number of reasons why his translator chose to present information in this way perhaps even to sway Ibn Fadlan’s opinion.  He might have even been told about the things he wrote about, instead of seeing them first hand. He also has a biased reasoning for writing the account the way in which he does. This is apparent in his privileging of his own culture and religion. It is clear, that he was writing in a way to perhaps create a specific idea of the Rus’ people and their culture.

            He is not alone in this. And this forms a critical component of why the Norse saga materials must be used with caution, and in conjunction with archaeological materials. In the sagas, the Christian authors do the same things: centre and privilege their own religion, read their own cultural biases into the material, and misinterpret and misunderstand situations and rituals because they are not their own. Needless to say, there are likely many instances of fabrication in order to spin a story in a specific way.

There is also, little proof that human sacrifice occurred in the Viking era. While there are a few possible example in the saga materials, I am not sure this wasn’t a case of what we just discussed re:bias; or they might have served as a literary device. The possible archaeological examples do exist are few and far between, and I remain unconvinced of most of their validity. But that is a tangent for another day!

In the second instance, this ceremony might not be applicable to Vikings at all, and not to the Vikings in Ireland, England, Scotland, and Norway. The group of people Ibn Fadlan was talking about are known as the Rūs. Modern scholars often base their arguments on the practices of Viking burial by utilizing the accounts of medieval Arabic writers created of these Rūs peoples. However one big issue is if these people should be counted amongst the Vikings. For example, many Rus’sian scholars reject that this is a representation of a Scandinavian ceremony.[12]  Schjødt suggested that the Rūs in the Volga region had possibly been there for a few generations and their customs now might be more reflective of local Slavic traditions, than their original Scandinavian practices.[13] The majority of the Scandinavians who did venture to this area were of Swedish descent, and not Norwegian as we see in Ireland.[14] There is also a strong possibility that the Rūs people at this time had been not only largely influenced by the Slavs, but also perhaps by the Volga Turks.[15] The people that Ibn Fadlan discussed, however, appear to have been dressed in clothing that bears resemblance to traditional Slavic description. Brønsted argued that the person buried in the grave was perhaps a Swedish nobleman partly assimilated into Slavic culture.[16]

Therefore, I remain unconvinced the Ibn Fadlan’s account is useful for our study of the Viking burial outside this specific context. I do not believe it is applicable to Viking burial practices in Norway or in Ireland. So, let’s investigate what the lived reality of Viking funerals were in my next post.

[1] Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone, ‘Introduction’ in Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North, (intro. and trans.) Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone (London, 2011), p xiii.

[2] Montgomery, ‘Ibn Rus’ta’s Lack of “Eloquence”, the Rus’, and Samanid Cosmography’ in Edebiyat: Journal of Middle Eastern Literatures Vol. 12, Issue 1 (2001) ,p. 75.

[3] Ibn Fadlan, ‘Ibn Fadlan’, in Paul Lund and Caroline Stone (intro. and trans.), Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness Arab Travellers in the Far North (2012), p. 51.

[4] Ibid.                                                                                                        

[5] Ibid., p. 53.

[6] Ibid.,

[7] Gerhard Bersu and David M. Wilson, Three Viking Graves in the Isle of Man (The Society for Medieval Archaeology Mongraph Series I: London, 1966), p. 91.

[8] Marianne Moen, The Gendered Landscape: A Discussion on Gender, Status and Power in the Norwegian Viking Landscape (Oxford, 2011), p. 41

[9] Ibid.

[10] Moen, The Gendered Landscape, p. 41; Peter Schjødt, ‘Ibn Fadlan’s account of a Rus’ Funeral: To What Degree does it Reflect Norse Myths’ in Reflections on Old Norse Myths (January, 2007), p. 133.

[11] Judith Jesch, Women in the Viking Age (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2003), p. 123.

[12] Foote and Wilson, The Viking Achievement, p. 408.

[13] Schjødt, ‘To What Degree’, p. 133.

[14] Jesch, Women in the Viking Age, p. 24.

[15] Foote and Wilson, The Viking Achievement, p. 407.

[16] Johannes Brønsted, The Vikings (Harmondsworth, 1960), p. 300.