Friday, 12 April 2013

Ship burial

The most famous description of a Viking ship burial is an eyewitness account given by Ahmad ibn Fadlan, an Arab traveller. He visited Kievian Vikings (in present-day Ukraine) in the 10th century. In episode six in the TV series Vikings, Earl Haraldson is buried in much the same way as the chieftain is buried in Ahmad ibn Fadlan's description. Both stories involve the burning of a ship with lots of grave offering, intercourses with a thrall woman who is sacrificed and buried alongside the chieftain in the ship, and a death angel.

In The Lethal Oath, the second book of The Awful Saga, I also use many elements from Ahmad's account when I tell the story of a funeral. (Not to spoil the reading of the first book, I will not cite from the book here.)

Here is Ahmad ibn Fadlan account (cited from

A Viking Funeral 

I was told that when their chiefs die, they consume them with fire. When I heard that one of their leaders had died, I wanted to see this myself. First they laid him in his grave, over which a roof was erected, for the space of ten days, until they had completed cutting and sowing his funeral clothes.

At the death of a rich man, they bring together his goods, and divide them into three parts. The first of these is for his family. The second is expended for the garments they make. And with the third they purchase strong drink, for the day when the girl resigns herself to death, and will be burned with her master.

When one of their chiefs dies, his family asks his girls and pages, "Which one of you will die with him?" One will answer: "I." From the moment he utters this word, he may not go back. Mostly, though, it is one of the girls who volunteers.

Regarding the man of whom I spoke, one girl answered "I will." She was then entrusted to two other girls, who kept watch over her and accompanied her everywhere she went. The people were preparing the dead man's funeral clothes, and this girl gave herself over to drinking and singing, and was cheerful and gay.

When the day had come that the dead man and the girl were to be committed to the flames, I went to the river where hi sship lay, but found it had already been drawn ashore. The dead man lay at a distance in his grave, from which they had not yet removed him. Next they brought a couch, placed it in the ship, and covered it with Greek cloth of gold, wadded and quilted, with pillows of the same material. An woman, whom they call the "Angel of Death," came and spread articles on the couch. It was she who was to slay the girl.

They drew the dead man out of the grave and clothed him. They carried him into the ship, seated him on the quilted covering, supported him with the pillows, and brought strong drinks, fruits, and herbs to place beside him. Finally they brought a cock and hen, slew them, and threw them in, too.

The girl meanwhile walked to and fro, entering one after another of the tents which they had there. The occupant of each tent lay with her,saying, "Tell your master I did this only for love of you."

It was now Friday afternoon, and they led the girl to an object they had constructed which looked like a door-frame. They lifted her and lowered her several times. Then they handed her a hen, whose head they had cut off. They gave her strong drink and admonished her to drink it quickly. After this, the girl seemed dazed. At this moment the men began to beat upon their shields, in order to drown out the noise of her cries, which might deter other girls from seeking death with their masters in the future.

They laid her down and seized her hands and feet. The old woman known as the Angel of Death knotted a rope around her neck and handed the ends to two men to pull. Then with a broad dagger she stabbed her between the ribs while the men strangled her. Thus she died.

The family of the dead men drew near, and taking a piece of wood, lit the ship. The ship was soon aflame, as was the couch, the man, the girl, and everything in it.

At my side one of the Northmen was talking with my interpreter. After their conversation I asked my interpreter what he had said. The Northman had said:

"You Arabs are stupid! You would take him who is the most revered and beloved among men, and cast him into the ground, to be devoured by creeping things and worms. We, on the other hand, burn him in a twinkling, so that he instantly, without a moment's delay, enters into Paradise.”

No comments:

Post a Comment