For the 10th century holy man and jurist Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, the violent, orgiastic, drunken spectacle put on by mourning Vikings in Bulgaria must have been shocking.
In Ibn Fadlan’s Muslim tradition, loved ones cleaned the deceased person’s body, said prayers over him, placed him in a shroud and buried him in a relatively shallow grave the same day he died – the grave was shallow so the dead person could hear the call to prayer.
In the Viking tradition, if it was a chief who died, he was placed in the ground while his burial clothes were prepared for 10 days, during which his followers drank and had sex with doomed slave girls “purely out of love.” On the day of cremation, the Viking’s body was exhumed, then his companions burned him, along with volunteer slave girls or boys who were slain, slaughtered dogs, horses, cows and chickens, food offerings, his weapons and his ship.
For many years people have been fascinated by Vikings. Their reputation as rapacious, violent, deadly marauders up and down the coasts of Europe and farther east are famous. But in recent years people have been repairing Vikings’ reputations by celebrating their awesome epics and stories, their wonderful religion and their workmanship and skills.
In a blog 2013 in the Wall Street Journal, the writer attributes many good qualities to the Vikings:
We now know of the skills of these alleged barbarians as boatbuilders and navigators of genius; as blacksmiths, silversmiths, swordsmiths and wordsmiths; we know the truly intricate magnificence of the celebratory skaldic poetry that was composed and handed down from generation to generation as memorialised history that had no need of the written word; we remain fascinated by the loyalty of the Vikings to their Asatru, a faith so very different from Christianity, and the worship of a family of gods – the Aesir – as fallible and mortal as any human beings, to whom they prayed and sacrificed not for moral guidance but for the hard currency of success and protection, for victory in battle, fish in their nets, fat on their cattle and grain in their fields.
ILovePhilosophy.com has a translation from Arabic into English of Ibn Fadlan’s entire written account of the burial process of one of “the filthiest of all Allah’s creatures,” as Ibn Fadlan calls the Vikings. Before you read, be warned that Fadlan described a very disturbing scene onboard the deceased Viking chief’s ship-come-pyre just before the Viking and a slave girl’s remains were burned to death.
In 921, the Abbasid Empire Caliph Al-Muqtadir sent Fadlan as part of a diplomatic mission to the king of the Volga Bulgars. Ibn Fadlan was a faqih, an expert in the law and Muslim faith, though his life prior to his mission is largely unknown to history.
Ibn Fadlan wrote about 30 pages of text on what he observed during his trip, including the Viking death rites. Some excerpts follow:
I was told that when their chieftains die, the least they do is to cremate them. I was very keen to verify this, when I learned of the death of one of  their great men. They placed him in his grave (qabr) and erected a canopy over it for ten days, until they had finished making and sewing his <funeral garments>.
In the case of a poor man they build a small boat, place him inside and burn it. In the case of a rich man, they gather together his possessions and divide them into three, one third for his family, one third to use for <his funeral> garments, and one third with which they purchase alcohol which they drink on the day when his slave-girl kills herself and is cremated together with her master. (They are addicted to alcohol, which they drink night and day. Sometimes one of them dies with the cup still in his hand.)
Ibn Fadlan said it was customary when a chieftain died for his family members to ask slave girls and boys, “Who among you will die with him?” If they volunteered, they were not allowed to back out. Usually, Ibn Fadlan wrote, slave girls made the offer. One girl volunteered for the spectacle Fadlan saw. “Every day the slave-girl would drink <alcohol> and would sing merrily and cheerfully,” he wrote of her.
On the day of the cremation, Ibn Fadlan arrived at the river and saw the dead Viking’s ship was beached and it had been hauled onto scaffolding.
They [mourners] advanced, going to and fro <around the boat> uttering words which I did not understand, while he was still in his grave and had not been exhumed.
Then they produced a couch and placed it on the ship, covering it with quilts <made of> Byzantine silk brocade and cushions <made of> Byzantine silk brocade. Then a crone arrived whom they called the “Angel of Death” and she spread on the couch the coverings we have mentioned. She is responsible for having his <garments> sewn up and putting him in order and it is she who kills the slave-girls. I myself saw her: a gloomy, corpulent woman, neither young nor old.
They exhumed the body, which Ibn Fadlan wrote hadn’t begun to stink, and removed the alcohol, fruit and a pandora they had buried him with. They clothed his body in trousers, leggings, boots, a silk caftan with gold buttons and put silk headgear with fringes and sable fur on his head.
They placed the Viking on the quilted cushions in his ship’s pavilion and laid alcohol, fruit, herbs, bread, meat and onions next to him. The Vikings chopped a dog in two and threw it on the ship. They put his weaponry next to him. They made two horses gallop until they sweated then cut them up and put the flesh on the ship. They also slaughtered a cow, a rooster and a hen and flung the dead animals onboard.
Meanwhile, the slave-girl who wished to be killed was coming and going, entering one pavilion after another. The owner of the pavilion would have intercourse with her and say to her, “Tell your master that I have done this purely out of love for you.”
At the time of the evening prayer on Friday they brought the slave-girl to a thing that they had constructed, like a door-frame. She placed her feet on the hands of the men and was raised above that door-frame. She said something and they brought her down. Then they lifted her up a second time and she did what she had done the first time. They brought her down and then lifted her up a third time and she did what she had done on the first two occasions. They next handed her a hen. She cut off its head and threw it away. They took the hen and threw it on board the ship.
I quizzed the interpreter about her actions and he said, “The first time they lifted her, she said, ‘Behold, I see my father and my mother.’ The second time she said, ‘Behold, I see all of my dead kindred, seated.’ The third time she said, ‘Behold, I see my master, seated in Paradise. Paradise is beautiful and verdant. He is accompanied by his men and his male-slaves. He summons me, so bring me to him.’
Ibn Fadlan reported that the girl took off her bracelets and anklets and gave them to the Angel of Death and her daughters. The doomed slave girl drank alcohol and chanted. “The interpreter said to me, ‘Thereby she bids her female companions farewell.’” She drank again, and the crone-angel dragged her by her head into the pavilion. The men banged their shields so other slave girls couldn’t hear her screams, which might have made them later not volunteer to die with their masters.
Six men had sex with the slave girl. Then they and the angel-crone killed her with dire violence.
Then the deceased’s next of kin approached and took hold of a piece of wood and set fire to it. He walked backwards, with the back of his neck to the ship, his face to the people, with the lighted piece of wood in one hand and the other hand on his anus, being completely naked. He ignited the wood that had been set up under the ship after they had placed the slave-girl whom they had killed beside her master. Then the people came forward with sticks and firewood. Each one carried a stick the end of which he had set fire to and which he threw on top of the wood. The wood caught fire, and then the ship, the pavilion, the man, the slave-girl and all it contained. A dreadful wind arose and the flames leapt higher and blazed fiercely.
The Vikings then built an earthen mound over the burned vessel. Modern archaeologists have been hoping to find it for decades.
When a Viking king died, 400 men and 40 slave girls died with him, Fadlan wrote.
Keep in mind this death rite or orgy that Ibn Fadlan described was for a chief, and it happened among the warriors and leaders of the Viking society who were in the Volga viking. Presumably the farmers, hunters, bakers, craftsmen and other plain folk—the great majority of Viking society—did not practice this lurid death celebration. Also, this was one Viking group at one point in the 260-year history of the Viking raids and settlements, and we have no way of knowing how many Viking groups practiced these wild funeral celebrations over their vast territories.
Featured image: “The Funeral of a Viking,” painting by Frank Dicksee, 1893 (Wikiart photo)
By Mark Miller