Sunday, April 17, 2011

How did the Vikings handle death?

I have been pondering this question in the last week or so since my best friend past away a couple of weeks ago from cancer. His Service was held in a Lutheran church and it was a beautiful Christian ceremony. All of the Scandinavian, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, and Iceland, are Lutheran. When pioneers and immigrants came to the United States they brought their Lutheran faith with them and predominantly to the Midwest.

However, prior to the Christianization of the Scandinavian countries, which were the last hold outs to become Christian during the Middle Ages, the Vikings aka Norseman had a strong polytheistic and warrior culture. Despite their fierce out look on life they did fear death. Like many cultures around the world there were taboos regarding the handling of death and the dead. The Vikings feared that an improperly buried person would not find peace and would haunt the Earth and bring further down fall on the family or village. Yes, the mighty Vikings feared ghosts. The dead person could come back as a revenant or a visible ghost or animated corpse. It was believed that the revenant could return from the grave to terrorize the living. Another reference to ghost was a draugr or draug. It literally means “again walker.”

Extreme precautions and ritual were conducted to make sure the dead were properly buried and cared for in the after life. It was important for the Vikings to properly bury their dead so the dead could enjoy the afterlife. There are many archeological sites and references in the Eddas and Sagas. The 10th Century Arab writer Ahmad ibn Fadlan wrote a description of a funeral of a Swedish chieftain who was on an expedition, possibly down in Russia. There is validity in some of his writings, but since the movie 13 Warrior based on Michael Crichton’s book Eaters of the Dead ibn Fadlan’s writings and observation have come under scrutiny. I will encourage the reader to explore the controversies over this fun and exciting story. What is valid and concrete as evidence of Viking burial practices and handling of the dead are the archeological finds at the major medieval sites. Three locations community cemeteries or grave sites that were used by an entire community and are closely studied by archeologists are: Birka in Mälaren, Hedeby at Schelswig and Lindholm Høje at Ålborg From these three major grave fields historians and archeologist have been able to examine the Viking methods and also observe the transition from Pagan rituals to Christian burials.

The most common and most identified Viking burial is the ship burial. There are a lot of Hollywood and fantasy images of the great chieftain/warrior being laid to rest in the center of the his “flag ship”, all his worldly possessions laid to rest around him and the his “woman” being laid to rest next to him. Then a hail of flaming arrows set the ship on fire. The only concrete evidence we have this is through the Old Sagas, Old Norse Eddas, and notably from writings and observations of Ahmad ibn Fadlan. Of course since the boat and the body were cremated there would be no physical evidence.

Dramatic and beautiful-real evidence???? It is known that Great Chieftains and people of great status were given a real ships burial. The Oseberg Ship was found to have three women of great status and she is often referred to as the Oseberg Princess. However, the boat was not burned but sunk and/or buried.

The common and most rock solid evidence (no pun intended) of Viking burial are the stone ship burials. The dead were laid in the ground within a stone shaped boat and given grave offerings in accordance with the earthly status and profession of the deceased. These offerings could include slaves or commonly known as thralls. There is much controversy over the sacrificing of slaves since there is little physical evidence besides the eddas, the sagas and ibn Fadlan.

Grave goods were given to everyone even if they had been cremated. A thrall was given enough to enjoy the afterlife and not haunt his Master or Mistress. A free man was usually given weapons and equipment for riding. An artisan, such as a blacksmith, could receive his entire set of tools. Women were provided with their jewelry and often with tools for female and household activities. Warriors and Chieftans were given their swords, axes, shields and in some cases a horse. Several graves in Birka bent swords were found along side the male warrior. Some theorize that the swords were bent so they couldn’t be reused on the living. Piles of stone and soil were usually laid on top of the remains in order to create a tumulus. Even if the burial was considered expensive, the Vikings felt that it was worth the expense. The large burial fields were considered points of pride and status symbols. Runestones have been found in many of these fields and the largest concentrations of these runestones are found in Jelling, in Denmark. They were established by Harrold Bluetooth in memory of his parents and eventually for himself.

As Christianity became the prominent religion in the Viking era the importance of a proper burial continued to be important. It was frowned upon to cremate the dead at the time so many inhumation became a common practice. However, grave goods in the Christian graves are sparse.

The belief in an afterlife was important to the Vikings. They believed that their fates were already written by the Norns. It was how they would be remembered became important. The deeds of my friend in this lifetime will echo through out the ages.

Rest and feast well my friend.

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