Norse Religions – Funeral

Norse Funerals

By Aaron Rowbotham

Introduction:

Burial rites provide much insight into the Viking’s rituals and beliefs systems (Parkinson, 2015) According to popular belief, it is thought that Viking funerals consisted of all their dead being burned on a ship. Contrary to this belief, the times this was done was when chieftains died. In the Viking Age, two distinct funeral practices are found inhumation (grave making) and cremation. Viking dead were buried in a symbolic context with items related to what they did in life. The Vikings did cremate their dead who were not Chieftains; the Vikings believed that if you burned the body the soul would be released from the body (Davidson, 1968, p. 62-63).

The following focuses on the burials rather then the cremations. However, all of the following would end with the introduction of Christianity to the region.

 

Slaves:

The burials for slaves were different from other Viking burials. Most slaves, if their master died, were killed with them after the masters grave was created. They would then be buried with their master. Numerous double burials have been found with a master and his or her female and/or male slave. In order to tell the difference between the two; when the slave was buried they were decapitated and/or their limbs were either chopped off or bound. For slaves who died before their masters or did not have masters, Rosedahl says, “for slaves not buried with their masters there would scarcely be more than a hole in the ground” (Rosedahl, 1991, pp. 53-54). Figure 1 is a reconstruction picture below of grave FII from Stengade, is an example of a double grave burial during the viking age. The burial has been interpreted as a sacrificed slave that would accompany his master in the afterlife (Gardeła, 2013)

grave A505 from Trekroner-Grydehøj, Denmark.

Fig 1. Artistic reconstruction of grave FII from Stengade (Langeland, Denmark). Drawing by Mirosław Kuźma. Commissioned by Leszek Gardeła. Copyright Leszek Gardeła and Mirosław Kuźma. Used by kind permission.


Children:

Very few child graves have been found in the Viking archaeological context. In Viking sagas, on rune stones there is little to no mention of children. Nothing at this moment is known about the afterlife for children if they die before they become adults (In the Viking context). In Denmark, there has yet to be any finding of child graves at any cemeteries. This has come to be interpreted that burials were not done for children and that if children did not live up to the expected potential, they were discarded and left to their fate in the wild. This coincides with what Rosedahl says about the Pagan religion, “in the pagan period unwanted children could be exposed to the elements and left to their fate” (Rosedahl, 1991, p. 61).

 

Farmers, craftsman, etc… :

Middleclass men were buried with objects to symbolize what they did in their lives. Farmers have been seen buried agricultural tools. Blacksmiths were seen buried with their smithing tools (Rosedahl, 1991, p. 126).

 

Women:

The burials done for women were just as elaborate as men. They were not just holes in the ground. Unlike men, women were usually buried in carts or wagons with household items (Park et. al., 2009). Most women found have been buried with items reflecting their position in the household. These items would accompany them to the afterlife. These items include, but are not always limited to utensils, jewelry, lapdogs (to keep them company on their journey), and implements for needle work of spinning and weaving (Rosedahl, 1991, p. 60). Figure 2 shows how elaborate some women’s burials were. Figure 2 was the most elaborate found at the Fyrkat site, this burial is thought to be the burial of a sorceress, and even though this is a woman, the burial is elaborate, like a man’s (Price, 2014).

A reconstruction of grave 4 from the Fyrkat cemetery in Jylland, Denmark

Fig 2. A reconstruction of grave 4 from the Fyrkat cemetery in Jylland, Denmark. Copyright Thomas Hjejle Bredsdorff, The Danish National Museum. Used by kind permission

Warriors:

The burials for warriors included them being buried with their weapons and armor, so that they would have these items with them when they went to Valhalla. With warriors, after they died on the battlefield, a chosen few were taken to Valhalla (the realm of dead warriors), guided by Valkyries from their battlefield, to fight with Odin against evil (Parkinson, 2015). Warriors, warlords, and chieftains primarily worshiped Odin, so that they would have they honor to be with him in the afterlife, so they could fight in the great battle between good and evil (Byock, 2001, p. 294).

 

Noble families (as seen in Hedeby and Volga): 

Members of high social status within the society such as chieftains and warlords were given the stereotypical Viking ship burials (Rosedahl, 1991, p. 123). The wealthiest members of the society were the only ones who could afford to have such a burial due to the expense of burning a ship (Park et. al., 2009). Funerals usually last around 10 days and involved drinking, feasting, sex, and slave death (Price, 2010). Archaeologists have discovered multiple grave boats, many are being excavated in sand dunes and dirt mounds (Byock, 2001, pp. 294-295).

There has been one confirmed witness of a chieftain burial, along the Volga, by an The Arab envoy Ibn Fadhlan, a shortened version of what is said by Rosesdahl:

              When a chieftain dies servants and slaves are asked to die with him. Whoever volunteered could not withdraw themselves from the ritual process. Throughout the funeral process the woman who volunteers is treated with the utmost greatest respect. On the day of the funeral the chieftain’s ship was drawn up onto land and people walked around and said words. There was a woman responsible for all the preparations called the Angel of Death. She also dressed and prepared the body. The dead body would be placed in special garments and seated in a tent aboard the ship with multiple goods placed around him (Rosedahl, 1991, p. 157).

               The volunteer would then perform rituals and chants; afterword she was then taken aboard the ship to the dead chieftain by the Angel of dead. The relatives would then light the ship on fire. Within one hour the ship would be fully burned. A mound would then be placed in its location with the name of the chieftain and everyone would leave (Rosedahl, 1991, p. 157).

 

 

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