a viking burial -- 7/15/15

Today's selection -- from The Edge of the World by Michael Pye. A description of a Viking burial from around 800 CE by the Arab merchant Ibn Fadlan (the far-ranging Vikings had established a trade route to Istanbul). Please do not read if you are the least bit squeamish:

"Hardly anybody had yet seen the Norsemen up close by 800 CE, but they could be beautiful, they could be terrifying and quite often they were simply repellent. They had the habits of men cramped together on long voyages with little water, little shelter and absolutely no idea of privacy; they knew what it was to be bored through long idle winters so they drank; they had the perpetual traveller's passion for the rituals away from home that make him feel he might still have a home. They carried absolutely all of their culture with them. And curiously, at least in Hedeby on Danish soil, they all wore some kind of indelible cosmetic, which may have been a tattoo, to draw attention to their eyes: men and women alike. They wanted people to be afraid of their gaze.

"The Arab merchant Ibn Fadlan said he met them in a Bulghar encampment on the Volga, far east of Kiev. He was there on a mission: to make proper, settled Muslims of a people with shamans, horses and a tendency to wander about the place. He was startled and impressed when the Rus, the Vikings living in the East [and partial forbears of modern day Russians], arrived to do business. 'I have never seen bodies more perfect than theirs. They were like palm trees,' he wrote. They were tattooed all over with intricate designs in dark green. They were dirty, they hardly washed except in filthy communal bowls, they were 'like wandering asses'; they had companionable sex with their slave girls in full view of all their companions, and if a buyer arrived at such an inconvenient moment, 'the man does not get up off her until he has satisfied himself'. Naturally, they drank; and what they drank was probably mead, although it may have been fermented mare's milk. They knew very well 'the heron of forgetfulness that hovers over ale-gatherings and steals the wits of men'. ...

"If one of the Vikings fell sick, he was put out in a tent far away from the others and left alone; he was welcome back, if he happened to survive. If he died, and he was poor, the Rus built him a boat and burned him in it; if he was rich, they made sure he was known to be rich and a Viking in their own way, which meant a ceremony of fire, sex and murder.

"They found a volunteer among the dead man's slave girls (or slave boys) to die with him. The slave drank and sang, drank and sang, in a perfect show of joy. The man's boat was dragged onshore, and onto a wooden frame. His body was dug up and uncovered when everything was ready, smelling good but turned quite black, and put into the boat along with a dog cut in two and horses which had been run to exhaustion and butchered. The slave girl had sex with the master of each of the pavilions built around the boat, and the men all said: 'Tell your master I only did this for your love of him.' Since the girl, according to Ibn Fadlan, could just as well have been a boy, it seems the Vikings followed the rules of the sea: the best sex is available sex. They certainly had the half-joshing insults to go with the habit: the great god Thor was dressed up in women's clothes to steal back a magic hammer, of all things, and terribly afraid he'd be thought a 'cock-craver'; a rude ogress in the song of Helgi Hjorvardson tells the princeling Atli that 'though you have a stallion's voice' his heart is in his arse.

"Evening came. There was a frame like a doorway, and the girl was hoisted up to look over it as though it was the door to Paradise: to see first her parents waiting for her, then all her relatives waiting for her, and then the third time her master calling to her. She drank until she did not know what she was doing. On the boat, six men raped her, and then two men caught her with ropes tight around her neck. An old crone came forward, the Angel of Death, and stabbed her until she died. The men kept banging furiously on their shields so nobody could hear the girl's cries, especially not any girls (or boys) who might one day think of dying with their masters.

"The man's closest male relative now stripped naked and walked backwards towards the boat, covering his arse with one hand, holding a piece of flaming wood in the other. He threw the wood onto the boat and he was followed by the crowd, each with a piece of burning wood. The boat caught, the tents caught, the bodies burned in a violent wind."


Michael Pye


The Edge of the World: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe


Pegasus Books LLC


Copyright 2014 by Michael Pye


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