Historical Resources
Beowulf: Ibn Fadlan's account
xxxLike the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt, Nordic pagans followed logical intuition in their belief that the Afterworld was merely an extension of this world. Thus, a king in this life could expect to be a king in the next; and, of course, a slave in this life could expect to remain a slave. Christianity challenged the pagan formula with the counter-intuitive Judaic idea that human worth was based not in wealth and power, but in righteous thoughts and deeds. Where pagans believed “you really can take it with you,” Church leaders condemned pagan burial practices.
xxxThe early Church also fostered the suppression of explicit accounts of pagan practice—lest the devil be invoked. This pattern of suppression is evident in Beowulf. For example, Hrothgar praises a monotheistic God, even as the poet acknowledges the historical paganism of the Danes. And, for all Beowulf’s many descriptive tableaus, the poem alludes to, but never reveals, the specific practices of Danish idolatry. In the same way, the Beowulf poet broadly paints the contours of Scyld Scefing’s ship funeral (the icy climate, the gold-heaped bier, the profound grieving of men), glossing over those aspects that would have been anathema to a devout Christian (as suggested in this comparison, sexual orgy and human sacrifice).
xxxThe contrast between these two perspectives is revealed in the vivid account of a Viking ship burial recorded by an Arab traveler named Ibn Fadlan in the year 921 (10 years after the death of Alfred the Great). During his journeys Ibn Fadlan encountered a Viking group (the Rus) from the eastern side of Scandinavia as they traveled along the Volga (the Vikings traveled through eastern as well as western Europe), and he recorded his impressions in a work title The Risala. Because Ibn Fadlan’s impressions are not tempered by a Christian sensibility, his vivid journalistic style offers the best available description of an authentic Viking ship burial.

xxxI had always been told that when a chieftain of theirs died many things took place, of which burning was the least. I was very interested to get information about this. One day I heard that one of their leading men had died. They laid him in a grave and closed it over him for ten days, till they had finished cutting and sewing clothes for him. This is how things are done: for one of the poorer men among them they take a small boat and lay him in it and burn him; but when it is a rich man, they gather his wealth and divide it in three parts: one third for his family, one third for making clothes for him, and one third to make the liquor they drink on the day his slave-girl is killed and burnt with her master. They are indeed much addicted to liquor, for they drink day and night; often one has died with a beaker in his hand.
xxxWhen a chieftain dies, his family says to his slave-girls and men-servants: “Which of you will die with him?” Then one of them says: “I will.” When she has said this, she is forced to do it, and is not free to retract. Even if she wanted to, it would not be allowed. It is mostly the slave-girls who do this. So when the man I am speaking of died, they said to his slave-girls: “Which of you will die with him?” and one of them said: “I will.” Two slave-girls were given the task of waiting on her and staying with her wherever she went, and often they would even wash her feet and hands. Then they began seeing to the man's things, cutting out his clothes and preparing everything that ought to be there, while the slave-girl drank and sang joyfully every day, and seemed to be looking forward to the coming happiness.
xxxWhen the day came that he and his slave-girl were to be burnt, I went to the river where his ship lay. It had been dragged ashore, four props of birch wood and other wood had been set ready for it, and also something that looked like a great stack of wood had been laid all around. The ship was then dragged up on to this, and set in place on this woodpile. The men began walking to and fro, talking together in a language I could not understand. Meanwhile, the dead man still lay in his grave, for they had not taken him out. Then they brought a bench, set it in the ship, and covered it with rugs and cushions of Byzantine silk. Then an old woman whom they called the “Angel of Death” came and spread these rugs out over the bench. She was in charge of sewing the clothes and arranging the corpse, and it is also she who kills the girl. I saw that she was an old, hag-like woman, thick-set and grim-looking.
xxxWhen they came to his grave they cleared the earth off, and also took the woodwork away. They stripped him of the clothes had had died in. I noticed that he had turned black, because of the cold in the land. They had laid liquor, fruit, and a lute in the grave with him, and all these they now took out. Oddly enough, the corpse did not stink, and nothing about it had changed except the color of the flesh. Then they dressed him in under-breeches, breeches, boots, coat, and a caftan of silk brocade with gold buttons on it. They set on his head a silk brocade hood with sable fur, and carried him into the tent that stood on the ship, and laid him on the rugs, and propped him up with cushions.
Then they brought liquor, fruit, and sweet-smelling plants and laid them by him. They also brought bread, meat, and leeks, and threw them in front of him. Then they brought a dog, cut in two, and threw it into the ship. Next, they brought all his weapons and laid them beside him. Then they took two horses and made them gallop about till they sweated, whereupon they cut them to pieces with swords and threw their flesh into the ship. Then they brought a cock and a hen, killed them, and threw them in. Meanwhile, the slave-girl who had chosen to be killed was walking to and fro. She would go inside one or other of their tens, and the owner of the tent would have intercourse with her, saying: “Tell your master I did this for love of him.”
xxxWhen it came to the Friday afternoon, they took the slave-girl to a thing like a door-frame which they had made. She sat herself on the palms of the hands of some men, and stretched up high enough to look over the door-frame, and said something in her own language; at this they set her down. Then they lifted her up again, and she did as she had done the first time. At this they set her down, and lifted her up for the third time, and she did as she had done the first two times. Then they handed her a hen, and she cut the head off and threw it; they took the hen and threw it into the ship. I then questioned the interpreter about what she had done. He replied: “The first time they lifted her up, she said: ‘Look, I see my father and my mother!’ The second time, she said: ‘Look, I see all my dead kinsmen sitting there!’ The third time, she said: ‘Look, I see my master sitting in Paradise! Paradise is fair and green, and there are men and young lads with him. He is calling me. Let me go with him!’”
xxxThen they went off with her towards the ship. She took off two arm-rings she was wearing and gave them to the old woman called the Angel of Death, the one who was going to kill her. Then she took off two ankle-rings she was wearing and gave them to two other women, daughters of the one known as the Angel of Death. Next, they led her up on board the ship, but did not let her go into the tent. Then came some men who had shields and sticks, and they handed her a beaker of liquor. She sang over it and drank it off. The interpreter told me: “Now with this she is bidding farewell to all her friends.” Next, another beaker was handed to her. She took it, and made her singing long drawn out, but the old woman hurried her to make her drink it off and go into the tent where her master was. I was watching her, and she looked quite dazed. She tried to go into the tent (sic) but stuck her head between it and the ship’s side. Then the old woman took hold of her head, and managed to get it inside the tent, and the old woman herself went inside with her.
xxxThe men then began to beat their shields and sticks, so that no sound of her shrieking should be heard, for fear other girls would become frightened and not want to seek death with their masters. Then six men went into the tent, and they all had intercourse with her. After this they laid her down beside her dead master; two held her legs and two her hands, and the woman called the Angel of Death wound a cord with knotted ends round her neck, passing the ends out on either side and handing them to two men to pull. Then she stepped forward with a broad-bladed dagger and began to drive it in and pluck it out again between the girl’s ribs, while the two men throttled her with the cord, and so she died.
xxxAfter this, whoever was the closest kinsman of the dead man came forward. He took a wooden stick and set light to it, and then he walked backwards, with his back to the ship and his face to the people, holding the stick in one hand and with the other hand laid on his backside; he was naked. In this fashion the wood they had put just under the ship was set on fire, immediately after they had laid the slave-girl they had killed beside her master. Then the people came forward with wood and timber; each brought a stick with its tip on fire and threw it on to the wood lying under the ship, so that flames took hold, first on the wood, and then on the ship, and then on the tent, and the man and the woman and everything inside the ship. Thereupon a strong fierce wind sprang up, so that the flames grew stronger, and the ship blazed up even more.
A man of the Rus was standing beside me, and I heard him talking to the interpreter, who was near him. I asked the latter what the man had said to him, and he answered: “He said: ‘You Arabs are stupid.’” I said: “Why so?” He answered: “Why, because you take the people you most love and honor and throw them into the ground, and the earth and creeping creatures and growing things destroy them. We, on the other hand, burn them up in an instant, so that they go to Paradise in that very hour.” Then he gave a roar of laughter, and when I asked him about that, he replied: “For love of him, his Lord has sent this wind to carry him away at the right time!” And in fact, no great time passed before the ship and the timber and the slave-girl and her master had all turned into ashes, and so into dust.
xxxAfter this, on the spot where the ship had first stood when they dragged it up out of the river, they built something that looked like a round mound. In the middle of it they set up a big post of birch-wood, on which they wrote this man’s name, and the name of the King of the Rus. Then they went on their way.

adapted from A History of the Vikings*
Gwyn Jones, Oxford University Press: 1984
pp. 425-30.

* Gwyn Jone gives excerpts from two different manuscripts of the Ibn Fadlan account. This version simply combines details from both manuscripts.


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