Beowulf: Ibn Fadlan's account
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
early Church also fostered the suppression of explicit accounts of
pagan practicelest 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 Beowulfs 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 Scefings 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).
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 Fadlans
impressions are not tempered by a Christian sensibility, his vivid
journalistic style offers the best available description of an authentic
Viking ship burial.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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 ships 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.
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 girls ribs, while the two men throttled her
with the cord, and so she died.
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.
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 mans 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
* Gwyn Jone gives excerpts from two different manuscripts of the Ibn
Fadlan account. This version simply combines details from both manuscripts.