Reverence for the dead is shared amongst nearly all peoples and cultures. Some groups, like Native Americans, believe that chants and prayers must be said for the dead to reach the afterlife. Other cultures believe that the dead should never viewed, even by their immediate family.
Of all the groups and cultures, the Vikings had some of the most striking customs for sending their dead to the afterlife. Valhalla was very much a real place to Vikings, filled with loved ones who had died on the battlefield. In order for warriors to join their forefathers in heaven, particular rites and customs must be carried out. Here are 10 fascinating facts about Viking funerals.
10. Longship Burials
Although the iconic image of a burning ship being sent out to water is forever known as the typical Viking burial, the truth is that it varied based on the person’s status and circumstance. One particularly popular custom was the longship burial. In some cases the longships were buried and in others they were set on fire and sent off to sea. Both cases saw the dead surrounded by their belongings, as Vikings believed the items would join them in the afterlife. Some cases even saw Vikings set ablaze with animals and weapons that they used in battle.
In order to please their Gods, Vikings also placed offerings along with the dead – with the hope of not only bringing their dead to the afterlife but not seeing death spread amongst their people. Despite the common refrain that Vikings did not fear death, the Norse culture developed several mystical creatures that were the manifestation of that fear. Creatures that would come back and haunt the living if proper rites and rituals were not properly done.
9. Human Sacrifice
Probably the most alarming ritual that the Vikings had was their willingness to send thralls (slaves) to the afterlife with their masters. These thralls were not dead, but very much alive when they were burned along with the dead Viking. It was believed that by burning the thrall, they would serve their master in the afterlife.
In cases of burial, the thrall was buried near their master, with the Vikings careful that the body was positioned in a particular way to be certain that it would not haunt their master or not arrive in the afterlife. While most Viking burial grounds were marked, their thralls did not have more than a hole in the ground. It seems that Vikings were before their time in that respect, as the poor sometimes still leave behind unmarked graves.
8. Funeral Pyres
The Funeral Pyre was a crucial element in Viking ceremonies because of their staunch belief in the need for cremations before either a land or sea burial. Cremation was a necessity because of the Viking belief that the smoke would carry their dead to their “rightful destination in the afterlife.”
A pyre was constructed by Vikings in order to create a fire hot enough to burn flesh and bone to ash. Constructing a pyre took hours, and it had to be designed in such a way as to guarantee that there would be enough heat for the body to burn effectively. The Vikings hoped to see a large pillar of smoke that was like a ladder to the heavens.
7. Burial Grounds
Many historians have come to believe that Christian elements may have led to a shift in Viking practices in relation to the dead. Others argue that it’s not religion, but simply that Vikings in different regions had different rituals. If Christianity was the reason for the burials, it was not shown on Viking burial grounds. Instead of crosses, Vikings placed stones in the shape of ships.
One of the most impressive burial sites discovered is Lindholm Høje in Denmark. Open to the public, the Vikings devotion to the sea is on full display. Stones are arranged across the grass in the shape of a large vessel. One cannot help but think of the Gladiator quote, “What we do in life, echoes in eternity”; these men were Vikings in life and would be the same in death.
6. Funeral Ale
Similar to many cultures, the Vikings did not go on mourning forever. After seven days, they’d celebrate the life of the deceased. The festivities… well, let’s just say they had lots of drinking. It wasn’t until after the drinking of the funeral ale that the children of the dead gain their inheritance. The festivities were held in a prominent Viking feasting hall where leaders would pledge oaths, make speeches, and exchange gifts.
Vikings would use the familiar drinking horn to consume their alcoholic drinks, and would not leave any for the gods on that particular night. They’d also abstain from eating at all during these ceremonies. Finally, when all the alcohol was consumed the rightful heir could claim their inheritance. Runestones discovered in Scandinavia have given us insight into the Viking beliefs on inheritance and women’s rights. Several runestones describe women inheriting lands, and money, a progressive belief for those who were condescendingly described as pagans.
5. Oseberg Longship
One of the most important discoveries in gaining greater understanding of Viking burial practices was the archaeological site uncovered at Oseberg, Norway. The burial site contained a Viking ship with the remains of two women along with their prized possessions. One woman was in her eighties and the other was in her mid fifties. While many speculate that they may been related, others believe that the younger woman was her servant was sacrificed to accompany her master. As a result of radiocarbon analysis of the women’s bones, scientists have been able to determine that “they died in the autumn of 834.”
Other remains found on the ship include 13 horses, 4 dogs and 2 oxen. In addition, prized and valuable possessions such four elaborately decorated wooden sleighs, a richly carved four-wheel wooden cart, and three beds, not to mention number of wooden chests. The great number of possessions buried along with these women suggest that it was a burial of someone with high ranking status. Some have even speculated that the burial site was of Queen Åsa of the Yngling clan.
4. Fatal Sex Rituals
Probably the most disturbing ritual that Vikings may have engaged in was described by a 10th century Muslim writer, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan. The account chronicled the funeral of a Viking chieftain who had journeyed eastward and died in the process. According to Fadlan, the dead chieftain was put in a temporary grave until they could make new clothes for him. During that period a thrall volunteered to go the afterlife with the chieftain. She was guarded by men every night and she could be heard singing loudly as she drank more and more.
Afterward, the dead chieftain was given his new clothing and his longship was brought ashore. On the ship, the Vikings built a bed for their chief and surrounded it with cushions, drinks, fruits, and even a stringed instrument. Animals were also sacrificed, Fadlan chronicled witnessing horses being cut to pieces along with a hen and a cock. All the while, the thrall was being passed around from tent to tent, having sex with various men. Each man allegedly told her, “Tell your master that I did this because of my love to him.” Not exactly the best way to show one’s love.
The thrall was then put in a sort of trance. Placed in the middle of what can only be described as a doorframe, she was said to have seen the afterlife and her master. Afterward, she was carried to the longship where she gave away her possessions. Fadlan claimed that the thrall was not yet allowed inside of the tent of her master. Finally, after being given more intoxicating drinks and bidding everyone goodbye, she was taken into the tent by six men who proceeded to have intercourse with her. A rope was tied around her neck, and she was then stabbed in the ribs while men, outside, banged on the drums to conceal her screams. Finally, the family of the dead arrived with burning torches and set the ship aflame.
3. The “Essence of Life”
In Norse culture, it was believed that a man’s ejaculate carried with it the essence of life. How would that life be carried? Through a slave (thrall); a female who must be sacrificed, of course. The aforementioned sexual rites symbolize a thrall’s role as a vessel “for the transmission of life force to the deceased chieftain.”
In some cases, historians have found that even a widow was sacrificed at her husband’s funeral. It should be noted that these sacrifices seem, by all accounts, to have been voluntary.
2. Ship of Toenails
In the Norse mythology, Vikings feared the coming of the Naglfar, which would carry a large army that would force the gods to do battle with the forces of destruction. The Naglfar means “nail ship” in Old Norse. It was said to be a massive ship that was not constructed by timber or iron nails, but the finger and toe nails of the dead.
To prevent the war of wars, Vikings removed or trimmed the nails of the dead before the ceremony. It may seem farfetched to us, but to the Nordic people, the fear of an impending war was too great. According to Nordic literature, the coming of the Naglfar would lead to “the stars disappear(ing) from the sky, the landscape shaking so severely that mountains fall apart, trees uproot, and all branches will snap.” If this was what was at stake, cutting a few toenails really isn’t that much to ask.
1. Fear of the Undead
The great caution and reverence that the Norse culture has for their dead may have as much to do with respecting the departed as it does fearing their return. Vikings believed that if the dead were not properly treated, they would return to haunt the living in the form of a “Draugr.” A Nordic creature from folklore, the Draugr is similar but slightly more intelligent than a zombie. They guard their treasure and punish those who did them wrong. In literature, the Draugr is described as being either black as death, blue as death, or corpse-pale.
Legend has is that Draugrs have superhuman strength and can increase their size at will. In addition to their tremendous strength, the undead were said to have magical abilities like that of wizards or witches. They were supposedly able to shapeshift into various creatures like cats. It’s not surprising then, given that ability, Vikings believed in their existence. Any mysterious looking animal or creature could be a Draugr. Luckily for the Vikings, the Draugr could not last long as it was believed that their corpse would rot. Burning that corpse would lay that soul to rest forever. It’s not surprising then that future generations would choose to burn suspected witches, believing like their ancestors that their souls would be released.