Both the culture and way of life of the ancient Vikings changed throughout the centuries of their rule. However, there is one thing that was almost unaffected by the time and other influences until the end of the Viking Age - Viking funerals.
Burial methods could vary depending on the geographical area, but there was one thing that united them. Every Norse funeral was performed in accordance with pagan rituals that were rooted deep within Viking culture.
Before we offer you a better insight into the complete history of a Viking burial, let's see where, according to the Norse beliefs, the dead Norsemen went after their death.
The proof that the Vikings believed in the afterlife lies in the way they tended to their dead. They would place the dead in a grave along with all their personal belongings, and other things they believed could come in handy in the afterlife.
As for the place where the Vikings went after death, we could mostly hear about Valhalla. But is that the only place where the late Vikings could spend their afterlife? Apparently not.
The Norse religion is much more complicated than what most people might believe. So, according to the Norse mythology, half of the Viking warriors who died in battle would go to Valhalla, while another half would go to Fólkvangr.
Fólkvangr was ruled by the Goddess Freya, who, according to a legend, chose half of the fallen warriors to come to her realm.
Furthermore, another of the possible places for the afterlife was the realm of Rán. It's a realm where the souls of sailors drowned by a giantess Rán would stay. Then we have Helheim ruled by the goddess Hel, and lastly, a part of the dead would stay in their burial mounds.
Was Burning the Dead Vikings on a Boat Truth or Myth?
Regardless of the fact that when we think of a Viking funeral, the image of a burning boat floating on the water appears in our heads, it's true that such a way of Norse funerals was not frequent.
There is evidence that several prominent individuals of the Viking community were burned on richly equipped ships, but this is certainly not proof that such a funeral method was common in the Viking Age.
In fact, the number of Vikings buried in boats was significantly higher than the number of those burned with them. As boats were one of the most valuable Viking assets at the time, very few Vikings were actually sent into the afterlife on a longship.
Ships were needed by the living Vikings, and the dead very often had a ship-shaped grave. In Norse culture, a ship grave represented something like a specialized memorial chapel represents in modern Christian burials. In that way, the dead still got the ship, without the community having to set their most valuable assets on fire.
But what did the Viking funeral look like if not all Vikings were burned on the ships?
Let's find out.
The Vikings, who were not sent to the afterlife in one of the previously mentioned ways, were either cremated or their corpse was simply buried.
In the early Viking Age, most of the deceased Vikings were cremated. Later on, when the Scandinavian countries began to accept Christianity, burying the intact bodies of the dead were increasingly practiced. However, until that period, cremation was the most common method of burial.
The cremation was performed on a specially made Viking funeral pyre. The materials for the funeral pyre had to be heavy, thick, and dense to achieve a high enough temperature for the cremation of the body.
The Vikings are people who originated from several different Scandinavian cultures, and there were some differences in burial rituals. However, everyone traditionally buried their dead with certain grave goods so that the person who has passed away would not have to spend their afterlife in poverty.
The usual items that the dead carried into their grave included personal items such as clothes, weapons, tools, and sometimes even boats, as we said earlier. An interesting fact is that these things were mainly placed at the feet of the dead person during the Viking funeral.
Also, the fact that the weapon that was buried with the dead was always broken stands out. It is believed that the soul of the Viking warriors was inseparably linked with their weapons. For this very reason, the breaking of a weapon was considered the end of his mortal life. However, if we look at things from a different perspective, the broken weapon was more likely aimed at discouraging grave robberies. Simply put, a broken weapon was useless.
As for these grave goods, when it comes to the cremation burial, it is not known whether they were cremated together with the body or were buried separately. But, that is why the tombs in which the whole bodies were buried often had wealthy items among the grave goods. Thanks to them, archaeologists were able to create an image of the Viking way of life. They also concluded that the Vikings practiced ritual sacrifice in order to prepare the dead for the afterlife.
So let's see how seriously the Vikings took this ritual and what they were prepared to sacrifice.
Victims in Viking Burial Rituals
First of all, we have to say that Vikings took preparations of the body of the dead for Viking funeral very seriously, and therefore, for eternal life. They did everything so that their loved ones would not go unprepared for the afterlife. Accordingly, the ritual of sacrifice was often more than extreme and included a human sacrifice.
In addition to gold, clothing, and other valuable material items, the Vikings sacrificed horses as well as servants of the departed (a slave girl, for example). So, sending a dead Norsemen to Valhalla often meant killing someone who would keep them company in the afterlife.
Proof of these old Norse rituals is the discovery of Viking mounds in which the ritually butchered bodies of Viking servants (men and women) were found. The unfortunate people, who were Viking slaves throughout their lives, had to go to the afterlife with their master.
An example of such burial is a tomb from the late 9th century in which archaeologists found one man, two women, a small baby, a dog, and a horse. It sounds like a horribly poorly told joke, doesn't it? However, this is not the case.
Women and animals were especially inhumanely sacrificed. This is proven by the tomb discovered in Birka (Sweden), where the decapitated body of a woman was found. To make matters worse, the woman's lower jaw was removed, and in its place was the pig's lower jaw.
As much as archaeologists, and all of us, we're fascinated by the ancient Norse culture, we must admit that Viking funerals were quite terrifying.
Preparations for Viking Funerals
Depending on the social status of the dead, preparations for Viking funerals could take up to 10 days. During that time, the deceased would be placed in a temporary tomb until the time finally came for his funeral.
One record about the preparations for the Viking funeral stands out that describes the funeral on the river Volga in 922. The event was noted by Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, who states that it was a funeral of a Viking chieftain.
Regardless of the fact that he personally witnessed the ritual, Ibn Fadlan states that he could not understand what was actually happening. He wrote that the Vikings were drunk for days before the burial of their chieftain. They also ritually sacrificed people and animals, practiced ritual sex, and did many other things that can only be explained by a completely altered consciousness due to too much drinking.
When the final intoxication was over, the late chief was escorted to Valhalla. Ibn further writes that the chief was placed on a tomb ship and covered with sacrifices and expensive gifts. Then, the dead Viking's closest family member slowly approached the boat and carefully lit the pyre with his torch.
After him, others approached the ship to throw their torches on it.
Why were Funeral Rituals so Important in the Viking Age?
As with all other people, death was an indispensable part of Viking culture, just like Odin and Valhalla. It is for this reason that the Viking burials are better known to us today than many other details of Viking history.
Norse burials were undoubtedly associated with Norse mythology. The afterlife was very important for the Vikings because they believed that they would take a position among their Gods after death.
Thus, the main purpose of the Viking funeral ritual was to prepare the deceased for the afterlife. Simply, by performing the funeral ritual, the Vikings believed that they would provide a long and happy life for the deceased member of their community.
They believed that thanks to the wealth they brought to eternal life, the deceased would have a better status among the Gods.
Now that we have clarified why funeral rituals were so important to the ancient Vikings, we can look back at what Viking tombs actually looked like.
The Vikings, who had a prominent position in society, had the privilege of being buried on a ship, more precisely in their personal tomb boat, along with valuable grave goods. However, all the others mostly had only tombs made in the shape of a boat. These graves could be made of stone or edged with stone.
We mentioned earlier how a Viking funeral could vary from region to region. The same goes for the tombs. So, in Lindholm Høje in Denmark (the most famous place with Viking tombs that is open to visitors), the tombs are edged with stone to form the shape of a ship. On the other hand, Viking tombs in central Sweden are made in a circular or triangular shape.
Also, for practical reasons, burial holes were not dug, as is done today. The weather conditions in medieval Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, Denmark) were not particularly favorable, so digging graves in the winter months was impossible. For that reason, the burial mounds were placed above the body.
Now that we know almost all the details about the rituals that preceded the Viking funerals let's see what happened to a Viking's property after their death.
Division of Inheritance
Viking tradition dictates drinking of a funeral drink on the seventh day after the death of a member of the Viking community. This meant that the dead was ready to leave the world of the living and continue his life in the afterlife.
Only after that, the heirs of the dead could claim their share of the inheritance.
However, as the Vikings did not leave behind written documents, historians will never be able to fully understand the Viking people. When it comes to inheritance, the only known documents, more precisely the records that indicate the way of dividing the inheritance, are runic stones.
One of the few records of the division of inheritance is a runic stone found in Norway, which speaks of the division of the inheritance of the deceased Viking to his three daughters. This stone dates from the 5th century and is considered to be the oldest document that indicates that women also had the right to inherit something.
The most striking thing that the Viking tombs showed us is that human sacrifice was not unknown at the time. And, as much as we respect the Vikings and their culture, we believe that after this article, we will all be glad that burial customs have changed over time.
However, in the dark Viking Age, with a tribal culture that emphasized violence, death was a common part of everyday life. For this reason, the Vikings were always ready for death and the afterlife. For the journey to the afterlife, the Vikings prepared in accordance with their beliefs.
Even though eternal life may not be exactly as the Vikings envisioned it, they still live and tell stories in some way today, thanks to their graves.
Until our next meeting,