The current understanding of Viking funerary practices has been discovered in both archaeological and textual sources, with one of the best-known accounts describing a Viking funeral found in the writings of Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, a member of the Abbasid embassy that was sent to Volga Bulgaria.
Like many other ancient cultures, the Vikings believed that it was possible to take their worldly possessions into the afterlife with them. Therefore, an important feature of Viking funerals was the grave goods. According to the Viking religion, warriors who fall in battle earn the right to enter Valhalla, an enormous hall located in Asgard, the domain of Odin. There, the fallen warriors will feast and fight until the arrival of Ragnarok, when they will rise to fight under the leadership of the Allfather himself. Therefore, it was essential that dead Vikings be equipped by the living with all the gear necessary for their journey and stay in Valhalla. Apart from Valhalla, other Viking realms of the dead include Folkvangr (also for warriors), Helgafjell (for those who have led good lives), and Helheim (for those who died dishonorable deaths).
One of the most important objects required by a dead Viking was a warship. As the Vikings were great sea-farers, they believed that ships would also provide them with safe passage into the afterlife. Although the warship played a prominent role in Viking funerals, the ship was not always a real - and expensive - one, as several Viking burial mounds found throughout the world were created to honor the dead by resembling ships, with stones used to outline the shape of the vessels.
Funerary "stone ships"
If the deceased was actually wealthy enough, such as chiefs and kings, their funeral could take place in actual ships, which would accompany them into the afterlife. In some cases, the boats would be buried with its contents, while in others, they would be burnt before the burial. There is also the popular belief today that Viking ships would be set on fire before sent off to sea, though there is no archaeological proof for this practice if it did occur.
The Oseberg Ship (IX Century)
Apart from their ships, warriors entering Valhalla would be required to bring their weapons and armor along, and hence these objects were part of a Viking’s grave goods. Archaeologists have found that blades that were part of a Viking’s grave goods would usually be broken or bent. This was meant to symbolically signify the final death of the individual, as the Vikings believed that a warrior’s soul was linked to his weapon. Additionally, the destruction of the blade served as a deterrent to grave robbers.
Viking weapons found in burial mounds
Viking funerals also involved human sacrifice, as servants and slaves were sent by this means to serve their dead master in the afterlife. The human sacrifice, however, depended on whether the deceased was cremated or buried. For the former, those accompanying the dead would be ritually killed moments before the fire is lit, whereas for the latter, their bodies would be placed in a specific position so as to ensure that they would arrive in the afterlife.
Grave goods also served to ensure that the deceased was satisfied in the afterlife. The Vikings believed that if the dead were not appeased, they could return as a draugr (or revenants) to haunt the living. These undead beings could cause much trouble for the living, including crop failure, defeat in war, and pestilence. If a draugr was suspected of causing such troubles, the Vikings would exhume the recently dead and look for signs of undead activity. When a draugr was identified, the Vikings would rebury the body with more grave goods, assuming that the person had been a highly respected person in life. Alternatively, a wooden stake could simply be used to pin the body to the ground and the head chopped off, so as to kill the creature.
Lastly, a few words may be said about Ahmad Ibn Fadlan’s famous description of a Viking funeral. Ibn Fadlan was a X century Arab who was part of the embassy sent by the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad to Volga Bulgaria (in modern day Russia). A detailed account of the Volga Vikings, including the funeral of a chieftain, may be found in Ibn Fadlan’s writing, known as the Risala. Here is an excerpt:
“We now know of the skills of these alleged barbarians as boatbuilders and navigators of genius; as blacksmiths, silversmiths, swordsmiths and wordsmiths; we know the truly intricate magnificence of the celebratory skaldic poetry that was composed and handed down from generation to generation as memorialised history that had no need of the written word; we remain fascinated by the loyalty of the Vikings to their Asatru, a faith so very different from Christianity, and the worship of a family of gods – the Aesir – as fallible and mortal as any human beings, to whom they prayed and sacrificed not for moral guidance but for the hard currency of success and protection, for victory in battle, fish in their nets, fat on their cattle and grain in their fields.
I was told that when their chieftains die, the least they do is to cremate them. I was very keen to verify this, when I learned of the death of one of their great men. They placed him in his grave (qabr) and erected a canopy over it for ten days, until they had finished making and sewing his <funeral garments>.
In the case of a poor man they build a small boat, place him inside and burn it. In the case of a rich man, they gather together his possessions and divide them into three, one third for his family, one third to use for <his funeral> garments, and one third with which they purchase alcohol which they drink on the day when his slave-girl kills herself and is cremated together with her master. (They are addicted to alcohol, which they drink night and day. Sometimes one of them dies with the cup still in his hand.)
They [mourners] advanced, going to and fro <around the boat> uttering words which I did not understand, while he was still in his grave and had not been exhumed.
Then they produced a couch and placed it on the ship, covering it with quilts <made of> Byzantine silk brocade and cushions <made of> Byzantine silk brocade. Then a crone arrived whom they called the “Angel of Death” and she spread on the couch the coverings we have mentioned. She is responsible for having his <garments> sewn up and putting him in order and it is she who kills the slave-girls. I myself saw her: a gloomy, corpulent woman, neither young nor old.
Meanwhile, the slave-girl who wished to be killed was coming and going, entering one pavilion after another. The owner of the pavilion would have intercourse with her and say to her, “Tell your master that I have done this purely out of love for you.”
At the time of the evening prayer on Friday they brought the slave-girl to a thing that they had constructed, like a door-frame. She placed her feet on the hands of the men and was raised above that door-frame. She said something and they brought her down. Then they lifted her up a second time and she did what she had done the first time. They brought her down and then lifted her up a third time and she did what she had done on the first two occasions. They next handed her a hen. She cut off its head and threw it away. They took the hen and threw it on board the ship.
I quizzed the interpreter about her actions and he said, “The first time they lifted her, she said, ‘Behold, I see my father and my mother.’ The second time she said, ‘Behold, I see all of my dead kindred, seated.’ The third time she said, ‘Behold, I see my master, seated in Paradise. Paradise is beautiful and verdant. He is accompanied by his men and his male-slaves. He summons me, so bring me to him.’
Then the deceased’s next of kin approached and took hold of a piece of wood and set fire to it. He walked backwards, with the back of his neck to the ship, his face to the people, with the lighted piece of wood in one hand and the other hand on his anus, being completely naked. He ignited the wood that had been set up under the ship after they had placed the slave-girl whom they had killed beside her master. Then the people came forward with sticks and firewood. Each one carried a stick the end of which he had set fire to and which he threw on top of the wood. The wood caught fire, and then the ship, the pavilion, the man, the slave-girl and all it contained. A dreadful wind arose and the flames leapt higher and blazed fiercely.”
A page from his writings
Keep in mind that the funeral described by Ibn Fadlan was for a highly important chief of the people he called Rūsiyyah, but the name of the chieftains still is a matter of debate among scholars.
This is one record, made by one person, regarding one Viking group at one point in the 260-year history of the Viking raids and settlements. We have no way of knowing how common or uncommon this kind of funeral practice really was. What we do know is that farmers, hunters, bakers, craftsmen and other plain folk - the great majority of Viking society - had to be content with much simpler funerals. Even most chieftains had a more ordinary funeral, as proven by many burial mounds found around the globe. Still, that was the definition of “going our with a bang”.