What do we know about Viking funerals?
Were Viking funerals as elaborate as their depictions in film and television make out? Dr Danica Ramsey-Brimberg explores how they buried their dead, and what the graves we’ve found can tell us about the Viking Age...
For many people, the words ‘Viking funeral’ conjure an image of a deceased warrior aboard a flaming longboat surrounded by lavish gifts, floating off into the distance.
Numerous depictions exist in TV and film reinforce this, from historical fiction offerings such as The Vikings (1958) to comedies such as 2014’s What We Did on Our Holiday.
Yet, there is no known historical text or archaeological evidence that suggests this type of funeral occurred. The trope instead originates from Norse mythology.
In the first main part of the 13th-century Prose Edda (the Gylfaginning) by Snorri Sturluson, the funeral of Baldr (son of the god Odin and his wife, Frigg) is described as an elaborate affair. Baldr’s body and that of his wife, who died at the funeral, were placed onto a boat on the water along with Baldr’s horse, the horse’s harness, and a gold arm-ring from Odin.
The ship was set aflame – consecrated by the god Thor with his hammer, Mjollnir – and pushed off to sea. Shortly afterwards, Thor kicked a dwarf named Lit onto the burning vessel because he ran in front of him.
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Outside of Norse mythology and literary texts, such as the Old English epic Beowulf, no funerals of real Vikings are known to have been held on the water. However, several elements from these tales have parallels to known Viking Age graves, such as grave goods, pyres, and even human sacrifices.
Nonetheless, land-based funerals and burials could be ostentatious. In the 10th century, the Arab traveller Ahmad Ibn Fadlan recounted his diplomatic mission to the Rus of Eastern Europe. In the text, he recounts an extravagant funeral and cremation grave (which is later sanitised in the 1999 film The 13th Warrior).
Ibn Fadlan writes of the funeral of a chieftain, who was placed in expensive clothing and onto a boat on land with numerous grave goods – such as weapons, decorative accessories, food, drink, and animal sacrifices – and a female slave who was made drunk, raped and killed as a sacrifice. The whole ship was then set on fire and covered afterwards with a mound and a wooden grave marker with the chieftain’s name.
As we do not have texts written by Viking Age individuals, we rely primarily on the material evidence for information regarding funeral and burial practices. A range of graves are present throughout Scandinavia and the larger Viking world, varying not just regionally, but locally as well. The deceased could be buried or cremated.
Viking burials: what can graves tell us?
The dead were often buried with grave goods. These ranged from small objects, such as tools and jewellery, up to weapons and furniture. Animals like dogs, cats, and horses were sometimes cremated or inhumed as sacrifices. As reflected in Ibn Fadlan’s account, slaves could also be sacrifices and have been found in various graves, some of which are on the island of Gotland in Sweden.
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The Vikings expressed their ideas and beliefs through the burial process. In Heysham, Lancashire, there are two graves from the 10th century at St Peter’s Church and the nearby St Patrick’s Chapel. In one, skeletal remains and a corroded, iron spearhead were found underneath a hogback (a horizontal stone tomb marker that is unique to the Viking Age). In the other, archaeologists discovered the skeletal remains of an adult female who had been shrouded, plus a 10th-century Anglo-Scandinavian antler hogback comb.
Both of these graves are strategically placed within the natural landscape and their respective ecclesiastical sites. The grave with the spear would have been visible over Morecombe Bay and to those near St Peter’s Church, while the grave with the woman was located just outside the southern door of St Patrick’s Chapel and along a path to St Peter’s Church. Aside from their grave goods, these two graves were like the other non-Viking graves in the cemetery.
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At the other end of the spectrum is the ninth-century Oseberg ship burial in Norway. Two older women (one in her seventies and the other over the age of 50) of approximately the same social status were placed into a large ship, which was positioned as if moored on land. Both were clothed when buried, and their grave goods included animals, sleighs, furniture, household and agricultural tools, textiles, decorative accessories, carved animal heads, food, and even a bucket featuring a Buddha figure. Whoever buried them erected a mound in two stages, which covering the entirety of the ship. It was one of the largest assemblages of grave goods that has been found.
Another grave in Birka, Sweden – designated Bj 581 and first excavated in 1878 – recently created controversy because it had long been assumed the occupant was a male warrior. In 2017, however, new research re-evaluated the skeletal remains as being female. It did not fit the perception of how a 10th-century woman should be buried, or how they might have lived.
What is clear from the variety of graves discovered and analysed is that there was no singular type of funeral or burial during the Viking Age. Despite continued presence of the flaming longboat stereotype, the variation of real Viking burials is perhaps reflective of the age on the whole, which was composed of different peoples with diverse ideas and practices who moved across a wide geographic area.
Dr Danica Ramsey-Brimberg recently completed her PhD at the University of Liverpool; her thesis was on the placement of Viking Age furnished graves at or near ecclesiastical sites in the Irish Sea area