Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The History Channel's Viking Funeral

Looking forward to Season Two of the History Channel's series, "Vikings" (premiering February 27), I've been watching Season One on DVD. One of the things I've enjoyed about this series is seeing how they've brought to life some of the most famous historical documents about the Vikings.

The funeral of Earl Haraldsson in Episode 6, "Burial of the Dead," with the Angel of Death strangling a slave girl to accompany her master on the burning ship to Valhalla, is a good example. It is closely based on the report of a 10th-century Arab traveler, Ahmad Ibn Fadlan.

On June 21, 921, Ibn Fadlan left Baghdad with a large caravan of camels. He was part of a delegation from the Caliph Al-Muqtadir to the Volga Bulghars, who lived thousands of miles north at the meeting of the Volga and Kama rivers in what is now Russia. The Bulghar king had asked the caliph to send him people to "acquaint him with the religious codes of Islam" and to construct a mosque. Ibn Fadlan went along in some official role--exactly what, we don't know.

The embassy was a failure--"the 'correction' of the Bulghar practice of Islam did not go over smoothly," writes Thorir Jonsson Hraundal, who wrote his 2013 Ph.D dissertation for the University of Bergen on "The Rus in Arabic Sources." (You can find it online here:

But that didn't stop Ibn Fadlan from writing wonderful traveler's tales, which you can read in the book Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness in translations by Paul Lund and Caroline Stone: "We saw a land which made us think a gate to the cold of hell had opened before us," Ibn Fadlan writes. His beard, after a bath, became a block of ice. His cheek at night froze to his pillow. "In this country, when a man wishes to make a nice gesture to a friend and show his generosity, he says: 'Come to my house where we can talk, for there is a good fire there.'"

For the history of the Vikings, the most important of Ibn Fadlan's tales are the ones about the "Rus," a people scholars have connected with Vikings from Scandinavia who traded and raided from what is now Russia (named for the "Rus") south to Baghdad.

In the 10th century, the Volga Bulghars, whom Ibn Fadlan visited, were one of four powers that controlled the area between the Black Sea and the Caspian. South of the Caucasus Mountains was the Islamic Empire. To the west was the Christian Byzantine Empire, based in Constantinople. North of the mountains were the Khazars, whose king was Jewish, but whose people were of all faiths: Jews, Christians, Muslims, and pagans of several varieties lived side-by-side, though some had to pay higher taxes than others. The Volga Bulghars were farther north--technically Muslim, but apparently not firm in the faith--and again, their culture accommodated many religions.

Ibn Fadlan's tale is the longest of 30 Arabic sources that mention the Rus--some just a sentence, others several pages long. The other main source on the Rus is the Russian Primary Chronicle, which describes the trade route from Russia to Constantinople and the founding of the Russian state and the Russian Orthodox Church. The Arab writers, says Hraundal, "provide us with a significantly different version of Rus, reporting them not only in a different geography to that of the Primary Chronicle, but also as having different social structures and roles in relationship with their neighbors. Importantly, too, these Rus seem to have no ambition either to found a state or to become Christian, two subjects that have especially occupied scholars of early Rus history."

The Rus the Arabs met were traders and raiders and mercenaries--and by the 10th century, they were well on their way to being integrated into the local cultures, which were Turkish and Altaic. Analyzing Ibn Fadlan's funeral scene, for example, Hraundal finds several similarities to the pagan rituals of the western Eurasian steppes, including the strangling of the slave girl. He concludes, "At the very least it seems that comparing various Turkic or Altaic elements cannot reasonably be deemed more implausible than doing so with the Scandinavian elements. On the whole, it is perhaps more prudent to assume that the ritual is attributable to the traditions and customs of not one culture, but two or several."

Judith Jesch in her classic book, Women in the Viking Age, Hraundal notes, "warns of generalising from Ibn Fadlan's account about practices elsewhere in the Viking world. Everywhere the Scandinavians went, she maintains, 'they developed new ways of living which owed something both to the culture of the immigrant Vikings and to that of the country in which they found themselves, so that no two areas colonised by Scandinavians were alike.'" The people Ibn Fadlan meant "are likely to have been a select band of merchant-warriors," Jesch adds, "who, like other touring professionals, may not have behaved the same way when abroad as they did at home."

Which brings us back to the History Channel's "Vikings." The funeral in "The Burial of the Dead" is closely based on a historical document, but it's not exactly a "Viking" funeral from around 800, the era in which the TV series is set. It's a "Rus" funeral from 921--and no one knows how a chieftain's funeral in Scandinavia a hundred and some years earlier might have been different.

Snorri Sturluson, writing in about 1220, does say that the god Baldur was burned in his ship. Snorri also tells us that Baldur's wife, Nanna, was burned along with her husband--though she wasn't strangled. Instead, her death was an accident: She died of grief when she saw his dead body. What does this tell us about Viking funerals? Alas, nothing. Snorri was writing 400 years later than the era in which the History Channel series is set, and his Edda cannot in any way be considered "history." (I discuss Snorri's myth of Baldur's Death in my book, Song of the Vikings, as well as on this blog, in the series "Seven Myths We Wouldn't Have Without Snorri.")

Archaeological research tells us a little more. We've found Viking graves with the remains of burned ships--a famous one is at Île de Groix in France. But we've also found Viking graves from around 800 in which chieftains were buried inside their ships, not burned with them--most famously, the Gokstad burial.

Recent studies of rich Viking graves containing two bodies have confirmed that one of the dead ate less well than the other, meaning that one body could have been a chieftain and the other a slave. But these slaves who accompanied their masters in death were not strangled: They were beheaded. [For more on this research, see]

To create a dramatic TV series about the Vikings, the writers for the History Channel have to walk a fine line between making use of the historical sources we have and filling in the gaps with their own imaginations. In this case, I think they've done an excellent job bringing Ibn Fadlan's account to life. But viewers need to keep in mind that Ibn Fadlan's account was just one report from one place (Russia) in one time (921) and not really applicable to the lives of people a hundred years earlier and many thousands of miles away. Not to mention that Ibn Fadlan, like all travelers, was prone to exaggerating. Did his cheek really freeze to the pillow?

Join me again next Wednesday at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world. And if you would like to go to Iceland with me next summer (and acquire a few travelers' tales of your own), check out the tours at

1 comment:

  1. It's always fascinating to hear the burial practices of the Norsemen all those years ago. A lot of those have been appropriated in popular fiction, but what impacts the real world and is continually held to the chest are the time-tested values of honor and fealty in how we treat and handle the dead, not as mere preservation, but a start of a shared journey, across generations and through people's lives. Thanks for sharing!

    Damon Marsh @ Inland Memorial