Five Things About Norse Burials that Aren’t Pop-Culture Friendly

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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I’m sure you’re familiar with the old “viking funeral” stereotype: throw a dead guy in a boat, stuff a weapon in his hands, then peg the ship with a fiery arrow as it drifts away. If you’ve watched HBO’s Game of Thrones, House Tully does it for their deceased patriarch. George RR Martin’s pretty creative, but he nicked just about everything in his series from history. No fantasy series would be complete without borrowing this enduring trope—even if it only dates back to the 1958 film The Vikings, which was the first time flaming arrows were mixed in for cinematic flavor.1

Sure, it’s a fascinating spectacle and yeah — boats and fires were indeed important themes in Norse funerals. But there’s only one thing that all Norse burials had in common: they were all characteristically unique—like snowflakes, but with way more dead things.

First Things First: Why So Much Variation?

That’s a great rhetorical question: death could come quickly in the Dark Ages, especially if you were part of a tribal culture with a strong emphasis on violence. So, if death was a regular part of everyday life, why make each burial a macabre art project? Why not just bury them in a hole, then put a rock on top with their name on it?

Today, most burial customs are codified—there’s a certain way to do things, depending on the tradition you follow, and most folks stick with the guidelines. We do burials the way we do them because we’re following the way they’ve been done before. It’s one less thing for the bereaved to think about while they’re dealing with the ultimate in real-life sh*t.

Not so for the Norse, Vikings, or Viking-Age Scandinavians—whatever you prefer calling the Germanic people that dwelled in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and parts of the British Isles between 793 and 1066 CE. If I may compare Norse burials to modern “shop local” trends, the Norse people were into artisanal, bespoke graves that fit the individual being buried.

As you can see here, this Norse grave came with a two-horse garage. Even dead people need to get around.

What makes these burials so fascinating is that each appears to tell a story, according to archaeologist Neil Price. Norse burials were tableaus—more like twisted fictional crime scenes from shows like True Detective and Dexter, where the killer is trying to send a message, and a lot less like something you’d find near a church. It’s too bad for us that we can only guess what most of these tableaus meant.

If I’m not making myself clear with the serial killer connection, then here’s your explicit warning: these graves are like one part memorial and three parts homicide scene. This is one of those historical things where you need to stick your modern sensibilities of right and wrong on the shelf in an attempt to understand how folks from a very different time and culture handled death. Or you can judge them all the way through if you like—I don’t think they’ll mind either way.

With that out of the way, let’s get into the grit! Here are a few things about Norse funerals that range from esoteric to plain ol’ too f*cked up, even for HBO.

#1: Collateral Damage

While all Norse burials are unique, one common theme seems to be that you don’t send a dead Norseman or woman off to Valhalla without killing something else to keep them company.

One of the scariest things about facing the great unknown is that it’s a solitary journey. So it must have been some kind of comfort for a relatively important Norseman to know that, when they died, they’d be shuffling off this mortal coil through a grave crowded with friends, wives, slaves, pets, and livestock—all dead, of course.

And some of these graves were indeed crowded—many times, bodies appear to have been jammed uncomfortably into graves a few sizes too small. It’s tough to tell if this was meant as a sign of disrespect, or if it was a case of: “You know what? F*ck it—this hole’s big enough for Arvid. Just bend ‘im in half.” Digging big holes during winter sucks.

One late ninth-century grave in particular reads like a bad joke: A man, two women, a baby, a horse, and a dog walked into an Old Norse grave. . . .

If you have any issues with dead men, women, and infants, or with decapitated horses and dogs, don’t give this grave sketch too much of a gander.

They were all laid at different points in the longboat, and surrounded by weapons, shields, bowls, and other accessories.

The kicker is that this boat was buried on top of another grave, so that the keel was aligned with the body of a man who had been buried several decades earlier. It was a grave within a grave—a Matryoshka doll of mortality.

Oh, and many of these bodies were mutilated. The horse? Dismembered. The dog? Its head rests in a basket on one dead woman’s lap. There were dead birds, torn to pieces, and skewed about the boat for good measure (this was popular).

Another example involves a woman buried in Birka, Sweden. She was, ahem, disassembled. Her head was removed from her body, and her lower jaw was removed from her head. In its place: a pig’s lower jaw.

What does it all mean? Sh*t, man. What doesn’t it mean?

Sometimes these grave companions would just be stuffed into a box that was laid at the feet of the primary dead person. Maybe it was the Valhalla version of stowing your little dog in a pet carrier by your feet during a flight. Except, instead of a little dog, it was a whole person in a box—carry-on carrion, if you will (sorry).2

#2: Sometimes They’d Have to Disinter a Body in Order to Re-Kill or Re-Bury It

You know how it goes: sometimes you have to bury your neighbor, but you didn’t like him so much, so you skimped on the ritual sacrifices and grave gifts. But now you’re paying the price: he’s back, but this time he’s a draugr—a vengeful revenant who’s pissed about the poor send-off—and he’s getting back at you by, let’s say, withering your harvest and giving you diarrhea.

In modern society, we’d call this one a “closed casket.”

There were remedies for this. One may have been to give the burial a redo. That could mean digging up the departed to throw some more gifts in the grave, or it could mean driving a stake through the corpse or removing its head to make sure it’s dead. These superstitions may have influenced broader European cultures, leading to Bram Stoker’s vampire staking and George A. Romero’s zombie decapitation.

Even the weapons of the deceased could be “killed”—sword blades bent or broken, spear hafts smashed, etc. In Norse culture, the weapon was bound to the spirit, so breaking that weapon severed the spirit’s last connection to the human realm. It also handily deterred grave robbers, who might otherwise have looted the expensive, buried weapons.

This helps us to understand why the Norse people took burials so seriously: they were driven by fear. Elaborate burials and related sacrifices seem like a waste of effort, resources, livestock, and people—unless you consider that not going the extra mile could lead to bad fortune via zombie vengeance down the road.3

#3: Dead Bodies Weren’t Inactive

Turning into a draugr doesn’t appear to have been the only time dead Norsemen got busy.

Dead bodies don’t appear to have been treated as inactive or inert objects. We can see this in the use of temporary graves.

For important dead folks, funeral planning and execution could last 10 days or more. Meanwhile, that body needed to go somewhere. Since they didn’t have a morgue, they would simply place the deceased in a temporary grave.

The temporary grave wasn’t just a storage unit. Instead, it was more like the corpse’s green room. The living would fill it with items from the dead fella’s rider: things like food, alcohol, musical instruments, 1,000 brown M&Ms—whatever he liked. These were items meant to help the deceased pass the time while they waited for their big appearance at the funeral.

Items in their final graves also suggest that bodies had an active need for various accouterments in the afterlife. Designer outfits, massive drinking horns, bowls, and weapons were all needed for the nonstop party/fight to come in Valhalla.4

#4: Downward-Spiral Drinking, the Whole Time

Grave goods give us a good idea of which accessories were considered important in Old Norse culture. So, when you see loads of drinking horns, glasses, and even a 300-pint drinking bucket found with traces of mead present, you get the idea that binge drinking was big for the Norse.

It’s the right idea. Professor Neil Price—whose 2012 lecture on Viking Age burials serves as the primary source for this article—notes one particular funeral observed by Ahmad Ibn Fadlan on the Volga River in 922 that featured some heavy binge drinking:

“A lot of people have interpreted [Ibn Fadlan’s] description as a party. . . . And it’s not like that. His description . . . is actually rather uncomfortable. People are drinking and drinking and drinking for 10 days. He says sometimes people die from drinking at these funerals. This is not about enjoying yourself. These are people getting into a distinctly different frame of mind.”

“Funeral of a Ruthenian Noble,” Henryk Siemiradzki, 1883.
This is a 19th-century interpretation of the funeral witnessed by Ibn Fadlan.

So, rather than imagining a bunch of hard-partying Vikings playing mead-pong, think of it like an episode of that Intervention show, but if a whole town needed help and nobody intervened.

This information provides us with important context clues in regard to what the hell these people were doing with their wild burials. Namely: by the time they actually put things in the grave, all of these people may have been several days into a nonstop alcohol bender.

It begs the question: did the Norse funeral parties even know what they were doing? Did replacing a dead woman’s jaw with a pig’s mean something profound, or was it the 9th-century equivalent of drawing on someone’s face with a Sharpie?

Could they even remember the burials, let alone explain what they meant? Even Ibn Fadlan, who witnessed a chieftain’s burial first hand, admits he could not discern what was going on. Anyone who’s been the designated driver at a rager could probably relate to Fadlan here.5

#5: If You Were the One Setting a Burial Ship on Fire, You Had to Watch Your Ass

While many Norse burials didn’t use ships—instead preferring holes in the ground, boxes, wooden tents, barrows, traditional pyres, etc.—some did!

That funeral Ibn Fadlan witnessed on the Volga was one such ship burial. After days of binge drinking, ritualistic sex, violence, and human and animal sacrifices, it was finally time to set the chieftain and his burial ship—replete with expensive gifts and other dead bodies—ablaze.

In this example, you can see another common theme: many women were buried with iron rods. This seems to indicate a connection to magic or witchcraft. Or maybe they just used them to keep their binge-drinking husbands in line.

The dead Norseman’s closest male relative approached the boat very carefully. He walked backward, stark naked, with his face turned to make sure all of his body’s orifices were facing away from the boat.

Now, you’ll do well to note that the human body does not have all of its orifices on the same side. So, the naked, fire-starting relative covered his anus with his hand as he backed himself toward the ship. Only after he lit the pyre with his torch was it safe for others to approach and throw their own torches.

We can empathize with Ibn Fadlan’s general confusion about all of this. What was this man afraid of? Was he afraid of being burnt, due to his nakedness and the fact that he’d been pickling himself with alcohol for the last 10 days or so?

That doesn’t seem to be it: the naked man is only cautious before the great bonfire is lit, and seems only concerned with his body holes. And, given all the sacrificing and binge-drinking deaths that likely occurred in the lead-up, I’m not so sure these folks were too worried about physical safety.

As Neil Price points out, it appears that the man was afraid of something incorporeal leaving the burial ship and entering his body through the sour end of his gastrointestinal tract. Fascinating.

That, or the guy suffered from IBS—mead-hammered or not, he was under a lot of pressure.6

Welp, That Seems Like a Good Place to Stop

Honestly, this stuff is just the tip of a very grim iceberg. Women and animals in particular were sacrificed in terrifically inhumane ways to ensure that important people made it to Valhalla fully stocked with whatever or whoever they might need in the afterlife. If you do want to learn more about these terrible things that actually happened, check out Neil Price’s full lecture, “Life and Afterlife: Dealing with the Dead in the Viking Age.”7

Suffice to say, Old Norse burial customs have not aged well. From an archaeological point of view, they are absolutely fascinating, but they predate modern notions of the value of human or animal life.

The grave sites do help put Norse views of death into focus. It’s relatively common knowledge that the Norse cared a lot about death and really cared about dying well. You know the trope: Vikings liked to die with a weapon in hand. But it appears the process of dying didn’t end there. Rather, it continued on for days after biological death and called for a smorgasbord of accessories, depending on who you were.

Perhaps most fascinatingly, these burials—and pre-burials, and corpse re-killing—suggest that the Norse didn’t perceive life and death as binary, opposite, and entirely separate states of being. Even the dead needed something to do, lest they rise from their graves or, even worse, fly up your ass and haunt your guts.

Anyway, the next time someone tells you they want a “Viking funeral,” let them know that no, they just think they do.

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. TV Tropes. (Accessed May 1, 2018). Viking Funeral. Retrieved from http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/VikingFuneral
  2. Price, Neil. (2012, December 11). Life and Afterlife: Dealing with the Dead in the Viking Age. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu2gN8n15_A
  3. Rowe, Richard. (Accessed April 26, 2018). 12 Facts About Viking Funerals That Are Crazier Than You Imagined. Retrieved from https://www.ranker.com/list/norse-funeral-facts/richard-rowe
  4. Price, Neil. (2012, December 11). Life and Afterlife: Dealing with the Dead in the Viking Age. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu2gN8n15_A
  5. Price, Neil. (2012, December 11). Life and Afterlife: Dealing with the Dead in the Viking Age. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu2gN8n15_A
  6. Price, Neil. (2012, December 11). Life and Afterlife: Dealing with the Dead in the Viking Age. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu2gN8n15_A
  7. Price, Neil. (2012, December 11). Life and Afterlife: Dealing with the Dead in the Viking Age. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu2gN8n15_A

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Price, Neil. (2012, December 11). Life and Afterlife: Dealing with the Dead in the Viking Age. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uu2gN8n15_A
  • Price, Neil. (2014, April 16). The Viking way of death. Retrieved from https://blog.britishmuseum.org/the-viking-way-of-death/
  • Rowe, Richard. (Accessed April 26, 2018). 12 Facts About Viking Funerals That Are Crazier Than You Imagined. Retrieved from https://www.ranker.com/list/norse-funeral-facts/richard-rowe
  • TV Tropes. (Accessed May 1, 2018). Viking Funeral. Retrieved from http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/VikingFuneral

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