Accident at sea?
by Michael Djordjevitch
By no means, an accident.
A funeral pyre on a Long Ship was a form of Viking funeral reserved for very high status individuals, such as some rulers or very great heroes. There were a number of other forms of monumental farewell and commemoration available for high and low status Vikings in their liminal moments, as they faced an afterlife in one of their nine realms.
Below is the The Llangernyw Yew, an ancient tree in Wales estimated to be anywhere between 1,500 and 5,000 years old.
Two contrasting realms newly departed Vikings would face were Valhalla and Helheim, the first a destination for fallen heroes who had died bravely in combat, the second, a place of no honor for those who, without a life of achievement, merely died in bed, or by way of mundane accident or illness. Helgafjell was the abode of those who had lived honorable lives, even though their ends were not heroic.
The Vikings practiced both cremation and inhumation, though the first was much more dominant in their earlier history. The goal of cremation was the total calcification of the body. This required an extremely hot fire, thus the need for a substantial funeral pyre consuming a great amount of wood.
The ashes would then be buried along with goods and belongings (including chattel) befitting the status of the interred individual. While the Viking ideal was a burial at sea, those on land emphatically echoed that ideal.
A number of burials on land within whole ships, even of the highest category, Long Ships, have been discovered and excavated this past century. These are the primary source for our detailed knowledge of Viking ships.
Henryk Hektor Siemiradzki (1843 - 1902), in his Funeral of a Varangian Chieftain (1883), with great panache presents us with the Ship Burial of a chieftain of the Volga Vikings, directly inspired by a surviving text from the tenth century by an Ahmad ibn Fadlan, an emissary of the Abbasid Caliph of Baghdad to the Khan of the Volga Bulgars.
Ibn Fadlan said it was customary when a chieftain died for his family members to ask slave girls and boys, “Who among you will die with him?” If they volunteered, they were not allowed to back out. Usually, Ibn Fadlan wrote, slave girls made the offer. One girl volunteered for the spectacle Fadlan saw. “Every day the slave-girl would drink <alcohol> and would sing merrily and cheerfully,”
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.”
The best known inhumation boat burial is from a place called Sutton Hoo, in Suffolk, England. There, was found an undisturbed ship burial dating from the early 600’s A.D., likely, of the early East Anglian King, Rædwald, a Saxon Ruler from the period of the final takeover of Late Roman Britannia.
Below we see a reconstruction, based on the excavated remains, of the funeral chamber (in the heart of his ship) of this ruler as it would have appeared just before he was buried under a very large mound of earth.
In form and ornament, King Rædwald's Royal Helmet prefigures that of the future Vikings, who would soon move into the lands newly vacated by the Saxons, Angles and Jutes, displacing their remnant southwards. Yet, though belonging to a distinct tribal and linguistic lineage, these most northern of the northerners, our Vikings, closely shared with the Germanic peoples just south of them a common material and religious culture. This helmet type also bears witness to the sources of many of the elements of this entire cultural ecumene, as it is directly derived from Late Roman cavalry helmets of the fourth and fifth centuries A.D.
This Tradition of Leaders and Heroes being buried in ships would be carried forward by those who would soon occupy the Saxon Homeland, the Vikings.
Even but the mere outline of a ship alone quite often sufficed, as we can see from these two virtual ships from Badelunda, near Västerås, Sweden, within which were buried the cremated remains and funeral goods of their occupants.
As for the ever hoped for destination of our Vikings, The Ride Of The Valkyrie, 1890, by the German painter, William T Maud (1865 - 1903) :