Norse Afterlife: Death and funeral rites in the Viking Age
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Another form of existence
Death did not mean for the Vikings the absolute end, but only the passage to another form of existence.
In the Nordic beliefs, the man is made up of 5 bodies:
- várðr (or vörd), which is the force, the energy that allows all forms of life from plants to humans. It is the energy that leaves the body at the moment of death.
- the hamr, which is the astral body, the consciousness that distinguishes all living beings from plants, a constitutive and indissociable element of the individual that can allow him to metamorphose following the example of wild warriors (berserker, ulfhednar).
- the hugr, which is the mental body, the spirit, the capacity to acquire knowledge and to use it. It is detached from the physical body only after the latter has decomposed or been burned and then begins its journey to the afterlife.
- the fylgja, which is the soul of an individual and even of a clan, the self emancipated from the body, a guardian being whose function is protection and prediction. It does not disappear with the individual to whom it is attached, but if it leaves him or if it manifests itself to him outside of a dream, he dies.
- the hamingja, who is the guardian force of a family watching over the good behavior of its descendants. The hamingja could leave the individual during his lifetime or be received by another member of the lineage after death.
Death was thus a biological death, but not a social death. Three terms are used to designate a mortal remains in Old Norse:
- lik ("corpse")
- nár ("lifeless body")
- hræ ("carcass" used indifferently for an animal as for a human being)
The funeral ceremony in the viking age
The Viking Age burials brought to light in Scandinavia by archaeologists show great regional, and sometimes even local, disparities, whatever the beliefs of the populations. But all testify to the importance given to ritual acts.
According to research carried out on the prestigious Oseberg burial site in Norway, it would have taken nearly 4 to 6 months, and perhaps even several years, to carry out this type of funeral, including the building of a burial mound. Goods and offerings were deposited in quantity in the tombs, according to the rank and social class to which the deceased belonged.
On the seventh day after the death of the person, it was customary to celebrate the sjaund (from Old Norse sjau, "seven"), during which gravøl, literally "funeral beer", was drunk. This ritual celebration was a time of joyful revelry and abundant food so that the deceased could be at peace and begin his journey to the realm of the dead without being tempted to "walk again" (an expression used in the Viking Age for "revenant"). Only after consuming this beer could the successors legitimately claim their inheritance or, if applicable, the transfer of any authority.
The tomb, the final resting place for vikings
The final resting place was conceived as a home, not an oblivion, for the dead who literally "lived" near his family. Indeed, in the vast majority of cases, the cemeteries were located close to the family homes or farms, generally on land unsuitable for agriculture.
Thus, the body of the deceased was sometimes seated on a chair as if to sit, or laid on the floor in the center of his final resting place. The funerary furniture, carefully arranged around him, delimited spaces dedicated to food, games, weapons, etc., as if to reconstitute the different spaces of a house.
Most of the rites were intended to guarantee, in one way or another, the best possible situation in the afterlife for the deceased, as well as for his or her relatives still alive.
Even the different realms of the dead in the beliefs reflected the environment in which the individual had evolved during his lifetime, and the causes of his death. Not everyone could claim the same stay in the afterlife, which was directly conditioned by the life that each individual had led.
Deposits in homes
Researchers estimate that about half of the population did not receive a burial during the Viking Age in present-day Norway. What about people on the margins of society, modest or fragile, servants and slaves? The graves uncovered by archaeologists are most often those of wealthy individuals or those who belonged to an elite.
However, recent research has shown that dwellings were not exclusively the domain of the living and that they contained skeletal parts and children's bodies, buried under doorways, floors, post holes, in the foundations of walls or near the fireplace. Children who were stillborn or died before being given a name could have been considered magical 'objects', according to archaeologist Marianne Hem Eriksen of the University of Oslo.
It is not possible to determine whether these bones, among which many skulls, were the remains of close relatives, slaves or enemies. Such deposits in houses could have been used to preserve the essence of a deceased person, to protect the place, or to try to destroy the aura of an enemy.
Different parts of the house probably served as points of contact between the living and the dead, but also allowed the past, present and future to be linked. This custom, which is still not well understood, shows at the very least how much death was part of the daily life of the living in the Viking Age. In fact, there is a word in Old Norse to signify the omen of imminent death, feigð, which can only be manifested through the intermediary of an individual endowed with the gift of double sight, the ofreskr.
Large Vikings cemeteries and necropolises
- BIRKA (Sweden): more than 3000 tombs over a period of 2 centuries
- BORREHAUGENE (Norway): 18.2 hectares where 7 large tumuli measuring up to 45 meters in diameter and 6 meters high, 1 large cairn and 25 smaller ones are still visible.
- LINDHOLM HØJE (Denmark): 700 burials surrounded by stones forming for the most part ships.
- HEDEBY (Germany): 7000 graves
The architectures and funeral rituals
As far as the first half of the Viking Age is concerned, archaeologists discover as many male as female graves. But from the tenth century onwards, only one tomb out of four is a woman's grave.
Cremation is a funerary practice aiming at burning and reducing the body of the deceased to ashes. It was common to burn the corpse and the funeral offerings on a pyre, which could reach a temperature of 1400°C (as opposed to 920°C in today's crematorium ovens).
It is attested in various forms:
- primary cremation. The dead person is burned and buried in the same place. Archaeologists then discover in a pit the charred bones of the individual's skeleton, the remains of the funeral pyre and sometimes the remains of various animal bones, most often dog, cat and chicken.
- Cremation with secondary deposit. The deceased is burned on a pyre and the remains are placed in a ceramic urn which is buried in a different place from the pyre. The contents of the urn were carefully chosen, and consisted, as Swedish archaeologist Gunnar Andersson explains, of large bone fragments from the skull or other fairly large bones. The smaller fragments, along with other charred animal remains and artifacts, were placed outside the urn.
Cremation graves are always oriented on an east-west axis. They were usually covered by a pile of stones called a "cairn" or a mound.
This tradition was most common in many parts of central Scandinavia in the early Viking Age and in the northern part of present-day Denmark, north of the Limfjord.
In the easternmost parts of central Sweden and on the Åland archipelago, a specific ritual was associated with it in the 10th and 11th centuries. It consisted, after the cremation, in placing at the top of the urn a large iron amulet ring, on which one or more pendants such as Thor's hammers were threaded.
In contrast, only one cremation grave dating from the Viking Age has been discovered in Iceland to date, perhaps because wood was a vital and fragile resource on this island and therefore far too precious to be used to fuel a pyre.
The mound or tumulus
The burial mound is a mound of earth, or sometimes of earth and stones (tumulus), of variable shape and size, which generally covered the tomb of a king or a chief, but also those of great and rich merchants or warriors. It serves to show, in the surrounding landscape, the importance of the illustrious people it shelters.
The burial mound, or tumulus, can cover several types of individual or family burials:
- a cremation grave, consisting of a pit with or without a grave boat
- a sepulchral chamber that can be covered by a roof maintained by wooden pillars
This funeral practice continued in Scandinavia after the end of paganism.
The grave boat
An entire boat is used as a receptacle for the deceased and his or her belongings, or even as property in its own right. This burial method, more frequent in Norway and Sweden, is a tradition that goes back to the beginning of the Invasions and attests to the very ancient idea of travelling to the other world.
There are 3 types of burial in a boat:
- The boat is burned with the deceased on board and gains the open sea.
- The boat is burned on land with the deceased and the ashes are covered by a mound. [Cf. the detailed report of the Arab Ibn Fadlan who, in 922, describes the funeral of a Varegian chief: the offerings to the deceased included not only his weapons, victuals and domestic animals, but also a young woman, all of which were burned with the boat on a pyre. A mound was then built over the ashes].
- The boat was buried as it was with the deceased on board, and the grave boat was covered by a tumulus.
Burial modes 2 and 3 are attested by countless finds. Burials of corpses in boats left intact are somewhat more common than cremation burials, but archaeologists have also discovered cremations of the deceased in boats that were not burned.
Burial in a boat takes place in large, wide and deep pits, possibly with a floor or roof. They may contain rich funerary furnishings and a set of sacrificial animals, most often arranged outside the boat.
This mode of burial, very representative of the aristocrats and the richest people of the society of the time, was not exclusively reserved for men. Many boat graves discovered in Scandinavia are women's graves, which is particularly the case of one of the most famous of them: the boat of Oseberg.
Note that in some graves, the too small quantity of rivets found could have had a simple symbolic value - pars pro toto - that is to say, to represent a boat, without wasting this precious resource.
The mortuary house
The mortuary house consists of a small house in which the deceased were placed. In total, less than 15 such houses have been found in Norway. Others have been found in Sweden and Denmark, but these Viking Age mortuary houses remain rare.
Researchers are still debating the function of this burial structure. In practice, it could be a kind of morgue where corpses were stored in winter, waiting for climatic conditions to allow their burial in the ground. Symbolically, the house could also represent the residence of the deceased in the afterlife, in the same way as the tomb boat that allowed one to sail to the realm of the dead.
There are also rare examples of burials in dwelling houses during the Iron Age and Viking Age periods, and only a few examples of a mortuary house covered by a burial mound, perhaps to give the house itself a burial. This may be the case of the Vinjeøra mortuary house, discovered in 2019, along the E39 (see video below).
The naviform collective tomb
This funerary rite consists of a set of raised stones, arranged in a naviform layout and separated from each other. The stones representing the bow and the stern at each end slightly exceed the others. Like the grave ship, the naviform tomb attests to the very ancient idea of travel to the other world.
Most of these graves are found in southern Scandinavia, especially in Sweden and Denmark. There are currently more than 1500 preserved naviform collective graves, the majority of which date from the Viking Age.
Many of them contain graves and can be compared to grave ships. The naviform collective tombs without graves could be cult monuments related to burial rites.
The standing stones
The raised stones (bautasteinar), similar to the menhirs found in France, are naturally oblong, more or less flat and generally large commemorative stones erected on burial sites, such as at the Noreim farm, along the Karmsund strait in Norway, where there are a total of 1176 monumental stones from all periods.
This is an ancestral tradition inherited from the Neolithic period and continued until the Viking Age. They are distinguished from other tombstones (runic stones, historiated stones) by their size and the fact that they are devoid of inscriptions and ornamentation.
Researchers believe that they may have had other functions, such as marking a border between two regions or indicating the route by which Viking ships could pass overland in order to reach another waterway, as at Hosle, in the municipality of Tjølling.
Rune stones (runesteinar) are standing stones, engraved with runic inscriptions, dedicated in their great majority to the memory of a deceased person, either to mark the location of his grave, or sometimes in the absence of a grave when the person died far from home.
The majority of the rune stones were erected between the middle of the 10th century and the 12th century, mainly in Sweden and Denmark, and to a lesser extent in Norway. There are about 3000 of them.
In Denmark, there are about 220 memorial stones. Twenty-three of them were commissioned by women and 11 others were erected in memory of a woman.
One of the most famous is the Rök stone, erected in memory of a deceased son, which has the longest known inscription, more than 700 perfectly legible runes covering its five sides.
The historiated stones
The historiated stones (biletsteinar or bildstenar) are stones carved in limestone blocks, the most famous of which have been discovered, four in number, at Stora Hammars, on the island of Gotland in Sweden.
Decorated with various figures symbolizing glory and death, always with a background that is at the same time mythological, religious and martial, they were probably erected to honor the memory of illustrious people or to recall great events. In this sense, they could be commemorative monuments.
From the 5th to the 8th century, the historiated stones are often axe-shaped (the edge upwards) and present relatively few images. This first category of stones was probably used to mark the location of a burial. But from the 8th century onwards, the stones were generally placed near crossroads and other meeting points.
Hogbacks are Anglo-Scandinavian carved stones. Researchers think that they were used as tombstones and that this tradition was born around the year 920 in Yorshire. This tradition would have declined at the beginning of the eleventh century to disappear completely in the twelfth century.
Several sets of hogbacks have been discovered in England (Yorhire, Cumbria) and in Scotland, generally along the waterways. A few are found in the Shetland and Orkney archipelagos and in Cornwall, one in Ireland at Castledermot (County Kildare) and one in Wales at the church of Llanddewi Aberarth.
There are two main types of hogbacks, one with large animal heads at each end, the other in the shape of a longhouse with its shingled roof. Scrolls and tracery complete the decoration of these headstones.
The funerary material
The abundant funerary material and foodstuffs found by archaeologists are a characteristic of pre-Christian burials of the Viking Age, which confirms the belief in an existence after death. Logically, burial objects were treated in the same way as the body, burned or buried, so that they could accompany the deceased into the afterlife.
The equipment varied considerably according to the social status of the deceased and generally reflected the activity he or she carried out during his or her lifetime. However, it should be remembered that most of the burials recorded by archaeologists belong to the elite of the societies of the time.
If the material they contain cannot be representative of the funerals of the majority of the population, it is nonetheless revealing of the beliefs and traditions.
A free man generally received weapons (from a simple knife to a complete set) and equipment for riding a horse. A craftsman would take with him a whole set of tools related to his activity, in the same way as a merchant would take his weights and scales. The women's tombs are distinguished for the most part by utensils and tools related to their domestic tasks, and in particular loom elements (weights, spindle whorls, shuttle...), or even the object itself for the wealthiest.
Jewelry is not a gender marker and is found in both female and male tombs. It is also not uncommon to find pieces of hnefatafl or dice.
One of the most emblematic objects and very commonly discovered in archaeology is the comb. A true symbol of the care that the Vikings took with their hygiene and their appearance, the omnipresence of the comb in the graves has helped to make the image of the shaggy barbarian fall into disuse. Nevertheless, one of the explanations put forward by researchers is that it was perhaps no longer possible to use a comb that had been used to comb the hair of a deceased person.
Some rarer objects allow archaeologists to easily identify the role played by the deceased in society. The seiðstafr or seydr stick, a type of magic wand found in nearly 40 tombs throughout Scandinavia, clearly indicates the burial of a völva or seiðkona, a woman who practiced at least one of the Nordic magics.
The same is true for swords, which are rare and expensive, and were generally the attribute of renowned warriors and chiefs who used to personify them by giving them a name. Also, at the time of a death, a ritual consisted in neutralizing the sword of the deceased by deliberately bending the blade, before placing it in the grave. This symbolic practice, attested to by archaeological discoveries, could have had a pragmatic function aimed at dissuading grave robbers.