The Real Vikings
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The reason we know so much about Viking ship burials.

A page from a manuscript written in Arabic

The Man Who Gave Us The Vikings

Their relics, runes and ruins lie scattered across parts of Europe, fascinating clues about the world of the Vikings. This ambiguous evidence has inspired so many legends that it’s been notoriously difficult to tell fact from fantasy. It doesn’t help that many accounts of the Vikings were basically propaganda pieces written by people with a vested interest in blackening their name. A prime example is the 11th Century tract known as the Sermon of the Wolf, written by the Archbishop of York, which railed against what he thought of as an increasingly amoral and unholy England, and depicted the vicious, violent Vikings as God’s punishment made flesh.

But, aside from such writings, and general Norse folklore, there’s one man who deserves a lot of the credit for our insights into what actual, everyday Vikings were really like. His name was Ahmad ibn Fadlan, and he remains a rather underappreciated figure – despite being a bold traveller who mingled with Norse fighters and traders in the east.

Vikings In The East

Think “Vikings” and it’s their incursions in northern and western Europe that spring immediately to mind. Yet, we know they also made their way to North America. And they also laid down roots in the east, trading with Muslims and setting themselves up as ancestors of modern Russians. As historian Thorir Jonsson Hraundal puts it, “A major difference between the Scandinavians who travelled eastwards and those who sailed west was that in the East they were far more subordinated in societies they came to.”

Ahmad ibn Fadlan

In other words, there was a lot of cultural exchange going on, and into this world stepped Ahmad ibn Fadlan, an emissary of the Caliph of Baghdad. Ibn Fadlan was a scholar and intellectual, an expert in the finer points of Islamic law, and in the late 10th Century he was deployed by the Caliph as part of a delegation to the Volga Bulgars – ancestors of contemporary Bulgarians who settled in parts of modern-day Russia, and who had converted to Islam.

It proved to be a truly epic odyssey for Ibn Fadlan and his fellow delegates, who followed a caravan route through modern-day Iran, past the Caspian Sea and into the vast, rolling landscapes that would one day become a part of Russia. Thousands of miles were crossed, with Ahmad Ibn Fadlan chronicling the journey in writings that give us a documentary-like glimpse at this bygone epoch.

In the words of Viking historian Thomas S. Noonan, “Ibn Fadlan was unique… He was there, and you can trace his exact path. He describes how the caravans travelled, how they would cross a river. He tells you about the flora and fauna along the way. He shows us exactly how the trade functions. There is nothing else like it.”

While Ibn Fadlan came across many cultures, it’s the sections on the Viking settlers of the east that most fascinate historians today. Ibn Fadlan gives us marvellously vivid descriptions of the Norse men and women he encounters, whose wild, brutish charms bring out an amusingly conflicted range of responses from the prim and proper author.

"They are the filthiest of God’s creatures."

While clearly awe-struck at the “perfect physical specimens”, whom he describes as being tall like palm trees, with yellow hair and rosy skin adorned with intricate, branching tattoos, Ibn Fadlan is also utterly appalled at their standards of hygiene. Being a conscientious Muslim devoted to daily cleaning rituals, he doesn’t react well to the Norse concepts of cleanliness. “They are the filthiest of God’s creatures,” he notes, being particularly put off by their use of communal washing basins.

The writings also describe Viking jewellery, from neck rings to glass beads adorning the Viking women, and their use of axes and swords as weapons. But perhaps the most vivid, disturbing and enlightening section relates to a Viking ship burial. Ibn Fadlan’s detailed description is the single best one we have about this core custom, charting the hedonistic, grisly aftermath of a Viking chieftain’s death.

Viking ship burial

“They laid him forthwith in a grave which they covered up for ten days till they had finished cutting-out and sewing his costume,” he writes, before revealing that a slave girl is then given the “honour” of following her master into the afterlife. The process continues with much drinking and merry-making, and the slave girl eventually compelled to have ritualistic sex with several men, who say: “Tell your master I did this out of love for him.”

Then, an old woman known as the “Angel of Death” takes control of things, supervising the preparation of the ship, and the recovery of the body from its brief grave, to be adorned in its final costume and then placed on the ship with rich foods and opulent ornaments. The slave girl, lolling and “bewildered” after drinking alcohol, is then introduced to the scene, and brutally stabbed to death by the “Angel of Death” with a dagger. As Ibn Fadlan puts it, the ship – laden with its cargo of dead bodies and other offerings to the afterlife – is then set alight, and left to burn until “cinder and ashes”.

It’s only because of Ahmad ibn Fadlan’s eloquent writings that we even know about these dramatic details which are the bedrock of our view of the Vikings. And this is why he deserves to be far better known as an eyewitness of history.

Discover the history behind the Vikings in The Real Vikings, Tuesdays at 10pm only on HISTORY.