and the ship changed drastically over time, though their popularity in burials and artwork continued uninterrupted. “In other words, the new Odin-cult takes over the symbols from the Frey-cult.”86 In contrast to Gjessing’s presentation of the material, Einar Østmo claims that symbols of both the horse and the ship from the Bronze Age are to been seen as “expressions of social and political power and significance rather than vestiges of a fertility religion.”87 This is to say that they were venerated more for the access to power, fame and fortune they gave men through the world of trade and war. “The ship was to become the most popular symbol of all, and horsepower could only enhance that.”88 3.3 The Swedish Boat-Graves It is in the centuries immediately preceding the Viking Age with the graves at Vendel in Uppland, Sweden, that some of the first horse-ship burials appear in Scandinavia.
The Vendel graves clearly indicate the presence of a noble family in the area, suggested by the richness of their grave goods and the remarkable uniformity they exhibit over roughly three centuries.89 Some even suggest that they are the material remains of a royal dynasty.90 The general pattern for these flat-ground, inhumation burials had the deceased placed in a boat up to 10 meters in length, equipped with an array of weapons (ranging from helmets, swords, shields, spear-heads to arrow-heads), and accompanied by hounds on a leash, horses with bridle and saddle, and the occasional hunting falcon.91 The boats were also provided with cooking gear and food supplies, including joints of ham and—in one grave—a sheep’s head.92 As a rule, the horses in these boat graves were buried together with riding or driving tack, but the equipment was not always placed on the horse.
Saddles were often placed together with the dead man rather than on the steed, though there is at least one instance in which a saddle was left on.93 In the oldest of the Vendel graves, dating to roughly 600 AD, the dead chieftain was “seated in full war-gear in the stern of his ship with his horse behind 86 87 Gjessing 1943: 90. Østmo 1997: 305. 88 Østmo 1997: 309. 89 Ellis Davidson 1967: 114. 90 For example, Hyenstrand 1996.
DNA analysis of the skeletal remains from these graves, however, indicates that there is not as much genetic relationship between the various grave occupants as previously assumed (Götherström 2001). 91 Shetelig 1937: 257. 92 Ellis Davidson 1943: 17. 93 Ellis Davidson 1967: 115. 25 him.”94 This seems to suggest he had not so much been ‘laid to rest,’ but that he had been gotten ready for a journey.
Caution in drawing such a conclusion should be exercised, because instances in which the buried are found in a seated position can also be explained by the effects of rigor mortis.95 But rigor mortis is probably not the case here, as the skeleton of a man from another grave at Vendel was found seated upright in a chair.96 Examples of the dead being seated on a chair inside the burial mound also show up in Old Norse literature.97 At Valsgärde, to the south of Vendel and quite near Gamla Uppsala, we find strong similarities to the boat-graves at Vendel.
The fifteen well-preserved finds at Valsgärde show how the burial ships were outfitted in the same sort of regular pattern as at Vendel, that Greta Arwidsson sees as simply following the practical rules applicable when loading ships for a long journey.98 Food for this journey consisted mainly of joints of ham, a few fish-bones and some hazelnuts.
Each grave was occupied by only one man, who was usually found amidships lying on a bed of down and textiles, surrounded by his weapons and other personal equipment.
Aside from a few exceptions, Arwidsson notes that the stern of the ships at both Vendel and Valsgärde were often left completely empty.99 As to placement of the horses in the grave, many of those at Valsgärde had “clearly been tumbled down into the pit between the sides of the boat and the grave-shaft so that they lay beside the boat.”100 Still, they were normally outfitted with at least a halter, and sometimes also with a bridle.
Their age, sex and health did not seem to follow a set rule.
In one case, three young stallions were buried alongside a fifteen year-old mare.101 At least one horse was shown to have been afflicted with spavin, a degenerative joint disease affecting the horse’s hindquarters.102 All of this indicates that the ‘best’ animals were not always used, suggesting that their symbolic worth was more important than their physical worth.
A curious development at both Vendel and Valsgärde was that while the early boat graves contain two or more horses, often placed at the prow of the boat, the later Viking Age 94 95 Ellis Davidson 1943: 16.
Geary 1994: 31. 96 Ellis Davidson 1943: 16. 97 See, for instance, Grettis Saga (Ch. 18) & Egils saga ok Ásmundar (Ch. 7). 98 Arwidsson 1982: 76. 99 Arwidsson 1982: 74. 100 Arwidsson 1982: 76. 101 Gräslund 1980: 42. 102 Sundkvist 2001: 67.
The back haunches become stiff and the horse acquires an uneven gait (Hedman 1996: 163). 26 graves contain only one or two horses.103 What would the reasons for this change have been? It could just be a sign that the wealth and influence of the noble family was on the wane.
It could also owe itself to a gradual shift in symbolism over time; this possibility will be discussed a bit further on. Comparing Vendel and Valsgärde to Skedemosse In light of the sacrifices at Skedemosse, in which an important part of the rites included the eating of horse flesh, it is apparent that what transpired at Vendel and Valsgärde was of an entirely different nature.
These early horse burials reveal a treatment of the animals that does not appear to involve dismemberment or other form of gratuitous destruction, but rather reveal a more ‘careful’ method of murder.
Their skeletons were left more or less complete.
A clear distinction was also made between the horses and the joints of meat which served as food for the deceased.
Arwidsson points out that the best parts of the pig were eaten at the burial while the remaining pieces were granted to the dead.104 Thus the horse was neither a source of food at the burial nor was meant to be so in the afterlife.
Another departure from the cultic rites we discussed in Chapter 2 regards the sex of the horses.
Of the ten horses from Vendel whose sex was able to be determined, four were mares and six were stallions.105 These numbers clearly show that the male horses that Adam of Bremen writes about were neither deemed to be a necessity nor were even preferred to an appreciable degree.
The subject group is small, but striking enough to weaken the view that the stallion was the first choice in the horse sacrifice—as far as it concerns burials.106 Animal Sacrifice as a Reflection of Hunting Culture The horses, dogs and birds of prey that show up in these Swedish boat-graves constitute key elements in the pastime of hunting.
Some scholars have construed this as a manifestation of the lively contacts between Sweden and the budding feudal culture on the Continent where, for example, falconry and hawking were highly appreciated.107 The 103 104 — It is fascinating how all of these ship burials seem to express so many different concepts about the afterlife.
In marked contrast to how the Oseberg ship was found moored to land with a pile of boulders weighing it down, the Ladby ship and the Gokstad ship had their anchors stowed in the bows as if for immediate departure.235 Indeed, the positioning of 231 232 Myhre 1992: 331.
Näsström 2001: 100. 233 In this, I am in agreement with the views expressed in Wamers 1995 and Østmo 1997. 234 Müller-Wille 1971: 160. 235 Ellis Davidson 1967: 118 & Thorvildsen 1957: 99. 57 the Hedeby ship seems to convey that it had a purpose all of its own.
The burial chambers that ‘housed’ the dead in the Norwegian material also make us wonder whether the deceased were to ‘reside’ within the burial mound or whether they truly were to ‘set sail.’ It is perhaps sufficient to say that Viking Age Scandinavians were clearly NOT in agreement as to the purpose of the ship in the grave.
And though many of the same grave goods and sacrificed animals are found in these ship burials, it is equally doubtful that they all had the same meaning attached to them.
This certainly holds true for the horses, who—as we have seen—were killed and deposited in the grave in variety of ways.
The following may be the perfect illustration of the eclecticism of the horse-ship burial custom. 3.8 Ibn Fadlan’s Account of a Horse-Ship Funeral Ironically, the only contemporary account of a Viking horse burial does not come to us from Scandinavia, but instead comes to us via the Arabic chronicler Ibn Fadlan, who bore witness to the ship funeral of a Rus chieftain on the Volga in 921.
Fadlan relates a highlyritualized ceremony that was ten days in preparation.
On the day of the funeral, the chieftain’s ship was drawn up on land and the men placed piles of wood under and around it.
The dead man’s body was taken aboard the ship and put inside a tent, where it was propped up on a bed of fine cloths and cushions.
They laid his weapons beside him, as well as a fresh supply of beer, fruit, meat, bread and onion.
After this, they took a dog, cut it in half and threw it in the ship.
Next, they took two horses and made them run until they sweat, whereupon they cut them to pieces with a sword and threw them in the ship.
Two cows were also chopped into bits and, along with a rooster and a hen, thrown into the ship.
Following this animal sacrifice, a slave girl who had volunteered to die with her master was taken into the tent by an old woman known as the Angel of Death.
Six men followed them in and had sexual intercourse with the girl.
Then, as men outside beat on their shields to drown out the screams, two of the men in the tent strangled her while the Angel of Death stabbed her repeatedly in the ribs until she was dead.
Her body was then laid down next to that of her master.
The ship was then set ablaze by the closest relative of the deceased. 58 When it was finished burning, the men erected a mound over the ship and placed a pole bearing the name of the chieftain and his king on the top of it.236 Comparing the Rus Ship Funeral with the Ship Burials in Scandinavia Despite how far away from Scandinavia it takes place, this ship burial among the Rus bears some striking similarities with the Viking ship burials back ‘home.’ The dead chieftain is laid to rest on a bed next to his slave inside a tent, eerily identical to how the Oseberg queen was laid on a bed with her retainer in a burial chamber.
To add this human sacrifice, the sacrifice of animals (including the familiar horses and dogs) plays a part in the proceedings.
Also, the provisioning of food and weapons occurs just like at the other male graves from Sweden, Norway and Denmark.
The Rus ship burial, however, differs in several ways.
For one, the horses clearly receive no preferential treatment.
All of the animals are chopped into pieces—something that does not happen in any of the burials we have reviewed.
One has to wonder what the significance of this was.
In Heidreks Saga we come across an instance where this was clearly done for the purpose of feasting on the flesh. “A horse was led in front of the thing, hacked into pieces and divided up to be eaten, while the tree of sacrifice was colored red with the blood.”237 Fadlan, however, makes no mention of any of the horses being eaten during the funeral ceremony.
He surely would have noted this if it had taken place, for in another chronicle of his concerning the burial rites among the Oguze people he relates how horses were slaughtered and summarily eaten.238 Nor do the horses seem to be ‘food offerings’ to the Rus chieftain, for why would he would be provided with the “beer, fruit, meat, bread and onion” if this were the case? I also see it as quite dubious that—in their mutilated state—they were likely to have served as ‘guardians of his grave,’ as the authors of one book have suggested.239 They and their fellow animals appear to be dispatched of in much the same way as the ‘spoils of war’ we discussed in Chapter 2, permanently destroyed so that no one else could make use of them.
The ‘evenhanded’ treatment of them supports the notion that they were simply meant to accompany the dead chieftain on the pyre as part of what had been his property. 236 237 Account paraphrased from Birkeland 1954: 21-23.
Paraphrased from Näsström 2001: 129. 238 Klindt-Jensen 1957: 85. 239 Jones & Pennick 1995: 140. 59 Making the horses run until they sweat may have been done to get the blood coursing through their arteries at an extra high rate.
Hagberg suggests that horse-fights or horse-races may have made it ‘easier to bleed them at slaughter.’240 Though this was quite possibly the purpose elsewhere, it may not have been the case here, since Fadlan does not report any kind of special focus paid to the blood of the horses or other animals.
It is nevertheless possible that what took place was a kind of ceremonial horse racing, though Fadlan’s terse account does not give us this impression either. (This discussion nonetheless gives us reason to believe that the horses at Oseberg were made to run or race before the sacrifice as well). Cremation versus Inhumation By far the greatest difference between the Scandinavian ship burials and the Rus ship funeral is that the latter was a cremation.
Up to this point, all of the ship burials we have covered were inhumations.
For whatever reasons, very few cremation ship burials from mainland Scandinavia have been discovered.241 Cremation is often interpreted as a trademark of a pagan-style burial while inhumation is said to be a feature of Christian graves.
It should be noted, however, that “although the presence of Christianity presupposes inhumations, the presence of inhumations does not necessarily indicate Christianity.”242 In Scandinavia, right up to the end of the Viking Period inhumation and cremation were practiced side by side, but cremation was much more usual in Sweden and Norway than in Denmark.243 The literary sources suggest a few different reasons behind the ‘pagan’ practice. “Burning was remembered only to the effect of disposing of a corpse that would not lie quiet, or of someone who was so troublesome in his lifetime that cremation at a funeral was seen as the only way of preventing the corpse from walking out of its grave mound.”244 In other words, as long as the body was still around, its soul could always return to haunt the living.
In Ynglinga Saga, Odin is said to decree that “all the dead were to be burned on a pyre Hagberg 1967: 80.
The Myklebostad ship from western Norway is one of the few.
Unfortunately, neither the ship nor any other equipment was preserved, save for that which could not be consumed by the funeral pyre (Schetelig 1917: 226, Bind I).
Outside of Scandinavia, a Viking ship-burial cremation from the Ile de Groix in Brittany, France, was unearthed at the beginning of the last century, containing a good deal of grave goods and some burned animal bones (Ellis Davidson 1943: 20). 242 Clarke & Ambrosiani 1991: 154-155. 243 Shetelig 1937: 277, Andersson 1998: 361, 363.
The cremations that do occur in Denmark are located mostly in Jylland (Randsborg 1980: 123). 244 Ellis Davidson 1943: 34. 241 240 60
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