Vikings made their bloody but brief mark on history hundreds of years ago through their nomadic lifestyle and wild practices of raping, pillaging and conquering anything or anyone who crossed their path. These nomads were often seen as savages as they traveled throughout Europe, but the Vikings held a high regard for the life (and death) of their fellow Norsemen.
So how did they honor their dead? Nailing down the exact rituals of Viking funerals is difficult, as they kept few written accounts of their lives and deaths, but thanks to a few remaining accounts, and archaeological remains that have been found throughout much of Europe, it’s possible to resurrect some of their funeral traditions.
Most Vikings were sent to the afterlife in one of two ways—cremation or burial.
Cremation (often upon a funeral pyre) was particularly common among the earliest Vikings, who were fiercely pagan and believed the fire’s smoke would help carry the deceased to their afterlife. Once cremated, the remains also might be buried, usually in an urn.
For both cremated remains and bodies, burial locations ranged widely, from shallowly-dug graves (often used for women and children) to burial mounds that could hold multiple bodies and groupings of mounds or “grave fields” that served much the same role as cemeteries.
In Norse mythology, boats symbolized safe passage into the afterlife on the same vessel that aided their travels in life, so they played a key role in funeral rites. Some grave mounds were built to resemble ships, with stones used to outline the vessel’s shape. For other high-ranked Norsemen, the honors went a step further, and they were buried with their actual boats.
But these types of elaborate boat funerals weren’t reserved for just men. One of the most extravagant boat burials honored two women, who likely died around 834 A.D. Known as the “Oseberg ship,” it’s one of the most well persevered Viking artifacts. While the Vikings were known for the craftsmanship that went into their vessels in general, the size and detail of the Oseberg was exceptional. Seventy feet long and nearly 17 feet wide, the ship had 15 oars on each side, a pine mast more than 30 feet high, and was spacious enough to fit 30 people.
But contrary to popular belief, funeral boats were rarely sent out to sea, likely because the cost of building these legendary longboats was prohibitive. So it’s unlikely that there were many ships that were set sail and then set ablaze by fiery arrows shot from the shores.
Regardless of how the body was disposed of, a few rituals remained almost constant. The body was draped in new clothes prepared specifically for the funeral, and a ceremony was held featuring songs, chants, food and alcohol. Tributes and gifts, known as “grave goods” and usually of equal value to the deceased’s status, were buried or burned along with the recipient. These goods ran the gamut, from weapons to jewelry to slaves. One Viking site in Flakstad, Norway, contained multiple bodies (some decapitated) in a single grave. Based on analysis of their diets and DNA, it was determined that they were likely slaves, who had been sacrificed to spend eternity with their former masters. Women were often taken in as sex slaves as part of Viking culture, so the idea that they would be sacrificed with their master is feasible.
And according to a report based on accounts from the Middle Ages-traveler Ahmad ibn Fadlan, one instance of the funeral of a Viking chieftain included a sacrificial female slave who was forced to drink copious amounts of alcohol, with large amounts of alcohol, then raped by every man in the village as a tribute to the deceased. From there, she was strangled with a rope, stabbed by a matriarch of the village (known as the Angel of Death), then placed in the boat with her master and set on fire.