Life during the early medieval period was, to borrow a phrase from 18th-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes, "nasty, brutish, and short." For people in Viking societies, this was certainly the case.
When you weren't involved in back-breaking daily labor out in the fields or exhausting care of a horde of children, you may well be part of a Viking raid or expedition that would have to battle the elemental forces as much as the enemy warriors to succeed.
With very limited scientific and medical knowledge, child mortality was high. Should you survive your early years, there was a litany of diseases and maladies that could kill you.
Even if you lived to a ripe old age, the ever-present threat of physical violence was always lurking close by.
For those people in Viking societies that adhered to the Old Norse religion (and even those that converted to Christianity in the latter part of the early medieval period), death was most certainly not seen as an ending.
So given that death was an ever-present part of daily life in Viking societies, how was death observed and celebrated?
Going down with the ship
Nothing quite excites the imagination like the prominent tradition of a Viking ship burial. This was often reserved for high-status members of society, usually (but not always) a male chieftain or warrior.
The deceased would be laid in a boat and buried with grave offerings and goods. This could also include sacrificed slaves and animals.
One of the best examples of this type of burial was uncovered in Oseberg, Norway, in 1904.
Soon to be taking pride of place in Oslo's new Viking Ship Museum, the 21 meters (68-foot) Karve clinker-built ship was uncovered not only with skeletal remains but also a literal treasure trove of grave goods.
Archaeologists believe that the skeletal remains are of a higher-status woman (possibly a ruler or a priestess) and her female slave.
The ship was buried no later than 834 CE, and the enslaved woman appears to have been ritualistically killed.
Along with the two deceased bodies, the ship is famous for its elaborate design (one of the six major Viking styles of art is named after the ship) and grave goods that include decorated sleighs, a beautifully handcrafted cart, and what has been dubbed the "Buddha bowl."
This small pail has two identical small masculine figures sitting in the "lotus pose." While some have speculated that this is proof of indirect trade or contact with the Buddhist world, most serious historians doubt this.
The Oseberg Ship remains such a brilliant example because most Viking ship burials involved the use of fire for a funeral pyre or cremation.
Without financial markets or any type of inheritance law or custom, the burial of elite (or wealthy) members of Viking society with their worldly possessions has been postulated as a way of preventing familial or societal conflict over the buried treasure or goods.
Hollywood movies and Netflix shows have often showcased the grand celebration of the death of a legendary Viking warrior. Photo: Alexisaj / Shutterstock
Death is the great leveler
What of the other people in Viking societies who were not of high status or immense wealth? What happened to them when they died?
While both rich and powerful were buried and cremated, the same applied to the less elite too. Cremation involved burning a body on a funeral pyre, a common practice throughout the Viking world.
It was not unusual for a person's prized possessions, pets, or even slaves (even the relatively poor could afford a slave in Viking societies throughout the Nordic and Baltic region) to join them in their fiery demise.
The other way to deal with a deceased loved one was to simply bury them. Again, prized possessions (often called "grave goods") were buried alongside the lost loved one.
Adherents of the Old Norse religion believed that the afterlife often resembled earthly existence and that their deceased friend or family member had the same needs as when they were alive.
Archaeologists have uncovered a wealth of grave goods that accompanied their owner, including weapons, jewelry, tools, clothing, and even food and drink.
Indeed there is nothing worse than having an empty stomach for eternity...
Funeral feasts and stone ships
Talking of food, one of the key traditions that people in Viking societies took part in upon the death of a loved one was a funeral feast.
Here, the family impacted by the recent death and members of the community would hold a feast to celebrate the life of the recently passed and honor their death.
These were long and carefully orchestrated affairs involving lots of drinking, communal meals, and elaborate storytelling involving poetry and sagas. The exploits of the recently deceased were told with their adventures perhaps exaggerated a little for the grieving family and friends.
Another less delicious way of remembrance and honoring the deceased was to construct a funerary monument. Like a communal feast, members of the entire community may be invited to help the family build monumental grave fields.
The Borre mound cemetery in Vestfold, Norway, stands as a prime example. Not only does it house the remains of multiple members of the Yngling clan in burial mounds (also known as kurgans or tumuli), but it also features a vast "stone ship."
Here a grave or burial mound is surrounded by stones in the shape of a ship.
Perhaps the greatest monument to a deceased family member was erected by Danish Viking king Harald Bluetooth at Jelling. A large carved runestone was erected in memory of his father (and predecessor as king) Gorm and his wife, Thyra.
A Christian Church nearby also shows the importance of this place to the local community both before and after the appearance of Christianity in Denmark.
Scan through any Norse saga, Viking-inspired Marvel comic book, or Netflix show, and there will no doubt be a scene involving a Viking funeral.
This shows the grip that such a somber but culturally significant celebration of life and death has on the popular imagination over a millennium since the last Viking funeral pyre was lit.
For more on how Vikings honored their dead, visit the History Classics website here.
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