The Vikings were the early medieval periods' great hoarders. A wealth of goods, treasure, and prized possessions made their way to Viking societies from the four corners of the globe.
Despite the historical reputation that Vikings have, you know, for being big, brutish barbarians, they were of a culture that had a high amount of fear surrounding death.
Many people in Viking societies adhered to the Old Norse religion, which should be seen as a northern offshoot of Germanic paganism that reached the Scandinavian peninsula sometime during the Nordic Iron Age (c. 500 BCE - 500 CE).
With Germanic paganism creeping forward, from below, and never forced upon the population, from above (like Christianity would be), there was a huge variation in customs and beliefs surrounding death.
It was only with the emergence of Christianity in Scandinavia, from the late 6th century CE onwards, that the concept of body and soul dualism was introduced.
Nonetheless, each individual was believed to be comprised of their hugr (mind), hamr (shape), and fylgja (an animal that represented the individual and could only be seen in dreams / certain individuals - similar to the concept of a "spirit animal") and, most interestingly, their hamingja (comprised the luck of a person and could be inherited by others after death, including family and friends).
People in Viking societies believed that only with the final decomposition of a person's body could a dead individual start their final journey to the realm of the dead.
Thorkell the Viking
So, putting aside the philosophical aspects of death in Viking society, let us get down to the nitty-gritty.
Let us imagine your average Viking warrior who, after a few raids, has built himself quite a nice little amount of wealth but is getting on in years (the average life expectancy in early medieval Europe was in the mid-30s).
Let us also imagine that this brave warrior is also married with children and has a small farm.
That summer, the local chieftain wants to organize a raid all the way to somewhere along the Frankish coast.
Now our old Viking mate, for argument's sake, let's call him Thorkell, reluctantly agrees to go on one last raid...but never makes it back. He is killed, and his body is left somewhere in Francia with an assortment of holes poked in him by less than hospitable Franks whilst his comrades make off with the village's movable wealth. Poor old Thorkell, we knew you so well...
Picture then the scene when the longship pulls into poor Thorkell's village. News spreads that the men are back from a successful raid, and no doubt Thorkell's wife and children are expecting him to walk through that door (or hole in the hut...this is the early medieval period, after all), but alas, they find our poor Thorkell is dead.
His friends no doubt comfort his wife with typical Viking condolences, the typical stuff like "You have our deepest sympathies.", He died a valiant death...even for an old man", "Thorkell will surely be plucked by the Valkyries to go to Valhalla." You know, the usual words of comfort.
Ship burials were reserved for the most powerful and influential of people in Viking society. Photo: Alexisaj / Shutterstock
Knives out - who got what?
Now, what exactly happens to his acquired treasure, loot, and possessions?
Thorkell's wife, let us call her Astrid, has a sizable amount of power for a woman in early medieval Europe.
Unlike her contemporaries in other societies, be they Franks, Anglo-Saxons, or Byzantines, she was not only responsible for the family's finances in general but was also in charge of the farm when Thorkell was away.
She was, quite literally, running the show on a daily basis during all those weeks that Thorkell was sailing the high seas. Now that she is a widow, it was common that she would simply inherit all Thorkell's goods and property and become part of the (relatively speaking) landed elite.
- READ MORE: Women and power in the Viking Age: A primer
Most people in Viking societies felt it was a disgrace for a man, especially a Viking, to reach old age.
This brought on a great sense of personal shame and guilt, and the man may very well have been ostracized by the local community.
To be killed in battle was the highest honor. This has been suggested as a theory of why the Vikings had an intense level of ferocity when it came to fighting – they quite literally wanted to be killed.
Should you reach old age, and have built up a nice little nest egg, then you could bequeath these possessions to family or friends.
If you died in disgrace, then, often, the local lord, jarl, or chieftain more than probably got their hands on all your stuff.
Ship burials and funeral pyres
Moving up the social ladder, let us look at what happened when the rich and powerful in society died.
If the local chieftain in Thorkell's village died, perhaps the very same one who had organized all those raids that made old Thorkell a well-off Viking, then a large funeral was organized.
Depending on the wealth of the ruler, chieftain, or local elite, they may well be buried in a ship. This was reserved for the most powerful and influential of people.
Their body was laid on a ship and accompanied by various grave goods. These goods were a direct representation of their status and influence in life, so the richer and more powerful the person, the larger amount of grave goods were buried.
The most detailed (and most chilling) account of a Viking ship burial comes from the 10th-century CE Arab scholar, travel writer, and budding ethnographer Ibn Fadlan.
On a diplomatic mission to the Volga Vikings, he wrote a detailed account of the grave goods that were offered up as part of a local chieftain's funeral.
Expensive clothing, food, drink, weapons, and even slaves (with one female slave raped and then killed) were put on the chieftain's ship before being set alight as part of a ritualistic funeral pyre.
For more on Viking funerals, visit the BBC History Extra website here.
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