Ahmad ibn Fadlan, a Muslim diplomat and secretary to an ambassador for the Caliph of Baghdad, was sent in 921 to the Khaganate of Bulgars along the Middle Volga. His account of his travels with the embassy, The Risala, describes his confrontation with a people called the Rus or Varangians, who were traders and marauders of Swedish origin and Viking ideals. “I have never seen more perfect physical specimens,” he says of the Rus, “tall as date palms, blond and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor caftans, but the men wear a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free. Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife and keeps each by him at all times.” Ibn Fadlan has been described as a keen observer and good narrator, and The Risala contains valuable ethnographic accounts of early Europe.
In 922, Ibn Fadlan recorded sacrifices and mortuary customs among the Rus. A leader has died; one of this man’s slave women volunteers to be killed and burned together with her master in the practice of ship burial. The voluntary death of a master’s slave will be echoed in later Norse sagas [q.v.], especially Gautrek’s saga, where a slave is “rewarded” for faithful service by being permitted to jump from the Family Cliff. What is at issue in these Viking practices that end in death, like those in many other cultures, is the sense in which they can be said to be voluntary and the degree to which the apparently free choices that lead to them are socially controlled.
Ibn Fadlan’s account quoted in Johannes Brøndsted, The Vikings, tr. Kalle Skov, Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books, 1965, pp. 301-305.
from THE RISALA: BY THE RIVER VOLGA, 922: VIKING SHIP-BURIAL
I had been told that when their chieftains died cremation was the least part of their whole funeral procedure, and I was, therefore, very much interested to find out more about this. One day I heard that one of their leaders had died. They laid him forthwith in a grave which they covered up for ten days till they had finished cutting-out and sewing his costume. If the dead man is poor they make a little ship, put him in it, and burn it. If he is wealthy, however, they divide his property and goods into three parts: one for his family, one to pay for his costume, and one to make nabid [probably a Scandinavian type of beer] which they drink on the day when the slave woman of the dead man is killed and burnt together with her master. They are deeply addicted to nabid, drinking it night and day; and often one of them has been found dead with a beaker in his hand. When a chieftain among them has died, his family demands of his slave women and servants: ‘Which of you wishes to die with him?’ Then one of them says: ‘I do’; and having said that the person concerned is forced to do so, and no backing out is possible. Even if he wished to he would not be allowed to. Those who are willing are mostly the slave women.
So when this man died they said to his slave women: ‘Which of you wants to die with him?’ One of them answered, ‘I do.’ From that moment she was put in the constant care of two other women servants who took care of her to the extent of washing her feet with their own hands. They began to get things ready for the dead man, to cut his costume and so on, while every day the doomed woman drank and sang as though in anticipation of a joyous event.
When the day arrived on which the chieftain and his slave woman were going to be burnt, I went to the river where his ship was moored. It had been hauled ashore and four posts were made for it of birch and other wood. Further there was arranged around it what looked like a big store of wood. Then the ship was hauled near and placed on the wood. People now began to walk about talking in a language I could not understand, and the corpse still lay in the grave; they had not taken it out. They then produced a wooden bench, placed it on the ship, and covered it with carpets of Byzantine dibag [painted silk] and with cushions of Byzantine dibag. Then came an old woman whom they call ‘the Angel of Death’, and she spread these cushions out over the bench. She was in charge of the whole affair from dressing the corpse to the killing of the slave woman. I noticed that she was an old giant-woman, a massive and grim figure. When they came to his grave they removed the earth from the wooden frame and they also took the frame away. They then divested the corpse of the clothes in which he had died. The body, I noticed, had turned black because of the intense frost. When they first put him in the grave, they had also given him beer, fruit, and a lute, all of which they now removed. Strangely enough the corpse did not smell, nor had anything about him changed save the colour of his flesh. They now proceeded to dress him in hose, and trousers, boots, coat, and a mantle of dibag adorned with gold buttons; put on his head a cap of dibag and sable fur; and carried him to the tent on the ship, where they put him on the blanket and supported him with cushions. They then produced nabid, fruit, and aromatic plants, and put these round his body; and they also brought bread, meat, and onions which they flung before him. Next they took a dog, cut it in half, and flung the pieces into the ship, and after this they took all his weapons and placed them beside him. Next they brought two horses and ran them about until they were in a sweat, after which they cut them to pieces with swords and flung their meat in to the ship; this also happened to two cows. Then they produced a cock and a hen, killed them, and threw them in. Meanwhile the slave woman who wished to be killed walked up and down, going into one tent after the other, and the owner of each tent had sexual intercourse with her, saying: ‘Tell you master I did this out of love for him.’
It was now Friday afternoon and they took the slave woman away to something which they had made resembling a doorframe. Then she placed her legs on the palms of the men and reached high enough to look over the frame, and she said something in a foreign language, after which they took her down. And they lifted her again and she did the same as the first time. Then they took her down and lifted her a third time and she did the same as the first and the second times. Then they gave her a chicken and she cut its head off and threw it away; they took the hen and threw it into the ship. Then I asked the interpreter what she had done. He answered: ‘The first time they lifted her she said: “Look! I see my father and mother.” The second time she said: “Look! I see all my dead relatives sitting round.” The third time she said: “Look! I see my master inParadise, andParadiseis beautiful and green and together with him are men and young boys. He calls me. Let me join him then!”’
They now led her towards the ship. Then she took off two bracelets she was wearing and gave them to the old woman, ‘the Angel of Death’, the one who was going to kill her. She next took off two anklets she was wearing and gave them to the daughters of that woman known by the name ‘the Angel of Death’. They then led her to the ship but did not allow her inside the tent. Then a number of men carrying wooden shields and sticks arrived, and gave her a beaker with nabid. She sang over it and emptied it. The interpreter then said to me, ‘Now with that she is bidding farewell to all her women friends.’ Then she was given another beaker. She took it and sang a lengthy song; but the old woman told her to hurry and drink up and enter the tent where her master was. When I looked at her she seemed completely bewildered. She wanted to enter the tent and she put her head between it and the ship. There the woman took her head and managed to get it inside the tent, and the woman herself followed. Then the men began to beat the shields with the wooden sticks, to deaden her shouts so that the other girls would not become afraid and shrink from dying with their masters. Six men entered the tent and all of them had intercourse with her. Therefore they laid her by the side of her dead master. Two held her hands and two her feet, and the woman called ‘the Angel of Death’ put a cord round the girl’s neck, doubled with an end at each side, and gave it to two men to pull. Then she advanced holding a small dagger with a broad blade and began to plunge it between the girl’s ribs to and from while the two men choked her with the cord till she died.
The dead man’s nearest kinsman now appeared. He took a piece of wood and ignited it. Then he walked backwards, his back towards the ship and his face towards the crowd, holding the piece of wood in one hand and the other hand on his buttock; and he was naked. In this way the wood was ignited which they had place under the ship after they had laid the slave woman, whom they had killed, beside her master. Then people came with branches and wood; each brought a burning brand and threw it on the pyre, so that the fire took hold of the wood, then the ship, then the tent and the man and slave woman and all. Thereafter a strong and terrible wind rose so that the flame stirred and the fire blazed still more.
I heard one of the Rus folk, standing by, say something to my interpreter, and when I inquired what he had said, my interpreter answered: ‘He said: “You Arabs are foolish.”’ ‘Why?’ I asked. ‘Well, because you throw those you love and honour to the ground where the earth and the maggots and fields devour them, whereas we, on the other hand, burn them up quickly and they go toParadisethat very moment.’ The man burst out laughing, and on being asked why, he said: ‘His Lord, out of love for him, has sent this wind to take him away within the hour!’ And so it proved, for within that time the ship and the pyre, the girl and the corpse had all become ashes and then dust. On the spot where the ship stood after having been hauled ashore, they built something like a round mound. In the middle of it they raised a large post of birch-wood on which they wrote the names of the dead man and of the king of the Rus, and then the crowd dispersed.