View Full Version : 'Fire on the Water': The Myth & History of Viking Funerals by Stephen A. McNallen

Sunday, December 5th, 2004, 04:34 AM
The Myth & History of Viking Funerals
Stephen A. McNallen

A Viking ship pushed out to sea, flames licking at its sail and mast as it carries its heroic cargo into the setting sun...the body of a chieftain, surrounded by gold and weapons, dignified in death even as the flames flit around his bier and the smoke obscures his outlines...Balder the Beautiful, slain by mistletoe and mischief, on his burning funeral ship while the Gods weep on the strand...

The image of a Viking's funeral is a persistent one. In novels and in Hollywood films, this is the preferred way of departing for the glories waiting beyond death. But what is behind the image? Truth? Fiction? And in any case, what does this idea tell us about the religious beliefs and values of our ancestors?

For me, this is no longer a subject of idle discussion - for I recently stood, entranced on the shore, as a dragon-prowed Viking boat turned to cinders in a glare of orange light and sparks. The spiritual impact of this experience has compelled me to organize my thoughts for you, the readers of THE RUNESTONE.

But what did ships in general, burning or not, mean to our distant ancestors? From very early times in the ancient Northlands, ships were linked with the Gods of life, fertility, and well-being. Just as there was a harvest on land that resulted from tilling the fields, so there was the second harvest captured in nets or on lines hung over the sides of boats. In addition to being a source of much-needed food, the oceans were the highways of commerce. Wealth flowed from distant lands in the form of trade, bringing wine, glass, and exotic jewelry to enrich life for the Vikings and related peoples.

For the Norsemen, the family of Gods called the Vanir were connected with these ideas of prosperity, fertility, and fruitful living. One of their number, Njord, was the God of the sea and of shipping. He was father to Frey and Freya, the male and female deities in charge of love and fertility.

Since the ship was so strongly associated with the continuance of life, it was the proper antidote to death. Invoking the powers of fertility and rebirth gave men and women a way to defeat the grave by seeking the life that lies beyond it. In addition to the raw life energy symbolized by the Vanir and, by inference, the ship, there was the reasonable notion that a seagoing vessel could carry a soul on its journey across the waters of darkness to the Other World.

Ships and Graves

We should not be surprised, then, that ships are often found in and around graves in ancient Europe. The famous Oseburg, Gokstad, and Tune ships in Oslo's Viking Ship Museum are only the most famous ones. The Sutton Hoo burial in England is another well known example. However, there are hundreds of instances from Scandinavia and the British Isles in which the association is made between nautical craft and the grave. Large ships marked royal burials, while humbler folk made do with boats. In some cases, parts of boats sufficed! The vessels could be buried whole or burned. Many graves on the Swedish island of Gotland contain neither a ship nor a boat - but large stones set out in an elongated, pointed shape to suggest one. Clearly, it was the symbolism that was important, rather than the physical presence of the ship itself.

In a way, cremation conflicts rationale behind boat burials. With the one, the boat or ship transports the soul to the afterlife; in the other, the flames and smoke rising into the heavens carries the dead to the Gods. Still, we know the two practices were combined - maybe they were seen as complementary. The best-documented Viking funeral is one among the Rus, Swedish colonists along the Volga River in Russia. The Arab traveler Ibn Fadlan describes with great exactness how the Northmen prepared an elaborate ceremony that culminated in burning the deceased on a ship, over which a mound of earth was built when the ashes had cooled. At one point,

A powerful, fearful wind began to blow so that the flames became

fiercer and more intense. One of the Rus was at my side and I heard

him speak to the interpreter, who was present. I asked the interpreter

what he said. He answered, "He said, 'You Arabs are fools'" "Why?"

I asked him. He said, "You take the people who are most dear to you

and whom you honor most and you put them in the ground where

insects and worms devour them. We burn him in a moment, so that

he enters Paradise at once." Then he began to laugh uproariously.

When I asked why he laughed, he said, "His lord, for love of him, has

sent the wind to bring him away in an hour."

This and similar instances involved the burning (or burial) of ships on dry land. But what about the Viking funerals in the movies? Was a warrior's corpse, like that of Kirk Douglas in The Vikings, ever pushed out to sea while the rising fire slowly engulfed him? Did Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis stand on the beach, photogenically watching as horns sounded mournfully over the fjord?

Maybe, and maybe not. This sort of burial is not likely to leave any remains for archeologists to pick over, so it comes as no surprise to say we have no physical evidence. This lack of proof prompts some writers to declare this practice a romantic fiction. On the other hand, we have some accounts from myth and saga which indicate otherwise. One of these is the story of Balder's death. When Balder, Odin's son, is slain by Loki's scheming, the ceremony done for him is just the sort we expect of the "classical" (i.e., Hollywood) Viking funeral: He is laid his ship, "Curved Prow," surrounded by treasure and finery. Sacrifices are made, the vessel is blessed by Thor's hammer, the ship is set alight and pushed out to sea. An account like this sounds very much like a description of something that people actually did in the old days, rather than something made up for he occasion.

Additionally, Norse literature tells of King Haki of Norway and Sigurd Ring of Sweden, both of whom were pushed out to sea when they were dead or dying of battle wounds. The lack of archeological evidence, then, may not mean much. The fabulous Viking funeral of film and novel may, indeed, have been a reality despite the skepticism of the scholars - we just don't know.


On the last Tuesday of January, while the sun has yet to return to the Shetland Islands and temperatures in the capital city, Lerwick, hover below freezing, a strange drama is acted out. This is the unique festival known as

Up-Helly-Aa. For this event, squad of Vikings led by a honorary chieftain called the "Guizer Jarl," takes over the town. They go from place to place, singing their traditional songs and awing the populace with their fanciful furry costumes and shining, polished armor. Later that night, they are joined by the entire population in a torchlight procession through the streets, with a thirty-foot dragon ship in tow. Down to the designated site they go, singing their songs and holding burning brands aloft. The thousand or more participants then circle the ship, several ranks deep, and on the signal they give three cheers and toss their torches into the ship.

The purpose of this festival is to break winter's spell and urge the sun back from its frosty winter home. But is this a survival of an ancient seasonal celebration? Well, yes and no. The idea is an old one, and for many years local lads would march through the streets of Lerwick with barrels of burning tar. This is a genuine folk custom and is still practiced in at least one Scottish community, to my knowledge (Years ago, a Runestone subscriber sent us a charred bit of barrel from such a procession). Shetland authorities banned it in the nineteenth century because the young men were getting too unruly, but after a couple of years it was revived, but with a difference: Instead of burning barrels, a Viking ship was consumed by the flames. This was in 1889, and a ship has flared in the cold January night ever since.

We owe Up-Helly-Aa to the Shetlanders' intense awareness of their Norse heritage, and specifically to a blind Shetland poet named Haldane Burgess. When his academic career was abruptly canceled by his lack of sight, Burgess taught himself languages and learned to play the violin. Though his eyes were sightless, his inner vision was fine - he became intensely interested in the Nordic roots of his islands' people. A stack of Viking-inspired verse, an adventure story titled The Viking Path, and the annual ship immolation speak eloquently of his life's work.

Although Up-Helly-Aa ends in a night of revelry, one mustn't think that it is just an excuse for a midwinter party. The nationalistic energy of which it is an expression is a real sentiment in the hearts of the Shetlanders, and the sight of the burning torches and the crackling, shadowy-silhouetted Viking vessel has an appeal that is nothing less than archetypal. The fact that the latest form of the festival is hardly a century old does not disguise its unspoken religious essence.

Wotan's Kindred

A long way from the Shetland Islands, I watched a Viking ship burn in the night. The occasion was the 1995 Summer Solstice Celebration sponsored by Wotan's Kindred, of Camas, Washington. This was on a smaller scale than the Up-Helly-Aa immolation; in fact, you could call this a Viking boat rather than a Viking ship. Still, Ike and Glen had done a fine job within the limits of time, money, and materials. When I first saw it, it was inside Reinhold's house. Its length, fourteen feet, looked quite imposing crammed into a space that normally would be occupied by dining room furniture. The dragon prow laughed at a secret joke - perhaps it had eaten the table and chairs? Balder, symbolized by a dummy, lay inside it. Runes hallowed the hull. There was no sign of a mast or sail, because these would not be needed on its short journey.

That evening, in a black sky ungraced by moon or city lights, we pushed the ship - for now it seems a ship, and not at all a boat, in my mind's eye - out onto the pond where the celebration had been held. The diesel-soaked straw in the bottom of the boat caught, then the tongues of fire licked higher. Music had been planned for this gala, but it had been canceled, and rightly so; a hush descended over our small group as the boat burned. Most of us didn't speak at all. One or two noisy individuals were quickly silenced by friends. We stood there in the near-dark, watching and thinking. I found myself turning inward, with my thoughts dwelling with the Gods, and with our ancestors. This introspective mood caught me off guard, but I went with it, and it carried me far on the wings of spirit - much, I suppose, as the burning ship carries the soul of the dead to the Other World. Hardly a word was spoken until the last flicker merged into the night.

Looking back on the experience, I was again surprised at the intensity of the emotions, the feeling of connection with our Folk and with our gods, that characterized those fifteen or so minutes. I can rationalize it, of course, as a mild state of hypnosis induced by the flickering light and the lack of a solid frame of reference in the dark. But does that invalidate the religious feelings that swept over me? I think not.

There is something about both the idea and the reality of a burning Viking ship that grasps the Nordic mind. For thousands of years this motif has fascinated us, filling our myths and our dreams, inspiring our playwrights and our skalds. But more than that, it clutches the spirit of all of us fortunate enough to experience it. From the Volga to Norway, from the Shetlands to Washington, it glows -timelessly, powerfully - within the soul of people.


Enjoy folk :)