Our Guide to Viking Rituals

When they weren’t out on the high seas, the Vikings engaged in elaborate rituals – from complex burial rites to human sacrifice…

Viking Dead

THE VIKING DEAD

Despite scant written evidence, we have a pretty good idea of what the Norse seafarers would do with their dead. This is mainly thanks to archaeological digs, which reveal the burial rituals so important to Viking culture. Much like our own society, the dead were either buried or cremated. The latter would involve large pyres, which would take many hours to build, while the burials could be immensely ambitious affairs, sometimes involving entire ships.

One of the most famous of the Viking ship burials is the Oseberg ship, which was discovered in the early 20th Century, embedded within a mount in a farm in Norway. Thought to have been originally buried in the soil in the 9th Century, the ship contained two female skeletons - presumably women of high-ranking status in Viking culture, if the sheer wealth of "grave goods" is any indication.

The burial included numerous ornaments, as well as the remains of several horses, dogs and even cows, all of which had been buried alongside the humans. One particularly tantalizing question is whether one of the two women was actually sacrificed to accompany the other into the afterlife. This was an act the Vikings certainly weren't squeamish about...

HUMAN SACRIFICE

Did the Vikings really commit acts of human sacrifice? It's been a controversial question throughout history. One apparent witness from the Viking age, a clergyman called Thietmar of Merseburg, gave an ominous description of how the Norse warriors "offer to their gods 99 men and just as many horses, dogs and hens or hawks, for these should serve them in the kingdom of the dead".

For a long while, his writings, along with the very similar testimony of a monk called Adam of Bremen, were dismissed as Christian hatchet jobs, intended to denigrate and vilify the Vikings as bloodthirsty pagan savages. However, archaeological evidence does suggest human sacrifices were indeed performed - sometimes even involving children. There's also a famous account by Ahmad ibn Fadlan, a respected Islamic scholar who mingled with the Vikings, and who described the ritual around a Viking elder's death. It involved a slave girl being intoxicated, compelled to have sex with several men and then slaughtered with a dagger, so as to accompany her deceased master into the next life.

THE BLOOD EAGLE

Possibly the grisliest of alleged Viking rituals was the "Blood Eagle", which - according to certain accounts - was a particularly flamboyant form of ritualised killing, conducted as a bloody homage to the god Odin. According to legend, the Blood Eagle involved laying the enemy face down, then tearing his back open, hacking open the rib cage and pulling out the lungs to form grotesque "wings".

But was the Blood Eagle a genuine, historic ritual, or merely a juicy horror story of Viking folklore, depicted in the Old Norse sagas and then unfairly taken as literal truth by Christian scholars eager to see the Vikings in the worst light possible? Historians have disagreed on the question - some believe it definitely was real, others that it's pure fiction. The truth may even be somewhere in between, with a genuine murder ritual perhaps having been depicted in an exaggerated, more sensational way by chroniclers.

WARDING OFF THE UNDEAD

The Vikings also developed rituals to deal with their equivalent of "zombies". These creatures were known as draugar, and - like the zombies of contemporary Western pop culture - were reanimated corpses which stank of death and decay. However, unlike our modern-day zombies, these fearsome entities were also capable of changing form, passing through solid objects, haunt people's dreams and drive them insane.

To prevent the dead from turning into draugar, a ritual burial was required with the feet of the corpse impaled with needles to stop the undead creature from walking. Curiously, a pair of iron scissors was also to be placed on the corpse's chest, to prevent transformation from an ordinary corpse into a terrifying undead stalker.