Viking funeral - Norse pagan belief and traditions

4 minute read

Some of the norse pagan and viking traditions are often misunderstood or wrongly portrayed. One of them is the Viking funeral. Hollywood usually makes a scene when the dead body is placed on a longship, the longship is pushed out to the sea and archers set the ship on fire by shooting burning arrows. If such a tradition existed it would be very difficult to find archeological finds from it so we can not be sure. There are tough mentions of a burning ship burial out to sea in the sagas. One of them is the myth about Odin’s son, Balder’s funeral. So who knows, maybe it is true. Some say it is while others say it is not. However, there are archaeological finds from other types of graves that we know for sure were used during the Viking age. They are usually categorized into five different types of graves:

  • Burial mound - Wide-spread tradition in Europe to bury the dead in a burial mound. The higher social status - the larger burial mound
  • Boat burial - A burning ship with the dead body on, burned on land (or sent out to sea). The ship could also be placed into a burial mound. The “Oseberg Ship” is one example.
  • Chamber tombs - A chamber often built out of stones where the dead body is placed. The chamber is often covered with soil or stones. Viking age chamber tombs have been found in Birka for instance.
  • Stone setting - Stones placed in a pile to cover the dead body, a cairn. The cairn was often round in shape but could also be square, rectangular or triangular. 
  • Ship setting - The grave was surrounded by stones that were placed in the shape of a ship. Could be from a couple meters up to a couple of hundred meters. A ship setting that is at least 170 meter long, could possibly be 354 meter long (!) was found in Denmark.

Archeologists find both skeleton graves and graves where the body was cremated. The cremated ones are more difficult to examine but besides the dead body, a grave also contained grave goods which can give us clues about who the person was.

The afterlife

The norse pagans believed in reincarnation. This is written in old texts and is also told in the myths. Appian of Alexandria, a Greek historian, wrote in his texts in the 2nd century that a group of Germanic people, the Teutons, had no fear of death because they hoped to be reborn. In the Poetic edda we can read about rebirth in The Niflung Cycle, the poems Helgakviða Hundingsbana II and Helgakviða Hjörvarðssonar among others. Another one is the Olafs saga. Olaf Geirstad-Alfa, a petty king that was reborn 135 years later as Olaf II Haraldsson, king of Norway. 

In some graves a stone has been placed on the body and for long the theory was that this was done to evil people that the living didn't want to be haunted by. Another theory is that the stone enables reincarnation that the spirit goes into the stone which is later on taken out of the grave. If we combine these two theories we get a third one. That the stone was placed on the body in order to delay the reincarnation. Normally the rebirth is relatively quickly after death. But as in Olafs saga it was delayed by 135 years. Perhaps they had a way of doing this and the stone could be one of them.

Archeologists also agree that the norse pagan believed in reincarnation. This is because of the burial position that they found their bodies. Their legs are often drawn up to their chest in the same position as the fetus in the womb and a theory is that this is due to the belief in rebirth.

The sagas also tell us how dying men are asking that their future sons shall be given their names in hope of continuing their lives in the family. This has been a tradition in Scandinavia until just a few generations back, to pass on names, often giving the newborn the same names as their great-grandparents. This is suggested to be signs of the belief in reincarnation too.

Marks from the previous life

As we can read in the sagas, certain birthmarks are believed to be wounds from our previous life. In a saga called “Þórðar saga hreðu” we can read about Þórðr who dies from being wounded in the left arm. By that time his wife Helga was pregnant. After Þórðr’s death Helga gave birth to their son. Their son got a birthmark on his left arm, at the same place as his father got wounded. Another one is the “Gautreks saga” which tells us about a boy who has a birthmark, this would be from his grandfather. His grandfather got his arm torn off.

In the nordic folklore birthmarks are also called in Swedish “älvaeld”, which translates to elf-fire. Elfs are believed to be the spirit of our ancestors which explains why the birthmarks were called elf-fire.

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