What is Ritual X: Funerals

Let us return to the examination of ritual. Our last case study examined the Communal/Recieving emphasis of a Naming Ceremony. This time I want to look at the Communal/Giving aspect, and to help us examine those elements, I want to turn our attention to Funerals.

When examining ritual forms, it is helpful to have multiple examples. During this essay, I will be examining the funeral account of Beowulf, and Ibn Fadlan's depiction of funeral rites by the Scanadanavian Rus in the late 8th Century. Beowulf is a fictionalized account of a funeral that supposedly occured in Western Scandinavia and was probably written down in the early 8th Century.1 Ibn Fadlan's account, brief as it is, is written from his travels among the bulgars and the Rus, scandinavians living in what is now Ukraine and Russia. The interesting thing is that both accounts contain certain elements in common.


The Funeral of Beowulf occurs at the very end of the poem, and takes place over the last 89 lines of the poem. It begins with Wiglaf addressing the crowded warriors, eulogizing Beowulf, announcing his death, and ordering the arrangements. He chooses 8 men, "7 Kings' Thanes" to carry the fallen King from the dragon's den. The rest dispose of the dragon's corpse, pushing it off a cliff and giving it to the waves — bringing to mind the bogging of votive gifts and the ritualized deposition of vanquished enemies as evidenced in places like Tollense and later in the bogs of Alken Enge in Denmark.

After the dragon is disposed of, the pall bearers remove the King's body and the treasure is removed from the den. The Geats then retreat to a cliffside, where they build a fire:

The Geatish People then built a pyre
on that high ground no mean thing
hung with helmets strong battle boards
bright coats of mail as he had requested
then they laid high in the center
their famous king their beloved lord 2

The grave goods are particular to the station of Beowulf as a King. Helmets, shields, and coats of mail would be necessary for a King to maintain his position in the afterlife, and outfit the men who would follow him as his warriors.

  Then on that headland
the great fire was wakened. The woodsmoke climbed up
black above the flames the roaring one danced
encircled by wailing the wind died away
until the fire had broken that bone house
had burned to the heart3

In Germanic society, fire is purifier, it sanctifies. Land is ringed in fire to take posession of it. The apportioned pieces dedicated to the Gods are given over to the flames and they are transformed by them. And so too are the cremated remains of the dead turned into something else, the bones transformed and calcified by fire into the cream color of the dead4.

  a Geatish woman
hair bound up [wove] a grief song
the Lament [for Beowulf] Over and over
[she said] that she feared [the attacks of raiders]
many slaughters there terror of troops
shame and captivity.5

The lament for Beowuf is really interesting in the content. The Geatish woman is singing about the loss of Beowulf, but not to the Geats, but rather to Beowulf. The lament is specifically designed to remind Beowulf that even though he is dead, he is still very much needed to remain with his folk. The references to the dangerous and degredations that they will face without him is exactly the kind of appeal to strength that a person may make in order to get another to do as they want. Immediately after the bones are prepared, and the corruptible flesh is purified in flames, must be a dangerous time for the dead, as they are just coming into their new selves. The Lament is an anchor of sorts, for as Beowulf's soul is becoming acquainted with the powers and life in the mound, he may become preoccupied with that new experience and forget the lives he left behind. The Lament is here to remind him of his relationships and to keep him close.

Beowulf's men spend ten days building a barrow for him. The Dragon's horde is deposited in his barrow, where it remains "to this day". The barrow was then sealed:

  then round the barrow
twelve nobles rode war-brave princes.
They wanted to mourn their king in their [grief]
to weave a lay and speak about the man
they honored his nobility and deeds of courage6

Everything that happens in this narrative is designed to turn the physical, material loss of a member of the tribe into a immaterial gain. The dead have powers that affect the mægen of the tribe. They can withhold it, either through malice or just plan non-interest. The Funeral is very much emphasising the gifting aspects, placing the recently dead into debt to the living, and reminding them that they are still honored and beloved members, keeping them involved in the matters of the tribe.

Let us now take a look eastward, at what Ibn Fadlan has to say about the Rus.

Ibn Fadlan and the Rus

In the funeral of a wealthy man, according to Ibn Fadlan, the decedant's fortune is gathered. 1/3 is given over to the family. 1/3 goes to crafting of funeral garments. The final third goes to the brewing of fermented drink (and probably the rest of the festivities as well). The sheer pagentry and theater described by Ibn Fadlan is fantastic, lurid, and detailed. There is sacrifice — animal and human — elaborite gifts, including the tomb of the ship itself, hauled up out of the water and placed on pylons. It is presided over by a witch woman they call the "Angel of Death" who directs the course of the funerary rites and who makes the final sacrifice of the slave girl who is to accompany the dead man into paradise.

The entire preparations for the funeral take 10 days. In that time, the sacrifices are made, the slave undergoes ritualized sexual exploitation and intoxication, the bedding is sewn and the clothes are prepared, the wine procured / brewed for all the proceedings. After the clothes are ready, the body is disinterred from its temporary tomb, where he rested with a cup, a bowl, and gifts of food and drink. Then the slave is sacrificed and the entire ship is burned, with a mound erected over it.

While Ibn Fadlan spends a lot of time on the lurid details of sex and violence, and while I don't want to try and explain away those details or deemphasize them — the sacrifice of humans at least is in line with what I understand of ritual sacrifice: slaves were property and gifts to the dead man to serve him in the afterworld — the things that leapt out of me were the time it took to conduct the funeral, 10 days, and the use of cremation in the funerary rites. From Ibn Fadlan:

"You Arabs are fools!"
["Why is that?" I asked him.]
"Because you put the men you love most [and the most noble among you,] into the earth, and the earth and the worms and insects eat them. But we burn them [in the fire] in an instant, so that once and without delay they enter Paradise."
Then he began to laugh in a very excessive way. I asked him why he was laughing and he said:
"His lord, for the love of him, has sent a wind that [will bear] him hence within the hour."7

This passage coincides with the idea that I first came across when reading Marilyn Dunn's work on the Christianization of the Anglo Saxons, where she quotes Robert Herz in the idea that the time the dead journeys to the afterlife is dependant on the time it takes for the corruptible flesh to decay.8

In both accounts, we see many similarities. In the time it takes to prepare the funeral, in the method of body preparation, in the gifts that are given. Variation in the two accounts can be accounted for region and for time, and possibly for the idea that the Rus chieftan would be remaining behind rather than returning to his family.

Neil Price and the Viking Mind.

In his series of lectures at Cornell, Neil Price talks about the vast variance in graves in Norway during the viking age. Beyond the broad categories of cremation and inhumation, burials are incredibly varied9. This flies in the face of the analysis I present above, where we see a consistency of practice. This can be explained in one of three ways.
1. We are talking about Swedes and Swedish influenced practices. Beowulf was a Geat, a people who lived in what is now Sweden and a people deeply embedded with the formation of the Swedish Kingdom. The Rus were most likely Swedes as well. As Dr. Price states in his lecture, Sweden is a land almost uniformly of cremation, and could explain the similarity of the practice.
2. We are seeing a uniformity of King or Sacral Lordship cults. The Pyre, the grave good, the cremation and deposit is the result of tribal cult, where the variation of other graves elsewhere in could be the result of the variance in hearth cults. Funerals were very much, except in the idea of the king, hearth or family cult. Each family would have their own rituals and secret rites that makes them unique.
3. I am completely wrong and funerals mean something else entirely.
Personally, I believe the truth lies somewhere between option 1 and 2 (and perhaps even both). However, intellectual honesty requires that I admit to the possibility that 3 might also be true.


No matter what lessons we might draw from the archaeological evidence in regards to the meaning or specific rituals, the presence of grave goods and the elaborate manipulation of the corpse shows that exacting care was given to the presentation and interment of the dead. They were treated with that care because their physical presence, even in death, meant that they were still present in the life of the community. They have a part to play in that community and those relationships must be maintained. Relationships are defined through the gift cycle. We give materially to those beings who have no material agency any longer, and in turn, they give to us in the form of immaterial but no less important things. Their graves, and the bones within those graves, are the anchors for those immaterial things, but it is the immaterial mægen and ræd that are the primary channels through which the dead give to us in return for the gifts we bring to them in the form of food, and votive offerings.


  1. Tolkein was a proponent of the 8th century date, saying that the funerary rites are too specific to not have been written by someone familiar with Anglo-Saxon Heathenry. Tom Shippey defends it. I, too, believe that there is something authentic to the funeral account, as I explain above.

  2. Beowulf, lines 3138 - 3142. Chickering trans.

  3. Ibid, lines 3143 - 3148.

  4. For more on this, you can see the Heathen Talk episode with Brian Smith regarding Death and the Heathen soul.

  5. Beowulf, lines 3151 - 3155.

  6. Ibid, lines 3168 - 3172.

  7. Ibn Fadlan, Ahmed. Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness. Stone and Lunde, trans. Penguin, 2012. pp 49 - 54.

  8. Dunn, Marylin. The Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons, c.597 - c.700: Discourses on Life, Death and Afterlife. London: Continium, 2009. p9

  9. Price, Neil. Life and the Afterlife: Dealing with the Dead in the Viking Age. CornellCast. Available at CornellCast (about 11:40 in).

comments powered by Disqus