A Viking funeral conjures a very specific image in the popular imagination. A great boat loaded with gold and silver floats out into the bay, blazing in the evening gloom as a great warrior ascends to Valhalla.
Is any of that true though? The truth of Viking death and burial is much more complicated and far stranger but no less epic.
Where Did Vikings Go After Death?
Viking religion was much more complicated than pop culture leads the public to believe. While great warriors may go to Valhalla, it wasn’t the only place a good Viking may end up.
A dead Viking may also go to Hel, Folkvangr, the realm of Ran, or simply remain in their burial mound.
Ran took dead sailors drowned at sea, and many Norse remained in their burial homes, but the qualifications for Hel and Folkvangr are a little blurrier.
All this goes without discussing the complexities of Norse ghosts and the walking dead. There are stories of Viking Draugr, or ghosts, actually facing lawsuits by the living and showing up to face the court!
Did Vikings Really Burn Their Dead in Boats?
Although there is some evidence a few very high-ranking individuals were burned in their boats, many more were simply buried in them.
Still, a ship-grave was about as common to Vikings as a specialized memorial chapel is to modern Christian burials. A Viking was buried with everything they would need for the afterlife.
Not many Vikings needed an entire boat, especially compared to the needs of the living, and so very few earned a seafaring vessel in their grave goods. More often, Vikings had a ship-shaped burial mound.
It gave the dead an impression of a ship, and the community didn’t have to sacrifice one of their most valuable assets.
Although they weren’t burned at sea, most Vikings were cremated. Their ashes filled a ceremonial urn that went in their burial mound along with grave gifts and sacrifices.
Many other Vikings were buried whole. People we call Vikings came from several Scandinavian cultures, and there were differences in burial rites and funeral traditions.
Essentially all Vikings, however, were at least buried with the tools and wealth they would need in the next life, wherever that may be.
Common burial gifts included everyday items like pottery and good clothes alongside weapons and transportation. Much of what archeologists know about Vikings’ lives comes from their deaths.
Burials and Cremations
Sacrifice in Funerals
Cultures all over the world practiced ritual sacrifice to prepare individuals for the afterlife, and the Vikings took these preparations seriously.
The living had to sacrifice not only the dead’s gold, household goods, and best clothes, but frequently the deceased’s pets, horses, and favored servants during the funeral as well.
Slavery was a key part of Viking life, and many Viking burial mounds include ritually butchered men and women. These unfortunate servants escorted the dead into the great beyond.
Filling in the Blanks
Historians will probably never understand the Vikings as well as they’d like for one simple reason: The Vikings did not keep written records.
Information that doesn’t come from burial mounds stems from records and reports by Viking trading partners, raid victims, and heavily biased Christian missionaries, centuries after the height of the Viking golden age.
Although it probably wasn’t how they imagined changing the world after their deaths, it’s a good thing the Vikings were so prepared for the afterlife, because their graves are telling their stories today.