Viking Culture F23: Writing Assignment #2


You may or may not have read this eye-witness account of Ahmed Ibn Fadlan and his voyages along the Volga in AD 922. This is the most well-known passage describing the funeral of a Rus Chief. I have included a link in the citation (below) to a translation of Ibn Fadlan’s full description of the Rus.  

Read through the passage below and write a short paper of no more than 2 pages  answering the following questions:

  • What does this passage tell you about the Rus, who they were, and about different social statuses within society? 
  • What were Ibn Fadlan’s perceptions of these Eastern Vikings?
  • What do you think human sacrifice signified for the Vikings?

You may consult sources, but if you do, you must provide proper citations and a reference list, even if the sources are course readings and notes. You may cite web pages as sources, if you do so properly (taking care to use only reputable web sites posted by scholars, not re-enactors, etc.).

Ibn Fadlan along the Volga

Ibn Fadlan, Ahmad. Richard N. Frye, transl. Princeton, NJ: Markus Wiener. Pp. 632005. “The Rus.” From Ibn Fadlan’s Journey to Russia: A Tenth–71. ( Traveler from Baghdad to the Volga River. .ch01.pdf)

“They told me that they carry out many ceremonies when their chiefs die, the least whereof is the cremation, and it interested me to find out more about it. Finally the news was brought to me that a prominent man among them had died. They laid him in a grave, and covered it with a roof for ten days until they were through with the cutting out and sewing together of his garments. Thus it is; if [the dead] is poor they make a boat and place him in it and burn the boat. If he is a rich man, they gather his possessions together and divide them in three parts. One third remains for his family; with the second third they cut out garments for him, and with third part they brew mead for themselves, which they drink on the day when his slave girl kills herself and is cremated with her master. They drink the mead to insensibility, day and night. It often happens that one of them dies with his beaker in his hand.  

When a high chief dies, his family says to his slave girls and servants: “Which one of you wishes to die with him?” Then one of them answers: “I.” When he [or she] has said this he is bound. He can in no way be allowed to withdraw his word. If he wishes it, it is not permitted. For the most part, this self-sacrifice is made by the maidens.  

When the above-mentioned man had died, his relatives said to his slave girls: “Who will die with him?” Thereupon one of them answered: “I.” Then the relations of the deceased charged two girls to watch her and go with her wherever she went. Indeed they even washed her feet with their own hands. The relatives of the deceased then began to occupy themselves with the preparations for the funeral ceremonies, to have the garments cut out for him, and to prepare whatever was necessary. The slave girl meanwhile drank all day long and sang joyfully, and enjoyed herself in view of the future.  

When the day had come on which he and the maiden should be cremated, I put in an appearance at the river where his bark lay. I saw that this already had been hauled up on land. There were four props set up for the boat, of birch and other wood, and around the boat had been built a large structure like a large scaffold of wood. Then they hauled the ship further up, until it was placed inside this structure.  

The people then began to move hither and thither, and to speak words that I did not understand, while he was still lying in his grave, out of which they had not taken him. Then they brought a couch, placed it on the ship, and covered it with draperies of Byzantine brocade, and also with pillows of Byzantine brocade.  

Thereupon an old woman came, whom they call the angel of death, and spread the draperies mentioned over the couch. She had held the oversight over the sewing of the garments of the deceased and their completion. This old woman kills the girl. I saw that she was an old giantess, fat and grim to behold.  

When they came to his grave, they removed the earth from the timbers and raised the timbers, drew him forth in the same garment in which he had died, and I saw how he had turned black from the cold earth. I also noted that they had put in his grave mead, fruits, and a kind of mandolin. They now took all of these out of the grave. Naught had changed in the deceased apart from the color of his skin. They then dressed him in stockings, trousers, boots, [and] a tunic and cape of brocade with gold buttons. They put a cap of brocade and sable pelts upon him and carried him into the tent that had been erected on the boat. Here they placed him upon the quilts, propped him up with cushions, brought mead, fruits, and flowers, and laid these beside him. They also brought bread, meat, and onions, and strewed them before him. Then they brought a dog, cleft it in two halves, and laid it in the boat. Thereupon they brought all his weapons and laid them by his side. Then they took two horses, drove them until they perspired, then cleft both of them in twain with a sword and laid their flesh in the boat. Then they brought two cows, cut them in two likewise and laid them in the boat. Then they brought a cock and a hen, killed them and threw both into the ship. The maiden who wished to be put to death went here and there, and entered each of the tents where the head of each tent had intercourse with her saying: “Say to thy lord, I have done this out of love of thee.”  

On Friday in the afternoon they brought the maiden to a structure, which they had erected like a doorframe. She put both her feet on the palms of the men, and was lifted up onto this doorframe, and said her piece. Then they let her down again. Thereupon they put her up a second time. She repeated what she had done the first time, and then they let her down, and let her go up a third time. Again she did as she had done on the first two occasions. Then they gave her a hen. She cut off its head and cast it away. They took the hen and laid it in the boat. Thereupon I asked the interpreter what her actions meant. He said: “When they raised her up the first time, she said: ‘Behold, I see my father and mother’; the second time she said: ‘There I see all my deceased relatives sitting’; the third time she said: ‘There I behold my lord sitting in paradise, and paradise is fair and green, and around him are men and servants. He calls me; bring me to him.’”  

Then they led her to the boat. She took off the two armlets that she wore and gave them to the old woman whom they call the angel of death, who was to kill her. Then the slave girl took off two anklets that she had and gave them to the two maidens who had waited on her, and who were the daughters of the old woman known as the angel of death.  

Then the people lifted her onto the boat, but did not yet let her go into the tent. Hereupon came men with shields and staves and gave her a bowl of mead, whereupon she sang and drank it. The interpreter said to me: “With this she is bidding goodbye to her friends.” Then she was given another beaker. She took it and sang for a long time, while the old woman was urging her to finish the goblet, and to go into the tent where her lord lay.  

I saw then how disturbed she was. She wished to go into the tent, but put her head between the tent and the side of the boat. Then the old woman took her by the head, made her go into the tent, and also entered with her.  

Whereupon the men began to beat their shields with the staves so that her shrieks would not be heard, and the other maidens become terrified. Then six men went into the tent, and all had intercourse with the girl. Then they placed her beside her dead lord; two men seized her by the feet and two by the hands. Then the old woman placed a rope in which a bight had been made, and gave it to two of the men to pull at the two ends. Then the old woman came to her with a broad- bladed dagger and began to jab it into her ribs and pull it out again, and the two men strangled her until she was dead.  

After they had laid the maiden they had killed beside her master, wood for kindling the fire was prepared. The closest relative of the deceased approached, and took a piece of wood, kindled it and then walked backwards to the boat, keeping his face turned toward the spectators, holding the burning brand in one hand, and placing his other on his anus. He was naked and walked backwards until he reached the boat and set fire to the wood that had been prepared beneath the boat. Then the people came with kindling and other firewood, each having a brand burning at the end, and laid this stick in the pile of wood.

Fire then spread through the wood and spread to the kindling, the boat, the man, the maiden, and everything that was in the boat. A strong and violent wind sprang up through which the flames were fanned and greatly enhanced.  

A man of the Rusiya was standing beside me and I heard him talking to the interpreter, and

I asked what the Rus had said to him. The interpreter answered that he said: “They, the Arab communities, are stupid.” So I asked: “Why?” He said: “You go and cast into the earth the people whom you both love and honor most among men. Then the earth, creeping things, and worms devour them. We, however, let them burn for an instant, and accordingly he enters into paradise at once in that very hour,” and he burst into immoderate laughter.  

He said: “His Lord sent the wind for love of him, so that he may be snatched away in the course of an hour.” In fact an hour had not passed when boat, wood, maiden, and lord had turned to ashes and dust of ashes. Then they built on the site of the boat that they had hauled up out of the stream something like a rounded mound. In the middle of this they erected a great beam of birch wood, and wrote upon it the name of the man and the name of the king of the Rus, whereupon they departed.  

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