Anglo Saxon Living History: Part Two: Funeral Pyre / Boat Burial


Anglo Saxon Living History: Part Two: Funeral Pyre / Boat Burial


Set in the early part of the 6th century, the heroic epic, Beowulf, is an Old English poem set in Denmark and Sweden. Immediately, it grabs the reader’s attention with a poignant description of a sovereign ship burial, including the gifts and treasure laid upon it.  It then shifts to open a window into the probable life and experiences of a warrior king in those times, describing the ritual of the mead, the scald, and of the fate of all things.

“Lo, there do I see my father.

Lo, there do I see my mother,

and my sisters, and my brothers.

Lo, there do I see the line of my people,

Back to the beginning!

Lo, they do call to me.

They bid me take my place among them,

In the halls of Valhalla!

Where the brave may live forever!” [i]

These images example perfectly the 7th century helmet and shield style of ship burials in Vendel, Sweden. It may illustrate the peak of this type of demonstrative burial before conversion to Christianity generated a natural dwindling of such lavish, pagan practises. Valsgärde graves of this era often included small artefacts, (examples of exotic trade such as glassware, beads, silver coins, icons), and sacrificed animals, which may have been favoured companions above others used in hunting, guarding, riding etc.   Earlier burials mounds, most notable in Uppsala, were not boat burials; these occurred later and are confined largely to Norway, eastern Sweden and East Anglia.

Evidence from Sutton Hoo, a 7th century burial mound in England reveal comparable funeral practises, and almost identical grave goods stylistically to those found at Vendel in Sweden, though the latter are by no means as lavish.  Many other similar sites also feature boat burials within mounds or chambered tombs.



This contrasts somewhat with the boat-burning rituals said to have been favoured in later centuries by Scandinavians.  Although actual Royal Graves are extremely scarce, those discovered to date are all accompanied with sumptuous grave goods, a few of truly opulent style. Items generally included most of the following: domestic implements such as iron griddles, cauldrons, chain, drinking horns and plate, items of personal grooming, clothing, furs, woven textiles, musical instruments, jewellery, silver coin and weaponry. All are of incredible beauty and craftsmanship, decorated and inlaid with small jewels and precious metals.

The so-called “Buddha bucket” (Buddha-bøtte), a brass and cloisonné enamel ornament of a bucket (pail) handle in the shape of a figure sitting with crossed legs.

Recognising the perfect medium of exchange, the Nordic traders became quickly attracted to silver. Denied them as a natural resource in the northern climes, they followed the money trail across the Baltic, Caspian and Black seas, inland to the heart of the mercantile world, around modern day turkey and Iran.


This diverse region was also the centre of cultural, linguistic and religious studies, the focal point of Arabic trade and influence out into the western world.  By the end of the 9th century, the eastern regions around the Volga had amassed great wealth. In fact, throughout Scandinavia these fascinating explorations reaped many exotic items within burial finds, and modern day excavations.

Tumuli and Rune-stones were raised over stone and wooden ships as memorials to those they considered the most valorous. The finest of these may be found in Jelling and Lindholm Høje (Denmark); Birka (Sweden) and Borre (Norway).[ii]

Within these earthen mounds, an exceptional boat burial as described in the 6-7th century Anglo-Saxon site at Sutton Hoo, though extravagant, represents a common format within chambered tombs/mound burials, and bears striking resemblance to that described in Beowulf.

Intriguingly, however these grave goods suggest artistic motifs very much in common with Scandinavian styles of the same era, noted in the Norwegian ship burial at Oseburg. Reading within the literary epic Beowulf, we discover a tradition where sons of client kings, were typically reared by a higher king or relative, in order to ensure loyalty into the next generation.  The similarity of cultural design here may signify why Scandinavian objects and artistic motifs embellish the grave of a ranking Anglo-Saxon.

“Along the wall was a long square-sectioned whetstone, tapered at either end and carved with human faces on each side. A ring mount, topped by a bronze antlered stag figurine, was fixed to the upper end, possibly made to resemble a late Roman consular sceptre. The purpose of the sceptre has generated considerable debate and a number of theories, some of which point to the potential religious significance of the stag. South of the sceptre was an iron-bound wooden bucket, one of several in the grave.


In the south-west corner was a group of objects which may have been hung up, but when discovered, were compressed together. They included a Coptic or eastern Mediterranean bronze bowl with drop handles and figures of animals, found below a badly deformed six-stringed Anglo-Saxon lyre in a beaver-skin bag, of a Germanic type found in wealthy Anglo-Saxon and north European graves of this date. Uppermost was a large and exceptionally elaborate three-hooked hanging bowl of Insular production, with champleve enamel and millefiori mounts showing fine-line spiral ornament and red cross motifs and with an enamelled metal fish mounted to swivel on a pin within the bowl.” [iii]

In a later 10th account given by Ibn Fadlan who had encountered Varangians, a term used reserved specifically for Scandinavians traders and warriors whose movements were focussed largely across the middle- east and the Steppes. His commentary brings to life the wonderful and unique journey Ibn Fadlan shared and recorded as he accompanied them on a trading mission along the Volga. He describes them as ‘Rus,’ regardless of ethnic attribution (Norse, Slavic or otherwise) and the attribution is still disputed. It may possibly have derived from Rūsiyyah, or  from Ruosti, which may describe Sweden according to West Finnic language. Indeed, it may have even originated there.

We know that contemporary Byzantine and Arab writers and historians generally referred to Swedish and Norwegian traders as Rus, a term that also applied to those who settled in those lands, especially around the key ports of Novgorod and Kiev (Rūsiyyah), to become wealthy and influential princes there. Others aligned themselves to eastern, Byzantine princes as elite guards. [iv]



Ibn Fadlan’s journal in particular, confirms certain cultural characteristics apparent in other historical references afforded by several Arab merchants.  Their observations into patterns of behaviour exhibited by the Rus, were considerably at odds with their own; even so, what they were inclined to preserve offers a unique insight we might not otherwise have.  Most curious of all is a reference he makes to their appearance, which I believe has hitherto gone unnoticed.

“I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy,” he wrote. “Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife and keeps each by him at all times.” The men, he observed, were tattooed with dark-green figures “from fingernails to neck.” [v]

Aside from the obvious reflection upon the spirit of the forest, the animistic presence of viridios, poetically depicted everywhere from India to the fair isles of Albion, there is the added consideration of the impact this would have upon the Arab traders, with regard to al-Khidir, their own spirit of life and wisdom, virility and luck.Ibn Fadlan describes in detail how valour takes form to settle dispute.

“When two people among them quarrel and the dissention is prolonged and the king is unable to reconcile them, he commands that they fight with swords; he who wins is right.”[vi]

Also noted are religious practices, objects of worship, the role of shamen, of sacrifice and an elite priesthood. Amongst these writings, is a protracted observation of a chieftain’s funeral.  One contentious issue states that slaves (thralls) were sometimes sacrificed with their beloved masters. This practise may or may not have been common, or continuous within the same region. Comment upon it is scarce and evidence more so. Gifts that accompanied the dead in contra-distinction, were consistent and widespread, irrespective of whether the dead were buried within the earth, or flamed atop a pyre.

Instructions for the number of slaves to be sacrificed for the funeral of the hero Sigurd, are announced through the Valkyrie Brynhildr, noting attention as to their placement upon the funeral pyre.

Því at hánum fylgja

fimm ambáttir,

átta þjónar,

eðlum góðir,

fóstrman mitt

ok faðerni,

þat er Buðli gaf

barni sínu.


Bond-women five

shall follow him,

And eight of my thralls,

well-born are they,

Children with me,

and mine they were

As gifts that Budhli

his daughter gave.[vii]

During the ‘Viking era,’ it is alleged that a widow was occasionally sacrificed in similar form to the Indian practise of Suttee at her husband’s funeral.

Viking funerals were a costly demonstration of homage and social status of the deceased and of their descendants. As indeed were incarcerations within tumuli. Powerful Norse clans, for example, Yngling dynasty, generated an awesome visual impact across ‘monumental grave fields, in this instance,’ the Borre mound cemetery in Vestfold.

“Thus he (Odin) established by law that all dead men should be burned, and their belongings laid with them upon the pile, and the ashes be cast into the sea or buried in the earth. Thus, said he, every one will come to Valhalla with the riches he had with him upon the pile; and he would also enjoy whatever he himself had buried in the earth. For men of consequence a mound should be raised to their memory, and for all other warriors who had been distinguished for manhood a standing stone; which custom remained long after Odin’s time.”[viii]

Ibn Fadlan poignantly recalls such a pagan funeral – a boat burning ritual for which some historians of that era branded them as ‘fire-worshippers.’ Loaded with death gifts and symbols of wealth and status, the corpse was reverentially laid out in style upon a sea-worthy craft, cast upon the waters and finally torched some distance from the shore with flaming arrows.

My days/ have gone as fate willed, . . .

As I knew how, swearing no unholy oaths,

Seeking no lying wars. I can leave

This life happy; I can die, here,

Knowing the Lord of all life has never

Watched me wash my sword in blood

Born of my own family.” [ix]

“The dead chieftain was put in a temporary grave, which was covered for ten days until they had sewn new clothes for him. One of his thrall women volunteered to join him in the afterlife and she was guarded day and night, being given a great amount of intoxicating drinks while she sang happily. When the time had arrived for cremation, they pulled his long-ship ashore and put it on a platform of wood, and they made a bed for the dead chieftain on the ship. Thereafter, an old woman referred to as the “Angel of Death” put cushions on the bed. She was responsible for the ritual.

Then they disinterred the chieftain and gave him new clothes.”

The preparation for the funeral exacted gravid offerings from kith and kin.

“I am, …. I bring Furs to keep Aelfric warm.”

“I am, …. I bring meat and a bronze cooking pot, to feed Aelfric.”

“I am, …. I bring a bone comb and fine garments to keep Aelfric well groomed.”

“I am, …. I bring a fine sword that Aelfric ‘s status should be noted.”

“I am,…. I bring a swift spear, that Aelfric be armed.”

“I am,…. I bring a strong shield, that Aelfric be protected.”

“In his grave, he thus received intoxicating drinks, fruits, and a stringed instrument. The chieftain was put into his bed with all his weapons and grave offerings around him. Then they had two horses run themselves sweaty, cut them to pieces, and threw the meat into the ship. Finally, they sacrificed a hen and a cock.”

“Meanwhile, the thrall girl went from one tent to the other and had sexual intercourse with the men. Every man told her: “Tell your master that I did this because of my love to him.” In the afternoon, they moved the thrall girl to something that looked like a door frame, where she was lifted on the palms of the men three times. Every time, the girl told them what she saw.

The first time, she saw her father and mother.

The second time, she saw all her relatives;

And the third time she saw her master in the after-world.

There, it was green and beautiful and together with him.

She saw men and young boys. She saw that her master beckoned for her.

By using intoxicating drinks, they thought to put the thrall girl in an ecstatic trance that made her psychic and through the symbolic action with the door frame, she would then see into the realm of the dead. The same ritual also appears in the Icelandic short story ‘Völsa þáttr,’ where two pagan Norwegian men lift the lady of the household over a door frame to help her look into the otherworld.

Thereafter, the thrall girl was taken away to the ship. She removed her bracelets and gave them to the old woman. Thereafter she removed her finger rings and gave them to the old woman’s daughters, who had guarded her. Then they took her aboard the ship, but they did not allow her to enter the tent where the dead chieftain lay. The girl received several vessels of intoxicating drinks and she sang and bade her friends farewell.

Then the girl was pulled into the tent and the men started to beat on the shields so her screams could not be heard. Six men entered the tent to have intercourse with the girl, after which they forced her onto her master’s bed. Two men grabbed her hands, and two men her wrists. The angel of death put a rope around her neck and while two men pulled the rope, the old woman stabbed the girl between her ribs with a knife. ”

“Thereafter, the relatives of the dead chieftain arrived with a burning torch and set the ship aflame.”

Seven days after the burning, a funerary Symbel was held. Named ‘sjaund,’ it signified the sacred journey of the dead to the Halls of the Mighty Ones, and was loudly celebrated in great revelry as a ‘wake,’ a sacred event where all were required to bring honour to the dead with drinking and eating, toasting the empty High Seat, where he once sat. This separated the duties of relatives towards the head of that family or Clan, from those duties thereafter claimed as due, by succession of the former chieftain’s heirs, which in some cases was the widow or his daughter/s. The High Seat would once again be occupied.

“It is said that the fire facilitates the voyage to the realm of the dead. Afterwards, a round barrow was built over the ashes, and in the centre of the mound they erected a staff of birch wood, where they carved the names of the dead chieftain and his king. Then they departed in their ships”[x]

“The old man’s mouth was silent, spoke

No more, had said as much as it could;

 He would sleep in the fire, soon. His soul

Left his flesh, flew to glory.”  [xi]


[i] Michael Crichton’s 1976 novel ‘Eaters of the Dead ‘ sets the theme plundered from the account of a 10th century Arab explorer Ibn Fadlan,  into the Movie – ‘The Thirteenth Warrior.’  Michael Alexander, ‘Risen from Ashes’ – These beautiful poetical phrases are also adapted from Ibn Fadlan’s inspiring journal,.

[ii] Stone ships at the foot of Anundshög (Anund’s Mound) in Sweden. This was a Thing place and dates to between 210 – 540 CE

[iii] Wiki: Sutton Hoo


Interestingly, the very term Varangian (Old Norse: Væringjar; Greek: Βάραγγοι, or Varangoi) is open for etymological debate. Though most scholars tend to agree that it is derived from Old Norse væringi, which is a compound of vár ‘pledge or vow of fidelity’ and gengi ‘companion or fellowship’. Simply put, the term Varangian can be roughly translated to ‘sworn companion’ – which proved to be an apt categorization, as later history was witness to their glorious feats.

[v]  Judith Gabriel, a Norwegian-American journalist who writes about the Middle East and Scandinavia. She is a contributing editor of both the Los Angeles quarterly Al Jadid and the New York weekly Norway Times. This article appeared on pages 36-42 of the November/December 1999 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.

[vi] Gabriel. Op cit.

[vii]  Stanzas extracted from Sigurðarkviða hin skamma

[viii] Extract from Ynglinga Saga


[x] Stein & Montgomery at Wiki





Regia Anglorum  at

Thynghowe is a Viking Assembly site in Sherwood Forest and was used for gatherings and settling disputes.

Swedish History MuseumStockholm A drinking scene on an image stone from Gotland, Sweden, in the Swedish Museum of National Antiquitiesin Stockholm.


all images and photos from wiki commons except those of Regia Anglorum  enactment of a boat burial which are copyright of shani oates.

all text is my own except for stanzas and where quotations are employed.

~ by meanderingsofthemuse on July 11, 2017.

3 Responses to “Anglo Saxon Living History: Part Two: Funeral Pyre / Boat Burial”

  1. Interesting about the slaves being with the Chieftain / King, as with other earlier cultures… just shows how maybe these may have been passed down among the tribes /clans over a certain time period … Thanks for the article.:-)

  2. Yes, What is your name, I am doing a Precis on this piece for an English class and I need your first and last name! Please get back to me ASAP Thanks in advance! Cameron Ward!

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