Death and funerary rites are inevitable parts of any society. In Viking society, these aspects can be broke into two major time periods: Pre-Viking age and Viking age. Within these two categories there are also two subcategories of Pre-Christian (or Pagan) and Post-Christian beliefs involving death and funerary rites.

Death of a viking warrior, by Charles Earnest Butler, 1909
Death of a viking warrior, by Charles Earnest Butler, 1909

Death and the Afterlife

Within Viking society the class system could determine what happened to a person after death. Their class system falls into two categories of elites and non-elite members. An elite person was often a noble, king or warrior, while a non-elite was usually a peasant, or even slave. The Vikings also believed strongly in the idea of a good death being necessary to enter into Valhalla or Fólkvangar. A warrior chosen for either of those two destinations would get the further honor of fighting during Ragnarök, the final battle of the gods and ultimately the end of the world.

A person who was considered wicked or died a dishonorable death, then that person was doomed for Hel or Neflheim (Dark World). According to the Norse creation myths found in Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda:
"Then Third said, 'Most important, he created man and gave him a living spirit that will never die, even if the body rots to dust or burns to ashes. All men who are righteous shall live and be with him in that place called Gimle [Valhalla] or Vingolf [Fólkvangar]. But evil men got to Hel and from there into Niflhel [Dark Hel], which is below the ninth world.'"[1]

Religion also determines what happens in the after life, and for Vikings this is where Pre-Christian ideals play a large role. Religion was more a matter of correct performance and observance of sacrifices, rituals, and festivals than of personal spirituality.[2] While Christianity has systems of set priesthoods according to domination, Pre-Christian Scandinavians did not. Rather than priests, it was the responsibility of the chieftain, or king in later periods, to ensure that the proper festivals were being observed at the correct times. Furthermore, while Christianity has the Bible as a set guideline for theological belief, Pre-Christian Scandinavians had no set text or rules due to their oral history traditions. This leads to vague ideas on what exactly happens in the afterlife, with closet consolidation of these beliefs coming from Sturluson's Prose Edda and the older Poetic Edda, which is a collection of eddic poetry. However, historians cannot take these text as purely accurate to Pre-Christian belief because of their being written by Christian educated elites. The sagas often mention life after death in spent in the company of dead kinsfolk inside the holy hill, or burial mound.[3]

The goddess Freyja, in the woods by Carl Emil Doepler (1824-1905).
The goddess Freyja, in the woods by Carl Emil Doepler (1824-1905).


The general belief that can be drawn from texts can be determined as heroic warriors were taken after death from battlefield by Valkyries, a host of female figures that decide warriors die in battle and which live, and will also serve them mead when they are not training for the events of Ragnarök. Half of the fallen are taken to the goddess Freyja's afterlife field of Fólkvangar [Warrior's Field], and the others are to well in the afterlife hall Valhalla, ruled over by the god Odin. Women, if they were good, could also be taken by Freyja.
"Odin is called All-Father, because he is father of all the gods. He is also called Father of the Slain [Val-Father], because all who fall in battle are his adopted sons. With them he mans Valhalla and Vingolf, and they are known as the Einherjar."[4]

"Folkvang is the ninth, and there Freyja arranges the choice of seats in the hall, half of the slain she chooses every day, and half Odin owns."[5]

If a person was not taken by Odin or Freyja, then they were headed for the dismal Hel, mostly likely because they were considered wicked or dishonorable. A good example of a person earning their way into Hel would be the death of the berserk Ljot in Egil's Saga. Ljot was a Swedish berserk warrior who used all of his strength and battle skills to extort Norwegian farmers of their property. The saga states after Egil has slain Ljot in a duel that: "Few people lamented Ljot's death for he had been a very violent man. His family was Swedish and he had no relatives in Norway, but he had gone there and made a fortune from dueling. He had killed many good farmers after challenging them for their farms and ancestral lands. This had made him exceptionally rich both in land and money."[6] Ljot's actions would be deemed dishonorable by Viking standards, since he always fought those weaker than him, and that would mean his spending eternity in Hel and he would miss the honor of fighting beside Odin in Ragnarök.

A final thought that has come in the historical research involving Viking belief was that the dead could also live on in their graves, which could account for the use of grave goods at many burial sites.[7]

Pre-Viking Age (Early Viking Age)

Before the Viking Age, it seems that cremation was the normal method of disposal of the dead in Scandinavia. The dead were cremated in their everyday clothes with a few grave goods. The remains would then be gathered and placed in a pottery urn and then either buried or scattered on the ground. The grave of the deceased would usually be marked by a pile of stones, sometimes in the shape of a ship because of the deep reverence and ties the Vikings shared with their ships and the sea. Later in the Viking Age a burial mound and sometimes an actual ship would be used as the grave marker.[8]

Grave goods indicate that people believed the afterlife would resemble their current life, and therefore objects useful in life were most often given, including some instances of food and drink. In this early period grave goods for men were often tools, broaches, and weapons. The weapons are mostly found in graves of those considered elites. For women, items inclosed often were jewellery and utensils used in everyday life.[9]

Viking Age

During the Viking Age burials became a little more elaborate and grew to include mound and ship burials. With the rise of Christianity, the fashion of burials would again change.

Early in the Viking Age, inhumation began being practiced in Denmark, Gotland, and Birka. Richer inhumations were of a "chamber grave" type. In the case of an elite this meant that the body was laid fully clothed in a timber-lined pit surrounded by grave goods, sometimes horses or even human sacrifices. A non-elite was more likely buried in a simple wooden coffin or birch-bark shroud. The later rise to Christianity would bring inhumation, without grave goods, back as the normal burial practice across Scandinavia by around c. 1000.[10]

Mound Burials

Mound burials became common during the Viking Age. These were common among elite and non-elite peoples. Egil's Saga provides a description of Egil's mound burial as follows:
"Later that autumn Egil fell ill, and the illness carried him off. When he was dead, Grim had him dressed in fine clothes and moved down to Tjaldaness where he had a burial mound built. Egil was laid there with his weapons and clothes."[11]

Grim's Mound is a well preserved round barrow situated adjacent to the Viking Way footpath at an elevation of 120m.
Grim's Mound is a well preserved round barrow situated adjacent to the Viking Way footpath at an elevation of 120m.

Non-elite mounds would often be smaller than those of elites, with fewer grave goods. In Old Uppsala in Sweden and Borre in Norway both have large grave-mounds presumably marking status and continuity of royal dynasties.[12] A prime example of mound burials from this period was excavated in Scandinavia (South Norway) and is called the Oseberg Mound. The site is notable for the richness used in the burial process, as well as the greatly preserved Oseburg ship.

The Oseberg Viking Ship at the Vikingship museum.
The Oseberg Viking Ship at the Vikingship museum.
The site houses the skeleton of two women, mostly like a queen and her maid, interred in a richly decorated Viking ship about twenty-one meters long. The grave goods inside consisted of utensils for housekeeping and cooking, beds and bed-linen, looms, pots and vessels, and objects of art. There is also a cart and sledge, thirteen horses, six dogs, and two oxen. There is also evidence of jewellery and others treasures believed to be taken by grave-robbers. This grave and others imply that the Viking viewed their dead as being sent on a symbolic journey to the next life.[13] The site can also be considered unique for its inclusion of a full ship in a woman's burial mound.

Ship Burials

Ship burials are where the deceased, in this case always an elite person, is laid to rest in their ship which is buried and then the site is outlined by stones. In Linholm Høje near Aalborg, there are large grave-fields with numerous stone settings. For ship burials it is rare for a non-elite to be buried with a ship and instead the outline of ship made with stones could be used.

Jelling rune stone, text side.
Jelling rune stone, text side.

In Demark, Harald Bluetooth has a monument with two huge mounds erected c. 960 at Jelling, a royal center of the time. It is built on top of an older ship setting, marking a break with earlier burial custom. Harald did convert to Christianity and had a church erected between the mounds. Excavations revealed that the chamber in the north mound was emptied soon after it was used for burial, and the skeleton of a man was interred in the choir of the wooden church. This suggests to historians that after Harald's baptism, he transferred his father Gorm to give him a proper Christian burial. There is a large rune-stone in front of the church, depicting a beast and crucifixion, and has an inscription recording that Harald erected it in memory of his father Gorm and mother Thyre, and that he himself "made the Danes Christian."[14] The Jelling monument is a sign of the religious change in Denmark during the Viking Age.

Some cases, such as the ship burials at Oseberg and Gokstad, the goods may have been intended more to impress the living with the wealth and status of the deceased family than to help the dead on their journey.[15]
  1. ^ Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. Translated by Jesse Byock. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2005: 12.
  2. ^ Haywood, John. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings. London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1995: 26.
  3. ^ Sawyer, Peter. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings. London: Oxford University Press, 2001: 216.
  4. ^ Sturluson, 31.
  5. ^ Larrington, Carolyne. The Poetic Edda. London: Oxford University Press, 2008: 53.
  6. ^ Somerville, Angus and R. Andrew McDonald, ed. "31. Berserkers and the Berserk Rage, (c) Egil Fights a Berserk," The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010: 168.
  7. ^ Haywood, 26.
  8. ^ Haywood, 27.
  9. ^ Sawyer, 216.
  10. ^ Haywood, 27.
  11. ^ Somerville, Angus and R. Andrew McDonald, ed. "78. Egil in Youth and Old Age, Egil in Old Age," The Viking Age: A Reader. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2010.
  12. ^

    Sawyer, 217.
  13. ^

    Sawyer, 217.
  14. ^

    Sawyer, 218.
  15. ^

    Haywood, 27.