Horse Burial in Scandinavia during the Viking Age



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To Valhalla by Horseback?


Horse Burial in Scandinavia during the Viking Age




A Master’s Thesis in Nordic Viking and Medieval Culture




Peter Shenk


The Center for Viking and Medieval Studies

The Faculty of Arts

University of Oslo

Fall 2002


Acknowledgments

I would like to sincerely thank my two advisors on this project, Christian Keller and Terje Gansum. Christian’s no-nonsense criticism was very helpful in keeping me honest, as much as I wanted to cut corners here and there. Terje was kind enough to step in at the last moment and bring new ideas and research to my attention.

I am deeply grateful to my father for his expert proofreading, valuable commentary and overall encouragement. It never hurts to have an English professor in the family.

I would also like to express my gratitude to my friends Bernard Vehmeyer and Wouter DeJong for their hospitality and support during my academically-oriented stay in Amsterdam.


Peter E. Shenk 11.11.02

Table of Contents

(adjust by +2)


Introduction…………………………………………………………………………………...1
Chapter 1: Survey of Past Research………………………………………………………....6

Chapter 2: The Horse Cult………………………………………………………………….11

2.1 The Horse Cult at Skedemosse………………………………………………...12

2.2 Stallions, Hangings, and the Number Nine…………………………………….15

2.3 The Bog Finds………………………………………………………………….18

Chapter 3: Horse & Ship…………………………………………………………………....20

3.1 Ship Graves…………………………………………………………………….20

3.2 The Horse and Ship in the Cult………………………………………………...22

3.3 The Swedish Boat-Graves……………………………………………………...23

3.4 The Norwegian Ship Burials…………………………………………………...29

3.4.1 Oseberg………………………………………………………………....30

3.4.2 Gokstad…………………………………………………………………42

3.4.3 Borre………………………………………………………………...….43

3.4.4 Tune…………………………………………………………………….45

3.4.5 Ship Burials from Western Norway……………………………………45

3.4.6 Summary of the Norwegian Material…………………………………..48

3.5 The Danish Ship Burials……………………………………………………….49

3.5.1 Hedeby………………………………………………………………….50

3.5.2 Ladby…………………………………………………………………...51

3.6 Horses, Ships & the Ideology of Kingship…………………………………….54

3.7 Horse-Ship Burials & the Afterlife…………………………………………….55

3.8 Ibn Fadlan’s Account of a Horse-Ship Funeral………………………………..56

Chapter 4: Horse & Man…………………………………………………………………...61

4.1 The Remarkable Find from Arninge…………………………………………...61

4.2 The 10th Century Horseman Graves……………………………………………63

4.3 The Impact of Christianity on Horse Burials…………………………………..67

4.4 The Chamber-Graves at Birka…………………………………………………68

4.5 Lindolm Høje—An Example of the Variation of Horse Burials………………73


Chapter 5: Horse Burial in Old Norse Literature………………………………………...75


5.1 Horse Burial as a Common Occurrence in the Sagas………………………….75

5.2 To Valhalla by Horseback, Not by Ship……………………………………….76

5.3 The Journey to Hel or the Underworld………………………………………...76

5.4 The Horse’s Role in the Burial Mound………………………………………...78

5.5 Frey and Horses in the Sagas…………………………………………………..79

5.6 Sleipnir as the Horse of Death…………………………………………………79



Conclusion…………………………………………………………………………………....80




List of Primary & Secondary Sources……………………………………...………………81



Introduction




The hundreds of horses found buried in graves throughout Scandinavia…suggest a close association between horses and death.”1

-Gabriel Turville-Petre

Horse burial had already been practiced for over a thousand years in Europe before it first reared its fiery head in Scandinavia during the Late Roman Iron Age.2 The custom of burying a horseman with his mount appears on the Continent from the Hallstatt period (800 BC - 600 BC) onwards.3 Accounts from Ancient Greece, for example, describe how horses were an important part of the funeral ceremony. At the funeral of Patroclus in the Iliad, Achilles slays four horses and hurls them onto the pyre in honor of his fallen comrade.4 Over the centuries, the custom enjoyed a rich history among the Celtic, Germanic, Slavic and Eurasian tribes alike. By the time it reached the North, the arrival of Christianity had begun to usher it out of practice in the rest of Europe. It was thus in Scandinavia that the horse burial tradition seems to have experienced its final flourish, so to speak. Not that it whimpered out and died entirely—for it also shows up now and then in post-Viking Age contexts. Horses were slaughtered at the funerals of King John of England in 1215 and Holy Roman emperor Karl IV in 1378 for example.5

There was surely a fundamental reason that horses were a popular grave good among European peoples. The compelling problem that faces us, however, is what this “close association between horses and death” might have been to the Vikings themselves. What motivations lay behind their particular practice of killing a horse and placing it in the grave? Was it indeed a gift to the fallen warrior so that he could make one last ride to the hall of the slain, Valhalla? Or was it rather a sacrifice to the Norse gods, for peace and prosperity in the wake of this death?

In order to examine this problem properly it is important that a coherent summary of the prominent archaeological finds of horse burials across Scandinavia is compiled. As will be shown in the next chapter, this is something that has not been the main focus of a paper before. I do not propose to present a comprehensive list of every last burial as in their entirety they are both eclectic and numerous, but instead will draw attention to some intriguing trends that may afford us a better overall understanding of the practice.



Approach

This is an interdisciplinary paper, so I will be utilizing both archaeological finds and written sources, leaning most heavily on the archaeology. The advantages that archaeological research offers to the study of horse burials are obvious as a grave is primarily an archaeological site and thus valuable empirical data concerning burial techniques, dating and the relation of the grave to the landscape is more than historical sources can offer. In the words of Hilda Ellis Davidson, "the grave is an incontrovertible witness; changes of custom, trivial or sweeping, the importance of funeral ritual in the disposal of the dead, the choice of goods to lay beside or destroy with the body—all these it preserves for us, as definite facts which cannot be questioned."6 Yet, precisely the fact that archaeology deals with objects rather than words provides for problems. Objects rarely impart any meaning about themselves.

In order to make archaeological finds reveal something about our topic of interest we are obliged to do what historians do—interpret. Besides, there is no guarantee—in fact, it is unlikely—that the archaeology would ever give us the ‘big picture’ since excavations only uncover snapshots—mere snippets—of history that themselves may only represent customs carried out by a select part of the population.

Thus we must look at the written material to provide us with the complex background that archaeology cannot. These can help explain the concepts or beliefs that lay behind artifacts. Without them, for example, little sense could be made of the belief system that preceded Christianity in Scandinavia. The two main sources for this ‘pagan’ religion are the Poetic Edda and Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda, and I will be discussing passages from these as well as a number of other sources connected to horses, horse burial and concepts of death throughout this paper. Concerning concepts of death, it is important to keep in mind, as Else Roesdahl writes, that “written sources tell of several realms of the dead, but these fragments are partly contradictory, so they give a very incomplete picture of pre-Christian concepts.”7 Also, we must consider the problem inherent in relying mainly on 13th century literature written by Christian Icelanders about mainland Scandinavia where the old faith had ceased to be practiced over two centuries before. On top of this, those who were literate at the time represented an elite part of society that most certainly would have had its own particular motivations and biases. This would further obscure the ‘big picture.’

In summary, it is easy to get caught up in looking for a one to one relationship between the archaeology and literature that in most cases is just not there. The best possibility, it seems, is that the two resemble each other enough that some qualified conclusions might be drawn.

The Symbolism of Grave Goods and the Ideology of Horse Burial



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