“Tall as date palms”: Arab meets Viking

Who: Ahmad ibn Fadlan, ambassador from Baghdad.

When: 10th century.

Where: Volga Bulgar region, now part of Russia.

Ahmad ibn Fadlan was sent from Baghdad in 921 to serve as the secretary to an ambassador from the Abbasid Caliph al-Muqtadir to the vassal-king of the Volga Bulgar. The people of this area originally came from Scandinavia and brought they Viking customs with them. They were known as the Rus, and the country they lived in eventually became Russia.

Viking not to scale

He seemed favourably impressed by the looks of the Rus:

I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Itil. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blond and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor kaftans, but the men wear a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free. Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife, and keeps each by him at all times. Each woman wears on either breast a box of iron, silver, copper, or gold; the value of the box indicates the wealth of the husband. Each box has a ring from which depends a knife. The women wear neck-rings of gold and silver. Their most prized ornaments are green glass beads. They string them as necklaces for their women.

However, coming from a place where regular washing was not just socially expected but also required by religion, he was disgusted by their hygiene:

They are the filthiest of God’s creatures. They have no modesty in defecation and urination, nor do they wash after pollution from orgasm, nor do they wash their hands after eating. Thus they are like wild asses….

Every day they must wash their faces and heads and this they do in the dirtiest and filthiest fashion possible: to wit, every morning a girl servant brings a great basin of water; she offers this to her master and he washes his hands and face and his hair — he washes it and combs it out with a comb in the water; then he blows his nose and spits into the basin. When he has finished, the servant carries the basin to the next person, who does likewise.

Nor was he a fan of their singing:

I never heard any more awful singing then the singing of the people in Schleswig. It is a groan that comes out of their throats, similar to the bark of the dogs but even more like a wild animal.

Perhaps most famously, Ibn Fadlan described a Viking funeral. He doesn’t offer too much commentary, allowing the vivid facts to speak for themselves.

Viking funeral

If he [the deceased] is rich, they collect his goods and divide them into three parts, one for his family, another to pay for his clothing, and a third for making intoxicating drink, which they drink until the day when his female slave will kill herself and be burned with her master. They stupify themselves by drinking this beer night and day; sometimes one of them dies cup in hand….

They dressed him [the dead man] in trousers, stockings, boots, a tunic, and caftan of brocade with gold buttons. They put a hat of brocade and fur on him. Then they carried him into the pavillion on the ship. They seated him on the mattress and propped him up with cushions. They brought intoxicating drink, fruits, and fragrant plants, which they put with him, then bread, meat, and onions, which they placed before him. Then they brought a dog, which they cut in two and put in the ship. Then they brought his weapons and placed them by his side. Then they took two horses, ran them until they sweated, then cut them to pieces with a sword and put them in the ship. Next they killed a rooster and a hen and threw them in.

He goes into much detail about the sacrificial girl. We’re told that she volunteered out of all the dead man’s slaves, although we’re not told what happened if no-one volunteered for this prestigious role. On the day of the funeral, the girl slave who wished to be killed went here and there and into each of their tents, and the master of each tent had sexual intercourse with her and said, “Tell your lord I have done this out of love for him.” She was led to a thing that they had made which resembled a door frame, and repeatedly raised and lowered as she called out that she saw her dead relatives and her master. Then she was brought to the ship by an old woman whom they call the Angel of Death where she was given an intoxicating drink. Men began to strike with the sticks on the shields so that her cries could not be heard when she was laid beside her master, where the old woman approached her with a broad-bladed dagger, which she plunged between her ribs repeatedly, and the men strangled her with the cord until she was dead.

Ibn Fadlan then describes the burning:

The closest relative of the dead man… took a piece of wood which he lighted at a fire, and walked backwards with the back of his head toward the boat and his face turned toward the people, with one hand holding the kindled stick and the other covering his anus, being completely naked, for the purpose of setting fire to the wood that had been made ready beneath the ship. Then the people came up with tinder and other fire wood, each holding a piece of wood of which he had set fire to an end and which he put into the pile of wood beneath the ship. Thereupon the flames engulfed the wood, then the ship, the pavillion, the man, the girl, and everything in the ship. A powerful, fearful wind began to blow so that the flames became fiercer and more intense.

One of the Rus was at my side and I heard him speak to the interpreter, who was present. I asked the interpreter what he said. He answered, “He said, ‘You Arabs are fools.’ ” “Why?” I asked him. He said, “You take the people who are most dear to you and whom you honor most and put them into the ground where insects and worms devour them. We burn him in a moment, so that he enters Paradise at once.”

If all this seems familiar, you may have read Michael Crighton’s novel, Eaters of the Dead, which presents a fictionalized account of Ibn Fadlan’s travels; the film adaptation, The 13th Warrior, starred Antonia Banderas. The TV series Vikings also drew on Ibn Fadlan’s accounts.

Ragnar Lothbrok: Vikings TV series

Further reading/viewing

Wikipedia article about Ahmad ibn Fadlan

Viking Lady on Ibn Fadlan’s account

Funeral scene from The 13th Warrior

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Images courtesy of http://imgkid.com/


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