Passage to the Outer World

How did our ancestors pass from this world to the next world loosely referred to as the Outer World? What were the funeral customs and how were the dead treated? These questions and many more will be answered as this series will be ongoing over several issues.

The information provided will be in part based on hard archaeology facts, lore and accounts of witnesses from that time period. Personal theories and hypothesis will not be included. One of the main sources for this series is The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature by Hilda Roderick Ellis M.A., PH.D. the issue of dates used will be for simplicity sake using the Montelius dating system

Oscar Montelius, created a complex dating system for providing relative dates for museum items that otherwise had no rigorous record associated with them. Using comparisons to other artifacts from the region Montelius created a time line specific to that region based on material remains. When used with historical written documents the objects could then be given a absolute date. Montelius further sub-divided the dating system created by Christian Jürgensen Thomsen; Montelius added four periods to Neolithic Period and the Bronze Age into three periods. His theories were later displaced by more complex views of cultural interaction and the invention of carbon dating; however his system of sub-divisions is still used.

Part 1 – The Grave Site “Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself eke soon wilt die;
but fair fame will fade never,
I ween, for him who wins it.

Cattle die and kinsmen die,
thyself eke soon wilt die;
one thing, I wot, will wither never:
the doom over each one dead.”

Hávamál – Hollander translation

I chose the passage from Hávamál because it so clearly states the obvious; that at some point death will come to our animals, someone we are related too or know and eventually death will come to us as the individual. In modern times there are limited options available to Heathens with regards to preparing the dead for the journey to the Outer World. Before the laws of Christian society dictated burial procedures to our ancestors they had a variety of options available to them some which were favorable for the time as with most ideas they are subjected to the popularity amongst the folk the most popular surviving in what becomes customs later to be found in archaeological digs that will give the world a glimpse of the world as it once was.

Some of the earliest archaeological grave finds of our ancestors comes from the beginning of the Bronze Age, where at this time burying numerous people in one grave was beginning to lose favor to individual graves, where the bodies in the individual graves were placed in a crouched position. It is not until the middle of the Early Bronze Age (Montelius II); devices such as coffins were used. These coffins were usually carved of stone or oak, even though inhumation was the main ritual, the grave normally at this time consisted of a stone cist with a barrow. Then in the later part of the Early Bronze Age Montelius Period III, there was an abrupt change, and in certain areas the move from burying the dead to cremation of the dead was made. The use of cremation for the passage of the dead lasted approximately 2,000 years in Scandinavia when Scandinavia was converted to Christianity.

The practice of cremation moved northward through Germany moving slowly it would replace the old practice of inhumation which was long the preferred burial method faded out by the Montelius Period III B. When cremation first occurred in the Montelius Period III A the burnt remains were being placed in a stone cist the length of a man. It was not until the later part of the Montelius Period that cremation became the universal rite and the changes at the grave site reflected this change as well as the stone cist shrank from the size of a man to a small stone cist big enough to hold the urn. This change also affected the size of the burial mounds when one was erected it was now smaller. There are even finds that show that in some cases the urns were placed inside the burrows of older existing graves and a move to burry the urns in flat graves have been found from the later part of the Early Bronze Age and onward through the Middle Bronze Age (Montelius IV onwards).

With the end of the Bronze Age the change from burial to cremation appeared to be complete; although some graves during the transition period between the Bronze and Iron ages proved to be exceptions to the norm. This exception shows that the practice in some areas was not completely abandoned or was reintroduced.

There are finds in Gotland that date to the Early Iron Age with unburned bodies in the graves, it is possible that this could be due to a Celtic influence; however the graves were never scientifically excavated so no definite conclusions can be made. Other late Bronze Age graves that contained unburned bodies have been found in Estonia on the Baltic Coast and the Billerbeck find in Pomerania, Germany. The most mysterious of all the graves are the ship graves in Gotland, some of which contained cremation and inhumation graves; the remains in the urn were placed in a stone cist / coffin placed in the grave which was then enclosed by a series of upright stones strategically placed in the form of a ship. The Gotland ship graves have been dated from the late Bronze Age to early Iron Age. The ship graves containing skeleton remains are dated to be later then the cremation graves. Gotland is not the only place that had this form of ship grave, there have been finds in Bornholm Denmark and Latvia dating back to the late Bronze Age, although evidence is not conclusive for this dating.

Despite the exceptions of some local customs cremations remained the norm though out the Iron Age. There are changes in how the remains of the deceased where handled. The bones once were removed from the remains of the funeral pyre after being burned. Once the bones were removed they were washed and placed in the urn. Now with the frequency that cremation was done grave goods were burned together with the body on the pyre, and all the remains mixed together are put into the urn with no attempt to separate the mass. Like the very method of cremation this practice of non-separation of grave goods from human remains came from Germany to Scandinavia through Bornholm. The next logical procession is of course to dispose of the use of any kind of urn. This was exactly what happened in Pomeranian Germany, where the graves consisted of nothing more then little heaps of remains with no signs of any urn to be found. Even later the remains were not even placed into a pile but scattered the remains of the pyre throughout the grave. Like previous trends the scattering of ashes was the adopted method in Bornholm by the second period of La Téne culture; also with this new trend came the norm bend or roll up weapons burned on the pyre before placing them in the grave with the dead.

During the Roman period starting in the 1st century A.D. even the far off Scandinavia was not untouched from the influence of the Roman Empire, the culture and fashions of the Romans can be seen in new influences with a return to burials for the dead. It is the idea of massive amounts of grave goods that the Romans passed on to Scandinavia; through the Roman practice of providing the deceased with everything necessary to have a magnificent feast, as shown with finds of cups, vessels and large stores of food and drink rather then the traditional grave goods of swords and shields that a warrior would need. The strongest influence of the Romans is seen in Denmark, which was more open to the influences of southern European cultures then Norway and Sweden. It is during this time that Danish funeral customs develop separately from the rest of Scandinavia. This is proven with the return to grave-mounds and memorial stones in Norway and Sweden while in Denmark remained mostly flat. Interestingly cremation however continued throughout the same period along side of inhumation.

With the onset of the Migration Period (ca. 400 – 600 A.D.) the differences between Denmark and the rest of Scandinavia became even clearer and more defined. In Norway and Sweden burial mounds became larger with the deceased laid out in full dress, weapons of the men used and the complete household equipment of the women placed beside them. One of the most impressive graves found from this time is a Vendal grave in Sweden. In this grave the line of chiefs has been buried for the most part in their ships consisting of a series of graves that seem to be begin in the 6th century and ending in the 10th century. Included in this find of graves are cremation graves that were not neglected, for the graves of the Kings of Old Uppsala are from this time period. Included among the ships are the possessions that are burned with the dead. The ship-funeral is found in both inhumation and cremation graves from around 500 A.D.

The arrival of the 7th century brought a tendency for simpler funeral customs, showing a possible Merovingian influence, where as in Denmark there was relatively no change in the customs. During the Viking Age in Norway and Sweden the more elaborate forms of funeral customs began to take hold; as the increase as now no longer was massive grave goods were not restricted to royalty; all people throughout the country were provided with not only personal items but rather all the familiar objects of daily life, resulted in the placement of farming tools, blacksmith tools, kitchen objects and all the necessary equipment needed for spinning and weaving as well as the work of the house were placed in the grave. All of these goods were further supplemented as horses and dogs were sacrificed to keep their owner company in the Outer World. Also during this period the development of elaborate ship-burials of Gokstad and Oseberg, will be covered in the next section of this series.

It is during the Viking Age that the move from the stone cist was made as the howe became the preferred method of interment for both inhumation and cremation. The howe is the Viking equivalent of a tomb. However this is not to say that stone cists were not still used, there are many finds of the same time period that used the stone cists method as there was another variation of a flat graves with no howe above the grave. Finds in east Norway from the Migration Period used wooden timber chambers a practice that continued into the Viking Age sometimes with or with out a howe; also in these graves was the difference in the arrangement of the dead, for some where placed sitting upright while others were not.

Cremation in Scandinavia continued until late in the Viking Age, however in Iceland which was settled at the end of the 9th century there has been no archeological evidence found to support cremation graves; despite this lack of cremation graves in Iceland one can not assume that the practice was no longer in use at this time. Funeral customs in Scandinavia varied greatly from region to region. Most of Denmark by the Viking Age practiced inhumation almost exclusively with the exception Jylland that contained a few cremation graves most likely from migrants from Norway and Sweden. Gotland by the Viking Age used inhumation as the main method of funeral rite where as in Öland there are equal numbers of graves with inhumation and cremation. However in Norway and Sweden the number of cremation graves dominates over the number of inhumation graves with the exception of Skĺne.

Engelstad’s 1926 study showed that the inland regions of Norway and Sweden cremation graves still held a majority in the 10th century, although the majority was dwindling away as the number of inhumation graves had increased quickly. By the 11th century the number of cremation and inhumation graves was the same, with the cremation graves only slightly maintaining a majority. As a whole the Viking Age was dominated by cremation with considerable differences being noted between the western costal and inland regions; where inhumation was being reintroduced to the costal regions where there is 107 cremation graves to 73 inhumation graves on the western coast versus 110 cremations to 20 inhumation graves in central Norway, according to Engelstad’s report.

Shetelig’s survey of the western region noticed a difference in the direction the bodies were pointed with the head to the north, however in the inland regions of Norway the arrangement of westward facing was used with the Christian orientation adopted in the 10th and 11th century. It is based upon this finding that Engelstad suggests that there must be two different cultures involved. Even though the western coast of Norway converted to Christianity before the inland areas, the large number of grave sites located on the western coast is heathen in nature as most positioned facing north. Part of the reasoning behind this is cremation was quickly fading out being surpassed by inhumation, which also explains the lack of cremation graves in Iceland, as Iceland was colonized by this time.

Cremation was done in Norway until the 11th century in Sweden cremation was performed until 10th century in the Russian settlements there are cemeteries where the transition from cremation to inhumation is clearly marked.

Ibn Fadlan an Arab wrote a detail account of the funeral he witnessed on the Volga in 921 CE. Fadlan describes the funeral of a Varangian chieftain how the deceased was not only given weapons as grave goods; food and domestic animals were also placed upon the ship with the chieftain. A young girl thought to be a servant was placed upon the ship with him and burned upon the ship with the chieftain and other grave goods. A burial mound was then erected over the ashes. Cremation continued in Scandinavia until Christianity had taken such a strong hold that inhumation was again the preferred method. Evidence from the 9th century shows that cremation in Norway and Iceland no longer played an essential part in heathenry; however this was not wide spread through Scandinavia as regions during the 9th century still viewed cremation as an import aspect of heathenry.

Almgren points out that is the richer and more prosperous areas of Scandinavia that quickly re-adopt inhumation on a large scale, which in part is due to the Christian influence exerted by southern European countries; showing that Scandinavia was feeling the affects of Christianity long before it arrived in the north.

Despite all the tools and information available the identification of Christian graves at the end of the Viking Age is rather difficult, as burial customs straddled between its heathen roots and the new religion; grave goods were still being placed in the grave with the recently converted as has been proved to be the case in Anglo-Saxon England. Akmgren also suggested that graves at Björkö, Sweden that are flat stone-lined graves in which the dead were found in coffins may be the first distinctively Christian interments.

The next change to occur in funeral rites happened at the beginning of the Iron Age, this is when preserving the residue of the pyre and burying it in the grave with no separation of grave goods from the remains of the deceased began to take place. At first this may seem to be disrespectful and careless however it may not be what it seems. By not separating the remains from the grave goods, the preservation of the complete pyre insured that nothing was accidentally overlooked and thrown away, thus insuring that the recently deceased would have no reason to come back and hurt the living.

“There is a custom among the Estonians that every tribe dead men shall be burned; and if a single bone be found unburned there, heavy atonement shall be made for it.” an account made from a traveler who was visiting King Alfred.

There is considerable doubt that a change in believes in Scandinavia is totally accountable for the reintroduction of inhumation during the Roman period. This reintroduction can be attributed more to the contact with southern cultures, which quickly gained ground as cremation no longer was representing definite ideas on the after-life. Regardless of the tug-o-war between cremation and inhumation both practices continued side by side with the exception of some local differences as seen in Norway.

The final change to occur that this series time frame will cover occurred in the Viking Age at a time very late in the Heathen period shown through the abrupt change in simplicity that was held for funeral rites in the 7th and 8th centuries now replaced with grave-goods for all people throughout Norway and Sweden. This change resulted in grave-goods being as complete as possible of everything from personal possessions, weapons, tools and household equipment as while as animals like horses and dogs were sacrificed resulting in funeral rites of a grand scale for not only all classes of people but both man and woman. It is possible that humans were sacrificed at the funeral rite but the accounts of such tales are hard to verify as being accurate.

Such grandness in funeral rites that suddenly went from simplistic to grand can be explained but a sudden increase in interest in the after-life which also resulted in making sure the dead is provided with everything they could possibly need on their journey through the Outer-World.

It is suggested by Shetelig that the Heathen Kings / Chieftains had a desire to emulate the funerals of Christian Merovingian kings, however if this were true it does not explain why there has been no finds in Denmark of graves with increased grave-goods as well as there seemed to be no restriction to royalty or the upper classes on Nordic society. This leaves the possibility that the need to leave grave-goods had become a necessity in Heathen thought. Another possibility is the influences upon Scandinavia through trading routes that went deep into Russia and that in the 10th century there is an eye witness account by Ibn Fadlan on the Volga that details a funeral rite weighed heavily by grave goods that it would have rivaled the Oseberg ship burial.

Fadlan recounts how a young woman was sacrificed at the funeral. What evidence is there that human sacrifice was performed by the Scandinavians and Germanic peoples? Returning to the Bronze Age with the find of King Björn’s Howe in Uppsala, Sweden there are the burnt remains of a man in a man length coffin made of wood. The coffin was found inside of a barrow, with the unburned bones of at least three adults one whom has been verified to have been a woman. The fact that a woman’s remains were found would suggest that this may have been a ritual suicide by a widow; this however does not explain why the bones of the three skeletons had been split length-wise with the marrow removed. Such an act would suggest cannibalism; it is an act that Scandinavians and Germanic people did not practice. The interment was dated from the grave-goods contained within to be from Period IV of the Bronze Age, but interestingly the remains of the man inside the coffin are from an earlier period. Another howe located at Seddin Brandenburg, Germany; the grave-goods from this howe also date back to Period IV-V of the Bronze Age. Found in this howe are the cremated remains of a man placed in a bronze urn, which was contained in an outer urn made of clay. There were two other clay urns that held the remains of two women; one between the age of 20 – 30 and the other women was younger then 20 years of age. Even more compelling evidence of human sacrifice was found in a peat bog at Vemmerlöv, Sweden. At the bog two artificial pools had been constructed and originally enclosed with sharpened stakes; within these pools many animal bones were found as well as bones belonging to four humans. Of the animal bones found only larger bones had been discovered suggesting that the rest of the animal had been consumed as a sacrificial meal. The human skeletons were not complete and were intermixed with the animal bones, highly suggesting that not only were the humans sacrificed but portions were consumed as well. No accurate date has been placed on the find, it is believed to pre-date the Iron Age which was determined from soil samples taken at the find, there are markings from metal weapons on the stakes which suggests that the site is not from the Neolithic period. Also discovered near the bog was Bronze Age rock carvings, which is the most likely time period that the bog was used.

Animal sacrifices on a large scale were discovered at the Vendal graves in Sweden; in the chieftains graves were numerous domesticated animals, horses, dogs, hawks and other birds.

by Noil


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