Peter Jens Schjødt

Reflections on Old Norse Myths

Pernille Hermann, Jens Peter Schjødt, and Rasmus Tranum Kristensen, ed.


Review  by Hannah Burrows,
Department of English, University of Sydney

 Pernille Hermann, Jens-Peter Schjødt, and Rasmus Tranem Kristensen, eds, Reflections on Old Norse Myths (Studies in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia 1), Turnhout, Brepols, 2007; hardback; pp. xiv, 176.

This slim volume is the first in what promises to be an exciting, high-quality new series from Brepols publishers: Studies in Viking and Medieval Scandinavia. Reflections on Old Norse Myths stems from a symposium convened at the University of Aarhus in 2005, and comprises reworked versions of papers given there, together with supplementary articles by each of the three editors. As suggested by the title, the volume is broad in scope, and is consciously multi-disciplinary, aiming to gather together perspectives on Old Norse myths and mythology from various fields of study to allow an overview of current directions and developments in the area.

...Jens Peter Schjødt's second contribution to the volume [is] a reading of Ibn Fadlan's account of a Rus funeral alongside what can be pieced together about pagan Scandinavian rites from Old Norse sources and Saxo's story of Hadingus. Using Van Gennep's (1909) model of rites of passage as a framework, Schjødt argues that structural and semantic parallels between the accounts demonstrate that the pagan rituals of the Rus and the Scandinavians were aligned, implying that Ibn Fadlan's account should be taken seriously as a model for the reconstruction of pagan Nordic rites.

...Each of the papers found here is thought-provoking in its own right, but the volume is particularly welcome as a collection which covers a range of methodological approaches and a diversity of primary sources, both drawing to the fore little-studied material and bringing new insights to more familiar texts. It thus makes both a valuable introduction to work on Old Norse mythology for the relative newcomer, and a stimulating addition to the field for the more experienced.

An Excerpt:

"I shall not go into all the details but only give a brief summary of Ibn Fadlan's description, taking only some of the information significant to the argument into consideration.

The whole sequence is triggered by the death of the chieftain, and the first thing we learn about him is that he is separated from the living and placed in a provisional grave for ten days, which is nine nights in Scandinavian counting." What sort of rites are performed in this period with the chieftain as subject is not reported, but during these days it is obvious that he is separated from his old status but has not yet arrived at his new one in the realm of the dead. In chapter 88, the angle or view is shifted. Now, the dead chieftain is no longer the focus (the subject of the ritual), but the slave girl. Although it is obvious from the following rites that the slave has to be a woman, it seems from the general remarks that men also could volunteer. In that case, the whole ritual sequence would have had to be different.

We know, not from reliable written Old Norse sources, but from archaeological ones (e.g. the Oseberg grave), that slaves could be buried together with the noble person whose death is the focal point. It is worth mentioning here that the slave girl's status changes during the ritual, since the two slaves, whom Ibn Fadlan sees as guards, also have to wash her feet, something done only by servants of noble persons as we read in Helgakviða Hundingsbana II, 39. In other words, she has ritually been changed into the wife of the chieftain (cf. also Duczko 2004, 145-46), probably a reminiscence of widow burning, and she is thus sacrificed as a kind of substitute for the wife, whether she has already died or not (compare Sass and Warmind 1989, 42). We know from Ibn Rustah (Birkeland 1954, 17) that these sorts of things took place. This means that not only the chieftain goes through a passage from this world to the next, but also the slave girl changes her status in a two-step operation: first, she becomes symbolically the wife of the dead chieftain, and after that she too must go to the other world. We hear that she sings and drinks each day in this period, and although Ibn Fadlan does not see this as a rite, there is hardly any doubt that they have a ritual significance because of the ritual framework. We know that this was also the case in Scandinavia, where both sacred songs and drinking played an important role at different ritual occasions, as we see for instance in Hávamál 139.

9 'Nine' is a well-known sacred number in Old Norse religion. Its exact meaning (if it ever had one) is obscure, but it clearly signifies some kind of completeness (Schjødt 1988).

From chapter 89, Ibn Fadlan is almost entirely an eyewitness to the rites performed. It is obvious that a number of preparations have been made during the ten days. Posts have been raised, the ship has been brought ashore, some wooden constructions have been erected, and a bench is placed on the ship. All this must have taken place while the dead man was still in his grave. The last thing we hear before the corpse is brought to the ship is that an old woman named the 'angel of death'10 puts a blanket on the bench. In this connection, we are also told that the chieftain brought food and drink and some musical instruments with him in the provisional grave. It is all taken out, and the dead is dressed and put in a tent having been raised on the ship. In this tent the slave girl is killed and this must thus be seen as the ritual centre of the sequence. 11

In the following we get a description of objects that are brought to the dead on the ship: fruit and nabidh, which is probably some kind of alcoholic drink parallel to the mead known from Scandinavian sources. We cannot dwell on the different objects or on the other 'grave gifts'. Suffice it to say that many of the animals are known from graves in the North. The function of these gifts is not clear, but some of them (those that can be seen as 'pairs', e.g. the poultry, the oxen, and the horses) are likely to be understood as symbolizing the status of the deceased, also in the other world. In relation to the general symbolism and structure of the rites of passage, much more could be said, but because of the lack of sequential descriptions in the Norse sources, it is not possible to draw any parallels at a more specific level. We shall just state that these rites have the chieftain as the subject. These' sacrifices' are carried out for his sake.


 10 As is the case later on with the term 'paradise', this expression owes to Ibn Fadlan's interpreter who has not been able to find a better expression to be understood by an Arab. Concerning the problems with the interpreter and the languages he knew, see Arne 1941, 206. A priori, it seems most likely that the 'angel of death' is a kind of priestess with an affiniry to Hel, even if this chrhonic locality plays no role in the description.

11 There is no doubt that the rites taking place later in this tent cannot have been observed by either Ibn Fadlan or his interpreter. Nevertheless, he seems to know in a fairly precise way what was going on, and he must, therefore, have had some informants (perhaps the interpreter) who knew exactly what kind of activity was going on in a ritual of this kind.
This also applies to the acts of sexual intercourse between the slave girl and the men who are described as the 'Genossen der Verstorbenen' (Togan 1939, 93), which indicates that these men are chosen by ritual criteria. The intercourse is aimed at communication with the dead, since each of the men says that what he is doing is done out of love for the dead, or in Amin Razi's version as a friendly obligation. This combination of fertility symbolism and communication with the other world is known from several Nordic myths (e.g. the relation between Sigmundr and Signy in Völsunga saga, Freyja and Ottarr in Hyndluljóð, and others),12 in which a masculine subject from this world has a sexual relation to a feminine entity from the other world. However, the relation here is turned upside down, as the feminine actor from this world is the one who 'gets' something from masculine representatives of the other world, in that they are symbolic substitutes for the dead chieftain. This is in accordance with the 'logic' of the ritual, since the slave girl is the one about to go to another world, thus acquiring another status. In this way she is to be seen as an initiate, just as are the masculine subjects in the above mentioned myths. In this liminal situation we notice that in the ritual as well as in the myths a kind of sacred information in combination with sex is at stake. Chapter 90 begins with the rite of the 'door frame' in which she is lifted up three times by some men, each time uttering some words. First she says that she sees her father and mother, then her deceased relatives, and finally her master surrounded by young men.'? There is no doubt, th us, that she is looking into the other world expressed as a kind of paradise, beautiful and green. After that she takes a hen, decapitates it, and puts it in the ship. The symbolism here is not quite clear, but we may get some help by comparing it to Saxo's story of Hadingus. To this we shall return below.


12 See Schjødt forthcoming.

13 We must suspect that she is here talking as the wife of the dead chieftain, since it is not likely that the relatives of a slave were su pposed to dwell in a land of the dead of the Valholl type (cf. Sass
and Warmind 1989,42).

Then the slave girl is taken to the ship, where her arm rings and anklets are removed. The former is given to the angel of death and the latter to her daughters. There may be a connection here to the story of Baldr's funeral, where Baldr is given the ring Draupnir on the pyre, probably in order to secure some sort of return. The ring, however, has no power in the world of Hel, so it has to be returned. The same conception may be seen here: the slave girl will not return, so there is no point in her bringing the rings.

As she enters the ship, men with shields and staves offer her nabidb, over which she sings, and then she drinks it. Ibn Fadlan is told that in this way she says farewell to her friends. We do not know the words spoken, but there is no doubt that they should be seen as a ritual. After more singing and drinking she is taken into the tent on the ship. Again, she has sex with six men, perhaps the same as we were told about earlier. Finally she is killed through a combination of strangling and stabbing a combination that gives associations to the self-sacrifice of Oðinn on Yggdrasill, related in Hávamál 138-41, although the contexts are very different. After she has been placed beside the dead chieftain, the pyre is lit in a remarkable way. We are told that he who set the ship on fire is the closest relative to the deceased, and whether this is a son or not, it seems reasonable to draw the conclusion that he will be the new chieftain." The way he lights the fire becomes understandable only seen in a ritual-symbolic perspective. He approaches the ship, walking backwards, with a burning piece of wood in the one hand and the other hand on the back, I; and he is naked. This rite has been seen as apotropaeic (Strom 1961, 214; Sass and Warmind 1989,43), referring to the well-known fear of the dead, a kind offear that is also observed byIbn Fadlan (ch. 86). However, this is hardly enough in order to explain the rather peculiar way this man behaves. Folke Strom reminds us of the fear of the eyes of the dead, but since he is in the tent on the ship, this can hardly be the case. It is not probable either that the nakedness is caused by the fear of 'polluting' the clothes, since the six men who killed the girl were much closer to the dead and certainly not naked, which Ibn Fadlan would definitely have reported had this been the case. My proposal is that this strange rite is best explained in the light of initiation.

If the nakedness is seen as part of the rites of reintegration of that sequence having the new chieftain as its subject, it would be natural to see it as a symbolic expression of rebirth. And the other element in the description strengthens this proposal: his walking backwards with his face towards the living means that, even if he has to approach the dead in order to light the fire, he is on his way to this world - the world of the living. Thus, the symbolic birth as a chieftain is what is at stake in both the nakedness and in his turning his face away from the other world. Although Ibn Fadlan did not realize it, it is evident that this man has also gone through a rite of initiation, just like the dead chieftain and the slave girl. There is no doubt that many other rites have been performed in connection with the new chieftain, but apparently they have not been as spectacular as those related to the girl. Perhaps they have even been performed in secrecy, as is often the case with initiation rites, and as a consequence they were not observed by Ibn Fadlan.

14 Amin Razi speaks of two persons setting the ship on fire (Togan 1939, 96), but is not in any way explicit as to the way in which it is done. The symbolic logic in the following interpretation does not, however, suffer from the possibility that there were two men involved.

  I5 Or he has placed his hand over the anus (Sass and Warmind 1989, 43). Whether this observation by Ibn Fadlan should be seen as a conscious attempt to cover the bodily openings cannot be decided with any certainty.

After the lighting of the fire, the other Rus go to the fire with wooden staves, and a wind arises, which is later interpreted as if the master of the deceased has sent it. Finally a mound is raised with a piece of wood on which the name of the dead and that of the Rus king is inscribed.
It is apparent that the model of initiation possesses ahigh degree of explanatory value, and especially the acceptance that we are facing not one but three initiatory sequences makes, in my opinion, many details more understandable.

However, many of the ritual elements treated above are of a very general nature and do not help us much in deciding whether we are facing a ritual or some ritual structures performed in Scandinavia during the Viking Age. We have seen already that some features may be interpreted as reflecting elements from Scandinavian religion, although some of these are also of a general nature and may be explained by coincidence. Nevertheless, there are, in my opinion, elements that strongly indicate that the rituals described by Ibn Fadlan are based on beliefs and practices known from medieval texts, and in that way makes it worthwhile to try to interpret the rest of the acts in the same way, although as already mentioned many details will remain uncertain. Due to lack of space, I shall treat only three of these elements - three elements with differing degrees of cogency that will illustrate different ways of comparing.

The first element is the reference to 'paradise'. As the girl is lifted up over something that Ibn Fadlan compares to a door frame, she symbolically looks into the other world. As mentioned earlier, she sees her father and mother and other relatives, and finally her master surrounded by other men. The 'paradise' is beautiful and green. Now, the kind ofland of the dead as described here indeed reminds us of Valholl, especially because of the explicit reference to the youths and other men sitting together with her master. If we try to imagine how a Muslim would understand such a vision of Valholl, of the land of the dead, he would most certainly not hesitate to call it 'paradise', since it is not far from the description of his own 'land of the dead' and clearly connoted as a very positive place. In other words, if an Arab had to find a name for Valholl which his audience could understand, it would most likely be 'Paradise'.

One could maintain that most 'lands of the dead' could be described in such a way, and that it therefore does not say anything about a specifically Scandinavian conception, and this is partly true. However we must be aware of the context, in which we could hardly expect anything more. The picture of Valholl, with all the details related by Snorri in Gylfaginning, even if this were a genuine religious conception, would certainly not have been rendered to Ibn Fadlan.
The next two examples seem much more specific. The first one concerns the god whom the chieftain approaches after the funeral: his master, as it is said. The only thing we learn about him is that, when everything is over and the ship has been set on fire, one of the Rus says that the lord of the chieftain has sent the wind so that the fire will take him within an hour. Now, if we ask the simple questions of who is the god who invites the chieftains to his kingdom when they die and who is the god who rules over the wind, the answer is most certainly Oðinn if we compare to Snorri's description in Ynglinga saga 7. This combination of being god of the dead, having a specific relation to chieftains and other noble men, and also being god of the wind may not be unique, but the fact that these are the only functions of this god that are related suggests that Oðinn is in fact the lord of the Rus people. Imagining a funeral ritual in Scandinavia influenced by the concepts known from medieval texts, exactly these characteristics are likely to have been mentioned. Still, of course, there is no proof that Oðinn is the god of the Rus chieftain. But the final killing of the slave girl, cut by a knife and strangled, also makes it likely that there is some sort of relation to Oðinn.

The last example, however, has a detailed parallel in Scandinavian sources, and it seems to me that there is no possibility of explaining it away by referring to widespread phenomena of religions and rituals.

As mentioned, after the slave girl has been lifted up above the door frame, she takes a hen and cuts off its head, which she then throws away, whereas the men take the body of the hen and throw it into the ship. A semantic parallel to this, although structurally inverted, can be seen in Saxo's story of Hadingus (I, viii, 14). Here it is related how Hadingus was invited by a woman from the underworld, which is also the world of the dead, to join her in order to see where he would go after his death ('credo diis infernalibus ita destinaribus, ut in ea loca vivus adduceretur, qua: morienti petenda fuerant') (Olrik and Reder 1931,30) (I believe that the gods of the underworld had decided thus, because he should see, while he was still alive, the places he should go to after death). After having passed through a fog, he sees a sunny place with fresh grass. Then they arrive at a river in which different weapons are flowing, and over which there is a bridge. Having passed it, they see two armies (acies) fighting. These are people, the woman explains, who have died in battle and are doing the same as they did while they were still alive. Then they come to a wall which is difficult to cross, but the woman cuts the head off a rooster and throws it over the wall. The rooster crows proving that it is alive again. Without further information we are then told that Hadingus is back in his own world.

No doubt, there are important differences here between the episode recorded by Ibn Fadlan and the one told by Saxo. This goes first and foremost for the context. The former is about a ritual act, whereas the latter deals with a mythic or semi-mythic scenario. On the other hand, again, it is not surprising that symbolic structures in myths can be found also in rituals. But there are other differences too. Ibn Fadlan refers to a hen, whereas Saxo mentions a rooster; and secondly the slave girl and Hadingus, although both dealing with the world of the dead, come, so to speak, from different directions: Hadingus is in the realm of the dead, whereas the slave girl is still among the living." This means that the woman in Saxo throws the . head into the world of the living, crowing as a sign of life, whereas in Ibn Fadlan, the body of the hen is thrown into the world of the dead, that is, into the ship. Thus there is a series of inversions. In Ibn Fadlan, a woman is about to join the dead, a hen is decapitated and its body thrown into the world of the dead by some men, whereas in Saxo, a man is about to join the living, a rooster is decapitated and its head thrown into the world of the living by a woman.

All this means that, although the two episodes are very different, they are so in a systematic way. The ingredients are the same: a person about to go from one world to another, a decapitated poultry bird, the head remaining or thrown into the world of the living, or the body remaining or thrown into the world of the dead. In structuralism, such a systematic change of certain otherwise stable elements is called an inversion. This structural parallel, although in the form of an inversion, is so detailed that even if we are not ready to accept some of the other parallels pointed out above and also by other scholars, this parallel cannot be explained away by pointing to general features in religions all over the world or to coincidence. It shows beyond all reasonable doubt that the semantic universe on which the Rus people based their rituals must in certain ways have been, not necessarily exactly the same, but affiliated with the pagan one in Scandinavia such as it is described by Saxo.18
 17 It should be mentioned that Saxo's description of the world of the dead has many reminiscenses of Valholl too.
 18 I shall not try to do any sort of interpretation here. I do not doubt that much could be said that would fit in with other mythical sequences known from Scandinavia (e.g. the symbolism of head and body, which can be observed in the Mimir myth, the role of sexual activities in Ibn Fadlan, which could also be argued in Saxo (Schjødt forthcoming), the part played by Odinn both places, and others). This, however, would lead too far and perhaps weaken my basic argument, namely the structural inversion between the two texts.

To me, this is decisive. To demonstrate that there is a certain link between the Rus religious world view and that of the pagan Scandinavians, even down to minor details, forces us to investigate whether it is possible to create a model by which we can analyse also the rest of Ibn Fadlan's account in the light of what we know of the ideology of the Scandinavians. And although I cannot present the text in further detail, I should like to outline some guidelines along which such a model should be constructed.

As mentioned earlier, a funeral will always follow the structure outlined by van Gennep. This is also the structure of initiation, which often is viewed as a sort of ritual, but which at a more general level seems to be a deeply rooted ideological structure, expressing itself in myths and other narrative genres as well as in rituals. The basic characteristics of this structure are that it, on the horizontal level, follows the structure ofvan Gennep's model: that is, separation from an initial phase characterized by a lack of numinous knowledge, entrance into a liminal sphere during which this knowledge is obtained, and a return to the ordinary sphere, but now on a higher level, possessing the knowledge which is necessary for the new social and/or religious status. This change of status is in principle irreversible whether the subject is a member of a warrior band, a priest, a shaman, ete. On the vertical level, it is characteristic that the world of the initial and the final phases are opposite to the liminal one, because the liminal scenario is always constructed as another world. Thus, the basic structure of all religions, namely the consciousness of these two worlds, this world and the other world, and the commumcation between them, is at the heart of mrtranons as well as of as other ntuals: May get nearer to an otherworld in these situations than he does in ordinary life, which is, of course, characterized by the rational knowledge that every one in principle is able to learn. In rituals, and especially in initiations, however, the subject learns something about the 'other world' that is not obvious to ordinary persons: people who have not gone through an initiation.

Both rituals and myths with the same structure, consisting of communication between the two worlds, make use of symbolic representations that in principle can vary infinitely.