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The Saxon & Norse Historical Funeral Rites

Updated: Aug 31, 2022

Funerals as a rite are preserved well in the Eddas, Sagas, Poems, and historical sources. Ibn Fadlan wrote of a Norse funeral amongst the Rus, the Prose Edda has Baldr’s funeral, and Beowulf has Beowulf’s funeral. Most of the funeral rites preserved are cremations, of these, three are ship cremations in, or on the edge of water. We have funerals in water, and funerals in burial mounds away from water. We also have historical examples of inhumation burials. In this blog, I will give several Saga and Poem passages of Heathen funerals. I will begin with the most famous Heathen funeral in historical literature: Beowulf's funeral from the poem Beowulf.

"Then the bairn of Weohstan bade command, hardy chief, to heroes many that owned their homesteads, hither to bring firewood from far o'er the folk they ruled for the famed-one's funeral. " Fire shall devour and wane flames feed on the fearless warrior who oft stood stout in the iron-shower, when, sped from the string, a storm of arrows shot o'er the shield-wall: the shaft held firm, featly feathered, followed the barb." And now the sage young son of Weohstan seven chose of the chieftain's thanes, the best he found that band within, and went with these warriors, one of eight, under hostile roof. In hand one bore a lighted torch and led the way. No lots they cast for keeping the hoard when once the warriors saw it in hall, altogether without a guardian, lying there lost. And little they mourned when they had hastily haled it out, dear-bought treasure! The dragon they cast, the worm, o'er the wall for the wave to take, and surges swallowed that shepherd of gems. Then the woven gold on a wain was laden countless quite! And the king was borne, hoary hero, to Hrones-Ness. THEN fashioned for him the folk of Geats firm on the earth a funeral-pile, and hung it with helmets and harness of war and breastplates bright, as the boon he asked; and they laid amid it the mighty chieftain, heroes mourning their master dear. Then on the hill that hugest of balefires the warriors wakened. Wood-smoke rose black over blaze, and blent was the roar of flame with weeping, till the fire had broken the frame of bones, hot at the heart. In heavy mood their misery moaned they, their master's death. Wailing her woe, the widow old, her hair upbound, for Béowulf's death sung in her sorrow, and said full oft she dreaded the doleful days to come, deaths now, and doom of battle, and shame. The smoke by the sky was devoured. The folk of the Weders fashioned there on the headland a barrow broad and high, by ocean-farers far descried: in ten days' time their toil had raised it, the battle-brave's beacon. Round brands of the pyre a wall they built, the worthiest ever that wit could prompt in their wisest men. They placed in the barrow that precious booty, the rounds and the rings they had reft erewhile, hardy heroes, from hoard in cave, trusting the ground with treasure of earls, gold in the earth, where ever it lies useless to men as of yore it was. Then about that barrow the battle-keen rode, atheling-born, a band of twelve, lament to make, to mourn their king, chant their dirge, and their chieftain honour. They praised his earlship, his acts of prowess worthily witnessed: and well it is that men their master-friend mightily laud, heartily love, when hence he goes from life in the body forlorn away." (Frances B. Grummere translation)

This funeral in Beowulf consisted of cremation and the burial of ashes in a mound. The account in Beowulf has a simple order to it:

1. Wiglaf made a speech.

2. Béowulf's men placed the grave goods on the pyre with the body.

3. Béowulf's queen sang a dirge.

4. The ashes of the body and gifts were put into the mound.

4. Once the mound was built twelve warriors circled the mound on horseback singing songs of praise for Béowulf.

There is debate on whether there was a wake first, where people could view the body, before cremation. This is a probability, though it is not (in fairness) attested in our sources. There was a Sumble for the dead several moons after the funeral/burial rites. The Laxdaela Saga, chapter 27, portrays the funeral Sumble of Hoskuld as a rather lavish affair, several moons after the funeral. Usually the feast after the burial, is the heirship sumble.

Ynglinga Saga chapter 22 mentions a Funeral Sumble: “King Agne had at the time the gold ornament which had belonged to Visbur.  He now married Skjalv, and she begged him to make burial sumble in honour of her father.  He invited a great many guests, and made a great feast.  He had become very celebrated by his expedition, and there was a great drinking match.”

Ynglinga Saga chapter 40 mentions an Heirship-Sumble: “Now when Ingjald took the dominions and the kingdom of his father, there were, as before said, many district-kings.  King Ingjald ordered a great feast to be prepared in Upsal, and intended at that feast to enter on his heritage after King Onund his father.  He had a large hall made ready for the occasion, one not less sumptuous, than that of Upsal; and this hall was called the Seven Kings Hall, and in it were seven high seats for kings.  Then King Ingjald sent men all through Sweden, and invited to his feast kings, earls, and other men of consequence.  To this heirship-sumble came King Algaut, his father-in-law; Yngvar king of Fjadryndaland, with histwo sons, Alf and Agnar; King Sporsnjall of Nerike; King Sighvat of Aattundaland: but Granmar king of Sodermanland did not come. Six kings were placed in the seats in the new hall; but one of the high seats which Ingjald had prepared was empty.  All the persons who had come got places in the new hall; but to his own court, and the rest of his people, he had appointed places at Upsal.  It was the custom at that time that he who gave an heirship-feast after kings or earls, and entered upon the heritage, should sit upon the footstool in front of the high seat, until the full bowl, which was called the Brage-beaker, was brought in.  Then he should stand up, take the Brage-beaker, make solemn vows to be afterwards fulfilled, and thereupon empty the beaker.  Then he should ascend the high seat which his father had occupied; and thus he came to the full heritage after his father. Now it was done so on this occasion.  When the full Brage-beaker came in, King Ingjald stood up, grasped a large bull's horn, and made a solemn vow to enlarge his dominions by one half, towards all the four corners of the world, or die; and thereupon pointed with the horn to the four quarters.  Now when the guests had become drunk towards evening King Ingjald told Svipdag's sons, Gautvid and Hylvid, to arm themselves and their men, as had before been settled; and accordingly they went out, and came up to the new hall, and set fire to it.  The hall was soon in a blaze, and the six kings, with all their people, were burned in it.  Those who tried to come out were killed.  Then King Ingjald laid all the dominions these kings had possessed under himself, and took scatt from them.”

The Funeral Rite

1. Preparation of the Body: The best clothes are put on the body, including the “Hellea shoes.”

2. The Wake.

3. The Funeral rite reconstructed from Béowulf:

a) The Eulogy or Minni: This is best done by a close friend or family member of the deceased. In all the surviving descriptions of Heathen funerals, none seem to indicate that a priest was present or even necessary. Historical Minnis typically state the person's date of birth, their parent's names, the names of survivors, and note major events such as marriage. They then go on to talk about accomplishments of the individual, or favorable personal traits.

b) Placement of grave goods: The heirs should then place anything they wished buried with the deceased by the coffin or in it. Ancient grave goods ranged from simple to elaborate. Regardless, they nearly always included a toiletry set, jewellery, and tools of the deceased's trade. Egil's Saga speaks of smiths being buried with smithing tools. Warriors were buried with their swords, spears, and shields. Women were often buried with spindles, and other items involved with house holding.

c) A dirge sang by a female relative.

d) The burial of the body or ashes or spreading of ashes: In the Béowulf account, it took ten days to build the mound. Today, it would not take nearly as long to bury a body, even if a mound were being built.

e) Songs of praise for the deceased done by people circling the grave.

4) The Funeral Feast (Blod & Sumble)

The Sumble should contain a the minni, which is the primary boast of the deceased given by the eldest and closest of the heirs. The Bragafull, which is an oath made on behalf of all the heirs by the eldest as the new head of the family. Once this is done, the eldest heir may step up to and sit in the High Seat of the deceased.

Old Saxon Heliand:

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