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Women in the Viking age : death, life after death and burial customs

Dressed Viking woman at weaving - photo by Peter van der Sluijs
Dressed Viking woman at weaving – photo by Peter van der Sluijs

Women in the Viking age : death, life after death and burial customs

By Cristina Spatacean

Master’s Thesis, University of Oslo, 2006

Abstract: The focus of the present paper is on the Viking beliefs connected with death, life after death and burial customs in relation to women. It is neither a philological analysis of the written sources that we have at our disposal nor an archaeological analysis of the contemporary evidence. The paper is rather a mentality study of what people believed would happen to women after death.I start from a general presentation of death as understood during the Viking Age and then I continue by referring to the fate of women. I discuss such aspects as the possible death realms open to women after death, the existence and characteristics of the female revenants, the belief in rebirth, and the possibility of communicating with the dead. The last part of the thesis deals with the burial customs practiced in relation to the Viking women: the method of burial, the placement of grave goods, the significance of the ship burial, the raising of memorial stones etc. I finally come to the conclusion that even though women seem to have been quite important in the Viking Age, it is difficult to obtain a unitary picture of the Viking beliefs about death,life after death and burial customs regarding the Viking women.

Introduction: The following thesis is a mentality study focused on the Viking beliefs connected with death, life after death and burial customs in relation to women. My main interest is to find out if it is possible to get a unitary picture of beliefs concerned with the fate of the Viking women after death. The paper is divided into four chapters, the first one being meant as a theoretical background in which I present the previous research done in the field, the aim of the thesis, and the theories and methods that are going to be used. I also take into discussion the various types of sources that form the basis of my thesis and give a short presentation of the concept of Viking religion.

The second chapter is a general presentation of death as understood during the Viking Age. This part of my thesis is meant to explain how death was perceived by the Vikings; life did not end upon the physical death of a member of society but rather went on, either inside the grave or in one of the various death realms. I discuss such aspects as the grave, seen as residence of the dead, the characteristics of the various death realms, the belief in corporeal revenants, and the various customs practiced upon burial: treatment of the body, placement and orientation of the grave, the burial method etc. All these represent an introduction and a background for the analysis of the Viking beliefs in relation to women and their fate after death.

The third chapter starts with a discussion on the importance of women during the Viking Age. The purpose of such a discussion is to see if we should expect to find in the sources enough information regarding the fate of women after death. The whole chapter is focused on the evidence of the written sources concerning the possible death realms open to women after death, the existence of female revenants, the belief in rebirth, and the possibility of communicating with the dead.

The last chapter deals with burial customs as mirrored in the written sources and supplemented by the contemporary material evidence. I start by explaining what burial customs and rituals are, and then I discuss the information found in the sources about the various methods of burial practiced in relation to women, the placement of grave goods, the significance of the ship burial, the raising of memorial stones etc. I also talk about the evidence of the Oseberg burial and interpret it in the context of a story about death, life after death and burial customs. Last but not least, I sum up the information obtained and present it in the form of conclusions.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of Oslo

See also: Viking Women in the Isle of Man

See also: On the Trail of Viking Women



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