Sunday, 11 October 2015

The Religion of the Rus – Viking Heathens

Artist: Vsevolod Ivanov. Source:
In the early 10th century a devout Muslim diplomat was sent by the powerful Abbasid Caliph to teach the intricacies of Islam to a king of the Volga Bulghars, deep inside Russia, who had recently converted – possibly so he could enlist the help of the Caliphate in his struggles to defend his kingdom against the nearby Jewish Khazars. This Arab traveller is now commonly known as Ibn Fadlan and he has become famous for his account of the polytheistic peoples he encountered on his journey, especially the Turks and the Rus – both peoples would, respectively, become Islamic and Christian within a century or so of his account. The Rus were (most scholars believe) originally Vikings who, over a roughly 200 year period, assimilated with the Slavs of Russia and gave their name to that great nation. The 12th century Russian Primary Chronicle is the primary source for this assertion. We also have corroborating evidence from, inter alia, another Muslim called Ibn Rustah, a Persian scholar who authored an encyclopedia that was completed in 913 – his entry relating to the Rus is thought to derive from an anonymous source dating from the 860s, and in it he seems to suggest the Rus and the Slavs are distinct from each other when he writes:
“The Rus raid the Saqaliba [an Arabic term with multiple connotations, it can be used to specifically denote Slavs, or as a general term denoting northern Europeans], sailing in their ships until they come upon them. They take them captive and sell them in Khazarin and Bulkar [ie, to the Khazars and the Turks]. They have no cultivated fields and they live by pillaging the land of the Saqaliba.”*
Ibn Rustah then goes on to describe the Rus in a way that is entirely consistent with what we know of Vikings:
“They earn their living by trading in sable, grey squirrel and other furs. They sell them for silver coins which they set in belts and wear around their waists.
… The men wear gold bracelets. They treat their slaves well and dress them suitably, because for them they are an article of trade … 
If one of them has a quarrel with another, it is referred to the ruler, who settles it as he sees fit. If they do not agree with his settlement, he orders the difference to be settled by single combat …
They have great stamina and endurance. They never quit the battlefield without having slaughtered their enemy. They take the women and enslave them. They are remarkable for their size, their physique and their bravery. They fight best on shipboard, not on horseback [ibid at 126-127].”
There is also archeological evidence to suggest that Vikings were both active and prosperous in Russia, including the discovery of  hundreds of thousands of silver coins minted by the Abbasid caliphate in Sweden – most likely obtained via the Volga trade route. We also know that the majority of exploits recorded on Viking age rune stones relate to adventures in the east. One of the most impressive of these reads “He [Thorsteinn] died in battle, east in Russia; leader of the guard, best of landsmen”. Another tells of a Viking who “died in Novgorod in the church of Olafr”, which is to say Saint Olaf – the very fact that there was a church in Russia dedicated to a Norwegian saint suggests a permanent Scandinavian colony.**

Alternately, as a vocal minority of scholars believe, the Rus may have been an indigenous Slavic tribe. Either way, the Rus were northern European polytheists and Ibn Fadlan’s account of their religion is as precious for its rarity as it is illuminating. Regardless of whether the Rus were originally Germanic and gradually became Slavic, or they had always been Slavic, Cambridge scholar, Davidson, notes that the Rus death rites described by Ibn Fadlan are entirely consistent with what else we know of Odinic funeral customs,*** and so, even if the religion of the Rus had taken on Slavic elements by the time Ibn Fadlan encountered them (or was entirely Slavic), there is still plenty of relevance in terms of understanding pre-Christian northern European, if not specifically Germanic, religion. It may be worth pointing out that the study of Y-DNA Haplogroups reveals that, ethnically, Germanic and Slavic populations are closely related (both ethnicities are predominately R1 with a sizeable minority of I Haplogroups); it follows that their indigenous religious traditions inevitably share some common features.

Because a good translation of Ibn Fadlan’s account of Rus religion is hard to come by online I provide an extract of it below. It is entirely derived from Penguin Classics’ Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North, translated by Lunde and Stone. I do not provide the full account of the Rus as provided in this title and I note that this book does more than inform us about the culture of the Rus; it gives a snapshot of a world that is exotically different from our own. This is an age when polytheism dominated most of northern Europe and Asia; the greater part of Spain was Islamic; Turkey was Christian; ethnic Turks had not yet arrived in the country now named after them, and only a small number of them had yet converted to Islam; the Jewish Khazars were hugely powerful and most of central and south Asia still practiced polytheistic religions such as Buddhism (and we may note that one Viking age treasure discovered in Sweden famously includes a Buddhist statue). Ibn Fadlan gives us a taste of this lost world – a world in which the earth seems so much more vast, diverse and magical than the world we know today, even while it is redoubtably harsh and violent.

Ibn Fadlan describes the Rus, and a merchant's religiosity 
"Medieval Slavic Warior" by
Ibn Fadlan starts out by describing the Rus as being “fair and ruddy” and their men as being tall and covered in dark green tattoos from “the tips of his toes to his neck”. He describes them as “the filthiest of God’s creatures” due to their failing to wash after bodily functions, having sex and eating (as a devout Muslim from a hot climate Ibn Fadlan would have had a higher standard of hygiene than was commonly observed elsewhere). Though he notes that every day they wash their face and comb their hair. Ibn Fadlan tells us the Rus have their wives with them, and they are well decorated with jewellery. Regardless, the Rus men freely have sex with their slave-women in public with many people able to look on – the Rus he has encountered are principally slave traders, though we know that the Rus also traded in furs, honey, wax and amber. His account of their religion starts as follows:
“As soon as their boats arrive at this port, each of them disembarks, taking with him bread and meat, onions, milk and nabidh [a fermented drink that may be mildly alcoholic], and he walks until he comes to a great wooden post stuck in the ground with a face like that of a man, and around it are little figures. Behind these images there are long wooden stakes driven into the ground. Each of them prostrates himself before the great idol [this presumably represents Odin, the wandering Lord of cargoes and raids], saying to it: ‘Oh my Lord, I have come from a far country and I have with me such and such a number of young slave girls, and such and such a number of sables skins …’ and so on until he has listed all the trade goods he has brought. [Then he adds:] ‘I have brought you this gift.’ Then leaves what he has with him in front of the wooden post [and says:] ‘I would like you to do the favour of sending me a merchant who has large quantities of dinars [gold coins] and dirhams [silver coins] and who will buy everything that I want and not argue with me over my price.’ Then he departs.
If he has difficulty selling and his stay becomes long drawn out, he returns with another present a second and even a third time. If he cannot get what he wants, he brings a present for each of the little idols and asks them to intercede, saying: ‘These are the wives of our Lord and his daughters and sons.’ Thus he continues to make his request to each idol in turn, begging their intercession and abasing himself before them. Sometimes the sale is easy and after having sold his goods he says: ‘My Lord has satisfied my needs and it is fitting that I should reward him for it.’ Then he takes a certain number of sheep or cows and slaughters them, distributing part of the meat as gifts and carrying off the rest to set before the great idol and the little figures that surround it. Then he hangs the heads of the sheep or cows on the wooden stakes which have been driven into the ground. When the night falls, the dogs comes and eat all this, and the man who has made the offering says: ‘My Lord is pleased with me and has eaten the gift that I brought him’ [Lunde and Stone, Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North at 47-48].”

Ibn Fadlan’s account of the funeral rites of the Rus
Ibn Fadlan then describes that sick men are avoided by the Rus until they recover. If a sick man dies “they burn him. If he is a slave, they leave him where he is, and the dogs and birds of prey devour him” (ibid at 49). Ibn Fadlan then records that thieves are put to death by hanging and their bodies are left hanging on the tree. Ibn Fadlan’s famous account of what happens when a well respected man dies then begins:
“They placed him in his grave which they covered with a roof and they left him there for ten days, waiting while they finished cutting and sewing his garments.
If the dead man was poor, they build him a small boat and place him in it and set it on fire. If he was wealthy, they gather together his fortune and divide it into three parts, one for his family, one to have clothes cut out for him and another to have the nabidh prepared that they will drink on the day that his slave girl kills herself and is burned with her master. For they drink nabidh unrestrainedly, night and day, so that sometimes one of them dies with his wine cup in his hand. 
"Slavic girl" by
When a great man dies, the members of his family say to his slave girls and young slave boys: ‘Which of you will die with him?’ One of the them replies: ‘I will.’ Once they have spoken, it is irreversible and there is no turning back. If they wanted to change their mind, they would not be allowed to. Usually, it is the slave girls who offer to die.
When the man whom I mentioned above died, they said to his slave girls: ‘Who will die with him?’ One of them answered: ‘I will.’ They then appointed two young slave girls to watch over her and follow her everywhere she went, sometimes even washing her feet with their own hands.
Everyone busies himself about the dead man, cutting out clothes for him and preparing everything that he will need. Meanwhile the slave girl spends each day drinking and singing, happily and joyfully.
When the day came that the man was to be burned and the girl with him, I went to the river where his boat was anchored. I saw that they had drawn his boat up on to the shore and that four posts of khadank [either birch or maple] or other wood had been erected. Next they drew up the boat until it rested on this wooden construction 
Then they brought a bed and placed it on [the boat] and cushions of Byzantine silk brocade. Then came [an old woman whom they call] the ‘Angel of Death’ and she spread the bed with coverings we have just mentioned. She is in charge of sewing and arranging all these things, and it is she who kills the slave girls. I saw that she was a witch [or shaman], thick bodied and sinister.
When they came to the tomb of the dead man, they removed the earth from on top of the wood, and then the wood itself and they took out the dead man, wrapped in the garment in which he died. I saw that he had turned black because of the coldness of the country. They had put nabidh in the tomb with him, and fruit and a drum. They took all this out. The dead man did not smell bad and nothing about him had changed except his colour. They dressed him in trousers, socks, boots, a tunic and a brocade caftan with gold buttons. On his head, they placed a brocade cap covered with sable. Then they bore him into the pavilion on the boat and sat him on the mattress supported by cushions. Then they brought nabidh, fruit and basil which they placed near him. Next they carried in bread, meat and onions which they laid before him.
After that, they brought in a dog, which they cut in two and threw into the boat. Then they placed his weapons beside him. Next they took two horses and made them run until they were in lather, before hacking them to pieces with swords and throwing their flesh on to the boat. Then they brought two cows, which they also cut into pieces and threw them on to the boat. Finally they brought a cock and a hen, killed them and threw them on to the boat as well.
Meanwhile, the slave girl who wanted to be killed came and went, entering in turn each of the pavilions that had been built, and the master of each pavilion had intercourse with her, saying: ‘Tell your master that I only did this for your love of him.’
On Friday, when the time had come for the evening prayer [ie, Friday night], they led the slave girl towards something which they had constructed and which looked like the frame of a door. She placed her feet on the palms of the hands of the men, until she could look over the frame. She said some words and they let her down. They raised her a second time and she did as she had the first and then they set her down again. And a third time and she did as she had done the other two. Then they brought her a chicken. She cut off its head and tossed it away. Then they took the chicken and threw it on to the boat.
I asked the interpreter what she had been doing. He replied: ‘The first time they lifted her she said: [‘”There I see my father and my mother”’] ‘The second time, she said: ‘”There [I see] all my dead relatives [sitting].” ‘And the third time she said: ‘”There [I see my master sitting in] Paradise and [Paradise is green and beautiful.] Take [me to him.”’ They went off with her] towards the boat. She took off the two bracelets that she was wearing and gave them both to the old woman who is known as the [Angel of Death] who was to kill her. Then she stripped off her two anklets and gave them [to the two young girls who served her. They were the daughters] of the woman called the Angel of Death. Then the men lifted her on to the boat, but did not let her enter [the pavilion].
Next, men came with shields and staves. They handed the girl a cup of nabadh. She sang a song over it and drank. The interpreter translated what she was saying and explained that she was bidding all her female companions farewell. Then they gave her another cup. She took it and continued singing for a long time, while the old woman encouraged her to drink and then urged her to enter the pavilion and join her master.
I saw that the girl did not know what she was doing … the old woman seized her head, made her enter the pavilion and went in with her. The men began to bang on their shields with staves, to drown her cries, so that the other slave girls [would not be frightened] and try to avoid dying with their masters. Next, six men entered the pavilion and [lay with] the girl, one after another, after which they laid her beside her master. Two seized her feet and two others her hands. The old woman called the Angel of Death came and put a cord round her neck in such a way that the two ends went in opposite directions. She gave the ends to two of the men, so they could pull on them. Then she herself approached the girl holding in her hand a dagger with a broad blade and [plunged it again and again between the girl’s rib], while the two men strangled her with the cord until she was dead. 
"Viking Galley Burning" by
Next, [the closest male relative of the dead man] came forward and [took a piece of wood] which he lit at a fire. He then walked backwards towards the boat, his face turned [towards the people] who were there, one hand holding the piece of flaming wood, the other covering his anus, for he was naked. Thus he set fire to the wood that had been set ready under the boat, [after which they placed the slave girl beside her master.] Then people came with wood and logs to burn, each holding a piece of a wood alight at one end, which they threw on to the wood. The fire enveloped the wood, [then the boat, then the tent,] the man, the girl and all that there was on the boat …
[One of the Rus was standing beside me] and I heard him speak to my interpreter. I asked the latter [what he had said.] He replied: ‘You Arabs are fools! … Because you put the men you love most, [and the most noble among you,] into the earth, and the earth and the worms and the insects eat them. But we burn them … in an instant, so that once and without delay they enter Paradise.’ Then he began to laugh in a very excessive way. I asked him why he was laughing and he said: ‘His Lord [presumably Odin], for love of him, has sent a wind that [will bear] him hence within the hour.’ And indeed, not an hour had passed before ship, wood, girl and master were not more than ashes and dust.
Next, at the place where this boat had been drawn out of the river, they build something like a round hill and in the middle they set up a great post of khadank wood, inscribed with the name of the man and that of the king of the Rus. Then they departed [ibid at 49-54].”

Other descriptions of the burial rites of the Rus 
There are also other accounts of the burial rites of the Rus (and the Saqaliba). In the 10th century Mas’udi, an  Arab who travelled widely, wrote:
“The Pagans who live in this country [of the Khazars] belong to many different races, among which are the Saqaliba and the Rus, who live in one of the two parts of the city. They burn their dead on pyres along with their horses, arms and equipment. When a man dies, his wife is burned alive with him but if the wife dies before her husband, the man does not suffer the same fate. If a man dies before marriage, he is given a posthumous wife. The women passionately want to be burned, because they believe they will enter paradise [ibid at 132].”
Also in the 10 century, the Persian Miskawayh, while describing a Caspian raid, wrote:
“When one of them [the Rus] died they buried him with his arms, clothes and equipment, along with his wife or another of his women, and his slave, if he happened to be fond of him, as was their custom. After they left, the Muslims dug up the graves and found a number of swords, which are in great demand to this day for their sharpness and excellence [ibid at 151].”
Another 10 century Persian, Istakhri, wrote:
“The Rus are a people who burn their dead. Slave girls are burned with the wealthy of their own volition [ibid at 159].”

Conclusions we can draw regarding northern European polytheism
There are valuable details embedded in the descriptions above of Rus (and Saqaliba, ie, Slavic or northern European) religion – aside from the most obvious fact that they include powerful accounts of human sacrifice (or a variation of suttee) – that I would like to highlight, they include:
  • The use of carved wooden images to portray their Gods.
  • That bread, meat, onions, milk and a mildly fermented drink that may be mead are traditional offerings to the Gods.
  • That when they prayed they made these relatively humble offerings before their images of the Gods, but when their prayers were answered they made more elaborate offerings (such as animal sacrifice).
  • That seeing an animal ingest the offering of meat to the Gods could be taken as a divine sign of its acceptance (presumably this means that had no animal come to devour the meat this signified that the offering had not been accepted).
  • That they prostrated before their Gods.
  • That cremation was preferred over burial – however it is known that some Vikings and Slavs did also inhume their dead in the earth. Amongst Vikings burial may have been associated with Freyr worship, while cremation was associated with Odin and Thor.
  • That ten days might pass before a dead man was cremated.
  • That when a man was cremated or buried things that might be of use to him in the afterlife were burnt or buried with his body. Even superior and valuable items might be burned or buried with him.
  • That it was thought that cremation fast tracked entry into a pleasant afterlife – this may partly explain the willingness of the slave girl to be killed and burned with her master (she may have thought that my joining her master like this she would have a better afterlife than she might otherwise anticipate).
One disturbing detail in Ibn Fadlan’s account relates to the slave girl having sexual intercourse with men loyal to her master before being killed to join him in the afterlife. I can think of only one plausible reason why this might have been done – perhaps by having their seed inside her she takes her master’s companions with her into the afterlife in some way, and so he is not alone. But this is just a guess. The full significance of the funeral rite is likely forever lost in the vanished world of the Rus.

*Lunde and Stone, Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North, Penguin Classics at 126.
** Page, Reading the Runes, University of Californina Press at 48-49.
*** Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin at 52; Davidson, Scandinavian Mythology, Paul Hamlyn at 44.

Note: as well as the books mentioned above, I also checked facts on

Written by M. Sentia Figula (aka Freki). Find me at neo polytheist and on Facebook.

No comments:

Post a Comment