Sunday, 8 November 2015

Pagan Funeral Rites

I’ve heard it said that there is a spiritual lesson to be learnt in contemplating death, thus I attempt to summarise traditional Germanic, Celtic and Roman funerary practices below. 

Germanic funerary customs
The numerous Germanic burial mounds scattered across Europe appear to be connected to the worship of Vanir Deities (associated with fertility); they are the kinds of Gods that farmers and fishermen would have particularly revered, or indeed anyone to whom fertility was important. It seems that those inhumed in burial mounds were thought to live after death as spirits connected with the land. Davidson notes that there “seems to be some link between elves and the dead within the earth” (Scandinavian Mythology at 117). 

Another reasonably common feature of pre-Christian Germanic funeral practices involved the use of a wagon or a ship as a sort of coffin. This was the case for both men and women – it could be buried in the earth or burnt, and might, in the case of ship burials, be first pushed out into water. Both the wagon and the ship are Vanir symbols, and hence may represent life after death.

As with Celtic and Roman funeral rites, it seems to have been normal practice to burn or bury the dead with personal items, food and a fermented drink (presumably mead or ale), and animal sacrifice accompanied many funerals. 

Thor and Odin worshippers, who were oftentimes warriors, raiders and traders, tended to prefer cremation over inhumation. An Arab traveller who encountered Rus Vikings in the 10th century gave a famous account of a ship-burial involving cremation and a kind of suttee (voluntary sacrificial death of a woman to be burnt on the funeral pyre alongside her lover) during which one of the Rus said:
“‘You Arabs are fools! … Because you put the men you love most … 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, 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 [Lunde and Stone, Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travellers in the Far North at 54].”
For more on the funeral rites described by Ibn Fadlan see my post on The Religion of the Rus - Germanic and/or Slavic Polytheists (October, 2015).

Whether burned or buried, rune memorials might be carved in honour of the dead. Ibn Fadlan records that these could be inscribed in wood (with the name of the deceased man and his king) and placed in the middle of a burial mound built around the remains of the cremated dead, however these carvings are now lost to the archeological record. What remains are rune memorials carved in stone, which were not necessarily situated near the remains of the deceased. Most rune-stones were free-standing natural boulders and typically named the person or people who caused the carvings to be named as well as the name of the dead person honoured. Some lines about the kind of life the deceased lived might be included (eg, “journeyed boldly and made money among the Greeks”) as well as the manner of death  (eg, in battle, while a-viking or by drowning)

Celtic funerary customs

Bartlow burial mounds. Source:
The earliest Celts commonly buried their dead, alongside personal possessions, such as weapons, feasting gear, horse trappings, wagons and chariots, at least in the case of high ranking people in the community. Excarnation was also practiced, particularly in Britain; and we know that amongst Spanish Celts it was believed that when men died nobly in battle, and their bodies were left to be consumed by vultures, their spirits went straight to paradise. However, by the first century BCE cremation became most common. Cunliffe writes of this newfound preference for cremation:
“it is not apparent what caused it. It may be little more than the resurgence of a long established view of the spirit being released into the sky. An alternative possibility is that the custom was an emulation of Roman practice [Cunliffe B, The Ancient Celts, Penguin at 209].”
I have not come across any scholarly suggestions to this effect, but I tend to think that one reason cremation may have become popular is that it thwarted the efforts of grave robbers and thus ensured the funeral offerings stayed with the dead, where they belonged. It is almost certain that it was assumed that things burned with the dead would travel with the deceased to the afterlife, and that at least some of them would be given as offerings to the infernal Gods to facilitate the passage of the deceased from this world to the next (Green, Exploring the World of the Druids, Thames & Hudson at 30 and 68); compare this to the Roman practice of placing a coin in the mouth of the dead to pay Charon. Whatever the reasons, despite the shift from inhumation to cremation, Celtic funerals became no less elaborate than before, and cremated remains might still be placed within burial mounds. In the 1st century BCE Caesar recorded that:
“Gallic funerals are splendid and costly ... Everything the dead man is supposed to have been fond of, including even animals, is placed upon his pyre; and not long ago there were people still alive who could remember the time when slaves and retainers known to have been beloved by their masters were burnt with them at the conclusion of the funeral rites [Caesar, The Conquest of Gaul, Penguin Classics at 143].”
Roman funerary customs
Illustration of a columbarium by Kuhn (1913)
Much of what we know about ancient Roman funerary customs relate to the aristocratic dead. Lying in state, elaborate funeral processions – complete with chariots, hired musicians and professional mourners, the making of death masks, being laid to rest in a mausoleum, etc are more than most of us can expect. For ordinary Romans we know that their bodies would typically be either buried or cremated outside the walls of the city, alongside personal items such as jewellery, eating and drinking vessels, pottery, dice, toys, etc. Where they were wealthy enough to have tombstones it was not uncommon for the information inscribed thereon to include information about the deceased that would be offbeat by today's standards. A husband might praise his wife's virtues and list them, or a child's personality would be described, or the reader might be encouraged to live life to the full (“do not refrain from the pleasures of love”), or the deceased might proclaim his or her belief in the philosophical teachings of Epicurus (“I didn't exist, I did exist, I don't exist, I have no cares”). It was important to many Romans that they be afforded proper funeral rites, and we know that even people of modest wealth, including slaves, joined funeral clubs to ensure a decent funeral (yet many others died impecunious and were either buried in a mass grave or burnt at a public crematorium). This was not just about ensuring dignity after death, appropriate funeral rites were thought to improve one's prospects in the afterlife, including minimising the chance of departed spirits becoming lemures – malevolent spirits of the dead.

Professor Toynbee writes:

“All Roman funerary practice was influenced by two basic notions – first, that death brought pollution and demanded from the survivors acts of purification … secondly, that to leave a corpse unburied had unpleasant repercussions on the fate of the departed soul … 
When death was imminent relations and close friends gathered round the dying person’s bed to comfort and support him or her … The nearest relative present … closed the departed’s eyes … The next act was to take the body … and to wash it and anoint it. Then followed the dressing of the corpse … the laying of a wreath on its head, particularly in the case of a person who had earned one in life, and the placing of a coin in the mouth to pay the deceased’s fare in Charon’s barque …   
… the great majority of people in the Roman world were laid to rest in tombs of very varied types strung along the roads beyond the city gates [it was considered both sacrilegious and inauspicious to build a home and hence live near the place of the dead] … 
As regards inhumations, the poor were laid directly in the earth … the moderately well to do [were placed] in less elaborate sarcophagi … 
[As regards cremation, the] burning of the corpse, and of the couch on which it lay, took place either at the place in which the ashes were to be buried … or at a place specially reserved for cremations … The eyes of the corpse were opened when it was placed on the pyre, along with various gifts and some of the deceased’s personal possessions. Sometimes even pet animals were killed round the pyre to accompany the soul into the afterlife. The relatives and friends then called upon the dead by name for the last time: the pyre was kindled with torches; and after the corpse had been consumed the ashes were drenched with wine. The burnt bones and ashes of the body were collected by the relatives and placed in receptacles … According to their nature and the status of the dead whose remains they held, these receptacles could be either set up free standing inside … tombs, … or … placed in the niches and recesses in the walls of columbaria … or … they could be buried in the earth …  [Toynbee J, Death and Burial in the Roman World, Cornell University Press at 43-50]” 
Professor Scheid adds:
“In a ceremony observed by more or less all families, the bodies of the deceased were taken to a cemetery situated outside the city, stretching along the roads leading out of town and particularly clustering near the gates. At country houses, the cemetery was found at the boundary of the occupied land or at the side of a nearby road. The funeral rites were celebrated in the necropolis, in front of the tomb … After a period in archaic times when cremation was favoured, the prevailing fashion in the sixth century BC came to be burial. In the first century BC cremation again became widespread – before giving way to burial once more in the second half of the second century. These variations did not [seem to] depend on any particular shift in belief, but were somehow linked to developments within traditional practice … even in cases of cremation, it was still customary to bury what was left of the body, so that a tomb existed according to sacred law. All that changed was the destroying of the corpse … Sometimes that task was left to fire, sometimes to the earth …  
[The funeral ritual, which typically included the sacrifice of a pig or other animal victim, proclaimed the status of the dead as one of the Di Manes – protecting spirits of the dead] and the offerings made to the deceased and to his manes (wine, oil, perfumes) were burnt … on the pyre or in a fire next to the tomb. The relatives of the deceased did not share this meal, thereby marking the distance that now separated them from the dead … When the fire was extinguished, the bones and ashes were collected up, washed in wine, and placed in an urn, which was deposited in the tomb … 
During the period of mourning, the family of the dead person was considered ‘soiled’ (funestatus) and its members adopted a degraded and disheveled appearance. They wore dark clothes and stopped combing their hair and shaving … once funeral rites had been celebrated, the mourning family gradually returned to normal life … 
This set of rites varied from one period to another, and from one place to another … although the ritual was very similar for all families, particularly in the same period and the same region, it was never absolutely identical. Each paterfamilias decided for himself which customs to observe and, in doing so, would obey family traditions rather than prescriptions laid down by the priests … these rituals produced countless variants while remaining within the framework of a common tradition … [Scheid J, An Introduction to Roman Religion, Indiana University Press at 167-169]”
While ancient Romans practiced both burial and cremation, note that for people of especial note (such as emperors) cremation appears to have been an important element in the process of undergoing apotheosis. This seems to be because, along with the smoke from the funeral pyre, the spirit of the dead person was thought to rise to the celestial realm, where many of the greatest Gods reside. Cicero throws some light on this:
“all those who have protected or assisted the fatherland, or increased its greatness, have a special place reserved for them in heaven, where they may enjoy perpetual happiness … it is from heaven that the rulers and preservers of the cities come, and it is to heaven that they eventually return [Cicero, cited in Beard et al, Religions of Rome 2 at 220-221].”
Likewise, we know that Germanic (and Slavic) polytheists believed that cremation fast-tracked entry into paradise.

For an exploration of Roman attitudes to the afterlife see Roman Beliefs Regarding the Afterlife (February, 2014).

Beard M, North J and Price S, Religions of Rome: Volume 2: A Sourcebook, Cambridge 
Caesar J, The Conquest of Gaul, Penguin Classics 
Cunliffe B, The Ancient Celts, Penguin
Davidson H, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe, Penguin
Davidson H, Scandinavian Mythology, Paul Hamlyn
Green M, Exploring the World of the Druids, Thames & Hudson
Lunde and Stone (trans), Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness, Penguin Classics
Page R, Reading the Past: Runes, University of California Press
Scheid J, An Introduction to Roman Religion, Indiana University Press
Shelton J, As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History (2nd ed), Oxford
Toynbee J, Death and Burial in the Roman World, Cornell University Press
Warrior V, Roman Religion, Cambridge University Press

Written by M. Sentia Figula.
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