What can the writings of a traveller of the Caliphate tell us about the Rus, an elusive and largely invisible set of ‘Viking’ settlers in the east of Europe? Is his account to be taken seriously, or is it essentially a work of fiction? #ComissionsEarned (This post includes Amazon Affiliate links) – As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.
Ibn Fadlan, a tenth century writer from the Islamic Caliphate, provides us with an impressive account of his travels outside of the Caliphate. His account is broad and extensive, but it is most famous for its account of the Rus – a set of Scandinavian ‘Vikings‘ who appear to have settled in eastern Europe (and perhaps ultimately founded the state of Russia, although this is a deeply controversial topic). A modern edition of his writings, translated into English, can be found on Amazon here.
A ‘Viking’ Ship Burial
Ibn Fadlan’s account is incredibly evocative and, in its vivid depth, our best source on the practices of the otherwise incredibly unknown Rus (the further evidence for their society is examined below). Of his observations, the lurid and detailed account of a ‘Viking’ ship burial is particularly pressing. Indeed, if were to ask any individual on the street what their understanding of a Viking burial constitutes, chances are their answer will indirectly reference Ibn Fadlan’s account. The text recounts, at the death of an important individual, that a slave-girl will volunteer to die also. After the body is placed within a ship, there follows a set of animal sacrifices and ritual sex. In a set of prophetic actions, the slave-girls is lifted over a door-frame to see the dead. The rather ominously named ‘Angel of Death’, an apparent female overseer of the ceremony, then stabs the slave-girl to death, as a final human sacrifice. To top off the event, the ship and its contents are set ablaze (by, and this is of course important, a naked man deliberately obscuring his anus).
How we treat Ibn Fadlan’s account is hotly contested. It is clear that the Rus existed, in some form, although what exactly they were is unclear – a group of travellers, a well established set of settlers, or a serious political kingdom? The Annals of St Bertin (in AD839) confirms their contemporary existence, recounting how an embassy of the ‘Rhos’ visit Louis in the West. The later 12th century Primary Chronicle gives some more backstory, suggesting the Rus were invited into the area to keep the peace in the 9th century – this seems like a pretty clear attempt to justify their presence there, but at least fleshes out their existence. Archaeological evidence is slightly more forecoming – in particular, the mid 8thC trading settlement of Staraia Ladoga is convincing at which Scandinavian forms of artefacts have been found. Consensus thus seems to agree that a largely originally Swedish set of ‘Vikings’ migrated down south through eastern Europe to exploit the Caliphate’s trade, and especially its abundant wealth in silver.
Surely, then, Ibn Fadlan’s account is a gold-mine, allowing us to fill in some of the blanks with its wealth of anthropological data. Well, not really – the details in Ibn Fadlan’s account are, however, dubious. It is clear that his text is written with the purpose of entertaining the Caliphate – this is travel writing. Whether this means his work is essentially a work of fiction, as some historians suggest, is unclear, although completely possible. Is this a king of Gulliver’s Travels – tall-tales of far-off lands and strange customs to amuse the court at the Caliphate?
Where ‘Vikings’ Really Buried in Burning Ships?
Take the image of the burning ship. Explicit references to ship burial are otherwise relatively rare. Beowulf recounts the burial of King Scyld Scefing, in which the body is placed into a ship and washed out to sea – notably, the burning is absent. Within Scandinavia there is ample archaeological evidence for the burial of individuals within ships, most notably at Old Uppsala. In England there are two major examples of ship burials, perhaps inheriting the Scandinavian tradition – the famous Sutton Hoo, in which King Raedwald is (maybe) buried, and the far less elaborate (and therefore well-known) Snape. Missing from all of these is the process of fire.
*UPDATE AND ACCOUNTABILITY*
Fun fact, there is in fact some archaeological evidence from Scandinavia that ships may have been burnt in funerary practices. I was unaware of this, and it’s been politely pointed out to me online and I am thankful for it – mea culpa. A historian must always be willing to correct themselves in the face of new data.
The Mykelbust Ship is the clearest example, where a set of ash and iron nails within a funeral burial mound imply a naval cremation. There are, perhaps, more examples than this, but interpretation of burnt remains is complex. This, of course, more than slightly weakens my argument. However, I’d argue that, even with the most liberal interpretation, with cremations frequently given the benefit of the doubt as a ship-burning, this practice is clearly far from the statistical norm with ship burials within Western Scandinavia.
So what are we to think of Ibn Fadlan’s account? It’s completely possible what he’s saying is 100% accurate and true – there is very little to definitively prove otherwise. Perhaps the limited evidence in Scandinavia is the sign of a specific cultural trend that percolated down to the Rus. Perhaps, this burning is an adopted cultural trait by the Rus – Vikings were notorious culture-sponges, and this might have been a local tradition they adopted or developed. Perhaps, it’s possible that story is little more than that – a story. Even if the burning of ships itself did happen in Scandinavia, and did indeed happen in front of Ibn Fadlan’s eyes, are the pomp and drama realistic or exaggerations?
Ibn Fadlan’s account presents us with the classic set of issues we face when examining early medieval sources, especially those surrounding the ‘Vikings’. ‘Bias’ is an over-simplistic concept – in its bias, the text tells us a valuable amount of information about the society that constructed the text, and is therefore perhaps even more valuable than a hypothetical objective account of history. Even so, Ibn Fadlan teases us with information that we simply cannot seriously confirm. Perhaps further archaeological evidence will help clarify his account – perhaps it will not. It is, at least, a valuable reminder to re-examine the evidence of the ‘Vikings‘, much of which is burned so strongly into popular imagination.