They would do anything for their chieftains, even in death. Nothing was good enough for their chieftains, neither in life, nor in death. When Sigrid heard that her master had died, she made sure she was the first to volunteer to join him in the afterlife. She would see him off to Valhalla and perhaps she would see some of her family there, too.
There stood a grand ship on the pyre of firewood. Men were throwing the last chunks of a sacrificed cow onto the boat. At the same time, men were driving two horses around in circles, until sweat drenched their steaming bodies. A blade was put to their throats, blood spurted and men started prepping the meat for its journey on the ship. Brom, the chieftain’s dog, whimpered while it too was thrown onto the offering pile. A gloomy, corpulent woman, dressed in black, lifted her hand, and silence ensued.
“I am the Angel of Death, and may the gods be pleased with our sacrifices!” she gestured to the sky. “May they serve him well in the afterlife, as they served him in this life!” the assembled crowd muttered in agreement. Sigrid was brought up to the crone who stood next to a structure in the sand resembling a doorway. Sigrid remembered the instructions the crone had given her one evening. It was clear to her that second, what she had to do. She stepped onto the hands of two men that lifted her up above the doorframe.
“Behold, I see my father and my mother.” They sat her down, and raised her above the frame again. “I see all of my dead kindred, seated.” For the third time, they lifted her:
“I see my master, seated in Paradise. Paradise is alluring and verdant. He is accompanied by his men and his servants. He summons me, so bring me to him.”[i]
The crone slit the throat of a hen and held it in the air: “with this sacrifice we channel the afterworld and commune with the gods!”
The men Sigrid onto that grand ship. In the middle of the ship was a tent where she knew her master awaited her, and on the boat were a dozen of shield-clad men. One of them handed her a goblet.
“To my master I go, I bid you all farewell dear friends.” She caught the gaze from Helga and Gyda from among the crowd on the beach, and emptied the goblet. She saw how the men cast surprised looks to the drops of wine dripping from her thirsty lips. The crone gestured with a distraught motion for the men to get her another goblet. Sigrid starting swaying, drinking and singing. She loved this song – it reminded her of her father and the summer. Warmth rushed to her cheeks as she sang.
“Come on dear, finish up.” The crone said in a low voice. Sigrid looked at the lips that spoke the words. “Drink up and get in the tent, you stupid girl.” The crone hissed and went into the tent. Sigrid felt the stab from the harsh words, and confusion and bewildered as she opened her eyes. She wanted to finish the verse. Instead, she drank up and dropped the goblet. It swirled before her eyes, and for a moment, she felt burdens and worries vanish. As she looked at the waves over yonder, it brought her mind back to trips on her father’s boat in brisk seas.
She took a step towards the tent, lifted the slip and stuck her head in. There lay weapons, fruit, onions, moss and juniper around her master. Oh, he looked glorious in his golden silk garments on his bed of cushions. Something grabbed her hair and pulled her into the tent, and in that instant she could hear how the men outside started banging their shields with sticks. She wrestled herself free of the crone’s hand in her hair.
“Be quiet, girl.” The Angel of Death said. Sigrid looked around and saw three, four, five… six men enter the tent.
Their shield banging drowned her screams. The whispers in her ears were all she could hear.
“Tell your master that I have done this purely out of love for you.”[ii] Sweat and heavy breathing fogged her world and clouded her senses. Fractions of words and smells was all she got. The chant went on in her head, panted in different voices.
“Tell your master…”
Smells of juniper.
“Tell your master…”
Taste of Sweat.
“Tell your master…”
They put her next to her master, at last. She pleaded to the faces above her. They hesitated, but a something spurred them on. They grabbed her. It took two people to hold her arms, and two for her feet. The Angel of Death tied a rope around her neck and passed the ends to the last two men in the tent. The rope tightened and spots of light danced before her eyes. Though she struggled, she could not stop the knife that thrusted in and out between her ribs.
She tried to scream. What was there for her here? Oh how she longed to see her mother. She smiled before she passed through the fire and pain and into the Other World.
Background for the story
In the year 921 A.D., the Arabic diplomat Ibn Faḍlān made an account of a Viking funeral. He was part of a caliphal embassy that made the trip from Bagdad to the Volga area, today’s Russia. I have reimagined his account from a different perspective – to that of a girl who joins her chieftain in death.
[i] Montgomery, James E. ”Ibn Fadlan and the Rusiyyah.” Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 3 (2000). https://www.library.cornell.edu/colldev/mideast/montgo1.pdf. Web. 9. Sep. 2016.