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Ibn Fadlan’s Journey

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near the banks of the Volga River, a funeral ship blazes brightly against the dusk, the body of a Viking chieftain and his most cherished possessions crumbled to soot and ash. looking on, fascinated is a man who has traveled over 2,500 miles far from his home of Baghdad; he has traveled here to serve as a religious advisor, for the newly converted people of Volga Bulgaria. But, it’s another people who’ve captivated his attention his admiration, and even his disgust “the ruse Vikings”.

In the year 921, the con of Volga Bulgaria sent ambassadors to Baghdad asking for military and financial aid, in return for conversion to Islam, in response the Abbasid caliph sent a delegation that included a Fakih an expert in Islamic law and religious practice named Ahmed Ibn Fadlan.  in the tradition of Islamic travel writing, Ibn Fadlan chronicled the year-long journey from Baghdad, and described the cultures and people he encountered along the way a bit like the much later much more famous world traveler and side trip aficionado Ibn Battuta. but not long, after Ibn Fadlan began working in the khan’s court imparting the religious and administrative knowledge of Baghdad, a group of ruse arrived and set up camp along the river to trade.

 part of the Viking expansion, the ruse was one offshoot of a group that left Scandinavia century before, seeking trade routes and kingdoms to plunder. Now, settled in Eastern Europe the ruse traded northern commodities, like fur, wax, and slaves captured in war, for silk, silver, and other luxuries from the east and south, their presence was not unusual to the Volga Buglers, because the Volga River ran through the center of the state the Buglers had access to trade with all manner of places and cultures. Baghdad and Constantinople in the south, Europe to the west, China to the east, and to the north of course Ruce Vikings.

 while the Buglers were used to the ruse, they were like nothing that Ibn Fadlan had ever seen before, “I have never seen more perfect physical specimens” he wrote, “tallest date palms, blonde and ruddy each man has an ax a sword and a knife and keeps each by him at all times or tattooed from fingernail to neck with dark green symbols’’.  the Vikings were skilled jewelry makers as well, by Ibn Fadlan account for every ten thousand silver a man was worth, he would make a silver or gold necklace for his wife, and these women had many necklaces. But, while he found the ruse beautiful, he also found them kind of disgusting. as a highly educated member of Islamic society, hygiene was both a religious and social requirement, hand-washing, teeth cleaning, and regular bathing were the norm in Ibn Fadlan’s world, but not so for the ruse. he described their hygiene habits with revulsion, telling us that they lived in long houses with 10 or 20 people to a house, each household would wash their faces, spit, and blow their nose each morning in a communal wash bin, without changing the water. they had no sense of privacy when it came to having sex, or answering the call of nature. they didn’t wash their hands before eating, or ever really, and perhaps most humorously Fadlan found their singing to be just awful. “they are the filthiest of God’s creatures” he wrote, “indeed they are like wild asses”.

 the ruse weren’t just gross in his eyes, they were polytheistic pagans as well, a particularly abhorrent and exotic group to medieval Muslims, but Ibn Fadlan mixed feelings of attraction and revulsion aren’t just valuable to us, as an amusing tale of culture clash between an Islamic scholar, and some very sexy very stinky Vikings. the Vikings themselves were a largely oral culture that left no written accounts of their own traditions. So, Ibn Fadlan travel writing is actually the only first-hand account we have of some Viking traditions, but it’s also important to acknowledge that his account of the ruse might not be representative of all Vikings. the ruse had lived in Eastern Europe for about a century at that point, and undoubtedly absorbed many local practices. in fact, he may not have understood what he was seeing and we aren’t even sure who served as his translator, and whether or not they knew what they were talking about, but thanks to Ibn Fadlan obsession with recording in detail, everything from daily habits to religious practices, we at least have a window into how one group of Vikings conducted themselves. the most famous example of this is the Viking funeral.

 Ibn Fadlan was horrified to discover that the Ruse cremated their dead, a concept which you guessed it also fascinated him, it so happened that a Viking chief recently died, and the ruse allowed this strange foreigner to witness the funeral, and this is the summary of what he saw. First, they buried the corpse in a shallow grave with offerings of bread, beer, and a lute, allowing them 10 days to snow the funeral clothing; they also gathered the families and slaved people together and asked for a volunteer who was willing to die for their master. After a pause, a young woman spoke up and said that she would do it, once she volunteered to be the human sacrifice, Fadlan tells us, and there was no going back. two people were assigned to stay with the volunteer, night and day, to make sure she didn’t have any second thoughts.

 after the funerary clothing was complete, they dragged the Chieftains boat up onto dry land and an old woman who was to perform the ritual sacrifice, referred to as the angel of death, arranged a lavish bed of Byzantine brocade and cushions upon the deck, then they exhumed the Chieftains body dressed him in his funerary clothes and propped him up on the bed also filling the ship with all manner of things herbs, spices, beer bread, and fruit. Then, the animal sacrifices began; they ritually slaughtered chickens, horses, cows, and even a dog! and arranged the bodies on the boat. finally, when the time came the human sacrifice, the woman who volunteered in kind of an ecstatic trance after days of drinking, and singing, enters each hut in the village. what happened there is difficult to understand, given that it comes to us filtered through Ibn Fadlan and an unknown translator, neither of which may have understood what they were witnessing, but it does seem like there was some sexual component to the ritual, likely one that was violent and non-consensual, she was then brought out and lifted up three times, once in honor of her father and mother, Second  in honor of her ancestors, and a final time in honor of the man she was about to die for.

 Then, they took her to the ship where she met the angel of death for the final time, she gave her bracelets to the old woman and in return she received a bowl of beer to drink. the volunteer then sang a song to bid farewell to her loved ones, men with wooden staffs and shields gathered and began to beat them percussively, it covered the noise as the young woman was simultaneous stabbed and strangled. with the sacrifice done, they set the boat alight, as Ibn Fadlan watched the flames of the funeral boat place, thinking on all of the ritual brutality he just witnessed, a ruse nearby turned and spoke to him his interpreter translated “you Arabs are foolish” The Ruse said, “why is that” Ibn Fadlan answered, “you take the person who is the most beloved to you and the most respected among you and you leave them in the ground so that the earth the insects and the worms consume them we burn them with fire in an instant and they enter paradise forthwith from that very moment because of the great love that their God has for them he sent the wind to carry them off to the afterlife within the space of an hour”. the ruse laughed, Ibn Fadlan considered this, by no means did the spectacle of the funeral make him question his own religious practices, but the Viking was right an hour did not pass before the boat the girl and the Viking chief had all become dust, blown on the wind.

 Ibn Fadlan count is not only useful in what it describes, but how it also forces us to think about the overlapping biases and filters contained even in a first-hand account, is he an unimpeachable witness or misunderstanding events, was this ritual a standard practice among Vikings, or a blend unique to these roofs, but perhaps what Ibn Fadlan account does more than anything is tell us about his own culture, how he could be both attracted and repelled by strange customs, how he reacted to religious violence, and how a cultured curious Islamic scholar perceived the world when he was very far from home

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