An Anglo-Saxon Pagan Funeral
Modern Asatru and Paganism in general seems to have no set way of performing funerals. Yet the funeral rite is one of the best preserved in the lore. In the Eddas, we are treated to Balder's funeral, Beowulf contains three funerals alone, and then there is Ibn Fadlan's account of a Rus funeral. Most of the funeral rites preserved are cremations, of these, three are ship cremations in, or on the edge of water. This seems in contrast with the archeological record which shows mounds were often built away from water, and that inhumation as well as cremation was practiced. For Anglo-Saxon Pagans, reconstructing a funeral rite based on ancient principles is fairly easy. We need look no farther than the funeral of Beowulf:
Then the bairn of Weohstan bade
hardy chief, to heroes many
that owned their homesteads, hither to bring
firewood from far -- o'er the folk they ruled --
for the famed-one's funeral. " Fire shall devour
and wan flames feed on the fearless warrior
who oft stood stout in the iron-shower,
when, sped from the string, a storm of arrows
shot o'er the shield-wall: the shaft held firm,
featly feathered, followed the barb."
And now the sage young son of Weohstan
seven chose of the chieftain's thanes,
the best he found that band within,
and went with these warriors, one of eight,
under hostile roof. In hand one bore
a lighted torch and led the way.
No lots they cast for keeping the hoard
when once the warriors saw it in hall,
altogether without a guardian,
lying there lost. And little they mourned
when they had hastily haled it out,
dear-bought treasure! The dragon they cast,
the worm, o'er the wall for the wave to take,
and surges swallowed that shepherd of gems.
Then the woven gold on a wain was laden --
countless quite! -- and the king was borne,
hoary hero, to Hrones-Ness.
THEN fashioned for him the folk of Geats
firm on the earth a funeral-pile,
and hung it with helmets and harness of war
and breastplates bright, as the boon he asked;
and they laid amid it the mighty chieftain,
heroes mourning their master dear.
Then on the hill that hugest of balefires
the warriors wakened. Wood-smoke rose
black over blaze, and blent was the roar
of flame with weeping (the wind was still),
till the fire had broken the frame of bones,
hot at the heart. In heavy mood
their misery moaned they, their master's death.
Wailing her woe, the widow [footnote 1] old,
her hair upbound, for Beowulf's death
sung in her sorrow, and said full oft
she dreaded the doleful days to come,
deaths enow, and doom of battle,
and shame. -- The smoke by the sky was devoured.
The folk of the Weders fashioned
on the headland a barrow broad and high,
by ocean-farers far descried:
in ten days' time their toil had raised it,
the battle-brave's beacon. Round brands of the pyre
a wall they built, the worthiest ever
that wit could prompt in their wisest men.
They placed in the barrow that precious booty,
the rounds and the rings they had reft erewhile,
hardy heroes, from hoard in cave, --
trusting the ground with treasure of earls,
gold in the earth, where ever it lies
useless to men as of yore it was.
Then about that barrow the battle-keen
atheling-born, a band of twelve,
lament to make, to mourn their king,
chant their dirge, and their chieftain honor.
They praised his earlship, his acts of prowess
worthily witnessed: and well it is
that men their master-friend mightily laud,
heartily love, when hence he goes
from life in the body forlorn away.
(Frances B. Grummere translation)
While Beowulf's funeral consisted of a cremation with the building of a mound, there is no reason we cannot use some elements of it for a modern funeral, be it cremation or inhumation. Ibn Fadlan's account of the Rus shows a slightly different outline, most of the elements being of a sort we cannot use. However, only the Beowulf account really need concern Anglo-Saxon Heathens. The parts that can be easily used should be clear. Wiglaf spoke some words, Beowulf's men placed the grave goods on the pyre with the body, Beowulf's queen sang a dirge. Then once the mound was built 12 warriors circled the mound on horse back singing songs of praise for Beowulf. This can be broken down into an outline usable for a modern funeral:
1) A eulogy. 2) Placement of grave goods. 3) A dirge sang by a female relative. 3) The burial of the body or ashes or spreading of ashes. 4) Songs of praise for the deceased done by 12 people circling the grave. This would have all been preceded in probability, by a wake where the relatives would sit with the body as was the custom to do until recent years even in the USA and most of Northern Europe. We also know from the Icelandic sagas, and Anglo-Saxon sources that a funeral feast would have followed, although it may occur months after the funeral. The Laxdaela Saga, portrays the funeral feast of Hoskuld as a rather lavish affair, several months after the funeral.
This feast was referred to as erfi or minni in Old Norse, the ierfe húsel or *ierfealu1 in Old English. The funeral feast served two purposes. The first was to honour the dead, and the second was to give the heirs a chance to exert their rights to inherited property. Several funeral feasts are seen in the Lore. We know from the Lore, that they generally followed the same pattern of a blot. However, a few funeral feasts seem to have been more like a symbel, or consisted of a feast and a symbel, for instance the Funeral feast of King Harald Gormson in Heimskringla:
The first day of the feast, before King Svein went up into his father's high-seat, he drank the bowl to his father's memory, and made the solemn vow, that before three winters were past he would go over with his army to England, and either kill King Adalrad (Ethelred), or chase him out of the country. This heirship bowl all who were at the feast drank. Thereafter for the chiefs of the Jomsborg vikings was filled and drunk the largest horn to be found, and of the strongest drink. When that bowl was emptied, all men drank Christ's health; and again the fullest measure and the strongest rink were handed to the Jomsborg vikings. The third bowl was to the memory of Saint Michael, which was drunk by all. Thereafter Earl Sigvalde emptied a remembrance bowl to his father's honour, and made the solemn vow, that before three winters came to an end he would go to Norway, and either kill Earl Hakon, or chase him out of the country.
(Samuel Lang translation)
At the funeral feast, the minni of the deceased was made by the heir. The heir would then do a beot as one would in symbel, a vow to do something. In King Svein's case, he drank to his father's memory, and then vowed to take Ethelred the Unready's kingdom. Each heir in turn would drink to the respective deity of that round, and then one of them would drink to the deceased's memory and follow this with a vow. Following this, the rounds seem to have proceeded as that of a symbel.
Using this information we can reconstruct the funeral rites to some degree of certainly. There would be the funeral its self, followed some months later by the feast or husel, with a symbel immediately following.
The Funeral Rite or Lícthenung
1) Preparation of the Body
In ancient times, the women of the family washed and prepared the body for burial or cremation. Today, this is taken care of by a funeral home (largely due to laws in the various states that dictate this be so). However, modern funeral homes have several practices not in keeping with the Lore. Nails of women are not trimmed as we are told the nails of all corpses must be in the Voluspa. Too, bodies are not buried with shoes on now adays. Since Christians do not believe in grave goods, and clothing is merely for the benefit of the living when viewing the body, shoes are seen as not needed. However, the ancient Heathens sent their dead off with "Hel shoes" so that they could walk to the afterlife in relative comfort. Heathens therefore need to request of the funeral director that nails be fully trimmed and that shoes be placed on the body.
2) The Wake or Waecce
There is little information on what form wakes took in ancient times. Judging from what information survives on the funeral its self, Germanic wakes were probably a time of lamentation. It is doubtful they were seen as joyous occasions as is the case with Irish custom.
3) The Funeral or Lícthenung
As noted above, a funeral ceremony can somewhat be reconstructed from Beowulf.
a) The Eulogy or Minni.
This is best done by a close friend of the deceased. In all the
surviving descriptions of Heathen funerals, none seem to indicate that a priest
was present or even necessary. The exception being the "Angel of Death" in
Fadlan's account. Even then she seem only to be present to dispatch those
wishing to enter death with the deceased. Eulogies are not easily written.
Modern ones typically state the person's date of birth, their parent's names,
the names of survivers, and note major events such as marriage. They then go on
to talk about accomplishments of the individual, or favorable personal traits.
There is no reason this cannot be done with a Heathen eulogy or minni.
b) Placement of grave goods.
The heirs should then place anything they wished buried with the deceased by the coffin or in it. Ancient grave goods ranged from simple to elaborate. Regardless, they nearly always included a toiletry set, jewelry, and tools of the deceased's trade. Egil's Saga speaks of smiths being buried with smithing tools and archaeology has shown this to be true. Warriors were buried with their swords, spears, and shields. Women were often buried with spindels, and other items involved with house holding.
c) A dirge sang by a female relative.
We have no idea what kind of funerary songs were sung. They were no doubt mournful as every description in ancient times from the Roman accounts to the Sagas portrays them as mournful in the least, wailing at their worst. Probably, for the sake of the survivors' ears, something sorrowful, but beautiful should be sung. This may mean a new song must be composed in short order, as we have no songs surviving from the ancient era (and modern Heathen songsters do not seem too keen on composing funeral songs just to be ready for when needed). Some of the Skaldic eulogy poems may serve as a guide, or such items in the Lore as Ragnar Loðbrok's death song.
d) The burial of the body or ashes or spreading of ashes.
In the Beowulf account, it took ten days to build the mound. Today, it would not take nearly as long to bury a body, even if a mound were being built. No special ceremonies seem to be connected with the burial or burning of the body. With the cremation funerals portrayed in the Lore, folks seem to have just stood and watched.
e) Songs of praise for the deceased done by 12 people circling the grave.
Following the completion of the mound, at least in the Beowulf account 12 horsemen circled the mound singing songs in honour of the dead king. This is probably impractical now, and indeed this part of the funeral account may be a borrowing from Homer's Illiad (though it may be common Indo-European practice too, the Hittites also seem to have circled the grave mound of the newly buried). None the less, it could be incorporated as the last act of a funeral rite. While one could probably not get 12 horsemen, and they probably would not be allowed in a public cemetery regardless, one could have 12 singers circle the grave singing songs in praise of the deceased. We are not told what direction they circled, though it was probably clockwise given most rites preference for that. Again, a look at many of the Skaldic poems might give one an idea what these songs may have consisted of.
4) The Funeral Feast or Ierfe Húsel
The funeral feast is likely to have consisted of a husel followed by a symbel in ancient times. It is not known what Gods the feast is likely to have been dedicated to. However, the patron Gods and/or Goddesses of the deceased are a likely guess.
The Minni seems to have differed a great deal from the standard symbel in its initial rounds. The first round was to the deceased followed by a vow by an heir, this is likely in ancient times to taken the form of a bragafull. The second to a diety followed by one to the deceased and then by a vow by an heir. The third followed this pattern, being first to a diety, then the deceased, followed by yet another vow by an heir. Thereafter, the order seems to have followed that of an open symbel, although no doubt, plenty of toasts were made to the deceased. The opening rounds can be roughly outlined as below:
1) Closest Heir (the spouse or eldest child)
The primary boast of the deceased given by the eldest and closest of the heirs.
An oath made on behalf of all the heirs by the eldest as the new head of the family. Once this is done, the eldest heir may step up to and sit in the High Seat of the deceased (in modern times this would probably be the deceased's favorite chair).
2) Second Closest Heir
a) The God Full
This full is to one of the deceased's patrons made by the second closest heir.
The second closest heir then drinks a horn in memory of the deceased.
An oath is then made by the second eldest. This should be a personal endeavor that would benefit the entire family.
3) Third Closest Heir
a) The God Full
A toast is made to another of the deceased's patrons or favorite Gods by the third eldest heir.
The third closest heir then toasts the deceased.
Finally, the third closest heir makes an oath to accomplish some task.
4) Open Rounds
From here on out the Minni takes the form of standard symbels. The funeral feast seemed in ancient times as much to celebrate the succession of the heirs to their inheritance as it was to celebrate the deceased life. At several funeral feasts in the Heimskringla, gifts were even given.
Davidson, H.R. Ellis. Pagan Scandinavia. Frederick A. Praeger Publishers, New York, 1967
Grimm, Jacob. Teutonic Mythology, v.2. Dover, New York, 1966
Groenbech, Vilhelm. The Culture of the Teutons. Humphrey
Milford, OxfordUniversity Press,
Gundarsson, Kveldulfr, ed. Our Troth. Ring of Troth, Seattle, 1993
Lang, Samuel, tr. Heimskringla: A History of the Norse Kings. Norroena Society, London, 1907
1. A reconstruction based on Old Norse arvöl "heir ale" and Old English byrdfealu "bride ale."