Vikings, Human Sacrifice, and Poor Sanitation: Early Islamic Descriptions of Russia and the Ukraine (2023)

editor's note: Excerpts and accounts in this article are based on translations of works by Ibn Fadlan and other Muslim writers published in "Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness: Arab Travelers in the Far North" (classic penguin).

When the Arab chronicler Ahmed ibn Fadlan was born in the late 9th century, Muslim dynasties such as the Umayyads and Abbasids ruled territories stretching from Morocco in the west to much of central Asia in the east and north.

Geographical barriers, as well as rival political entities, were the main obstacles preventing the spread of Islam.

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Vast desert areas prevented military adventures north of Central Asia, while the Byzantine Empire was able to fend off Arab attempts to reach the Black Sea and the lands beyond.

Despite the lack of direct political control, Muslim rulers were eager to establish relations with these northern areas, hoping to spread Islam through proselytizing and establishing trade routes.

With these objectives, Ibn Fadlan set out on his journey north, crossing what is now Russia and the Ukraine.

Although these states are modern creations, the Arab writer's visit coincided with the founding of the fledgling political entities that would produce both.

Meeting with the "Rus"

Between the 7th and 10th centuries, a people believed by many scholars to be Vikings migrated from Scandinavia to the region of Europe between the Baltic and Black Seas.

They spoke Germanic Old Norse and the name "Rus" they used to refer to themselves probably comes from the Norse word for "linemen".

Skilled sailors and warriors, they managed to establish settlements along the river systems throughout the region, sometimes using brute force to subjugate the people who already lived there, such as the Slavs.

Like their Christian neighbors to the north, the Arabs faced the Vikings the hard way.

A Viking raid in AD 844. C. targeted the Andalusian city of Seville, which resulted in seven days of killing and looting.

According to later Arab accounts, they were overwhelmed by the arrogance of the Scandinavians and remained close enough for a Muslim relief force to defeat them in battle and set their ships on fire.

Strengthening coastal defenses prevented further large-scale attacks from Seville, but the Vikings nonetheless carved a place for themselves in the Muslim psyche.

Initial accounts that attackers calllarger, a term that has become synonymous with "pagan" to Muslims, but in 880 AD. Arabic writers identified the attackers with the Old Norse wordRussia.

Vikings, Human Sacrifice, and Poor Sanitation: Early Islamic Descriptions of Russia and the Ukraine (1)

During his journey, Ibn Fadlan came across a people he named Rus, which saw him travel along the Volga River in present-day Russia.

The word "Russia" is directly related to the word Rus, and Russian nationalists consider their state to be the most important political descendant of the states founded by the Rus people, as found by the Abbasid chronicler.

In the late 9th century, the Norse prince Rurik founded the principality of Kievan Rus, based on what is now the capital of Ukraine. The city was the political center of a large multi-ethnic confederation, in which a Nordic elite ruled over a predominantly Slavic and Baltic population.

Eventually, this ruling class would assimilate into Slavic culture, adopting the Orthodox Christian religion and the Old East Slavic language, from which Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian descend.

habits and rituals

Ibn Fadlan's writings are useful for what they tell us about this embryonic stage in the creation of Ukrainian and Russian identities, and also for capturing some of the most detailed descriptions of Viking lore available.

To a modern reader and scholar, the Abbasid chronicler's sober, dispassionate descriptions of the rituals of the Rus', and his willingness to extol the virtues of the people he encounters, lend credence to the terrible events he recounts.

Describing the attractiveness of the men he met, Ibn Fadlan writes: “I have never seen more perfect bodies than theirs. They were like palm trees."

But as impressed as he was with his physique, there was much the Arab traveler disliked, including his hygiene habits.

They were "God's filthiest creatures," he tells us, and one of their habits was not cleaning up after following nature's call or after having sex.

Vikings, Human Sacrifice, and Poor Sanitation: Early Islamic Descriptions of Russia and the Ukraine (2)

fans there tv showviking I must thank Ibn Fadlan for imparting knowledge to the producers of many of their rituals, although some of the ritesexpertOf the people he met, the traditions may have been borrowed from neighboring Central Asian peoples rather than Scandinavian in origin.

One such ritual involves performing ablutions with a common bowl of water into which the contents of the previous person's nose and throat have been emptied.

By far the most interesting passage in the Arabic writer's chronicle is the description of the burial of a Rus' nobleman, the version of which is also shown in the exhibition.

Ibn Fadlan writes: “When a great man dies, his family members say to their slaves and slaves: 'Which of you will die with him?' One of them replies: 'I will.

What follows is a long and terrifying ritual witnessed firsthand by Ibn Fadlan and described by him without a shred of emotion.

The woman who volunteers first is attended to by fellow slaves, dressed in fine clothing and jewelry, symbolically washed, and spends the days leading up to the funeral drinking and singing.

On the day of the burial, the corpse of his master is placed in a boat anchored on the bank of a river, together with offerings such as alcoholic beverages, fruits and herbs, as well as sacrificed cows, dogs, horses and chickens.

Before the sacrifice, members of her late master's entourage take turns ritually raping the woman, as a tribute to their deceased friend.

Vikings, Human Sacrifice, and Poor Sanitation: Early Islamic Descriptions of Russia and the Ukraine (3)

Before the final brutal act, the woman is stripped of her jewelry, forced to drink an alcoholic liquid, and says goodbye to the spectators.

Six men and an old woman, whom Ibn Fadlan calls the "Angel of Death", then enter the ship's pavilion, where the slave is to lie down next to her master.

Two men hold her feet and two others hold her hands while the older woman puts a rope around the neck of the younger one.

Funeral attendees outside the boat bang on their shields to drown out the screams of the slave as she is killed by suffocation and stabbing.

After the sacrifice, the ship is set on fire and consumed by flames aided by "terrifying and violent winds".

More violence and interest in Islam

The Rus who knew Ibn Fadlan seem to have shown some degree of cordiality towards the Arab visitor, and it is likely that this friendliness extended to other visitors, such as merchants from the south.

Archaeologists discovered findsarabic coinsin Viking burial grounds for Sweden and Norway with the purchase of the Rustextiles and metalsfrom their southern visitors and in return they sell honey, animal ivory and slaves.

Despite these peaceful interactions, Middle Eastern chroniclers have also recorded violent clashes between Muslims, Christians and Russians.

Vikings, Human Sacrifice, and Poor Sanitation: Early Islamic Descriptions of Russia and the Ukraine (4)

The Persian philosopher Miskawayh describes a Russian attack on the Azerbaijani city of Barda in AD 943.

"They are a formidable nation, the men are huge and very brave," he writes, adding: "They do not admit defeat. No one returns until they have killed or been killed."

The people of Barda are said to have resisted despite warnings from the Rus', resulting in a massacre and the capture of 10,000 men, women and children.

Vikings, Human Sacrifice, and Poor Sanitation: Early Islamic Descriptions of Russia and the Ukraine (5)

Another chronicler, the 10th-century Arab historian Masudi, describes a series of Rus' attacks on the Azerbaijani side of the Caspian Sea coast, which included the massacre of "thousands of Muslims" and the eventual defeat of the Rus' by a force combined. that wiped out the Muslims. and christians

“The two sides fought for at least three days and God gave victory to the Muslims,” he writes. "The Rus were shot or drowned."

With the spread of Islam among the Turkic tribes in Eurasia around the turn of the first millennium and the concomitant spread of Christianity in the Baltic Sea and Scandinavia, the Rus' slowly moved away from its pagan roots.

For most, conversion to Christianity was, but the Persian scholar Sharaf al-Zaman Marwazi reports a case in which a group of Rus, unhappy with the Christian ban on attacks, converted to Islam.

In another widely quoted account, the Grand Duke of Kievan Rus', Vladimir the Great, sends a delegation to a neighboring Turkish Muslim ruler to inquire about the Islamic faith.

Religion is rejected by Vladimir, who is put off by the ban on alcohol.

"Drinking wine is the joy of all Rus," he says.

This article is available in French.French edition of Middle East Eye.


How did Vikings sacrifice humans? ›

The sacrificial rituals of the Vikings ranged from great festivals in magnate's halls to offerings of weapons, jewellery and tools in lakes. Humans and animals were also hung from the trees in holy groves, according to written sources.

What do Vikings sacrifice every 9 years? ›

Every ninth year there is a blót of nine days, a common feast for everyone in Sweden. Then they sacrifice nine males of each species, even men, and the bodies are hung from the branches of a grove near the temple. No one is exempt from this blót and everyone sends gifts to the shrine, even the kings.

Did the Vikings fight the Muslims? ›

After a series of indecisive engagements, the Muslim army defeated the Vikings on either 11 or 17 November. Seville was retaken, and the remnants of the Vikings fled Spain. After the raid, the Muslims raised new troops and built more ships and other military equipment to protect the coast.

What is the Arabic description of Vikings? ›

The Arabs also called Vikings “Majus” (their word for people with a structured but pagan faith, applied initially to the Zoroastrians of Iran, but here in this context essentially, “Heathen”). Slavic peoples they called Saqaliba.

Was there human sacrifice in Viking culture? ›

A human life was the most valuable sacrifice that the Vikings could make to the gods. We know from written sources that Odin – the king of the gods – demanded human sacrifices.

Why did Vikings sacrifice their own? ›

The purpose of these sacrifices was to ensure fertility and growth. However, sudden crises or transitions such as births, weddings and burials could also be the reason.

Did Vikings sacrifice humans at funerals? ›

Human sacrifice

Occasionally in the Viking Age, a widow was sacrificed at her husband's funeral.

How were human sacrifices performed? ›

In earlier times, the victims were either killed or buried alive, while later they were usually forced to commit suicide. Funeral human sacrifice was widely practiced in the ancient Chinese state of Qin.

How many times did Vikings shower? ›

Vikings also bathed at least once a week—much more frequently than other Europeans of their day—and enjoyed dips in natural hot springs.

Did the Vikings believe in religion? ›

Like the Greeks and the Romans before them, the Vikings worshipped several gods. The best known is Odin, God of Wisdom, Poetry and War. Odin's son Thor—the God of Thunder—and the goddesses of fertility Freyr and Freyja are other notable names.

What religion believes in Vikings? ›

“Asatro” is the worship of the Norse gods. The religion does not only involve the gods, but also the worship of giants and ancestors. Asatro is a relatively modern term, which became popular in the 19th century. The Vikings did not have a name for their religion when they encountered Christianity.

What religion were Vikings? ›

The Vikings' original religion was the pagan and polytheistic Old Norse religion, which can be traced back to about 500 BCE in what is now Denmark. As Christianity took hold in Scandinavia, beginning in the 8th century CE, its followers dwindled in numbers. However, this older tradition continued Viking culture.

Were Vikings clean or dirty? ›

Viking Facts

Vikings were extremely clean and regularly bathed and groomed themselves. They were known to bathe weekly, which was more frequently than most people, particularly Europeans, at the time. Their grooming tools were often made of animal bones and included items such as combs, razors, and ear cleaners.

Did Vikings believe in Allah? ›

Viking woven burial costumes invoking “Allah” and “Ali” in ancient Arabic text may prove that the Nordic explorers integrated elements of Islam into their culture, a Swedish researcher says.

Why Vikings have Allah on clothes? ›

Larsson believes that the presence of the names on the garments, always appearing together, indicate that the Vikings didn't just trade goods with the Muslim world, but perhaps also burial customs and ideas.

What is Viking culture and beliefs? ›

Vikings were bold, brave people who no doubt felt the lure of adventure in foreign lands. A strong Norse pagan belief was that each person's fate was set by the Norns, and that death in battle is not only honorable, but the warrior will be taken to Valhalla by Odin, the god-father.

Who do they sacrifice in Vikings? ›

In the popular series Vikings, the main character, Ragnar Lothbrok (Travis Fimmel), abducts a former monk named Athelstan (George Blagden) in season 1 of the show. It changes everything for them both, but despite the closeness they share, Ragnar chooses Athelstan to be sacrificed.

What were Viking rituals of death? ›

The body was draped in new clothes prepared specifically for the funeral, and a ceremony was held featuring songs, chants, food and alcohol. Tributes and gifts, known as “grave goods” and usually of equal value to the deceased's status, were buried or burned along with the recipient.

What did Vikings say at funerals? ›

The Vikings were strictly Pagan, and their funeral ceremonies reflected those beliefs. Vikings would offer prayers to Odin and other gods, depending on the person and their place in society. If a great warrior had passed, his fellow Vikings would likely pray and chant to help him find his way to Valhalla.

What were Viking funeral and burial rituals? ›

Two different types of burials were used; cremation andinhumation. The dead were burnt or buried in their daily clothes, and are usually buried along with his or her personal belongings. Sometimes the dead were buried lying in a boat or a wagon.

What is the purpose of a Viking funeral? ›

A traditional Viking funeral consists of burning the body or its remains in an open-air funeral pyre, together with loved trinkets for the afterlife. This allows the wind to carry the soul to Valhalla.

What are the 5 sacrifices? ›

These five sacrifices elaborate one's socio-ecological responsibilities are such as: (1) Rrushi Yajnya- (sacrifices for the source of knowledge - teachers), (2) Pitru Yajnya (responsibility for the parents, ancestors and self genetic system), (3) Deva Yajnya (protection for the environmental powers as Gods), (4) Bhoota ...

What are some examples of human sacrifice? ›

There are two primary types of human sacrifice: the offering of a human being to a god and the entombment or slaughter of servants or slaves intended to accompany the deceased into the afterlife. The latter practice was more common.

What is the true purpose of sacrifice? ›

1. To make an offering of; to consecrate or present to a divinity by way of expiation or propitiation, or as a token acknowledgment or thanksgiving; to immolate on the altar of God, in order to atone for sin, to procure favor, or to express thankfulness; 2.

Did Vikings wear eyeliner? ›

Vikings used a type of eyeliner known as kohl which was a dark-colored powder made of crushed antimony, burnt almonds, lead, oxidized copper, ochre, ash, malachite and chrysocolla. It helped keep the harsh glare of the sun from damaging one's eyesight while also increasing the dramatic sex appeal of the wearer.

How did Vikings treat their female slaves? ›

Ahmad Ibn Fadlan, an Arab lawyer and diplomat from Baghdad who encountered the men of Scandinavia in his travels, wrote that Vikings treated their female chattel as sex slaves. If a slave died, he added, “they leave him there as food for the dogs and the birds.”

What did Viking smell like? ›

Those aromas featured in the aptly named "Norse Power" scent range from the relatively pleasant (fresh pine, seawater, fruits and nuts) to the unabashedly gross (blood and gore, mud, smoke from burning settlements).

What god did the Vikings believe? ›

Odin, Thor and Frey were the major deities, who dwelled in Asgard – the inner world of an elaborate universe. Vikings believed they travelled to other worlds in the afterlife. They were cremated or buried with possessions and sacrifices.

Did the Vikings worship Jesus? ›

The Vikings regarded the new belief as supplementing the Nordic gods – it was not simply a choice between the old and the new religion. The Vikings' belief in many gods meant that it was possible for the new Christian god, White Christ, to be worshipped alongside gods like Thor and Odin.

Did Vikings worship god? ›

The Vikings worshipped many gods. Each of these gods had various characteristics, weaknesses and attributes. The gods possessed many human traits and could behave like humans. This is evident from the sagas and some rune stones, upon which the gods are depicted with human forms.

How did the Vikings worship their god? ›

HOW DID THE VIKINGS WORSHIP THEIR GODS? The Vikings worshiped their gods in the open air, choosing natural landmarks such as big rocks, unusual trees, and waterfalls. Their most important gods were Odin, the god of knowledge, Thor, the god of metalwork and thunder, and Frey, the goddess of fertility.

What was Viking culture like? ›

Culture. The Viking culture was Scandinavian, with society divided into three classes, the Jarls (aristocracy), Karls (lower class), and Thralls (slaves). Upward mobility was possible for Karls but not Thralls.

Do Vikings still exist? ›

So do Vikings still exist today? Yes and no. No, to the extent that there are no longer routine groups of people who set sail to explore, trade, pillage, and plunder. However, the people who did those things long ago have descendants today who live all over Scandinavia and Europe.

What were the Vikings known for? ›

The Vikings were raiders, pirates, traders, explorers, and colonizers during the 9th to 11th century. They often traveled by sea from Scandinavia and took control of areas of Europe and beyond.

What ended the Viking Age? ›

The events of 1066 in England effectively marked the end of the Viking Age. By that time, all of the Scandinavian kingdoms were Christian, and what remained of Viking “culture” was being absorbed into the culture of Christian Europe.

Who turned the Vikings into Christians? ›

Olaf Tryggvason became King Olaf I and proceeded to convert Norwegians to Christianity by force. He burned pagan temples and killed Vikings who wouldn't convert. Through these violent methods, every part of Norway became Christian, at least in name.

What was a female Viking called? ›


Women that fought were in the Norse literature called vakyries or shield-maidens (skjoldsmøyer). There were several kinds of female warriors.

Did Vikings brush teeth? ›

Technically, the answer is “no.” Vikings didn't have the implements we use today to actually “brush” their teeth with toothpaste and toothbrushes. However, they did clean their teeth regularly. From what we know about Viking history, these individuals were some of the cleanest groups across Europe.

What did Vikings use as toilet paper? ›

Description: The waterlogged areas of the excavation at Whithorn uncovered preserved 'sheets' of moss, which had been discarded. Closer analysis revealed them to be studded with fragments of hazel nut shells, and blackberry pips.

What was the relationship between Vikings and Muslims? ›

Contacts between Vikings and Arabs/Muslims were both peaceful and violent. Since most of the contacts took place via trade, the relationship was mostly peaceful, but we also have accounts of Viking raids in the Caspian Sea which resemble accounts we have from Europe in a similar period,” says Prof Hraundal Jonsson.

How cruel were the Vikings? ›

They took cattle, money and food. It's likely they carried off women, too, he says. "They'd burn down settlements and leave a trail of destruction." It was unprovoked aggression. And unlike most armies, they came by sea, their narrow-bottomed longships allowing them to travel up rivers and take settlements by surprise.

Did Vikings accept Christianity? ›

The Vikings came into contact with Christianity through their raids, and when they settled in lands with a Christian population, they adopted Christianity quite quickly. This was true in Normandy, Ireland, and throughout the British Isles.

Where is Allah buried? ›

Green Dome
Green Dome Al-Qubbah Al-Khaḍrāʾ
LocationAl-Masjid an-Nabawi, Medina, Hejaz, Saudi Arabia
Location of the Green Dome in Saudi Arabia Show map of Saudi Arabia Show map of Middle East Show map of West and Central Asia Show all
16 more rows

Who were the famous black Vikings? ›

Geirmund Heljarskinn becomes the “Black Viking” – the most powerful settler on Iceland through times. Dark-skinned and with Mongolian facial features he was a pioneer in international hunting economy. Heljarskinn had hundreds of slaves; Christians from Scotland and Ireland.

Who defeated Vikings? ›

At the battle of Ashdown in 871, Alfred routed the Viking army in a fiercely fought uphill assault.

What made the Vikings so brutal? ›

The purpose of the Vikings' violence was to acquire wealth, which fed into the political economy of northern Europe, notably in the form of gift-giving. Viking warriors were motivated by a warrior ideology of violence that praised bravery, toughness, and loyalty.

What is the Viking religion? ›

“Asatro” is the worship of the Norse gods. The religion does not only involve the gods, but also the worship of giants and ancestors. Asatro is a relatively modern term, which became popular in the 19th century. The Vikings did not have a name for their religion when they encountered Christianity.

Did Vikings get buried with their wives? ›

So it must have been some kind of comfort for a relatively important Norseman to know that, when they died, they'd be shuffling off this mortal coil through a grave crowded with friends, wives, slaves, pets, and livestock—all dead, of course.

Can you do a Viking funeral? ›

Contrary to popular belief, there is no legality against having a viking funeral in the United States. However, there are some things to keep in mind if you're thinking of holding one. In this post, we'll take a closer look at what goes into having a viking funeral and whether or not it's the right choice for you.

Who did the Vikings fear the most? ›

The Viking reputation as bloodthirsty conquerors has endured for more than a millennium but new research shows that some Norsemen approached the British islands with more than a little trepidation.

How did Vikings treat their wives? ›

For this point in history, however, Viking women enjoyed a high degree of social freedom. They could own property, ask for a divorce if not treated properly, and they shared responsibility for running farms and homesteads with their menfolk. They were also protected by law from a range of unwanted male attention.

What was the Vikings biggest fear? ›

They were particularly nervous in the western sea lochs then known as the "Scottish fjords". The Vikings were also wary of the Gaels of Ireland and west Scotland and the inhabitants of the Hebrides.


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