Horse Burial in Scandinavia during the Viking Age

The Ship’s Final Destination

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The Ship’s Final Destination...

Another reason to believe that not only the horses, but the dead women and everything else contained in the Oseberg burial may not have been intended to leave the earthly confines of the mound135 was that the ship was weighed down by heavy stones and—even more strikingly—moored fast to a huge stone. Thus, the ship could definitely been said to be “going nowhere.” The food items found on board included seeds, wheat, wild apples, corn, walnuts and hazelnuts. While these could be seen as provisions for a voyage, they are just as possibly connected with ideas of fertility and good harvest. In contrast to this, the food at Valsgärde included the perishable items of meat and fish.

There are, however, a few bits of opposing evidence that should be considered before coming to a hasty conclusion. For one, the Oseberg queen was provided with a wagon and four sledges. Enough horses were sacrificed to draw the wagon as well as the sledges.136 Moreover, it is worth pointing out that some of the oars in the Oseberg ship were in fact put in position as though waiting for the rowers.137 Thus, on both land and water, the dead queen was—in the words of Arne Emil Christensen—“prepared to go in style.”138

Wagons have been found in women’s graves throughout Scandinavia, starting around the beginning of the Iron Age.139 Gräslund discusses fourteen such burials from Denmark and northern Germany where the woman was laid to rest in the bed of the wagon.140 For one, wagons could have served merely as a woman’s symbol of status, left to her in death as it was in life. They also could have had an important ceremonial function in the cult, illustrated as they are on the Oseberg tapestry (see below). But most interestingly, one of the picture stones from Barshaldershed on Gotland shows a woman riding a horse-drawn wagon and being received by the woman with a drinking horn. This implies that women could also use them to make a journey in the afterlife, possibly even to Valhalla.141

The ultimate fate of the Oseberg ship is nonetheless mired in ambiguity. It has recently been pointed out that, based on different light and dark sections observed in the soil, the burial mound originally only covered the stern of the Oseberg ship (fig. 8).142 Meanwhile, the bow of the ship was exposed to the elements for anywhere from a few months to several years before eventually being covered up by a larger mound. Thus, the craft was both emerging and submerging at the same time. Perhaps this configuration was meant to physically represent the soul’s passage between two worlds. On the other hand, it could symbolize the soul’s spiritual presence in both worlds.

(Fig. 8. Drawing of the Oseberg ship burial after the initial mound construction. Courtesy of: Gansum 2002).

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