Horse Burial in Scandinavia during the Viking Age

Oseberg and the Fertility Cult

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Oseberg and the Fertility Cult

The notion that the Oseberg burial was closely associated to the fertility cult has been forwarded by Anne-Stine Ingstad and Gjessing, among others. Ingstad points to the placement of the burial mound in a boggy, flat area, the sacrificed animals with cut-off heads and the stones thrown deliberately onto the grave goods and connects all of these aspects with the votive offerings we discussed in Chapter 2. In particular, she draws parallels between how the horses were sacrificed at Oseberg and how they were sacrificed at Skedemosse and Rislev.143

I would personally argue for more caution in making this claim. Despite the fact that the horses at Oseberg were decapitated, we still find the rest of their skeletons intact in the grave. At Skedemosse, what remains of the horses are skulls, extremities and some ‘dismembered, marrow-split’ bones—nothing of the like was found at Oseberg. The horses were not stabbed to death, but seem to have been dispatched in a rather swift manner with one blow to the neck. To further illustrate my point, in Snorri’s account of the blót, we see how the entire horse was consumed: the horses’ meat, innards and blood were all eaten at the feast. We do not get the impression that the same fate was visited upon the horses at Oseberg.

It is certainly possible that the horseheads served a cultic function during the funeral ceremony, perhaps by being placed on poles. The skulls, after all, had been collected into a heap before the mound was covered up,144 suggesting that they were paid added focus.

Yet another scenario, however, presents itself when one ponders the logistical consequences of lopping off the heads of so many horses, dogs and cows. The decapitation may actually have been directed towards getting the most possible blood out of the animals at one time. It should also be remembered that it was in and around the exposed fore-section of the ship that all of the headless animals lay. This must have been the site where the massive horse sacrifice took place. One can only imagine the gruesome spectacle of blood showering over the prow and the face of the mound behind it, inundating the plush array of grave goods in the ship’s bow with pools of crimson.

This interpretation stresses the use of blood in the funeral rites, just like we saw in the blót that Snorri describes. This similarity alone, however, should not warrant tying the Oseberg burial specifically to the fertility cult.

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