List of Primary & Secondary Sources……………………………………...………………81
“The hundreds of horses found buried in graves throughout Scandinavia…suggest a close association between horses and death.”1
Horse burial had already been practiced for over a thousand years in Europe before it first reared its fiery head in Scandinavia during the Late Roman Iron Age.2 The custom of burying a horseman with his mount appears on the Continent from the Hallstatt period (800 BC - 600 BC) onwards.3Accounts from Ancient Greece, for example, describe how horses were an important part of the funeral ceremony. At the funeral of Patroclus in the Iliad, Achilles slays four horses and hurls them onto the pyre in honor of his fallen comrade.4 Over the centuries, the custom enjoyed a rich history among the Celtic, Germanic, Slavic and Eurasian tribes alike. By the time it reached the North, the arrival of Christianity had begun to usher it out of practice in the rest of Europe. It was thus in Scandinavia that the horse burial tradition seems to have experienced its final flourish, so to speak. Not that it whimpered out and died entirely—for it also shows up now and then in post-Viking Age contexts. Horses were slaughtered at the funerals of King John of England in 1215 and Holy Roman emperor Karl IV in 1378 for example.5
There was surely a fundamental reason that horses were a popular grave good among European peoples. The compelling problem that faces us, however, is what this “close association between horses and death” might have been to the Vikings themselves. What motivations lay behind their particular practice of killing a horse and placing it in the grave? Was it indeed a gift to the fallen warrior so that he could make one last ride to the hall of the slain, Valhalla? Or was it rather a sacrifice to the Norse gods, for peace and prosperity in the wake of this death?
In order to examine this problem properly it is important that a coherent summary of the prominent archaeological finds of horse burials across Scandinavia is compiled. As will be shown in the next chapter, this is something that has not been the main focus of a paper before. I do not propose to present a comprehensive list of every last burial as in their entirety they are both eclectic and numerous, but instead will draw attention to some intriguing trends that may afford us a better overall understanding of the practice.