Horse Burial in Scandinavia during the Viking Age

The Symbolism of Grave Goods and the Ideology of Horse Burial

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The Symbolism of Grave Goods and the Ideology of Horse Burial

According to The Penguin Dictionary of Archaeology, grave goods are "objects placed with the deceased on burial."8 Surely, this is the definition of the term in its most superficial form. The careful provisioning of items in the grave suggests, at the very least, that there is a meaning or purpose attached to them.

This meaning or purpose of grave goods is usually taken to involve a belief in an afterlife of some kind. Certain objects could have been seen as helpful, advantageous or even necessary for the dead to have with them for what was to lie ahead. Some grave goods may also have been the (discarded) equipment of shamans. The shaman might have, for example, used the object to spiritually travel to the realm of the dead and “talk” with the deceased. In such a case the item may have carried more import in the burial rites than in its actual presence in the grave.

Notions of the afterlife might not always have been the main reason for the appearance of grave goods. Some of the deceased’s possessions may have found their way into the grave simply because they were regarded as taboo for the survivors to use. Graves goods may also have been deposited for the means of negotiating social status among the bereaved.

With all of the above in mind, it is important for us to look at what the horse’s particular function as a grave good might have been to the Vikings.

One of the most popular answers to this is that the horse functioned as a vehicle by which the deceased could travel in the afterlife. In the Old Norse world this is often assumed to have been Valhalla, home of the god Odin. According to Snorri’s Prose Edda, however, Odin receives only half of the fallen warriors, whilst Freya is expected to claim the other half for her hall, Folkvang.9 Another possible destination is for the dead was Hel, a murky place overseen by a goddess of the same name.

A twist on this theory is that the horse was not necessarily the transportation to the other world, but was instead meant to be used for warfare or recreation (e.g. hunting) upon arrival there. The horse has also been argued to have served as guardian of the grave, enlisted to protect the living from the dead and vice versa.10 On the other hand, the horse’s import could have been exclusive to the sacrificial rite itself, as the repast offered in satisfaction of the needs of the person honored.11 Still others suggest that the horse was meant as a food offering to the deceased.

A more materialistic interpretation, however, is that the horse was viewed simply as part of the wealth buried with the dead, an item of luxury meant perhaps to boost the esteem of not only the deceased but also his family. At the same time, it could have been that everything in the grave, including the horse(s), was meant to recreate the environment that the deceased knew, and cherished, in his lifetime.

All of the above explanations are not by any means mutually exclusive. A horse on one hand could signify wealth or status, while simultaneously fulfilling a metaphysical role in the afterlife. It should also be stressed that people in different parts of Scandinavia may likely have had different beliefs as to the function the horse served.

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