Did Vikings Really Cremate Their Dead Onboard Longboats?

There is currently a myth widely accepted as unwavering truth particularly among the fans of Viking and folk metal music bands like Amon Amarth. Basically, it is believed that Viking funerals always implied sending the deceased alongside important possessions from his mortal life down a body of water and setting the longboat ablaze by firing flame arrows.

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Unfortunately, it turns out that generalizing this particular type of funeral as the “norm of the Norns” is completely erroneous, for several reasons that we will discuss in the following guide. No matter how much Hollywood productions and metal bands romanticize the practice, performing a full immolation through this method would’ve not only been impractical for material reasons, but the science behind cremation tells us that it is virtually impossible. Let’s elaborate.

Longboats weren’t that easy to come by

When most people are thinking about Vikings, they tend to associate the tribes of warriors exclusively with Norwegians. In fact, Viking was a term referring to virtually any individual from the Scandinavian Peninsula, including the Danes and Swedes whose main occupation was waging war and plundering poorly protected establishments.

The Vikings were not united under a single banner and different tribes constantly brawled at each other for domination over certain regions with valuable resources, one of them being wood. At the same time, skilled craftsmen who could design quality longboats were quite rare those days, what with everyone preferring to wield a sword rather than a carpenter’s mallet.

Well, scrapping a highly expensive and valuable longboat (the favorite means of transportation for Vikings) every time someone died doesn’t make sense. And the truth is that there were plenty of ways to die those days, not only on the battlefield but also in coups, assassinations and due to different epidemics generate by precarious hygiene. The honor for being sent to the riverbed in a flaming vessel was reserved for the high ranking members of the tribe, not for the average Günther.

Wood does not burn nearly as hot as it has to

A report issued by the Funeral & Cremation Council states that the minimum required temperature for a human body to burn completely cannot be lower than 1,100 degrees Celsius. Even at this temperature, it takes approximately two or three hours before the cadaver has transformed into ashes. However, a flaming longboat neither has two hours to burn before sinking to the bottom of the river nor can it burn at temperatures exceeding 700 or, at best, 900 degrees Celsius.

What would be the result of sending a body afloat a flaming ship on fire via carefully shot flaming arrows then? In most cases, probably piles of charred body parts and ships making their way downstream generating epidemics and attracting carrion. With all the diseases running rampant in that age, it’s unlikely that Vikings would’ve opted for this high risk practice.

The truth about Viking funeral rites

The only similarity between the myth and the reality of the Viking funerals consists of the utilization of fire to dispose of the mortal remains and send the spirit of the warriors to Valhalla. In essence, upon death, the body was attached to a funeral pyre and set ablaze in the course of a religious ceremony. The Vikings believed that the key element required for reaching the heavens was the wind that carried the spirit released from the body upwards, but in order for this to happen the burden of the flesh must be lifted, hence the fire.

Furthermore, the ashes resulted from the immolation were customarily buried in the ground during the warm seasons. When the cold weather froze the soil, preventing digging, shallow earth mounds were the temporary resting place of the burned remains.

It is also important to note that the ashes of the highly respected leaders were sometimes buried with their boats after the cremation on the funeral pyre. Such vessels are now displayed in the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark and in the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo, Norway. A critical aspect is that upon being unearthed, none of these longboats presented any marks of burning or charring. Therefore, the popular concept of the Viking water funerals does not withstand the test of time.