Ritual Drinking in the Viking Age: Was it Really a Thing?

Revisionist history has a way simultaneously shattering old paradigms and creating new ones. For example, the traditional image of a Viking—a noble savage with a propensity for consumption and murder—has recently begun to melt away as historians have come to realize that the 19th century vision of ancient Scandinavians was false.

In that same ilk, there appears to be a movement to outright reject all scholarship on the subject prior to the revisionist era, regardless of evidence. One such victim of revisionist history is the idea that ritual drinking wasn’t actually a thing. Did the Vikings partake in ritual drinking? Many now say no because it was a concept deeply intertwined with the other false beliefs about the Vikings.

Ritual drinking in Viking Age Scandinavia, however, has ample evidence to support its existence. While we cannot say for sure if such rituals were ubiquitous among all norse settlements of the time, we do know that ritual drinking figures in their mythology and is supported, in part, by archeological evidence.

Evidence in text

Ibn Fadlan

The arabic chronicler Ibn Fadlan, who travelled north of the Black Sea where he encountered the Rus on the shores of (what was probably) the Dnieper River, described ritual drinking as part of the funeral rites of a Norse king. According to this source, the drinking was very heavy and lasted several days.

Al-Gazhal

The arabic chronicler Al-Gazhal supposedly traveled to Ireland to visit some of the first Norse settlements there. During his time in the king’s court, he befriended the king’s wife who helped to explain their rituals. Among them was a form of ritual drinking (the name of which is lost due to damage to the original document).

Snorri Sturluson

While evidence from foreign visitors is fairly good evidence, nothing beats evidence directly from the source. Snorri Sturluson described in his Heimskringla ritual drinking in the court of Hakon the Good. He describes a bragarfull, or promise cup, which was a drinking cup used for ceremonial occasions, such as oath-swearings, funerals, and weddings.

Bragarfulls were used ceremonially to solidify pacts and to make certain vows. In the Ynglinga Saga, Snorri tells of another king, Ingjald, who uses a bragarfull as a means to make a vow to increase his lands. In the same document, there is a passage in which the bragarfull is used to celebrate the beginning of Yule.

The Ynglinga Saga also describes a ritual called the Sjaund. The Sjaund is the name of an ale used in funeral ceremonies, and the passing of the Sjaund was a way to ritually recognize a new ruler during a funeral.

Archeological Evidence

The Sjaund ceremony is attested to on the Tune Stone in which a ceremonial ale was used to signify the passing of power to the king’s surviving heirs, the king’s daughters. There are other stones as well, which attest to inheritance, although they are far less explicit on the use of ale to ceremonially recognize it.

The Gotland Stones show several drinking scenes (see below) which are thought to be ceremonial in nature. Although we cannot be entirely certain (although some people are more certain than others) the scenes depict plentiful drinking from horns and barrels.

drinking_scene_on_an_image_stone

Conclusion

As with all things that have to do with the Vikings, we cannot be entirely sure of how significant nor how prolific ritual drinking was during the Viking Age in Scandinavia. What we can say with relative certainty is that ritual drinking was practiced, and practiced widely among the various groups, as we have seen with the arabic chroniclers who documented ritual drinking in two places separated by geography and time. We may also conclude that ritual drinking may have been fairly common, as attested to on various Gotland Stones. After all, the Gotland stones depict two major things: the ships, and drinking (among other things, of course). In my opinion, that means drinking was fairly central to their society.

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