We know that ancient civilizations burned or buried their dead. That was common practice in ancient times and the same applies today. What might sound unusual at first is the fact that Vikings also wanted their longhouses to die so, they either burned or buried their longhouses.
Once we understand why Vikings had this unusual tradition, it becomes quite logical and easy to follow their way of thinking.
The Vikings had no religion but they had customs, practices and beliefs. Ancient Viking funeral traditions and rituals were very complex. Many relics in ancient tombs reveal that the type of burial a Viking received depended on his importance in the society. Based on discovered archaeological evidence it seems that the funeral boat or wagon was a practice which was reserved for the wealthy. A great Viking warrior received a ship burial. This involved placing the deceased on the ship, sail him out to sea and set the Viking ship on fire.
A typical Viking home was a longhouse (langhús), that was usually 5 to 7 meters wide (16 to 23 feet). Wealthy Vikings could live in very large longhouses that could be from 15 to 75 meters long (50 to 250 feet). Inside the longhouses there were several rooms, divided by walls and sometimes a large and imposing hearth, with stones set on end in the earth, mirroring the shape of the longhouse. Ventilation and illumination was provided through smoke holes in the roof.
Vikings were familiar with candles, but they were expensive and not often used. Instead light was provide with simple lamps made from available material that could for example a dished stone, which was filled with fish liver oil for fuel, or, when available, seal or whale oil.
Marianne Hem Eriksen, a postdoc at the Department of Archaeology, Conservation and History at the University of Oslo have studied the custom of how Vikings burned and buried their iron Age longhouses.
According to Eriksen, burial mounds may equally well mark the tomb of a house as that of a human. After a longhouse had burned to the ground, one or more burial mounds were placed on top of its remains.
Architecture takes on special importance as a collective expression of the organization and mindset of a culture, and people had a special relationship to their houses.
“To people in Madagascar, a house has its own life cycle. It is born, lives, grows old and dies. The Batammaliba people of West Africa perform rituals during the construction of houses, the same rites of passage that they perform for newborn babies, adolescents and adults.
When the house is completed, they perform a ritual where they “kill” the house. The house has been alive during the building process, and must be killed to make it habitable for people. Many cultures believe that the house is metaphorically linked to the human body, “Eriksen explained.
It took time and hard work to construct a longhouse. The house served as a shelter, home and sometimes a symbol of power and status.
While studying seven longhouses in Scandinavia, Eriksen discovered there is connection between burial sites and the doors leading into the house.
Some human remains had been placed under the thresholds, or of graves being placed near entrances. In other cases, burial mounds have been placed over the door to the house, as if to close the entrance. It’s obvious this had a ritual significance.
‘Many of the Norse words that are related to houses are derived from the human body. The word “window” comes from wind and eye and refers to openings in the walls where the wind comes in. The word “gable”, i.e. the top of the end wall of the house, means head or skull.’
Vikings saw a link between between the human body and the house. This suggested that the house borrowed many features from the human body. It’s very possible that Vikings believe the house had some kind of essence, some kind of soul and this was the reason why they wanted to give their house a proper burial.
The purpose of a cremation is to reduce the body to fragments, perhaps to liberate the soul or the essence, and this is interesting, since the houses may have been regarded as having an essence.
So, by burning down the house they may have had a wish to cremate it, to liberate the life force of the house. If houses and people could be part of a network that had “agency” – vitality and personality – this could at least be part of the explanation for the longevity of longhouses in Scandinavia.
The idea that your house plays an important part in our lives is not far-fetched. In modern times, we still have a strong relationship to our homes, especially the house where we grew up.
According to French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, “our first house is written into us, we carry it with us through life. Although we have walked up thousands of stairs, we never forget the staircase of our first childhood home, we recognize instinctively the steps that creak, and we never stumble. We carry the house with us for life.”
Viking were not aware of Gaston Bachelard’s thoughts, but their houses were so important to them, they deserved a proper burial.
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