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Viking Graves

from

"The Viking Age," by Paul B. Du Chaillu, vol. 1, p. 299-319

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Mouldering bones and ashes of mighty heroes and noble women now forgotten under the mounds, or in the grave made hoary by the centuries that shroud you by their oblivion, I salute you! We also shall be forgotten.
The thousands of mounds, cairns, bautasteinar (memorial stones) and graves found to this day all over the North show the high veneration the earlier English-speaking tribes had for their dead; these mounds or cairns are always situated on some conspicuous place by the coast, from which a magnificent view can often be had.

We have already treated of graves at some length with special reference to the age—stone, bronze, or iron—to which they belonged, and also with relation to the objects found in them. Before, however, proceeding to speak of the burial customs of the Norsemen it may be well to give some further idea of the various classes of graves.

Sweden is particularly rich in these mementoes of the past, in the midst of which the high roads not unfrequently pass, forming a most impressive scene. What emotion have I felt when standing upon many of these graves, deeply impressed by the beauty of loneliness of the site chosen and of it surroundings; perhaps never more so than on the coast of Bohuslän—the Viken of yore. There the cairns have been erected on the summit of the bare solid rocky hills of primary formation, several hundred feet above the level of the water, and overlooking a panorama of fjords, sounds, barren islands, and desolate coast, with the open seas beyond, and with the sun sinking below the horizon. The waves strike at their base, and with the wind sing mournfully a requiem over the forgotten dead; their work is done, the glorious mission they had to accomplish in the history of the world is ended, the mighty drama of the sword is closed.

It is towards evening, before the twilight fades gradually into darkness, that the scene of this weird landscape is most impressive, and no one can really imagine its effects until he stands upon the spot and sees the view spread before him.

In some parts of Norway the contrast is often great in the extreme; the mounds there have huge mountains in the background with their summits clad in snow, and in the foreground the grand open sea. One of the bleakest spots in the country, where these have been erected, is on the flat gravelly coast of Lyster, which lies between the mountain and the sea;—there, over the last resting-places of those warriors, the wind blows most fearfully in winter-time, and the sea dashes on the shore in huge foamy white waves.

In Denmark and parts of Sweden there are places on the elevated points of the coast full of charms, looking over the Sound, the Cattegat, the Baltic, or the waters of some of the great lakes. Many of these resting-places of man are now covered by forests, and upon some of the mounds huge oaks sprung from the acorn of their sires tell forcibly of the centuries that have passed over them.

We can vividly realise why the people laid their dead to rest by that sea they loved so much during their lifetime, and upon which they had sailed so often. The mariner as he passed by could behold the graves of the dead and victorious champions, whose memory was always kept fresh by the scalds who sang his exploits generation after generation, thus filling the youth of the country with pride, and making them wish to emulate the deeds of these men, often their kinsmen of old, who had gone to Valhalla.

The mounds and cairns are not always round, they are sometimes square, oblong, rectangular or triangular. The round mounds and cairns exist in different parts of the world, and in Scandinavia as far back as the stone and bronze ages; the vast number of bautastones seen all over the country shows also how well the injunctions of Odin were carried out by his followers in that respect. Some of these are very imposing, and their dark forms look weird enough against the landscape or the clear or gloomy sky. One of the finest stood in Brastod parish, Bohuslän, now lying prostrate and broken, its height being 26 feet; and its place was on one corner of a stone set of rectangular graves 40 feet in length and 28 feet in width.

The most interesting of the graveyards which I have seen is that of Hjortehammar, situated in the province of Blekinge on a narrow promontory lost in the maze of islands which dot the coast of Sweden on this part of the Baltic. It is joined now to an island situated near its further end by a causeway and a small bridge. This is not only remarkable from its position and size, but on account of the numerous forms of graves of various sizes it contains. The length of the cape is about 1,200 feet, and its greatest breadth about 200 feet. The engraving gives and idea of the shape and size of the different graves, some of which are shown in large scale. This cape is but a continuation of a ridge full of graves; heather and juniper cover many of them; and well chosen was this secluded a quiet spot for the last resting-place of their departed kinsmen or friends.

In the Háleygjatal, a poem on the genealogy of the famous Hákon jarl, tracing his pedigree to Odin, there is a passage which recalls the burial-place Hjortehammar.

Straumeyjar-nes which is
Stone-marked
Round the Fylkir's body
Is widely known.

Among the most remarkable and not uncommon stoneset graves are those of the so-called "ship-form" setting: they belong both to the earlier and later iron age. This peculiar form of grave is found on the peninsula of Scandinavia and on the islands of Gotland, Öland, and other islands of the Baltic, in Courland and Livonia, and was also erected in England and Scotland by the people of the North.

One of the most interesting is that where the rowers' seats are marked, and even a stone placed in the position of the mast.

The longest ship-form grave which I think is known is one near Kåsberga, a fishing village in the southern part of Sweden, with a length of 212 feet and a width of 60 feet. It is made by thirty-eight stones, the two forming the prow being 12 and 18 feet in height above the ground—the latter being the northern one.

But the finest of all, though less in size, is the famous one of Blomsholm, near Strömstad, the whole neighbourhood of which is surrounded with mementoes of the past—graves, don-rings, mounds, bautastones, and rock-tracings.

Many of the cairns, which are often beautifully arranged, are small, being 4 or 5 feet in height, or sometimes almost even with the ground, their diameter varying from 20 to 80 feet. Numbers of them have stone-settings, sometimes close, sometimes not.

One of the most interesting graves which have been recently opened in England is one belonging to the manor of Taplow, near Maidenhead, about fifty miles by river above London. The mound, 240 feet in circumference, and 15 feet high, overlooks the Thames and the surrounding lands.

Among the objects were two shield bones, one sword, fragments of others, fragments of a spear head, one bronze vessel, one wooden bucket so common in the graves of the North, with bronze hoops,&c., two pairs of glass vessels similar to one found with a burial ship in Vold in Norway, forty checkers, two pairs of ornaments for drinking horns (all of silver gilt), one green glass bead, &c.&c.; a fibula of the same form as those of the North. But the most remarkable article was a quantity of gold thread belonging to a garment, the triangular form of the pattern still remaining.

This grave, like the one of King Gorm of Denmark and several others of the North, is in the old churchyard where the ancient parish church stood. On the slope of the mound itself several Christian graves are seen. The viking, like some of the chiefs of the North, was probably buried on his estate on the land that had descended to him through his ancestors or which possibly he might have conquered from some of his foes. These antiquities by their form seem to belong to the later iron age. 


"The Viking Age," by Paul B. Du Chaillu, vol. 1, page 299-319

   

 
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