Vikings have developed a pretty savage reputation over the years, thanks in no small part to their enemies, who were always eager to paint these historical raiders as mindless savages. And savage they were, without a doubt. There's plenty here to send a chill down even the toughest spine. But savage times make for savage men - and women.
As you read further, you'll likely note a striking disparity in Norse funerary traditions. On the one hand, they absolutely fit the stereotype of the violent barbarian, violating and pillaging his way through everything that moves. But there are also signs of a sophisticated society in the making, and social conventions thousands of years ahead of their time. In these strange and sometimes violent proceedings, we see some of both the best and worst of humanity.
It is worth noting all of the film and fiction references you'll find in this list. Everything from Marvel movies to Bram Stoker, Night of the Living Dead to Lord of the Rings. Norse culture seems to have touched every corner of our own in one way or another, and that's never more evident than when we look at their funerary traditions. Some beautiful, some violent, just like any basic encounter with humanity.
Fans of the Marvel cinematic universe may already be familiar with the concept of Ragnarok - it's also the title of the next Thor movie. Ragnarok is said to be the end of all things, beginning with the destruction of Asgard. Norse mythology lays out in incredible detail exactly how this will happen as well as how it has already happened several times before.
According to lore, on Ragnarok, an army of jotuun (frost giants) will arrive at the gates of Asgard on a massive ship called Nagflar. The ship will be held together not with iron nails, which won't be available to the jotuun, but rather with the fingernails of the dead.
In order to deny the frost giants their much-needed building material, Nordic people will trim or even remove the fingernails of the dead. No fingernails, no nails. No nails, no ship, and no Ragnarok. Let's see Marvel put THAT one in the movie.
Indeed, the iconic image of a burning ship sailing away into the night was based on a longstanding custom in Norse funeral rites. Effectively, this was another variation on the idea of grave goods - sending a person off to the afterlife with stuff they might need. And a warship certainly would come in handy in Valhalla, where eternal conflict would be a way of life.
However, it is worth noting that the image of a ship burning on the water is somewhat apocryphal. Ships were usually burned on the land, after laying a set of stones around the ship to mark its perimeter afterward. This boat-shaped stone outline is what archeologists typically look for when searching for burial sites. This might seem a little disappointing, but these are literal "ghost ships" we're talking about.
However, even ghost ships need a ghost crew... which brings us to the next part of the story.
It was dangerous duty working as a servant (or "thrall") to an important Norseman. Especially when he died. Like the Egyptians, Norse people would routinely sacrifice one or more thralls during funerals. There are stories of kings being sent off with a dozen or more male and female companions, including their wives. (All but the oldest of the wives, anyway - Norse kings usually had three or four.)
Even somewhat lower members of society could demand that slaves or thralls be sacrificed with them to serve them in the afterlife. Most of the time, these sacrifices were made willingly. Most of the time.
In Norse culture, it was believed that a man's ejaculate carried with it the essence of life. Life that he would need to continue the fight every day in Valhalla. In at least two documented cases, female sexual thralls of powerful kings were "sent off with him" to carry this gift of life. Prior to being strangled, stabbed in the ribs, and set on fire, the king's escort would effectively be passed around to every man in the village, and they would take turns giving her their "essence." For a week.
This was no doubt a rare occurrence, but there are at least two documented instances from Norse history. The Arab traveler and ambassador Ibn Fadlan witnessed one such sexual sacrifice, wherein six of the king's highest consuls had sex with the sacrificial victim on the funeral ship itself. Other warriors outside banged their shields to drown out the sound of her final screams as she was murdered.
It is worth noting that the female thrall would volunteer for this duty. Seems strange, but this isn't entirely unexpected given what we know of Norse culture. She would be highly honored, guarded day and night for her last week on earth, and be kept very, very drunk for the duration. So, depending on your perspective, this might be either the worst or the best way to die in Nordic culture.