Baghdad Merchant at a Viking Funeral, A.D. 922

When the day arrived on which he and his slave-woman were to be burnt, I went down to the river where his ship lay. It had been dragged on to the shore, and four supporting poles had been cut for it from birch and other wood. Moreover, something that looked like their big wooden sheds had been placed around it. Then the ship was placed on the wooden scaffolding, and people began to walk up and down speaking to each other in a language I did not understand. The dead man was still in his grave as they had not removed him from it. Thereupon they brought a bench, put it in the ship and covered it with silk rugs and cushions with painted patterns from Byzantium. An old woman, whom they call ‘the Angel of Death’, spread the rugs on the bench. She was in charge of the sewing of the clothes for the dead man and in charge of the preparation of his body. She is also the one who kills the slave-women. I saw that she was an old giant of a woman, thickset and sombre of aspect.

When the people came to his grave, they first removed the soil from the wooden palisades and then the palisades. Then they dragged him out in the clothes he had died in. I noticed that he had turned black because of the great cold in that country. Together with him in the grave they had put silk, fruit and a stringed instrument. All of this was removed as well. Oddly, the man did not smell, and nothing had changed about him, except the colour of his skin. So they dressed him in trousers, top trousers, a kind of coat and mantle of painted silk with gold buttons, and on his head they put a cap of silk with sable fur. They carried him into the tent they had put up on the ship, where they placed him on the rug and supported him with the cushions….

Meanwhile, the slave-woman who wished to be killed was walking up and down, and she went into one after another of their tents, and the master of the tent had intercourse with her, saying ‘Tell your master that I only do this out of love for him.’… So they took her to the ship. There she took off the two armbands she was wearing and gave them to the old woman they call the Angel of Death, who was the one who was going to kill her. Then she took off her two ankle rings and gave them to the Angel of Death and her daughters. Thereupon they led her into the ship, but did not let her into the tent. Then the men came and they were carrying shields and wooden batons, and they handed her a beaker of nabîdh [a liquor]. She sang over it and drank it out. The interpreter said to me, ‘She is now taking leave of her friends with it.’ Thereupon another beaker was handed her. She took it and lingered somewhat longer over the song, but the old woman hurried her to make her drink it and enter the tent where her master was.

When I looked at her, she looked utterly confused. She wanted to go into the tent, but put her head between it and the ship. Then the old woman took hold of her head and got her into the tent, and the woman followed her. The men now began to beat the batons against the shields to drown the sound of her screams, so that the other girls should not get frightened and refuse to seek death with their masters. Then six men entered the tent, and they all had intercourse with her. Thereupon they put her next to her dead master. Two of them held her legs and two of them her hands. And the woman called the Angel of Death put a rope around her neck and gave it to two men for them to pull. Then she stepped forward with a dagger with a broad blade and thrust it between the ribs of the girl several times, while the two men strangled her with the rope so that she died.

The one who was next of kin to the dead man thereupon stepped forward. He picked up a piece of wood and set it alight. Then he walked backwards, with his back to the ship and his face to the audience, carrying the torch in one hand, while he held the other behind his back; he was naked. In this way they torched the wood they had placed under the ship, after they had put the slave-woman they had killed to rest next to her master. Then people arrived with wood and kindling. Everyone carried a piece of wood on fire at one end. This they threw on to the pyre, so that the fire caught first in the wood, then the ship, then the tent and the man and the slave-woman and everything in the ship. Thereupon a strong and terrible wind rose, so that the flames grew in strength and the fire blazed even more strongly.

Next to me was a man of al-rûs [the Viking settlers in Russia], and I heard him speaking to the interpreter who was with me. I asked the latter what he had said to him. The interpreter answered, ‘He said you Arabs are stupid.’ I asked why. He answered, ‘Because you throw the one you love and honour the most into the ground, and the soil and worms and bugs consume him. We on the other hand burn him in a moment, so that he goes to Paradise immediately.’ Then he roared with laughter. When I asked him why he laughed, he said, ‘The master of the dead man has sent the wind out of love for him to carry him away immediately.’

And really an hour had not passed before the ship, the wood, the slave-woman and the master had turned to ashes and dust of ashes. Thereupon they built in the place where the ship had stood something that resembled a round mound. In the centre of it they erected a large pole of birch. On it they wrote the name of the dead man and the King of al-rûs, and then they left.

SOURCE: Other Routes: 1500 Years of African and Asian Travel Writing, edited by Tabish Khair, Martin Leer, Justin D. Edwards, and Hanna Ziadesh (Indiana U. Press, 2005), pp. 277-280

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