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Ibn Fadlan and the Rus

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okamido View Drop Down

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    Posted: 30 May 2012 at 04:59

Ahmad ibn Fadlan ibn al-Abbas ibn Rasid ibn Hammid was a tenth century Arab explorer and ambassador from the Abbasid Caliphate, to the king of the Volga Bulgars. Some of us will know him better as the main protagonist in Michael Crichton's novel, The Eaters of the Dead, and its subsequent film adaption, The 13th Warrior. While Crichton used the adventures of ibn Fadlan in order to bring the tale of Beowulf to a modern audience, there was one aspect that he lifted directly from ibn Fadlan's eyewitness account, that of a funeral of a chieftain of the Rus. The Rus, or Varangians, were Vikings, that according to the Kievan Rus' Primary Chronicle, compiled in 1113, hailed from Sweden and the western coast of Finland. It would be through the Rus' control of the Volga trade route, that ibn Fadlan would come into contact with them.

ibn Fadlan describes his first impression of the Rus:
"I saw the Rusiya when they came hither on their trading voyages and had encamped by the river Itil", (The Volga), "I have never seen people with a more developed bodily stature than they. They are as tall as date palms, blond and ruddy, so that they do not need to wear a tunic nor a cloak; rather the men among them wear a garment that only covers half of his body and leaves one of his hands free."

Ibn Fadlan goes on to describe the women of the Rus, and how they are representative of their husband's measure of wealth, based on the type of broaches or jewelry she wears. Upon both of their breasts are fashioned broaches of either iron, silver, copper or gold. The greater their husbands were at gaining loot, or exacting trade, the better the quality of the broaches. If the husband is very successful, then he creates a gold ring for his wife's neck. This ring would be representative of 10,000 coins, which ibn Fadlan refers to in the Arabic dirham. As the husband's wealth would grow, he would add another ring with each 10,000 "dirham" he would acquire. Even with the wealth that would be deposited on the wives by their husbands, the most prized ornament was in fact, a greenish, glass, bead formed out of clay and worked with a polishing stone. Ibn Fadlan states that the men would purchase a bead for one dirham and then create a necklace for his woman as a token of affection.

From this brief description of the women, ibn Fadlan describes something that he finds quite appalling, the hygienic customs of the Rus.
The women:
" They are the dirtiest creatures of God. They have no shame in voiding their bowels or their bladders, nor do they wash themselves when polluted by emission of semen, nor do they wash their hands after eating. They are like asses who have gone astray."
Crichton's depiction closely matches ibn Fadlan's account of the men's hygiene:
" A slave girl brings each morning early a large vessel of water, and gives it to her master, and he washes his hands and face and the hair of his head. He washes it and combs it with a comb into the bucket, then blows and spits into the bucket. He holds back nothing impure, but rather lets it go into the water."
From this point, ibn Fadlan describes how the girl takes the water vessel to each man in the room, till each has had their turn cleaning themselves, in the same water as those before them.

While meeting with the Rus over several days, ibn Fadlan had their funerary rites described to him, and was able to witness them first hand when a Rus chieftain became ill and died. For seven the deceased lay in a grave, covered only with a wooden roof while his people cut and sewn proper garments for him. At this time, all of his possessions are divided into three parts. One third to his family, one third to provide for his funeral and beyond, and one third used to supply mead. This mead becomes the center point for the celebration of his life and is drank over the course of the seven day preparation.
Ibn Fadlan also described a custom in which the family of the deceased would supposedly ask a servant, "Which one of you wishes to die with him?" When one of the slaves consented, the family would grab her and bind her, so that there would be no backing out. In the event of the chieftain whose funeral ibn Fadlan actually observed, this did not happen. When the slave in ibn Fadlan's account consented, she was simply assigned two other slave to stay with her wherever she went, but was treated well with all of the food and mead she wished, as she sang happily every night leading up to the funeral.
Upon the day of the funeral, ibn Fadlan noticed that the Rus had pulled the deceased's vessel onto land, and was pulling inside of a makeshift structure. While this continued, the slave girl that would be sacrificed for her master went tent to tent with each Rus male in the camp, in which to have intercourse with them. At the conclusion, the men would state to her, "Say to thy lord, I have done this out of love to thee", their king.
As the time finally arrived, the slave girl was brought to the doorway of the structure which held her master's vessel, and was lifted three times into the air, in order to see the way into the afterlife. Ibn Fadlan was able to see that she was speaking during this ritual and inquired as to what she was saying. The translator told him this:
"When they raised her the first time, she said: 'Behold, I see my father and mother'; the second time she said, 'There I see all my dead relatives sitting'; the third time she said, 'There I see my lord sitting in paradise, and paradise is fair and green, and around him are men and servants. He calls me; bring me to him."
The men then led her into the boat, where an old woman, the angel of death, waited for her. The slave girl gave to armlets as a form of payment to the angel, as well as two anklets to the maidens that had watched her for the past seven days. From here six men with staves and shields appeared, one with a goblet of mead that the angel of death made the slave girl drink. I suspect that this mead was most likely containing some other agent, perhaps to put the girl in a less resistant frame of mind, as ibn Fadlan noted how adamant the angel of death was that the girl finish it. The six men then began to beat their shields with the staves as one by one they had intercourse with the girl. When this ritual was completed, the slave girl's hands and feet were bound and she was placed beside her dead lord, while the angel of death chose two of the men to give a special rope too. These two men wrapped the rope around the girls neck, waiting for the angel of death to strike with a knife that she produced. When the angel of death decided it was time, she jab the knife into the girl's chest as the two chosen men strangled her until dead.
As the ritual sacrifice completed and the perpetrators of the act departed, the deceased man's closest relative would strip naked, and carry lit kindling towards the vessel, while walking backwards, keeping his eyes on the spectators at all times. When he successfully lit the vessel ablaze, the spectators all came forward bearing their own kindling to join in the ritual, till the vessel was engulfed with fire.

It was interesting to read that Crichton and The 13th Warrior, (without the strangulation), depicted it fairly accurately. It is also noted by scholars, that this funeral depicted by ibn Fadlan, may still exist in the Balymer Complex, which is a four kilometer area near Balymer, Russia, and is home to many noble burials of the Rus, the Volga Bulgars, and the Golden Horde.
For your viewing pleasure:
Frye, R.(translator).Ibn Fadlan's Journey To Russia
Wustfield, H.(translator).Al-mustarak wadh'a wa al-Muftaraq Sa'qa
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