The Oseberg Grave Contents – Interpretations
Summary/Article by Maria Kvilhaug
Gunhild Røthe: «Osebergfunnet – en religionshistorisk tolkning» (The Oseberg Find – an Interpretation from the Perspective of the History of Religion) 1994, Hovedfagsoppgave i religionshistorie, Avdeling for Religionshistorie, Institutt for Kultur og Samfunnsfag, Universitetet I Oslo.
Short presentation of the Oseberg Find
The Oseberg ship burial was excavated during the summer of 1904 at the farm Oseberg close to Tønsberg in the county of Vestfold, Norway. Beneath a mound that originally had been six meters tall and 44 square meters, archaeologists found Norway´s to this date richest burial site. The mound had been built with grass turfs packed tightly together and disguised a ship with a burial chamber in the stern. The timber has revealed that the grave must have been constructed in 834 AD, concurring with the styles of art that fit with the era between 800-850 AD.
In the grave was found many wooden objects, the skeletal remains of two women, and bones from many different animals. There were at least 20 horses, 4 hounds, as well as cows, an ox and pigs. The animals had been beheaded and their remains were found both within and outside of the ship. The human remains were scattered close to an entrance made by grave robbers, made through the ship´s stem and into the burial chamber. There was a large bed at the prow in which the head of an ox had been placed. In the stem (burial chamber) there was a lot of kitchen equipment, among which were many containers, such as the famous “Buddha-bucket”, probably of British origin. There was also farming equipment and a practical kind of sledge. At the prom were found many driving vessels, such as the famous wagon and the two sledges, all richly decorated and probably used for ritual or other ceremonious occasions. There were also two tents, and many staves with carved symbols animal heads, many of which may have been used for framing the tents. The largest tent was 5,3×4,5 meters in diameter and 3,5 meters tall. There were also five decorated animal-headed pillars and several rattles.
For the most part, objects found in the stem/burial chamber appear to be personal items while objects in the prow appear to be ritual objects, but two of the animal-headed pillars were placed in the stem/burial chamber. In the stem/chamber were found 5-6 beds, 4 bed-stands, a chair, 3 chests, and tools for textile work. The remains of 4 weave-stools, 2 band-weaves, 2 brick-weaves, spindles, wooden planks for beating laundry, two nails of wood, clubs for beating linen, an iron scissors and fragments of other tools used for textile work. Along with the personal items were found combs, shoes, a wooden saddle, a small staff with a carved dog´s head, feathers from thick sleeping blankets and pillows, and parts of tapestries.
History of Interpreting the Oseberg Ship Burial
The Oseberg ship was excavated in 1904, only the year before Norway was finally released from its union with Sweden and became a nation with its own king. Since 1814, Norway had been sharing a king with Sweden and was the less powerful part of the Union. Before that, Norway had been a vassal to Denmark for more than four hundred years. The Oseberg ship therefore became a symbol of Norway as an independent national state with the dissolving of the Union in 1905. This naturally influenced early attitudes to the splendid find. It was as if Norway´s former glory, when it still had its own royal lineage, had been restored. As such, the Oseberg find became a national monument.
The Oseberg burial is different from other graves from the period in that the buried were two women. In other cases where we have found more than one body in a grave, it has always been a man and a woman together. Such double burials are known from Norwegian areas since the Roman Iron Age and may point to a Norwegian form of Suttee, where the widow is sacrificed to follow her husband into the next world. When we are speaking of Suttee, we will find grave-goods from both the masculine and the feminine spheres in equal measure, and the contents will show that both man and woman belonged to the same social class. In the cases where the grave only contains masculine equipment, we are likely seeing that a slave woman has followed her master into the grave.
In the Oseberg find, the opposite is the case; this is an all-female grave, and both the skeletons are female. The most common interpretation has been that the grave belongs to a powerful woman, the “queen” and her slave-woman. For a long the time, the only discussion of this matter was who of the women was queen and who was slave.
The remains of the women were found scattered around the break-in (grave-robber´s) entrance, but were put together by the archaeologists to reveal the remains of one woman aged between 60 and 70, strongly suffering from arthritis (leddgikt) and a spinal dysfunction that must have made her back crooked, and she stood no taller than 1.50 meters. Her skeleton is the best preserved of them all.
The second woman´s remains are not as complete as the other. She was aged between 30 and 40 years old. Her collar bone had been crushed and her skull had been smashed before she died.
Kristian Emil Schreiner argued already in 1909 that the youngest woman must have been the “queen” exactly because most of her skeleton is missing. This may be due to the grave robbers having robbed the jewelry that may have been fastened to the woman´s skeleton. Besides, the teeth of the younger woman shows sign of the use of a tooth-pick which according to Schreiner was used only by the higher social classes.
Other archaeologists believed that the older woman was the “queen” because the skeleton of the younger woman bear traces of violence, which could mean that she was sacrificed.
Gustav Gulberg suggested a third possible interpretation, namely that the two women were of equal social standing, but left it there, thinking it unlikely.
As Gunhild Røthe points out in 1994, the question these first interpreters discussed was who “she” was, and not who “they” were. The other question discussed was whether they could connect the burial to the Ynglinga lineage in Vestfold, as it was described by Snorri and before him Thióðolf Skald. Since the 1990s, new perspectives have been fronted, discussing the women (both of them) as members of a religious community of some kind.
The Oseberg Find as Queen Ása´s Mound – an Ynglinga Heritage
The fact that ships and boats were used for burials may have to do with an idea that the dead could travel across the sea to the other side of death. Håkon Shetelig was the first to analyze the Oseberg burial in light of other ship burials found in Vestfold, Karmay and Namdalen. Typical for all these finds is the way the mound has been built, the ship as a burial chamber, and the large amount of grave goods. He sees this custom in relation to the customs of high-standing families and which may be traced to the large king-burial mounds in Uppsala. He believes that the ship-burials in Norway are inherited from the Swedes through the influence of the Ynglinga kings in Norway and suggests that this kind of burial is to a great extent the burial custom of the Vestfold-kings.
The focus on ancient royalty led to a particular interpretation of the grave contents. The finery of everything was proof of the “queen´s” exquisite and noble taste, a refined woman taken out of an early 20th century salon culture who would keep a number of great artists and craftsmen in her court. The ship and its contents were used when the “queen” went for little trips much like rich people today do when they go yachting. The dog remains show that she liked to have dogs as pets, much like Queen Victoria. The Oseberg “queen” fitted right into contemporary high society.
In 1917, Anton Wilhelm Brøgger suggested that the grave had belonged to the very powerful Queen Ása of Agder, daughter of Harald Granraudi (Red Beard).
The Ynglinga saga gives us the story of Ása and her importance in the rise of a Norwegian nation:
The Vestfold king, Gudröd of the Ynglinga lineage, wanted to marry Ása of Agder, but was refused. Then he killed her father and brother, abducted fifteen year old Ása, raped her and forced her to marry him. Resourceful young Ása was not the kind of woman who would submit to such atrocities. First, she made Gudröds life so miserable he became an alcoholic who never dared return to his own house. When their son, Halfdan the Black, was about a year old, Ása had Gudröd killed, making her personal slave do the deed (which was a way of showing how lowly she regarded him). Now 18 years old, Ása returned to Agder and ruled there herself, raising her son Halfdan the Black until he was 18 and ready to take over.
Halfdan claimed his part of the Vestfold kingdom from his half-brother Ólaf, who was later known as Ólad Geirstad-Elf, said to hear the prayers of people who went to sit out on his grave. Halfdan the Black claimed many Norwegian kingdoms (there were some thirty of them) during his life and fathered the famous Harald Hair-Fair, who became king of all Norway.
Brøgger argued that the name of the place, Oseberg, derived from ON Ásasbergr – “Ása´s Mound”, and that the grave belonged to Queen Ása. This would prove that the Ynglinga saga is historically quite accurate. Thus the many burial mounds of Vestfold became monuments marking the beginning of the Norwegian kingdom, and all the mounds have been attempted analyzed in light of the saga, trying to show which kings had been buried where.
Other Interpretations – The Mound of the Gods
Sophus Bugge suggested that the name Oseberg would more likely be derived from ON Ásabergr – “The Mound of the Gods” (ása is genitive plural of áss, “god”). It is by no means certain one of the women in the grave is Ása, but a connection to the Ynglinga lineage is likely.
In 1943, the archaeologist Guttorm Gjessing analyzed the burial from an art- and religion-historical perspective. He showed that the horse played an important symbolic role in art and in religious life such as sacrifice. He believed the horse was connected to a Sun cult and drew connections to older Danish cults from the Bronze Age, and this cult again could be connected to a fertility cult where the horse symbolized the divine power that secured fertility in people and in the land. He regarded the Oseberg ship burial as one of the most important examples of a horse-cult in heathen times.
The horse is clearly associated with the god Freyr, who was also the most important god of the Ynglinga lineage. He pictures the Slagen valley (where Oseberg is situated) as a cultic center with the farm Bø as a royal seat, where the buried woman lived. He suggests that she was a Gyðja, a pagan priestess devoted to Freyr, and links to various written sources suggesting that the god Freyr was served on Earth by a high priestess (such as the story of Gunnarr Helming in Flateyiarbók, where the Freyr-priestess drove the image of the god around in a wagon, making a procession through the countryside. Such processions are also shown in the tapestries.
Gjessing was the first to front the objects of the Oseberg burial as parts of a religious cult. He thus agrees with Bugge that the correct interpretation of the name Oseberg is Ásabergr – The Mound of the Gods. Thus the most important question is not to ask WHO the woman is, but WHAT she was – or they were. According to Gjessing, she was a priestess of the horse-cult associated with the Freyr-cult.
Freyia´s Representative on Earth – Ingstad´s Interpretation
The archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad proposed a new thesis in 1982. She sticks to the interpretation “Mound of the Gods” and also to the notion that the burial was connected to the Ynglinga lineage. The royal connection is among other things proved by the fact that the clothes of one of the women were red and of very fine quality. Such clothes are always found in the clothes of people of very high standing. Literary sources suggest that red was used by royalty and clergy. Ingstad suggested that the woman was Queen Alfhild, Gudröd´s first wife and mother to Ólaf Geirstad-Elf, since she believed that Ása of Agder must have been despised as a murderer by the Vestfoldings. Queen Alfhild must have been the youngest woman in the grave.
Ingstad also asks whether the Queen might have been more than just a Queen. The taptestries must have been woven by the Queen herself and her handmaidens. The motifs may be connected to people and events in the Queen´s life. They also appear to show scenes of ritual suggesting a Freyia-cult, including a scene where nine men are hanged in a serpent grove, which Ingstad interprets as a sacrifice to Freyia. She describes the sacrifice as a sacred marriage or more precisely a death-wedding where the sacrificed are men and the recipient is a goddess. The presence of a man´s saddle in the grave is interpreted as the symbolic presence of King Gudröd.
The hollow, bamboo-like staff in the grave is also connected to heathen cult, perhaps symbolizing fertility. It appears that the staff has been winded with linen threads, and Ingstad points out that linen was associated with Freyia, one of whose names was Hærn (“Linen”). She sees the staff as a phallic symbol and the linen as a symbol of Freyia, the combination of these is a symbol of the death-marriage. The cult-wagon has many images of cats, and in Freyia mythology, her wagon is drawn by cats. The travel equipment and the sacred objects prove that these were objects used in a traveling Freyia-cult. Ingstad concludes that the woman of Oseberg was an incarnation of Freyia and that the Queen, Alfhild, and the priestess were one and the same. The divine status of the woman was explained with several unusual traits in the grave. The very place of the burial in a flat, bog-like place, all the beheaded animals and all the stones that had been thrown over the grave goods are connected to typical sacrifice more than to typical burials. Only the cultic function of the grave may explain why the burial took the shape of a sacrifice. As Ingstad herself concludes:
“There they (the women) should lie for all eternity, close to the sanctuary they had served in life, so that they may continue to influence peace and fertility in the valley. As in life, so in death.”
Sacred Marriage – Gunhild Røthe´s Interpretation
Gunhild Røthe begins her analysis by comparing the Oseberg find with a written description of a Rus/Norse burial at Volga from the year 921 AD by the Arab emissary Ahmad Ibn-Fadlan. There are some similarities and some differences between the two sources.
In both the Oseberg and the Rus cases, a ship has been drawn inland, on which a burial chamber is prepared. In the Oseberg burial, the burial chamber is a tent-like wooden construction. In the Rus burial, there is an actual tent serving as a burial chamber. Blue-berries, apples, grains, walnuts, hazel nuts and other plant seeds and 54 wild apples picked in the month of September (which must have been the month of the burial) are found in Oseberg, all contents paralleled in the Rus burial. The way the animals have been sacrificed with axe-blows to their top neck as well as the types of animals sacrificed are also identical in the two sources. Ibn-Fadlan´s description shows that the beheading of the animals was important to the purpose of reading omens. The wealth of clothes and decorative equipment is another parallel. The textiles were treated with beeswax and the dead were put to rest amidst great luxury in both cases. In Ibn-Fadlan´s description, the dead man lay in another grave for ten days while they prepared the funeral, and suggests that he was buried in a wooden coffin, where there was also a deal of grave goods. The Oseberg find similarly shows that the dead may have been preserved for months while the burial was prepared. The sacrifice of a slave woman is another very relevant similarity. The Rus burial describes a violent death to the (volunteering) slave woman, and the skeleton of the younger woman at Oseberg shows sign of violent impact as well. Only very high status people were buried with sacrificed servants.
- Differences – the burning
The greatest difference between the two graves is that the Rus grave is burned after the burial procedures. The Oseberg burial was not. Both burial customs existed side by side in Norway at the time. The Oseberg burial is a lot bigger and richer than the Rus burial, and the buried are women.
- Ibn-Fadlan´s description of the Rus as relevant to the Norse
Ibn-Fadlan is being told by his interpreter why they burn the dead and his ship: It is to enable the chief to enter “Paradise”, possibly a way of liberating the soul from the body, which is how Ibn-Fadlan understands it.
Ibn-Fadlan also describes how the slave-woman looks into the next world and describes it as fair and green, a similarity to how Valhall is described in Hákonarmál as græna heima goda – “The Green Abode of the Gods”. Her way of achieving the vision is similar to other descriptions from Norse sources – drinking, singing, dancing and finally being lifted up to look above a “gate-hinge” and into the other world. A gate hinge was very much a symbol of the entry into the afterlife in Norse sources.
The Rus slave woman is treated like a high-standing woman before she dies and drinks heavily before she has intercourse with the friends of the dead man. The theme of a death-wedding is very much present. Ingstad had already pointed out sacred marriage symbolism in the Oseberg grave. Professor Gro Steinsland has shown since the 1990s that the sacred marriage was a very important part of Norse “king ideology” where death and erotic alliances are very much interconnected.
Cult Objects listed by Røthe
- The Rune Stave. A round birch stave, 2,5 meters long, 8 cm round in the middle and 2-3 cm in the end, broken in one end. On one end of the stave there is a carved ornament and runes reading “litiluism”. The ornament is identical to a Thor´s hammer symbol, used in Iceland as a magical sign. The runic inscription is difficult to decipher. Sophus Bugge has interpreted it as “lítil-viss (er) madr” – “Man knows little” or else “litill vissm” – “(Although) I am small I am wise”, or “litil vés m” – “I (who am) small am the sanctuary”.
- The Ship. The ship was built more delicately than traditional Viking ships and probably meant for calm journeys inside the relative safety of the fiords. Myths show that the ship symbolized both death and fertility. We also know from other sources both written and archaeological (rock carvings etc) that ships could have a cultic function. Tacitus described a German “Isis-cult” where the goddess stood at the prow of a ship, and the temple of the goddess Nehalennia in Domburg, dating back the the 2nd century AD shows images of the goddess at the prow or stern of ships, or at the steer. In Solarljod, Frigg is said to steer the Ship of Earth, and there are many images of ships from the Bronze Age where rituals are being performed on these, particularly dedicated to the Sun goddess.
- The Wagon. The Oseberg Wagon is the only wagon found from archaeological digs in Norway. It is 5 meters long, 2,5 meters broad and 1,2 meters tall. It was clearly not a practical wagon, and it was decorated with mythical scenes. It must have been a cult-wagon, a part of the processions shown in the Oseberg tapestries. The cat symbols suggest a link to Freyia, but there are several goddesses and gods who are described as wagon-driving. In Brennunjálssaga we are told that The image of Thor was placed in a wagon, a similar description is found about Thor´s image in Flateyiarbók, and also about Freyr. The image of the goddess Nerthus was drawn in a wagon according to Tacitus. In the Oseberg tapestries, wagons in the processions are often covered by a cloth, or else there are objects in the wagons that are covered. In Tacitus description, the goddess is covered by a cloth when she is drawn around during the ceremony.
- The Large Bed. This bed was situated at the prow. The head of an ox had been placed in the middle. It was a double bed, made for two people. Røthe interprets the bed as made for a wedding, the sacred marriage ritual. A pagan wedding was only completed when witnesses observed the couple actually copulating in the bed, before which the marriage oaths and the agreements between the two clans were made “at the bedstand”. Røthe connects the bed to the ritual of the Sacred Marriage connected to a death wedding. References to making a bed or copulating in the grave are many in Norse sources.
- Animal Head staffs.