Detail from Stora Hammars I shows a man lying on his belly with another man using a weapon on his back, a Valknut, and two birds, one of which is held by a man to the right, by Berig, derivative work: The Man in Question, is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Death, Commemoration and Memory in the Viking World

Tutor: Pragya Vohra

Module type: MA Option

Module code: HIS00094M

Credits: 20

In an Icelandic saga, a family are burned to death in their home. In Norway, a medieval queen is laid to rest in a custom-built ship, driven into a massive earth mound. In Dorset, 54 medieval Scandinavian skeletons are found decapitated. It is often through the record of death that we are able to learn about the life and worldview of the Vikings. All human societies remember, commemorate and even celebrate their dead; but across the Viking diaspora, there was no one way to deal with the dead. The Viking dead might feast in Valhalla, or be prisoners of Hel, or await resurrection at the Last Judgement. They might be buried or cremated; put in ship burials or funerary mounds or forgotten patches of land and sea; marked with hogbacks or standing stones or not at all. Some commemorations were entirely pagan; others drew on the new Christian religion.

This module seeks to understand the traces left in the varied death records of the Viking age in different parts of the diaspora. It takes an interdisciplinary approach to the Viking age dead, how they were commemorated and how memories were preserved. Alongside the archaeology of funerary practices, there is a wealth of information in sagas, poetry, laws, and runic inscriptions, revealing how death was understood in the Viking world. This module drives towards an understanding of the role of remembrance in funerary practices and the importance – to the Vikings and to us – of preserving the memories of the dead.

The provisional outline for the module is as follows:

    • Introduction to the Viking diaspora
    • Death and Memory: Theories, Connections and Intersections
    • Notions of Death in Myth and Religion
    • Viking age Funerary Practices: The Textual Evidence
    • Viking age Funerary Practices: The Archaeological Evidence
    • Material Memories: Runic inscriptions, Hogbacks, Coins
    • Commemorations in Song and Story: Skaldic verse and the Sagas
    • Death, Magic and Memory


Preliminary Reading

    • Price, Neil. ‘Dying and the Dead: Viking Age Mortuary Behaviour’ in The Viking World ed. by Stefan Brink and Neil Price, Routledge: 2008
    • Sawyer, Birgit. The Viking-age Rune-stones: Custom and Commemoration in Early Medieval Scandinavia. Oxford, Oxford University Press: 2000
    • Williams, Howard. Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain, Cambridge Studies in Archaeology. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 2006
    • Geary, Patrick J. Living with the Dead in the Middle Ages. Ithaca, Cornell University Press: 1994


For more information, please visit the module catalogue.