In 921 AD, the Arab travel writer Ibn Fadlan described a Viking funeral ritual that he witnessed on the banks of the Volga. Among the grisly rites that accompanied the cremation, a young slave girl was killed and burned with the deceased warrior chief so that she could join and serve him in the next world. Fadlan writes, “Two held her hands and two her feet, and the Angel of Death wound a noose around her neck ending in a knot at both ends which she placed in the hands of two men, for them to pull. She then advanced with a broad-bladed dagger which she plunged repeatedly between the ribs of the girl while the men strangled her until she was dead.” This repulsive act could not better illustrate the ritual origins of the Odin hanging myth; the victim is both strangled and stabbed, just as the god hung and stabbed himself. Unaware of the mythology and the role of Odin as the ruler over Valhalla (“hall of the slain”), the Arab writer found no meaning in the bloody act. That he described the woman running the ritual as the “Angel of Death” is evidence for the existence of the female ritual leaders known as “choosers of the slain” – the valkyries in their original, pre-mythologized form.
Two ancient bodies have been discovered preserved in the bogs of Denmark that both testify to this method of sacrifice to Odin. The so-called Tollund Man and Haraldskær Woman both show proof of death by hanging, and they are generally accepted as human sacrifices. Most tellingly, the female body shows evidence of both hanging and a puncture wound. The dating of the man to the 4th century BC and the woman to the 5th century BC provides physical evidence of the ancient origins of the Norse religion. In 98 AD, Tacitus writes, “Traitors and deserters are hanged on trees; cowards, shirkers and sodomites are pressed down under a wicker hurdle into the slimy mud of a bog.” This brief passage ties together the use of hanging and the bog in sacrificial rites.
In Hávamál, one of the runes that Odin knows enables him to speak with the hanged dead. He says, “I know a twelfth one if I see, up in a tree, / a dangling corpse in a noose: / I can so carve and colour the runes / that the man walks / and talks with me.” Clearly, the hanged dead have a special relationship with Odin. Known as Dragudróttin (“lord of the dead”), Odin’s dealing with the departed goes beyond merely those who have died by hanging. In his endless quest for knowledge of the future, he several times quizzes the dead for information.
Picture is of Haraldskær Woman, from the bogs of Denmark, thought to be a willing sacrifice to Odin.
Tollund Man … notice the rope around his neck.