In the TV series Vikings there's a scene at the Norse temple Upsalla where a Viking warrior quite willingly agrees to be sacrificed in exchange for the goodwill & protection of the Norse gods for his friends and family. I was wondering how accurate this scene was & if this voluntary form of human sacrifice really occurred. I always thought Viking human sacrifices were of slaves or people they'd conquered in battle.

  • 2
    Did you try any research?
    – o0'.
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 14:01
  • Both cases you mention are human sacrifice, so it seem your answer is 'yes'
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 20:49
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    If you thought their human sacrifices were of slaves conquered in battle, then why did you ask if they practiced human sacrifice? What species did those slaves belong to? Or are you asking a completely different question about consensual sacrifice?
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 18:08
  • 2
    I think it's pretty clearly stated the OP is asking about people volunteering to be sacrificed vs slaves or captives who were not volunteers. Commented Dec 9, 2016 at 4:15

3 Answers 3


10th-century writer Ahmad ibn Fadlan describes voluntary human sacrifice in his account of a Viking funeral:

When their chieftain dies, his family ask his slave-girls and slave-boys, “Who among you will die with him?” and some of them reply, “I shall.” Having said this, it becomes incumbent upon the person and it is impossible ever to turn back. Should that person try to, he is not permitted to do so. It is usually slave-girls who make this offer.

I quizzed the interpreter about her actions and he said, “The first time they lifted her, she said, ‘Behold, I see my father and my mother.’ The second time she said, ‘Behold, I see all of my dead kindred, seated.’ The third time she said, ‘Behold, I see my master, seated in Paradise. Paradise is beautiful and verdant. He is accompanied by his men and his male-slaves. He summons me, so bring me to him.’” So they brought her to the ship and she removed two bracelets that she was wearing, handing them to the woman called the “Angel of Death,” the one who was to kill her.

Source: Ibn Fadlan and the Rusiyyah

This isn't exactly the same as the sacrifice shown on the show, but I think Lagertha's appearance during the scene fits the "Angel of Death" description, and perhaps that's a hint the producers were aware of Ibn Fadlan's narrative.

In any case, it's interesting to note that Ibn Fadlan's story may be supported by (sporadic & isolated) archaeological finds:

Ten Viking Age individuals from the northern Norwegian site at Flakstad were analysed for δ13C, δ15N and ancient mitochondrial DNA fragments. The material derives from both single and multiple burials with individuals treated in different ways. The genetic analyses show that the individuals buried together were unlikely to be maternally related, and stable isotope analyses suggest different strata of society. It is, therefore, suggested that slaves may have been offered as grave gifts at Flakstad. A comparison with the remaining population from single graves shows that the presumed slaves had a diet similar to that of the common population, whereas the high status individuals in multiple graves had a diet different from both slaves and the common population. The results provide an insight into the subsistence of different social groups in a Viking Age society, exposing unexpected patterns of living conditions and food distribution.

Source: Slaves as burial gifts in Viking Age Norway? Evidence from stable isotope and ancient DNA analyses, Elise Naumanna, Maja Krzewińskab, Anders Götherströmd, Gunilla Erikssond.

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    Very interesting. That incident looks more like sati or what you saw in high-raking Egyptian funerary practice (where the idea is for the deceased to have proper companionship in the afterlife) than a sacrifice to appease the gods. Still upvoting for the later quote, and because I was unaware of this one.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 15:19

As Yannis says, The "10th-century writer Ahmad ibn Fadlan describes voluntary human sacrifice in his account of a Viking funeral", but note that the designation he uses is "the rus" and it is situated at the Bulghars in the Volga area.

Since what became Russia has its origins when vikings from Scandinavia came to the area, and quickly became slavic speaking and got a slavic identity since they married local girls, at Fadlans time this may or may not be representative of a pagan Scandinavian culture.

So in my view, you should say "A rus funeral", and can add that this was probably vikings.

Note that the word "viking" describes an activity, something you did (they were "gone viking", i.e. travelling for raiding and/or trading), and did not really designate an ethnic group. If you stayed home on the farm you were just a norseman.

Prof. James E. Montgomery of Cambridge has written about this in an article called "IBN FADLAN AND THE RUSIYYAH" published in Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies 3 (2000).


I believe this may be a reference to the Blood Eagle practice. There is in fact a huge ongoing controversy over whether it was real. For example, one book I have on the Vikings from the 1960s asserts it as common practice (complete with a detailed description), while another I have offhandedly asserts it was made up by Christians.

On the pro side, it is attested in three old sagas: The Orkneyinga, Heimskringla, and Norna-Gests and there's probably a reference to it in The Tale of Ragnar's Sons. Here's the description (translated) from Orkneyinga:

Einarr made them carve an eagle on his back with a sword, and cut the ribs all from the backbone, and draw the lungs there out, and gave him to Odin for the victory he had won...

On the minus side, both of those first two sagas refer to the same incident, so it could well have been a one-off that was thought up on the spot. These particular sagas were not written down until the Medieval period was in full swing. The "blood eagle" isn't attested in any of our oldest and best sources (eg: The Eddas). All of the references we do have came well after Christianization, and Christians had a vested interest in portraying pagans as barbaric. Particularly literate Christians, who tended to be associated with the Catholic Church.

According to Gilbert Poole's Viking Poems on War and Peace, earlier sagas covering the same incident as the first two say that the death in question happened in battle, and only mention an "Eagle" as a carrion bird afterwards. He claims the origin of the story was a mistranslation/misunderstanding of these earlier sagas.

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    I don't think the question is about the blood eagle. Although there is one instance of it shown in the series, it's clearly an execution and not voluntary sacrifice.
    – yannis
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 14:42
  • @Yannis but most of this answer could be valid anyway (i.e. Christians creating propaganda). Of course, "could".
    – o0'.
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 15:05
  • @Yannis - Mostly agreeing with Lohoris. I get the impression that the people arguing against the existence of Blood Eagle tend to further argue that there isn't a lot of objective evidence that the Vikings engaged in ritual human sacrifice at all (unless you count trial-by-combat). At least that was the impression I got from Hutton. "Blood Eagle" was supposedly their method of ritual human sacrifice.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Jun 4, 2015 at 15:07
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    I think the standard means of sacrificing to Odin was to hang the fellows from a tree.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jun 5, 2015 at 23:52
  • Great quote & answer +1
    – turinsbane
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 18:44

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