I am interested in understanding something which I have seen in the film 13th warrior where the Vikings all use the same bowl of water to clean themselves. It also happens in the TV show Vikings (No link).

I am curious about a few things, (all really only one question).

What exactly is going on?

  1. Is it really a Viking thing?
  2. Why are they doing it?

Edit: Some clarification.

I am looking for information concerning whether this is a real Viking ceremony, (or custom). In the 13th warrior (the linked video) there is no mention of this, or why it is happening, and as was pointed out - is an actual account of some traveler. However - in the TV Vikings (no link) there is a hint that this is some sort of ceremony for either travelling, or war, or a new ship.

  • 4
    I feel sick now. :(
    – Russell
    Apr 10, 2013 at 8:11
  • @Russell That was not my intention.
    – Inbar Rose
    Apr 10, 2013 at 8:17
  • I know, don't worry. :)
    – Russell
    Apr 10, 2013 at 11:04
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    I just got through watching the "Vikings" series season 1 episode 2, "Wrath of the Northmen", and as stated above, the slave girl brought the basin of water to her master, who then washed his face and blew each nostril into the bowl, then to the next man and so on (some applied the water to their hair but not all of them). I HAD to ask the same question, "Did Viking culture actually do this as a ceremony to the gods, or as a custom before travel?" I've looked all over and can not find out for certain.
    – user16607
    Feb 24, 2016 at 23:28
  • Also depicted in The Vikings S01e02. Jul 29, 2017 at 16:07

5 Answers 5


I found at least one source that advances the notion that Crichton is referencing a source who had an agenda, and may have exaggerated for effect. Ahmad ibn Fadlan wrote about his visit to the Rus:

§ 84. Every day they must wash their faces and heads and this they do in the dirtiest and filthiest fashion possible: to wit, every morning a girl servant brings a great basin of water; she offers this to her master and he washes his hands and face and his hair -- he washes it and combs it out with a comb in the water; then he blows his nose and spits into the basin. When he has finished, the servant carries the basin to the next person, who does likewise. She carries the basin thus to all the household in turn, and each blows his nose, spits, and washes his face and hair in it.

Note: Ibn Fadlan's main source of disgust with the Rus bathing customs have to do with his Islamic faith, which requires a pious Mohammedan to wash only in running water or water poured from a container so that the rinsings do not again touch the bather. The sagas often describe a woman washing a man's hair for him, often as a gesture of affection. It would be likely that the basin was actually emptied between each bath: Ibn Fadlan would still have felt the basin contaminated by previous use. It does seem here that Ibn Fadlan may be exaggerating a bit for effect.

Viking Answer Lady, who is quoting Ahmad ibn Fadlan.

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    Ahmad ibn Fadlan was (probably) real enough. Though through my journeys through all the sagas, I have yet to come up against a similar description. Other customs are described in detail; this I have yet to find. The vikings did, however, drink of the same mead-bowl. But that does not exactly set them apart from other groups at the time. And the film 13th warrior was - well - awful in a number of ways.
    – benteh
    Dec 2, 2013 at 1:26

I believe that the scene is 13 Warriors is taken from the account of Ahmad ibn Fadlān ibn al-Abbās ibn Rāšid ibn Hammād (Arabic: أحمد بن فضلان بن العباس بن راشد بن حماد‎) detailing his dealing with Northmen. This was a inspiration for Michael Crichton's Eaters Of The Dead which was a source for 13 Warriors.

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    This is known to me, however, I am less interested in the movie, or historical sightings, only if it is real, many travelers embellished stories of foreign countries, and if there are no other sources, than it is only here-say. I am looking for proper information about if this was a Viking ceremony or a load of bull.
    – Inbar Rose
    Apr 10, 2013 at 9:22
  • @InbarRose Ahmad ibn Fadlan is a real person who wrote about real life Viking customs. He is not made up. Or did I misunderstood your comment? Jul 29, 2013 at 18:58
  • You may have misunderstood, I meant maybe the accounts were not real.
    – Inbar Rose
    Jul 30, 2013 at 6:55
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    @InbarRose: As far as I know, Ahmad ibn Fadlān ibn al-Abbās ibn Rāšid ibn Hammād (أحمد بن فضلان بن العباس بن راشد بن حماد‎) is a real person and his writings are considered a primary source. I could, of course, be wrong. Jul 30, 2013 at 7:01

The ritual bowl is not uncommon in Germanic tribal culture. Even in modern settings communal washing bowl would not be considered disgusting (participated myself in Iraq) Most of us are more unnerved by the nose blowing etc. I have seen it suggested that Ahmad ibn Fadlan, might not of seen them emptying the bowl. Regardless, Arabs of the time only washed in running or poured water. Thus he would have seen it as disgusting regardless and might well of made a few assumptions.

I would love to find a better answer as well, to me it makes no sense when you consider the amount of water available to them.

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    Arabs at the time, except those living in coastal regions who'd bathe in the sea, probably barely washed at all as water was way too scarce... What little there was in most communities would be reserved for drinking and watering the fields.
    – jwenting
    Feb 5, 2014 at 12:59

For people who were so fastidious about their appearance, why would they wash their face in a bowl of water that has been used before, with the previous users blowing their noses into it. Maybe that's why they needed their combs, to comb out all the grot from their beards and hair. It is so unlikely as to be almost ludicrous, someone must have been trying to undermine them when it came to their ablutions, obviously not a fan of our viking brothers.

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    This answer could use some supporting evidence.
    – gktscrk
    Dec 21, 2020 at 11:15
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    Were the vikings fastidious about their appearance? Is there evidence that they were?
    – MCW
    Dec 21, 2020 at 11:20

I was told by my step father whose family had orginally been from Iceland that this was a common practice for the "vikings" or raiders to do once settling into new territory before battle in order to ensure that if one of the men had become ill by whatever their immune systems had not been adapted to, all would become sick and either they would be able to fight together after recovering or they would die together. Not sure if it is true but it would make sense why they would blow their noses and wash their faces in the same water together.

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    Do you have any stronger source than I was told...? Feb 8, 2021 at 6:09
  • Would they know enough about contagion to make this plausible?
    – TheHonRose
    Feb 8, 2021 at 21:25

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