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Risala: Ibn Fadlan's Account of the Rus

Dear Viking Answer Lady:

I've heard that Michael Crighton wrote a book based on Ibn Fadlan's account of the Varangian Rus, describing Scandinavian traders in 900's Russia. However, I'm also aware that Crighton is a well-known fiction writer. Are Eaters of the Dead and the movie 13th Warrior really based on Ibn Fadlan's history?

(signed) Signature Goes Here

Gentle Reader:

You are indeed correct to be skeptical. While undoubtedly Crighton had some familiarity with Ibn Fadlan's account, his well known novel Eaters of the Dead is totally fiction, mixing Ibn Fadlan with Beowulf and a bit of H.G. Wells' Morlocks added for flavor. There are, however, translations of Ibn Fadlan's true account available, including the excerpts discussing Ibn Fadlan's adventures among the Rus as discussed below.

Risala: Ibn Fadlan's Account of the Rus

Ibn Fadlan was an Arab chronicler. In 921 C.E., the Caliph of Baghdad sent Ibn Fadlan with an embassy to the King of the Bulgars of the Middle Volga. Ibn Fadlan wrote an account of his journeys with the embassy, called a Risala. This Risala is of great value as a history, although it is clear in some places that inaccuracies and Ibn Fadlan's own prejudices have slanted the account to some extent.

During the course of his journey, Ibn Fadlan met a people called the Rus, a group of Swedish origin, acting as traders in the Bulgar capital. The first allusion to the Rus comes toward the close of the description of the Bulgars. When the Rus or people of another race came with slaves for sale, the king of the Bulgars had a right to choose one slave in each ten for himself. The full description begins:

§ 80. I have seen the Rus as they came on their merchant journeys and encamped by the Volga. I have never seen more perfect physical specimens, tall as date palms, blonde and ruddy; they wear neither tunics nor caftans, but the men wear a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free.

Note: Although Ibn Fadlan here says the men go without "tunic or caftan," he later describes the funeral of a Rus chieftain, who is specially dressed in both tunic and caftan before cremation (§ 89). The tunic probably corresponds to Old Norse kyrtill, "a knee-length tunic with sleeves which was worn belted." The caftan is a heavy woolen overgarment, known in Old Norse as an ólpa. The "garment which covers one side of the body and leaves a hand free" must be the Norse rectangular cloak (Old Norse möttull, skikkja, or feldr) which was worn pinned at the right shoulder leaving the sword-hand free.

§ 81. Each man has an axe, a sword, and a knife and keeps each by him at all times. The swords are broad and grooved, of Frankish sort. Every man is tatooed from finger nails to neck with dark green (or green or blue-black) trees, figures, etc.

§ 82. Each woman wears on either breast a box of iron, silver, copper or gold; the value of the box indicates the wealth of the husband. Each box has a ring from which depends a knife. The women wear neck rings of gold and silver, one for each 10,000 dirhems which her husband is worth; some women have many. Their most prized ornaments are beads of green glass of the same make as ceramic objects one finds on their ships. They trade beads among themselves and they pay an exaggerated price for them, for they buy them for a dirhem apiece. They string them as necklaces for their women.

I. In place of gold the Rus use sable skins. No standard measure is known in the land; they buy and sell by dry measure. They are very fond of pork and many of them who have assumed the garb of Muslimism miss it very much.

II. The Rus are a great host, all of them red haired; they are big men with white bodies. The women of this land have boxes made, according to their circumstances and means, out of gold, silver, and wood. From childhood they bind these to their breasts so that their breasts will not grow larger. Each man puts a chain around his wife's neck for each thousand dinars of his wealth.

Note: The preceeding two paragraphs are from the 16th century C.E. Persian geographer Amin Razi, who has taken Ibn Fadlan's observation and attempted to devise a reason for the observation, thus mistakenly assuming that Ibn Fadlan's "breast boxes: -- actually the tortoise-shell shaped brooches of the Nordic woman's costume -- are used to control breast size, rather than being simple ornamentation.)

§ 83. They are the filthiest of God's creatures. They have no modesty in defecation and urination, nor do they wash after pollution from orgasm, nor do they wash their hands after eating. Thus they are like wild asses. When they have come from their land and anchored on, or ties up at the shore of the Volga, which is a great river, they build big houses of wood on the shore, each holding ten to twenty persons more or less. Each man has a couch on which he sits. With them are pretty slave girls destines for sale to merchants: a man will have sexual intercourse with his slave girl while his companion looks on. Sometimes whole groups will come together in this fashion, each in the presence of others. A merchant who arrives to buy a slave girl from them may have to wait and look on while a Rus completes the act of intercourse with a slave girl.

§ 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.

§ 85. When the ships come to this mooring place, everybody goes ashore with bread, meat, onions, milk and intoxicating drink and betakes himself to a long upright piece of wood that has a face like a man's and is surrounded by little figures, behind which are long stakes in the ground. The Rus prostrates himself before the big carving and says, "O my Lord, I have come from a far land and have with me such and such a number of girls and such and such a number of sables", and he proceeds to enumerate all his other wares. Then he says, "I have brought you these gifts," and lays down what he has brought with him, and continues, "I wish that you would send me a merchant with many dinars and dirhems, who will buy from me whatever I wish and will not dispute anything I say." Then he goes away.

If he has difficulty selling his wares and his stay is prolonged, he will return with a gift a second or third time. If he has still further difficulty, he will bring a gift to all the little idols and ask their intercession, saying, "These are the wives of our Lord and his daughters and sons." And he addresses each idol in turn, asking intercession and praying humbly. Often the selling goes more easily and after selling out he says, "My Lord has satisfied my desires; I must repay him," and he takes a certain number of sheep or cattle and slaughters them, gives part of the meat as alms, brings the rest and deposits it before the great idol and the little idols around it, and suspends the heads of the cattle or sheep on the stakes. In the night, dogs come and eat all, but the one who has made the offering says, "Truly, my Lord is content with me and has consumed the present I brought him."

§ 86. An ill person is put in a tent apart with some bread and water and people do not come to speak to him; they do not come even to see him every day, especially if he is a poor man or a slave. If he recovers, he returns to them, and if he dies, they cremate him. If he is a slave, he is left to be eaten by dogs and birds of prey. If the Rus catch a thief or robber, they hang him on a tall tree and leave him hanging until his body falls in pieces.

§ 87. I heard that at the deaths of their chief personages they did many things, of which the least was cremation, and I was interested to learn more. At last I was told of the death of one of their outstanding men. They placed him in a grave and put a roof over it for ten days, while they cut and sewed garments for him.

If the deceased is a poor man they make a little boat, which they lay him in and burn. If he is rich, they collect his goods and divide them into three parts, one for his family, another to pay for his clothing, and a third for making intoxicating drink, which they drink until the day when his female slave will kill herself and be burned with her master. They stupify themselves by drinking this beer night and day; sometimes one of them dies cup in hand.

Alt: They burn him in this fashion: they leave him for the first ten days in a grave. His possessions they divide into three parts: one part for his daughters and wives; another for garments to clothe the corpse; another part covers the cost of the intoxicating drink which they consume in the course of ten days, uniting sexually with women and playing musical instruments. Meanwhile, the slave girl who gives herself to be burned with him, in these ten days drinks and indulges in pleasure; she decks her head and her person with all sorts of ornaments and fine dress and so arrayed gives herself to the men.

When a great personage dies, the people of his family ask his young women and men slaves, "Who among you will die with him?" One answers, "I." Once he or she has said that, the thing is obligatory: there is no backing out of it. Usually it is one of the girl slaves who do this.

§ 88. When the man of whom I have spoken died, his girl slaves were asked, "Who will die with him?" One answered, "I." She was then put in the care of two young women, who watched over her and accompanied her everywhere, to the point that they occasionally washed her feet with their own hands. Garments were being made for the deceased and all else was being readied of which he had need. Meanwhile the slave drinks every day and sings, giving herself over to pleasure.

§ 89. When the day arrived on which the man was to be cremated and the girl with him, I went to the river on which was his ship. I saw that they had drawn the ship onto the shore, and that they had erected four posts of birch wood and other wood, and that around the ship was made a structure like great ship's tents out of wood. Then they pulled the ship up until it was on this wooden construction. Then they began to come and go and to speak words which I did not understand, while the man was still in his grave and had not yet been brought out. The tenth day, having drawn the ship up onto the river bank, they guarded it. In the middle of the ship they prepared a dome or pavillion of wood and covered this with various sorts of fabrics. Then they brought a couch and put it on the ship and covered it with a mattress of Greek brocade. Then came an old woman whom they call the Angel of Death, and she spread upon the couch the furnishings mentioned. It is she who has charge of the clothes-making and arranging all things, and it is she who kills the girl slave. I saw that she was a strapping old woman, fat and louring.

When they came to the grave they removed the earth from above the wood, then the wood, and took out the dead man clad in the garments in which he had died. I saw that he had grown black from the cold of the country. They put intoxicating drink, fruit, and a stringed instrument in the grave with him. They removed all that. The dead man did not smell bad, and only his color had changed. They dressed him in trousers, stockings, boots, a tunic, and caftan of brocade with gold buttons. They put a hat of brocade and fur on him. Then they carried him into the pavillion on the ship. They seated him on the mattress and propped him up with cushions. They brought intoxicating drink, fruits, and fragrant plants, which they put with him, then bread, meat, and onions, which they placed before him. Then they brought a dog, which they cut in two and put in the ship. Then they brought his weapons and placed them by his side. Then they took two horses, ran them until they sweated, then cut them to pieces with a sword and put them in the ship. Next they killed a rooster and a hen and threw them in. The girl slave who wished to be killed went here and there and into each of their tents, and the master of each tent had sexual intercourse with her and said, "Tell your lord I have done this out of love for him."

§ 90. Friday afternoon they led the slave girl to a thing that they had made which resembled a door frame. She placed her feet on the palms of the men and they raised her up to overlook this frame. She spoke some words and they lowered her again. A second time they rasied her up and she did again what she had done; then they lowered her. They raised her a third time and she did as she had done the two times before. Then they brought her a hen; she cut off the head, which she threw away, and then they took the hen and put it in the ship. I asked the interpreter what she had done. He answered, "The first time they raised her she said, 'Behold, I see my father and mother.' The second time she said, 'I see all my dead relatives seated.' The third time she said, 'I see my master seated in Paradise and Paradise is beautiful and green; with him are men and boy servants. He calls me. Take me to him.' " Now they took her to the ship. She took off the two bracelets she was wearing and gave them both to the old woman called the Angel of Death, who was to kill her; then she took off the two finger rings which she was wearing and gave them to the two girls who had served her and were the daughters of the woman called the Angel of Death. Then they raised her onto the ship but they did not make her enter the pavillion.

Alt. After that, the group of men who have cohabitated with the slave girl make of their hands a sort of paved way whereby the girl, placing her feet on the palms of their hands, mounts onto the ship.

The men came with shields and sticks. She was given a cup of intoxicating drink; she sang at taking it and drank. The interpreter told me that she in this fashion bade farewell to all her girl companions. Then she was given another cup; she took it and sang for a long time while the old woman incited her to drink up and go into the pavillion where her master lay. I saw that she was distracted; she wanted to enter the pavillion but put her head between it and the boat. Then the old woman siezed her head and made her enter the pavillion and entered with her. Thereupon the men began to strike with the sticks on the shields so that her cries could not be heard and the other slave girls would not seek to escape death with their masters. Then six men went into the pavillion and each had intercourse with the girl. Then they laid her at the side of her master; two held her feet and two her hands; the old woman known as the Angel of Death re-entered and looped a cord around her neck and gave the crossed ends to the two men for them to pull. Then she approached her with a broad-bladed dagger, which she plunged between her ribs repeatedly, and the men strangled her with the cord until she was dead.

§ 91. Then the closest relative of the dead man, after they had placed the girl whom they have killed beside her master, came, took a piece of wood which he lighted at a fire, and walked backwards with the back of his head toward the boat and his face turned toward the people, with one hand holding the kindled stick and the other covering his anus, being completely naked, for the purpose of setting fire to the wood that had been made ready beneath the ship. Then the people came up with tinder and other fire wood, each holding a piece of wood of which he had set fire to an end and which he put into the pile of wood beneath the ship. Thereupon the flames engulfed the wood, then the ship, the pavillion, the man, the girl, and everything in the ship. A powerful, fearful wind began to blow so that the flames became fiercer and more intense.

Alt: After the girl is slain, two relatives of the dead take brands and set the ship on fire, so that the dead man and the ship are shortly burned to ashes. If in this moment a wind blows and the fire is strengthened and the ashes are dispersed, the man is accordingly one who belongs in Paradise; otherwise they take the dead to be one unwelcome at the threshold of bliss or even to be condemned. When two people among them quarrel and the dissention is prolonged and the king is unable to reconcile them, he commands that they fight with swords; he who wins is right.

§ 92. One of the Rus was at my side and I heard him speak to the interpreter, who was present. I asked the interpreter what he said. He answered, "He said, 'You Arabs are fools.' " "Why?" I asked him. He said, "You take the people who are most dear to you and whom you honor most and put them into the ground where insects and worms devour them. We burn him in a moment, so that he enters Paradise at once." Then he began to laugh uproariously. When I asked why he laughed, he said, "His Lord, for love of him, has sent the wind to bring him away in an hour." And actually an hour had not passed before the ship, the wood, the girl, and her master were nothing but cinders and ashes.

Then they constructed in the place where had been the ship which they had drawn up out of the river something like a small round hill, in the middle of which they erected a great post of birch wood, on which they wrote the name of the man and the name of the Rus king and they departed.

§ 93. It is the custom of the king of the Rus to have with him in his palace four hundred men, the bravest of his companions and those on whom he can rely. These are the men who die with him and let themselves be killed for him. Each has a female slave who serves him, washes his head, and prepares all that he eats and drinks, and he also has another female slave with whom he sleeps. These four hundred men sit about the king's throne, which is immense and encrusted with fine precious stones. With him on the throne sit forty female slaves destined for his bed. Occasionally he has intercourse with one of them in the presence of his companions of whom we have spoken, without coming down from the throne. When he needs to answer a call of nature, he uses a basin. When he wants to ride out, his horse is brought up to the throne and he mounts. If he wishes to dismount, he rides up so that he can dismount onto the throne. He has a lieutenant who commands his troops, makes war upon his enemies, and plays his role vis-à-vis his subjects.

Outstanding men among them are inclined to occupy themselves with tanning and are not ashamed of this lowly occupation. The cloth of these lands and localities is famous, especially that of their capital, which is called Kyawh. Famous and noted cities of the Rus are Crsk and Hrqh.

Note: Here Ibn Fadlan is reporting hearsay about the distant capital of the Rus and the state in which their king resides. While the jewel-encrusted throne is certainly an exaggeration, the war-band that surrounds the king is reminiscent of the comitatus of Germanic practice. While it does seem extremely unlikely that the Rus king would mount and dismount from his horse directly from his high seat in the hall, Yngvars saga tells of one instance in which warriors ride into a hall and up to the king's throne there. The Rus king's delegation of war- making and civil administration to a lieutenant is not a Norse practice, but rather seems to be borrowed from the practice of the Khagan (King) of the Khazars or other Turkish tribes, who would appoint an official termed a bey for these activities.

The translation of the Rus section Ibn Fadlan's Risala, as given above, is a composite of the handful of surviving manuscript versions. For the full text and commentary of Ibn Fadlan's account of the Rus, please see:

Smyser, H.M. "Ibn Fadlan's Account of the Rus with Some Commentary and Some Allusions to Beowulf." Franciplegius: Medieval and Linguistic Studies in Honor of Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr. eds. Jess B. Bessinger Jr. and Robert P. Creed. New York: New York University Press. 1965. pp 92-119.

Another excellent translation and discussion:

Montgomery, James E. "Ibn Fadlan and the Rusiyyah". Journal of Arabic and Islamic Studies vol. 3 (2000) pp. 1-25. ISSN: 0806-198X.

Questions and Answers About Eaters of the Dead and 13th Warrior

Immediately after the release of 13th Warrior, the Viking Answer Lady's mail volume tripled with questions inspired by the movie. Let me re-emphasize, and it doesn't seem I can do this enough,

Eaters of the Dead and 13th Warrior are FICTION!!

Cover: Eaters of the Dead Reissue Eaters of the Dead became available again on bookstands retitled as The 13th Warrior to allow book tie-in sales to benefit from the movie's popularity.
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Cover: Eaters of the Dead 1988 edition Eaters of the Dead 1988 reprint edition.

Cover: Eaters of the Dead 1993 Edition Eaters of the Dead 1993 reprint edition.
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Cover: Eaters of the Dead Audio Cassette Abridged edition Eaters of the Dead Audio Cassette Abridged edition (May 1998)
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Let me take a moment to list the most common questions that I receive about the book or movie, and answer them here:

"... but Crighton says the book is the real Ibn Fadlan. You're (pick one or more) stupid/an idiot/uninformed/don't know what you're talking about..."

If you go to the back of the book and read Crichton's afterword, you will find the author's own words explaining that he used the Ibn Fadlan text to build the first three chapters of the book, and even Crichton can't remember what parts are fiction and what are real. Absolutely nothing past that point is from the real Ibn Fadlan. And it's dirt simple to figure out what is fiction and what is not, by reading the real Risala of Ibn Fadlan, presented above.

"... I want to know more about the culture of the Bear People!"

Once again, the book is fiction. If you read the book or pay attention to the movie, you quickly notice that the "wendol" are supposed to be some sort of pre-human or early human, probably Neanderthals. Aside from their appearance, there's the Clan of the Cave Bear thing going on with the bear symbols, there are Lascaux-like cave-paintings, and the Venus of Willendorf goddess images which all should give you a clue that these are supposed to be "cavemen" with appalling dietary preferences.

I'm not positive where Crichton picked up the term "wendol". It has obvious resemblances to the name "Grendel", which is in keeping with the Beowulf tie-ins throughout the tale. However, the modern archaeological term Vendel seems a more likely source of the word -- this being the term for the Iron Age Germanic culture of fully human people who immediately preceeded the Viking Age peoples, named after the typical artifacts found at the cemetary at Vendel, Sweden. As it is, Crichton's "wendol" seem more closely allied with H.G. Wells' Morlocks than with either Neanderthals or Vikings.

The only "bear people" of the Viking Age would have been the human, non-Neanderthal bersarks, the Viking Age equivalent of the modern Marine. You can read more about these warriors in my article Berserkergang.

"... tell me the words of the Viking Warrior Prayer used at the end of the movie. I want to know more about warrior prayers!"

The "prayer" is a part of the ritual described by the real Ibn Fadlan where a slave girl/concubine of a deceased Rus chieftain is about to be sacrificed to accompany her master to the grave. It is not used by any of the Rus warriors themselves. The movie uses it twice, once during the chieftain's funeral, and again towards the end of the movie in the mouths of the warriors. The book echoes the real words as used by the real Ibn Fadlan (compare to the Ibn Fadlan text above):

The prayer as recounted in the movie, The 13th Warrior:

Lo, there do I see my father.
Lo, there do I see my mother, my sisters and my brothers.
Lo, there do I see the line of my people back to the beginning.
Lo, they do call to me.
They bid me take my place on Asgard in the halls of Valhalla,
Where the brave may live forever.

The prayer as recounted in the book, Eaters of the Dead:

Lo, I see here my father and mother.
Lo, now I see all my deceased relatives sitting.
Lo, there is my master, who is sitting in Paradise.
Paradise is so beautiful, so green.
With him are his men and boys.
He calls to me, so bring me to him.

The problem with using "Asgard" and "Valhalla" is that Ibn Fadlan never actually learned to speak the language of the Rus. Instead, he has an interpreter, who translated the concepts into words in Ibn Fadlan's own language, hence "Paradise" instead of "Valhalla".

Regardless of the form, the prayer used in Eaters of the Dead and 13th Warrior are not at all like actual pagan invocations of the Norse gods from the viking Age. We do not have many examples, but two runic inscriptions give a good idea of what Viking prayers might really have been like:

Hail to you and good thoughts. May Thórr receive you, may Óðinn own you.
(NB380 inscription from Norway -- available on T-shirts and gifts)

May Thórr protect you with that hammer which came from out of the sea and may the lightning hold all evil away from you.
(Öl52 inscription, Öland, Sweden -- available on T-shirts and gifts)

"... what parts of the movie show accurate Viking stuff?"

None, almost. This isn't a historical piece. 13th Warrior was meant to be a fantasy-esque romp of full-bore Kick Butt Theater, not history. Director John McTiernan has said:

"We were mostly concerned that we stayed accurate to the geography of the imagination," relates John McTiernan. "One of the best examples of how this concept plays out is with the costuming for the warriors. These were twelve pretty tough guys who made their living as mercenaries, traveling all over Europe. Contemporary audiences bring their own connotations to interpretation of costuming. For instance, there was no notion that these warriors were men in tights. Even if a piece of costuming might be historically accurate, it might have been emotionally wrong. Our aim was always to create an authentic feel and environment for the story, and one that supported the depiction of the characters and the action."

The intrepid director doesn't say how his Viking warriors were time-tripping to the Elizabethan Era and meeting up with Roman gladiators and Spanish Conquistadores. As one Gentle Reader has said, "Isn't that the lamest EVER excuse for not bothering about historically accurate costumes?"

Before I go on, let me point out that despite McTiernan's misconception, the Vikings were not "men in tights". I have to agree, therefore, that the excuse is just that, and pretty lame.

The really glaring errors include:

Bad clothing

For examples of what Buliwyf's warband and the hapless inhabitants of Rothgar's hall should have been wearing, consult the resources on my clothing page.

Bad armor

The Viking Answer Lady has a fairly comprehensive article on Viking Arms and Armor. Start there in your search for what real Viking armor and weapons should look like.

There were several really glaring inconsistencies in the "Viking" armor as shown in the movie. It's important to recall that the movie is supposedly occurring between 900-1000 AD.

In the Anglo-Saxon epic poem, the weapons and armor of Beowulf's men are described as being mail shirts, boar-crested helms, and ash spears:

. . . Guðbyrne scan
heard hondlocen,     hringiren scir
song in searwum,     þa hie to sele furðum
in hyra gryregeatwum     gangan cwomon.
Setton sæmeþe     side scyldas,
rondas regnhearde,     wið þæs recedes weal,
bugon þa to bence.     Byrnan hringdon,
guðsearo gumena;     garas stodon,
sæmanna searo,     samod ætgædere,
æscholt ufan græg;     wæs se irenþreat
wæpnum gewurþad.     þa ðær wlonc hæleð
oretmecgas æfter     æþelum frægn:
Hwanon ferigeað     ge fætte scyldas,
græge syrcan     ond grimhelmas,
heresceafta heap?

[. . . Good byrnies glistened
hand-forged, hard;     ring-iron bright
sang as they strode    , and stepped to the hall.
in mail of battle     they marched along.
There, sea-weary     they set shields along the wall
they set their bucklers,     their broad shields, down,
and bowed them to bench:     the byrnies rang,
war-gear of men;     their weapons stacked,
spears of the seafarers     stood together,
gray-tipped ash:     that iron band
was worthily weaponed!     -- A warrior proud
asked of the heroes     their home and kin.
"Whence, now, bear     ye burnished shields,
harness gray     and helmets grim,
spears in multitude?]
(Beowulf, ll. 321b-335a)

Contrast this description to the gear being used by the warriors in McTiernan's movie:

Clive Russel as Helfdane the FatThe Peascod Breastplate. Peascod breastplates were developed ca. 1580 by the famous Greenwich armorer of Elizabeth I's time, Jacob Topf. The peascod breastplate was shaped to imitate the fashionable doublet of the period. In other words, this is the armor that does go with "men in tights"!

Clive Russel as Helfdane the FatThe Morion Helmet. The morion helmet was immortalized by the Spanish Conquistadores but was in use in many countries during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

Asbjorn 'Bear' Riis as Halga the WiseThe Samnite Gladiator Helm. Halga the Wise is shown wearing a Samnite gladiator Helm (galea) from ancient Rome, about a millenium before the beginning of the Viking Age.

Incorrect attribution of Óðinn as controlling men's fate, incorrect belief that wyrd cannot be changed

The concept of fate and destiny or wyrd is a unified theme of belief in Germanic thought. The epic poem Beowulf places these words in the mouth of the heroic warrior:

Gað á wyrd swá hío scel.

[Goeth ever Wyrd as she shall.]
(Beowulf, l. 455b)
. . . Wyrd oft nereð
unfægne eorl,     þonne his ellen deah.

[. . . For Wyrd oft saves
the undoomed earl     if he doughty be!]
(Beowulf, ll. 572b-573)

Wyrd or fate is not under the rule of Óðinn, as 13th Warrior would have you believe. Instead, fate is in the keeping of goddesses called the Norns:

Þaðan koma meyiar,     margs vitandi,
þrár, ór þeim sæ,     er und þolli strendr;
Urð héto eina,     aðra Verðandi
--scáro scíði--,     Skuld ina þriðio;
þær lög löumlgðo,     þær líf kuro
alda bornom,     ørlög seggia.

(Thence come the maidens,     Mighty in wisdom,
Three from the place,     Under the tree,
Wyrd is called one,     Another Verðandi
Scored they on wood,     Scyld is the third;
There Laws they laid,     There life chose,
To men's sons,     And spoke ørlög.)
(Völuspá 20-25)

The Norns lög lögðo "laws lay down" or more literally "lay layers." They also ørlög seggia "say ørlög." The word, ørlög is "ur-law, ancient law", but it is equally ancient layers of fate and destiny. There is a sense here of "weight of history" -- the layers are like literal "logs" in a woodpile -- it is easy to move the top logs, but very difficult indeed to shift the whole pile at once, or to move only the bottommost layers. Recent layers of wyrd or fate, the recent "layers laid down" or lög lögðo, may therefore be changed, for example by the valor of a warrior, as seen in the Beowulf quote above. But fate which involves many people, the destinies of whole familes, entire nations, or all the Nine Worlds, the "ur-law" or ørlög has much more depth, and is therefore much more difficult to shift. (Paul C. Bauschatz. The Well and the Tree. Amherst University of Massachusetts Press. 1982).
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"[Man] has no power over wyrd ('fate'), the destiny of the world, but he has freewill concerning his own destiny. The burden is placed firmly on the shoulders of the individual" (Graham D. Caie, The Judgment Day Theme in Old English Poetry. Publications of the Department of English, University of Copenhagen. Michael Chesnutt, Graham D. Caie, Lis Christensen and Niels Davidsen-Nielsen, eds. Copenhagen: Nova, 1976. p. 112.)
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Thirteen Warriors?

The "13th Warrior" concept was a plot device in the movie used to explain just exactly how Ibn Fadlan ended up trailing along with this band of doughty Norse warriors. Actually, the real Beowulf set out for Hrothgar's hall with a party totalling 15 men -- himself and fourteen men in the war-band, none of whom was an Arab, and definitely not Ibn Fadlan:

þæt fram ham gefrægn     Higelaces þegn,
god mid Geatum,     Grendles dæda;
se wæs moncynnes     mægenes strengest
on þæm dæge     þysses lifes,
æþele ond eacen.     Het him yðlidan
godne gegyrwan, cwæð     hu guðcyning
ofer swanrade     secean wolde,
mærne þeoden,     þa him wæs manna þearf.
ðone siðfæt him     snotere ceorlas
lythwon logon,     þeah he him leof wære;
hwetton higerofne,     hæl sceawedon.
Hæfde se goda     Geata leoda
cempan gecorone þara     þe he cenoste
findan mihte     XVna sum
sundwudu sohte;     secg wisade,
lagucræftig mon,     landgemyrcu.

[This heard in his home     Hygelac's thane,
great among Geats,     of Grendel's doings.
He was the mightiest     man of valor
in that same day     of this our life,
stalwart and stately.     A stout wave-walker (a ship)
he bade make ready.     Yon battle-king, said he,
far o'er the swan-road     he fain would seek,
the noble monarch     who needed men!
The prince's journey     by prudent folk
was little blamed,     though they loved him dear;
they whetted the hero,     and hailed good omens.
And now the bold one     from bands of Geats
comrades chose,     the keenest of warriors
e'er he could find;     with fourteen men
the sea-wood (the ship) he sought,     and, sailor proved,
led them on     to the land's confines.]
(Beowulf, ll. 194-209)

Viking Draft Horses??

Vikings didn't ride draft horses. It would have been a whole lot more reasonable for Ibn Fadlan to be teasing the Vikings about their dog-like horses than the other way around. For more information about Viking horses and horsemanship, see the Viking Answer Lady article Horses in the Viking Age.

Also see:

Sundkvist, Anneli. "Herding Horses: A Model of Prehistoric Horsemanship in Scandinavia -- and Elsewhere?" PECUS. Man and Animal in Antiquity. Proceedings of the Conference at the Swedish Institute in Rome, September 9-12, 2002. Ed. Barbro Santillo Frizell. (The Swedish Institute in Rome. Projects and Seminars, 1), Rome 2004. pp. 241-249. (Accessed 18 December 2005).

Horse Herds for Days...

The average horse requires 2 acres of pasture for grazing. The average cave has no pastures. So exactly where were the wendol keeping the enormous herd of cavalry-trained horses? And why hadn't King Rothgar's people noticed that there was an enormous horse herd nearby, or noticed the cavalry training necessary to get the horses to charge fortifications, fire, and armed men?

How Many Dead Bears?

Bear population density is dependent upon the quality and availability of food resources in a given locale, as well as the species of bear, and how territorial (or not) the bears are. Still, my research tends to indicate that average bear population densities for brown bears and grizzlies tend to be one bear in a 20 to 40 square kilometer area. For every member of the wendol tribe to have a full bear skin, not to mention all of the many bear bones used in the wendol villiage as objets de art, they'd have had to have completely exterminated all the bears of Scandinavia.

Still, there were a few good points:

Good clothing

In general, the extras were wearing fairly reasonable Viking clothing. I saw a number of quite accurate Viking outfits, male and female, among the extras. Note however that the women who you see the most of -- Queen Weilew, Olga, the seeress -- never are "fully dressed" as Viking women. They should be wearing a dress or chemise, over which would be an apron-dress or peplos-dress, and over that they might have a caftan, a shawl, or a coat.

Good armor and weapons

Antonio Banderas as Ibn Fadlan wears chainmail and holds a sword with a very Viking-type hilt and pommel.Dennis Storhoi as Herger the Joyous, wearing lamellar armor.Strangely enough, it is the foreigner Ibn Fadlan who comes closest to being armored as an authentic Viking, wearing a mail hauberk. The only other halfway authentic armor in the film is the scale or lamellar armor worn by Herger the Joyous. Lamellar scale may have been the armor used by the Byzantine Emperor's Varangian Guard.

The Viking swords used in the film are the most authentic note. They are correct in general shape. The one really bad bit of "sword-fu" in the movie was when Ibn Fadlan supposedly takes a tempered steel sword and grinds it down into a saber -- which would of course totally destroy the temper and make it about as useful as a crowbar thereafter. For more information on Viking swords, see the following:

Good Viking Ships

One of the dragon prows from the Oseberg Ship.The big flaw in the Viking ships were the fantasy prow and sternposts. Actual Viking Age "dragon prows" were much more stylized.

A very good element was that the sailors removed the dragon heads when approaching friendly shores -- an accurate bit of detail -- which was done to avoid affronting the local landvættir, the "land wights" or spirits of the land. Early Icelandic laws prohibited ships with dragon-heads on their prow from coming into the harbor lest the land-spirits were offended by a threat of hostility. The ships were required to take the dragon-head off the prow before they could enter the harbor: "No one shall have ships on the sea bearing figure-heads upon the prow; but if any one have such, he shall remove the heads before coming in sight of land, and not sail toward the land with gaping heads and out-stretching snouts, lest the landvættir should be frightened thereby."

Interesting Casting Choice

Richard Bremmer as Skeld the Superstitious is the 'tattooed Celt' in the movie.The tattooed Celt, Skeld the Superstitious is a reasonable addition to this Viking crew. Tattoos in some form are authentic for the Rus as a start, according to the actual words of Ibn Fadlan (see above). And there were large Viking settlements and armed camps all over Ireland by the timeframe of the movie, and plenty of Irish-Danish and Irish-Norwegian crossbreeds to go around. I've seen people complaining about the "Celt in the Crew" but really the only point of complaint is in the fact that he's wearing a Scottish kilt -- which were not developed until much later, around the 17th century. The type of kilt seen in 13th Warrior is even later, being the "walking kilt" of the 18th century, long after the end of the Viking Age.

A Real Holmgang

The hólmgang or duel between Herger and one of Hyglak's men was very much in keeping with Viking Age accounts of duels. For a comprehensive look at the Norse custom of duelling, see the Viking Answer Lady's article on Hólmgang.

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