Eaters of the Dead (Page 7)


The Yakut manuscript contains a short description of Ibn Fadlan’s stay among the Baskirs; many scholars question the authenticity of these passages. The actual descriptions are unusually vague and tedious, consisting chiefly of lists of the chiefs and nobles encountered. Ibn Fadlan himself suggests the Baskirs are not worth bothering with, an uncharacteristic statement from this relentlessly curious traveler.

At length we left the land of the Baskirs, and crossed the river Germsan, the river Urn, the river Urm, then the river Wtig, the river Nbasnh, then the river Gawsin. Between the rivers that we mention, the distance is a journey of two, three, or four days in each case.

Then we came to the land of the Bulgars, which begins at the shore of the river Volga.


I SAW WITH MY OWN EYES HOW THE NORTHMEN  HAD arrived with their wares, and pitched their camp along the Volga. Never did I see a people so gigantic: they are tall as palm trees, and florid and ruddy in complexion. They wear neither camisoles nor caftans, but the men among them wear a garment of rough cloth, which is thrown over one side, so that one hand remains free.

Every Northman carries an axe, a dagger, and a sword, and without these weapons they are never seen. Their swords are broad, with wavy lines, and of Frankish make. From the tip of the fingernails to the neck, each man of them is tattooed with pictures of trees, living beings, and other things.


The women carry, fastened to their breast, a little case of iron, copper, silver, or gold, according to the wealth and resources of their husbands. Fastened to the case they wear a ring, and upon that a dagger, all attached to their breast. About their necks they wear gold and silver chains.

They are the filthiest race that God ever created. They do not wipe themselves after going to stool, or wash themselves after a nocturnal pollution, any more than if they were wild asses.

They come from their own country, anchor their ships in the Volga, which is a great river, and build large wooden houses on its banks. In every such house there live ten or twenty, more or fewer. Each man has a couch, where he sits with the beautiful girls he has for sale. He is as likely as not to enjoy one of them while a friend looks on. At times several of them will be thus engaged at the same moment, each in full view of the others.

Now and again, a merchant will resort to a house to purchase a girl, and find her master thus embracing her, and not giving over until he has fully had his will; in this there is thought nothing remarkable.

Every morning a slave girl comes and brings a tub of water and places it before her master. He proceeds to wash his face and hands, and then his hair, combing it over the vessel. Thereupon he blows his nose, and spits into the tub, and, leaving no dirt behind, conveys it all into this water. When he has finished, the girl carries the tub to the man next to him, who does the same. Thus she continues carrying the tub from one to another, till each of those who are in the house has blown his nose and spit into the tub, and washed his face and hair.


This is the normal way of things among the Northmen, as I have seen with my own eyes. Yet at the period of our arrival among them, there was some discontent among the giant people, the nature of which was thus:

Chapter 2

Their principal chieftain, a man of the name Wyglif, had fallen ill, and was set up in a sick-tent at a distance from the camp, with bread and water. No one approached or spoke to him, or visited him the whole time. No slaves nurtured him, for the Northmen believe that a man must recover from any sickness according to his own strength. Many among them believed that Wyglif would never return to join them in the camp, but instead would die.

Now, one of their number, a young noble called Buliwyf, was chosen to be their new leader, but he was not accepted while the sick chieftain still lived. This was the cause of uneasiness, at the time of our arrival. Yet also there was no aspect of sorrow or weeping among the people encamped on the Volga.


The Northmen place great importance on the duty of the host. They greet every visitor with warmth and hospitality, much food and clothing, and the earls and nobles compete for the honor of the greatest hospitality. The party of our caravan was brought before Buliwyf and a great feast was given us. Over this Buliwyf himself presided, and I saw him to be a tall man, and strong, with skin and hair and beard of pure white. He had the bearing of a leader.

Recognizing the honor of the feast, our party made a show of eating, yet the food was vile and the manner of the feast contained much throwing of food and drink, and great laughing and merriment. It was common in the middle of this rude banquet for an earl to disport with a slave girl in full view of his fellows.

Seeing this, I turned away and said, "I beg God’s pardon," and the Northmen laughed much at my discomfiture. One of their number translated for me that they believe God looks favorably upon such open pleasures. He said to me, "You Arabs are like old women, you tremble at the sight of life."

I said in answer, "I am a guest among you, and Allah shall lead me to righteousness."

This was reason for further laughter, but I do not know for what cause they should find a joke.

The custom of the Northmen reveres the life of war. Verily, these huge men fight continually; they are never at peace, neither among themselves nor among different tribes of their kind. They sing songs of their warfare and bravery, and believe that the death of a warrior is the highest honor.

At the banquet of Buliwyf, a member of their kind sang a song of bravery and battle that was much enjoyed, though little attended. The strong drink of the Northmen soon renders them as animals and stray asses; in the midst of the song there was ejaculation and also mortal combat over some intoxicated quarrel of two warriors. The bard did not cease his song through all these events; verily I saw flying blood spatter his face, and yet he wiped it away without a pause in his singing.