The name of Ibn Fadlan (أحمد بن فضلان بن العباس بن راشد) has received some notoriety in recent years, primarily due to fictionalized accounts of his travels in print and film. Enthusiasts of travel literature who have taken the time to read his work will find, however, that his actual travels have little to do with these sensationalized tales. His book is of great value to modern ethnographers; for it remains the only first-hand account we have of the customs and habits of Viking communities in Russia during the medieval period.
We do not know the dates of his birth or death. He steps on the stage of history abruptly in the wake of events that occurred between the years 900-920 A.D. A nomadic people known as the Bulghars, living along the Volga north of the Caspian Sea, sent an emissary to the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, Muqtadir, who ruled from 908 to 932. The Bulghar leader Almish wanted the caliph to send him a delegation to instruct his newly converted people in the Islamic faith; implicit in this request was a desire to be a tributary and protectorate of the Baghdad caliphate. Muqtadir sent off his team in late June of 921. Among this party was an inquisitive and observant man named Ibn Fadlan. He and his caravan headed east through Persia, stopping at Hulwan, Hamadhan, Rayy, Simnan, Nishapur, and Marw; they then pivoted north through Bukhara, Khwarazm, and Jit, which lies on the southern shore of the Aral Sea. From there they traveled even further north, crossing the rivers Jam (Emba), Jakhsh (Sagiz), and Udhil (Uil). Various incidents and adventures took place, of course, during this freezing itinerary, but we have not space enough to relate them here.
Ibn Fadlan’s importance to history begins when he makes contact with the Viking communities along the Volga and Kama rivers. The northmen of Scandinavia had established a brisk trading business along the major rivers of what is now western Russia; furs, slaves, spices, and coinage flowed freely along this little-known commercial artery of the medieval world. One gets the feeling, when reading Ibn Fadlan’s account of his travels, that the Vikings remain one of the most misunderstood people of the period; folklore has painted them as explorers and raiders, when perhaps their greatest legacy to history was as merchants and traders. Ibn Fadlan meticulously describes the dress, customs, and habits of the people of “Rus” (i.e., Vikings). He is objective, scrupulous in his details, and remarkably free from prejudice, especially in comparison with his Muslim and Christian contemporaries. He feels no need to darken his pages with portents, miracles, or condemnatory judgments; in this respect he is unique among medieval travelers.
No student of Scandinavian history or medieval travel literature can afford to ignore him. He provides the only known account of a Viking burial, and is the sole source for other customs as well. Here he describes the Rus (northmen) for the first time in 922:
I saw the Rus, who had come for trade and had camped by the river Itil. I have never seen bodies more perfect than theirs. They were like palm trees. They are fair and ruddy. They wear neither coats nor caftans, but a garment which covers one side of the body and leaves one hand free. Each of them carries an axe, a sword and a knife and is never parted from any of the arms we have mentioned. Their swords are broad-bladed and grooved like the Frankish [i.e., Western European] ones. From the tips of his toes to his neck, each man is tattooed in dark green with designs, and so forth…
When they arrive from their land, they anchor their boat on the Itil, which is a great river, and they build large wooden houses on the banks. Ten or twenty people, more or less, live together in one of these houses. Each man has a raised platform on which he sits. With them, there are beautiful slave girls, for sale to the merchants. Each of the men has sex with his slave, while his companions look on. Sometimes a whole group of them gather together in this way, in full view of one another. If a merchant enters at this moment to buy a young slave girl from one of the men and finds him having sex with her, the man does not get up off her until he has satisfied himself. [Trans. by P. Lunde & C. Stone]
He records many other habits of the Rus, many of which he understandably finds shocking. We as readers must remember, however, that social customs arise as adaptations to the requirements and impositions of geography, climate, and utilitarian experience; and it is a mistake for one man to substitute his judgments for the collective human experience that may stretch back many centuries. Perhaps most fascinating are those passages that describe the elaborate burial rituals of the northmen; they are a mixture of sexual display and ritual sacrifice. When an important man died, it was customary for a slave girl to follow him to the grave:
On Friday, when the time had come for the evening prayer, they led the slave girl towards something which they had constructed and which looked like the frame of a door. She placed her feet on the palms of her hands of the men, until she could look over this frame. She said some words and they let her down…She took off the two bracelets that she was wearing and gave them both to the old woman who is known as the Angel of Death–she who was to kill her…
Then the old woman seized her head, made her enter the pavilion and went in with her. The man began to bang on their shields with staves, to drown her cries, so that the other slave girls would not be frightened and try to avoid dying with their masters…The old woman called the Angel of Death came and put a cord round her neck in such a way that the two ends went in opposite directions. She gave the ends to two of the men, so they could pull on them. Then she herself approached the girl holding in her hand a dagger with a broad blade…
These passages provide the modern ethnographer and historian with a mine of information. At the very least, the modern reader is left with the impression that the Rus were an enterprising and ruthless people; they did not yet possess the refinements of civilization, but were quick to learn from, and adapt to, every environment in which they found themselves. This extraordinary adaptivity is attested to by the presence of the northmen (“Normans”) all over Europe in medieval times; they even reached as far south as Sicily.
We know nothing of Ibn Fadlan’s return journey to Baghdad, or the details of the remainder of his life. He is honest and objective, but his powers are not perfect, of course. Our intrepid, cultured emissary from Baghdad errs in many places, recording the dubious presence of animals he calls “rhinoceroses,” as well as the the bones of human “giants.” His explanation of the aurora borealis is fantastical, but not much different from that of other observers of his period. These flaws recede far into the background when we assess the value of his work to posterity; and he retains a sense of humor, a probing curiosity, and a willingness to put himself in harm’s way to record the truth of events. This is the spirit kindled and nurtured by the greatest of explorers.
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