In 1903, Norwegian archaeologists made a staggering find: an enormous Viking longboat buried at Oseberg, just south of Oslo. Tomb raiders had beaten the archaeologists to the finest treasure but the boat and remaining contents are still spectacular and the reconstructed vessel, with silver-inlayed stern and towering mast, forms the centrepiece of the Norwegian Ship Museum. Buried within the ship were two women. After cursory analysis, excavators initially reinterred them back into the burial mound, but they were recently exhumed and have now revealed more of their secrets.
Both women were elderly for the time at 70 and 50 years old. Bone analysis showed they had a good, meat-based diet and the younger even picked her teeth with a silver tooth-pick. These were clearly women of status. Archaeologists initially thought that they were wives of farm-owning gentry and some the objects in the grave not filched by the tomb raiders would not look out of place on a farm. But other objects, including the boat itself, were surely too valuable for mere farmer’s wives. So just who were these women and how did they earn their status? A small leather purse gives a clue.
Opening the purse, archaeologists found cannabis seeds. When burnt, they induce trance, famously used by the Scythian shamans recorded by Herodotus. Another item also hints at ritual: a rattle. It was discovered fastened to a post fashioned into an animal head and covered with sinuous knotwork. The tapestries accompanying the women may have illustrated the shamanic rituals in which it was used.
In ancient Norse society, shamanism or seiðr was the preserve of women. Practtioners were known as seiðkona or völva and they entered trance through drugs or by chanting. Whilst in trance, they obtained prophetic visions of the future. In the case of the Oseberg women, the cannabis seeds and rattle would have facilitated the journey.
Interestingly, seiðr was always closely associated with women and the female gender. Its practice was considered ergi or unmanly and male practitioners were reviled and sometimes even sentenced to death for their traoubles. Even the God Odin was taunted by Loki over his use of seiðr and, as a result, he has become important to the GLBT community due to his shifting gender roles.
The burial of the Oseberg women in a ship may also relate to trance journeys to the otherworld. Throughout prehistory and even into historic times, ships were seen as vessels to enable shamans to reach the otherworld and the dead to reach the afterlife. People were buried in graves shaped in the keel of a ship, images of ship keels were inscribed beneath burial mounds, and, in the far north, people engraved images of shamans onto rocks, banging their drums and sailing in ships to the otherworld.
The Oseberg ship had been securely tethered to the earth with an enormous boulder and it seems clear that it was not designed to sail anywhere in this world. But maybe its purpose was to take the two women, possibly seiðkona – practitioners of Norse shamanism – on their final journey beyond this world and into another. It was a route they had probably followed many times through their lives except, this time, it was to be their last.