Eaters of the Dead

Chapter 2

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A word should be said about Ibn Fadlan, the man who speaks to us with such a distinctive voice despite the passage of more than a thousand years and the filter of transcribers and translators from a dozen linguistic and cultural traditions.

We know almost nothing of him personally. Apparently he was educated and, from his exploits, he could not have been very old. He states explicitly that he was a familiar of the Caliph, whom he did not particularly admire. (In this he was not alone, for the Caliph al-Muqtadir was twice deposed and finally slain by one of his own officers.)

Of his society, we know more. In the tenth century, Bagdad, the City of Peace, was the most civilized city on earth. More than a million inhabitants lived within its famous circular walls. Bagdad was the focus of intellectual and commercial excitement, within an environment of extraordinary grace, elegance, and splendor. There were perfumed gardens, cool shady arbors, and the accumulated riches of a vast empire.

The Arabs of Bagdad were Muslim and fiercely dedicated to that religion. But they were also exposed to peoples who looked, acted, and believed differently from them. The Arabs were, in fact, the least provincial people in the world of that time, and this made them superb observers of foreign cultures.

Ibn Fadlan himself is clearly an intelligent and observant man. He is interested in both the everyday details of life and the beliefs of the people he meets. Much that he witnessed struck him as vulgar, obscene, and barbaric, but he wastes little time in indignation; once he expresses his disapproval, he goes right back to his unblinking observations. And he reports what he sees with remarkably little condescension.

His manner of reporting may seem eccentric to Western sensibilities; he does not tell a story as we are accustomed to hearing one. We tend to forget that our own sense of drama originates in an oral tradition – a live performance by a bard before an audience that must often have been restless and impatient, or else sleepy after a heavy meal. Our oldest stories, the Iliad, Beowulf, the Song of Roland, were all intended to be sung by singers whose chief function and first obligation was entertainment.

But Ibn Fadlan was a writer, and his principal aim was not entertainment. Nor was it to glorify some listening patron, or to reinforce the myths of the society in which he lived. On the contrary, he was an ambassador delivering a report; his tone is that of a tax auditor, not a bard; an anthropologist, not a dramatist. Indeed, he often slights the most exciting elements of his narrative rather than let them interfere with his clear and level-headed account.

At times this dispassion is so irritating we fail to recognize how extraordinary a spectator he really is. For hundreds of years after Ibn Fadlan, the tradition among travelers was to write wildly speculative, fanciful chronicles of foreign marvels – talking animals, feathered men who flew, encounters with behemoths and unicorns. As recently as two hundred years ago, otherwise sober Europeans were filling their journals with nonsense about African baboons that waged war with farmers, and so on.

Ibn Fadlan never speculates. Every word rings true; and whenever he reports by hearsay, he is careful to say so. He is equally careful to specify when he is an eyewitness: that is why he uses the phrase "I saw with my own eyes" over and over.

In the end, it is this quality of absolute truthfulness which makes his tale so horrifying. For his encounter with the monsters of the mist, the "eaters of the dead," is told with the same attention to detail, the same careful skepticism, that marks the other portions of the manuscript.

In any case, the reader may judge for himself.

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