Eaters of the Dead

Chapter 4

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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.

This impressed me greatly.

Now it happened that this Buliwyf, who was drunk as the rest, commanded that I should sing a song for them. He was most insistent. Not wishing to anger him, I recited from the Koran, with the translator repeating my words in their Norse tongue. I was received no better than their own minstrel, and afterward I asked the forgiveness of Allah for the treatment of His holy words, and also for the translation,  which I sensed to be thoughtless, for in truth the translator was himself drunk.

We had stayed two days among the Northmen, and on the morning we planned to leave, we were told by the translator that the chieftain Wyglif had died. I sought to witness what then befell.

First, they laid him in his grave, over which a roof was erected, for the space of ten days,  until they had completed the cutting and sewing of his clothes. They also brought together his goods, and divided them into three parts. The first of these is for his family; the second is expended for the garments they make; and with the third they purchase strong drink, against the day when a girl resigns herself to death, and is burned with her master.

To the use of wine they abandon themselves in mad fashion, drinking it day and night, as I have already said. Not seldom does one die with a cup in his hand.

The family of Wyglif asked of all his girls and pages, "Which of you will die with him?" Then one of them answered, "I." From the time she uttered that word, she was no longer free; should she wish to draw back, she is not permitted.

The girl who so spoke was then committed to two other girls, who were to keep watch over her, accompany her wherever she went, and even, on occasion, wash her feet. The people occupied themselves with the dead man – cutting out the clothes for him, and preparing whatever else was needful. During the whole of this period, the girl gave herself over to drinking and singing, and was cheerful and gay.

During this time, Buliwyf, the noble who would next be king or chieftain, found a rival whose name was Thorkel. Him I did not know, but he was ugly and foul, a dark man among this ruddy fair race. He plotted to be chieftain himself. All this I learned from the translator, for there was no outward sign in the funeral preparations that anything was not according to custom.

Buliwyf himself did not direct the preparations, for he was not of the family of Wyglif, and it is the rule that the family prepares for the funeral. Buliwyf joined the general merriment and celebration, and acted no part of kingly conduct, except during the banquets of the night, when he sat in the high seat that was reserved to the king.

This was the manner of his sitting: when a Northman is truly king, he sits at the head of the table in a large stone chair with stone arms. Such was the chair of Wyglif, but Buliwyf did not sit in it as a normal man would sit. Instead he sat upon one arm, a position from which he fell when he drank overmuch, or laughed with great excess. It was the custom that he could not sit in the chair until Wyglif was buried.

All this time, Thorkel plotted and conferred among the other earls. I came to know that I was suspected as some sorcerer or witch, which distressed me much. The translator, who did not believe these tales, told me that Thorkel said I had caused Wyglif to die, and had caused Buliwyf to be the next chief, yet verily I had no part in any of this.

After some days, I sought to leave with my party of ibn-Bastu and Takin and Bars, and yet the Northmen would not permit us to leave, saying that we must stay to the funeral, and threatening us with their daggers, which they always carried. Thus we stayed.

When the day was come that Wyglif and the girl were to be committed to the flames, his ship was drawn ashore on the banks of the river. Four corner blocks of birch and other woods had been positioned around it; also large wooden figures in the semblance of human beings.

In the meantime the people began to walk to and fro, uttering words that I did not understand. The language of the Northmen is ugly to the ear and difficult to comprehend. The dead chief, meanwhile, lay at a distance in his grave, from which they had not yet removed him. Next they brought a couch, placed it in the ship, and covered it with Greek cloth of gold, and pillows of the same material. There then came an old crone, whom they call the angel of death, and she spread the personal articles on the couch. It was she who attended to the sewing of the garments, and to all the equipment. It was she, also, who was to slay the girl. I saw the crone with my own eyes. She was dark, thickset, with a lowering countenance.

When they came to the grave, they removed the roof and drew out the dead man. Then I saw that he had turned quite black, by reason of the coldness of that country. Near him in the grave they had placed strong drink, fruits, and a lute; and these they now took out. Except for his color, the dead man Wyglif had not changed.

Now I saw Buliwyf and Thorkel standing side by side, making a great show of friendship during the burial ceremony, and yet it was apparent that there was no truth to their appearances.

The dead king Wyglif was now clothed in drawers, leggings, boots, and a caftan of gold cloth, and on his head was placed a cap made of gold cloth, trimmed in sable. Then he was carried to a tent in the ship; they seated him on a quilted couch, supported him with pillows, and brought strong drink, fruits, and basil, which they placed alongside him.

Then they brought a dog, which they cut in two, and threw into the ship. They laid all his weapons beside him, and led up two horses, which they chased until they were dripping with sweat, whereupon Buliwyf killed one with his sword and Thorkel killed the second, cutting them into pieces with their swords and flinging the pieces forth into the ship. Buliwyf killed his horse less swiftly, which seemed to have some import to those who watched, but I did not know the meaning.

Two oxen were then brought forward, cut into pieces, and flung into the ship. Finally they brought a cock and a hen, killed them, and threw them in also.

The girl who had devoted herself to death meanwhile walked to and fro, entering one after another of the tents that they had there. The occupant of each tent lay with her, saying, "Tell your master I did this only for love of him."

Now it was late in the afternoon. They led the girl to an object they had constructed, which looked like the frame of a door. She placed her feet on the extended hands of the men, who raised her above the framework. She uttered something in her language, whereupon they let her down. Then again they raised her, and she did as before. Once more they let her down, and then lifted her a third time. Then they handed her a hen, whose head she cut off and threw away.

I inquired of the interpreter what it was she had done. He replied: "The first time she said, 'Lo, I see here my father and mother'; the second time, 'Lo, now I see all my deceased relatives sitting'; the third time, '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 me, so bring me to him.' "

Then they led her away to the ship. Here she took off her two bracelets and gave them to the old woman who was called the angel of death, and she was to murder her. She also drew off her two anklets, and passed them to the two serving maids, who were the daughters of the angel of death. Then they lifted her into the ship, but did not yet admit her to the tent.

Now men came up with shields and staves, and handed her a cup of strong drink. This she took, sang over it, and emptied it. The interpreter told me she said, "With this, I take leave of those who are dear to me." Then another cup was handed to her, which she also took, and began a lengthy song. The crone admonished her to drain the cup without lingering, and to enter the tent where her master lay.

By this time, it seemed to me the girl had become dazed.  She made as though she would enter the tent, when suddenly the hag seized her by the head and dragged her in. At this moment the men began to beat upon their shields with the staves, in order to drown the noise of her outcries, which might have terrified the other girls and deterred them from seeking death with their masters in the future.

Six men followed her into the tent, and each and every one of them had carnal companionship with her. Then they laid her down by her master's side, while two of the men seized her feet, and two the hands. The old woman known as the angel of death now knotted a rope around her neck, and handed the ends to two of the men to pull. Then, with a broad-bladed dagger, she smote her between the ribs, and drew the blade forth, while the two men strangled her with the rope till she died.

The kin of the dead Wyglif now drew near and, taking a piece of lighted wood, walked backward naked toward the ship and ignited the ship without ever looking at it. The funeral pyre was soon aflame, and the ship, the tent, the man and the girl, and everything else blew up in a blazing storm of fire.

At my side, one of the Northmen made some comment to the interpreter. I asked the interpreter what was said, and received this answer. "You Arabs," he said, "must be a stupid lot. You take your most beloved and revered man and cast him into the ground to be devoured by creeping things and worms. We, on the other hand, burn him in a twinkling, so that instantly, without a moment's delay, he enters into Paradise."

And in truth, before an hour had passed, ship, wood, and girl had, with the man, turned to ashes.

THE AFTERMATH OF THE NORTHMEN'S FUNERAL

THESE SCANDINAVIANS FIND NO CAUSE FOR GRIEF IN any man's death. A poor man or a slave is a matter of indifference to them, and even a chieftain will provoke no sadness or tears. On the same evening of the funeral of the chief called Wyglif, there was a great feasting in the halls of the Northmen encampment.

Yet I perceived that all was not fitting among these barbarians. I sought counsel with my interpreter. He responded thusly: "It is the plan of Thorkel to see you die, and then to banish Buliwyf. Thorkel has gathered the support of some earls to himself, but there is dispute in every house and every quarter."

Much distressed, I said, "I have no part in this affair. How shall I act?"

The interpreter said I should flee if I could, but if I were caught, this would be proof of my guilt and I would be treated as a thief. A thief is treated in this fashion: the Northmen lead him to a thick tree, fasten a strong rope about him, string him up, and let him hang until he rots to pieces by the action of the wind and the rain.

Remembering also that I had barely escaped death at the hands of ibn-al-Qatagan, I chose to act as I had before; that is, I remained among the Northmen until I should be given free passage to continue on my journey.

I inquired of the interpreter whether I should bear gifts to Buliwyf, and also to Thorkel, to favor my departure. He said that I could not bear gifts to both, and that the matter was undecided who would be the new chieftain. Then he said it would be clear in one day and night, and no longer.

For it is true among these Northmen that they have no established way of choosing a new chief when the old leader dies. Strength of arms counts high, but also allegiances of the warriors and the earls and noblemen. In some cases there is no clear successor to the rule, and this was one of such eventualities. My interpreter said that I should bide my time, and also pray. This I did.

Then there came a great storm on the banks of the river Volga, a storm that persisted two days, with driving rain and forceful winds, and after this storm a cold mist lay on the ground. It was thick and white, and a man could not see past a dozen paces.

Now, these same giant Northmen warriors, who by virtue of their enormity and strength of arms and cruel disposition, have nothing to fear in all the world, yet these men fear the mist or fog that comes with storms.

The men of their race are at some pains to conceal their fear, even one from another; the warriors laugh and joke overmuch, and make unreasonable display of carefree emotion. Thus do they prove the reverse; and in truth, their attempt to disguise is childish, so plainly do they pretend not to see the truth, yet verily, each and all of them, throughout their encampment, are making prayers and sacrifices of hens and cocks, and if a man is asked the reason of the sacrifice, he will say, "I make sacrifice for the safety of my faraway family"; or he will say, "I make sacrifice for the success of my trading"; or he will say, "I make sacrifice in honor of such or another deceased member of my family"; or he will say many another reason, and then he will add, "And also for the lifting of the mist."

Now, I accounted it strange for such strong and warlike people to be so fearful of anything as to pretend a lack of fear; and of all the sensible reasons for fear, mist or fog seemed to my way of thinking very greatly inexplicable.

I said to my interpreter that a man could fear wind, or blasting storms of sand, or water floods, or heaving of the ground, or thunder and lightning within the sky, for all of these could injure a man, or kill him, or ruin his dwelling. Yet I said that fog, or mist, contained no threat of harm; in truth it was the least of any form of changing elements.

The interpreter answered to me that I was lacking the beliefs of a sailor. He said that many Arab sailors agreed with the Northmen, in the matter of uneasiness  within the wrapping of mist; so, also, he said all seafarers are made anxious of any mist or fog, because such a condition increases the peril of travel upon the waters.

I said this was sensible, but that when the mist lay upon the land and not the water, I did not understand the reason for any fear. To this the interpreter replied, "The fog is always feared, whenever it comes." And he said that it made no difference, on land or water, according to the Northman view.

And then he said to me the Northmen did not, truly, much fear the mist. Also the interpreter said that he, as a man, did not fear the mist. He said that it was only a minor matter, of slight consequence. He said, "It is as a minor ache inside a limb joint, which may come with fog, but no more important."

By this I saw that my interpreter, among the others, denied all manner of concern for the fog, and feigned indifference.

Now it happened that the mist did not lift, although it abated and became thin in the after-part of the day; the sun appeared as a circle in the sky, but also it was so weak that I could look directly to its light.

In this same day there arrived a Northman boat, containing a noble of their own race. He was a young man with a thin beard, and he traveled with only a small party of pages and slaves, and no women among them. Thus I believed he was no trader, for in this area the Northmen principally sell women.

This same visitor beached his boat, and remained standing with it until nightfall, and no man came near to him, or greeted him, although he was a stranger and in plain sight to all. My interpreter said: "He is a kin of Buliwyf, and will be received at the night banquet."

I said, "Why does he stay at his ship?"

"Because of the mist," answered the interpreter. "It is the custom he must stand in view for many hours, so all can see him and know he is no enemy coming from the mist." This the interpreter said to me with much hesitation.

At the night banquet, I saw the young man come into the hall. Here was he warmly greeted and with much display of surprise; and in this most especially by Buliwyf, who acted as if the young man had just arrived, and had not been standing by his ship many hours. After the several greetings, the youth spoke a passionate speech, which Buliwyf attended with unusual interest: he did not drink and dally with the slave girls, but instead in silence heard the youth, who spoke in a high and cracking voice. At the finish of the tale, the youth seemed about to have tears, and was given a cup of drink.

I inquired of my interpreter what was said. Here was the reply: "He is Wulfgar, and he is the son of Rothgar, a great king in the North. He is kin of Buliwyf and seeks his aid and support on a hero's mission. Wulfgar says the far country suffers a dread and nameless terror, which all the peoples are powerless to oppose, and he asks Buliwyf to make haste to return to the far country and save his people and the kingdom of his father, Rothgar."

I inquired of the interpreter the nature of this terror. He said to me, "It has no name which I can tell."  The interpreter seemed much disturbed by Wulfgar's words, and so also were many of the other Northmen. I saw on the countenance of Buliwyf a dark and gloomy expression. I inquired of the interpreter details of the menace.

The interpreter said to me: "The name cannot be said, for it is forbidden to speak it, lest the utterance of the name call forth the demons." And as he spoke I saw that he was fearful just to think upon these matters, and his pallor was marked, and so I ended my inquiry.

Buliwyf, sitting at the high stone throne, was silent. Verily the assembled earls and vassals and all the slaves and servants were silent, also. No man in the hall spoke. The messenger Wulfgar stood before the company with his head bowed. Never had I seen the merry and rambunctious North people so subdued.

Then into the hall entered the old crone called the angel of death, and she sat beside Buliwyf. From a hide bag she withdrew some bones – whether human or animal I do not know – and these bones she cast upon the ground, speaking low utterances, and she passed her hand over them.

The bones were gathered up, and cast again, and the process repeated with more incantations. Now again was the casting done, and finally she spoke to Buliwyf.

I asked the interpreter the meaning of her speech, but he did not attend me.

Then Buliwyf stood and raised his cup of strong drink, and called to the assembled earls and warriors, making a speech of some good length. One by one, several warriors stood at their places to face him. Not all stood; I counted eleven, and Buliwyf pronounced himself satisfied with this.

Now also I saw that Thorkel appeared much pleased by the proceedings and assumed a more kingly bearing, while Buliwyf paid him no heed, or showed any hatred of him, or even any interest, although they were formerly enemies a few minutes past.

Then the angel of death, this same crone, pointed to me and made some utterance, and then she departed the hall. Now at last my interpreter spoke, and he said: "Buliwyf is called by the gods to leave this place and swiftly, putting behind him all his cares and concerns, to act as a hero to repel the menace of the North. This is fitting, and he must also take eleven warriors with him. And so, also, must he take you."

I said that I was on a mission to the Bulgars, and must follow the instructions of my Caliph, with no delay.

"The angel of death has spoken," my interpreter said. "The party of Buliwyf must be thirteen, and of these one must be no Northman, and so you shall be the thirteenth."

I protested I was not a warrior. Verily I made all the excuses and pleadings that I could imagine might have effect upon this rude company of beings. I demanded that the interpreter convey my words to Buliwyf, and yet he turned away and left the hall, saying this last speech: "Prepare yourself as you think best. You shall leave on the morning light."

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