Eaters of the Dead

Chapter 5




IN THIS MANNER WAS I PREVENTED FROM CONTINUING my travels to the kingdom of the Yiltawar, King of the Saqaliba, and thus was I unable to discharge the trust of al-Muqtadir, Commander of the Faithful and Caliph of the City of Peace. I gave such instructions as I could to Dadir al-Hurami, and also to the ambassador, Abdallah ibn-Bastu al-Hazari, and also to the pages Takin and Bars. Then I took my leave of them, and how they fared further I never knew.

For myself, I counted my condition no different from a dead man. I was on board one of the Northman vessels, and sailing up the Volga River, northward, with twelve of their company. The others were named thus:

Buliwyf, the chief, his lieutenant or captain, Ecthgow; his earls and nobles, Higlak, Skeld, Weath, Roneth, Halga; his warriors and brave fighters, Helfdane, Edgtho, Rethel, Haltaf, and Herger.  And also I was among them, unable to speak their language or to understand their ways, for my interpreter had been left behind. It was only happenstance and the grace of Allah that one of their warriors, Herger, should be a man of parts and knowing some of the Latin tongue. Thus I could understand from Herger what meant the events that transpired. Herger was a young warrior, and very merry; he seemed to find jest in everything, and especially in my own gloom at the departure.

These Northmen are by their own accounting the best sailors in the world, and I saw much love of the oceans and waters in their demeanor. Of the ship there is this: it was as long as twenty-five paces, and as broad as eight and a little more than that, and of excellent construction, of oak wood. Its color was black at every place. It was fitted with a square sail of cloth and trimmed with sealskin ropes.  The helmsman stood upon a small platform near the stern and worked a rudder attached to the side of the vessel in the Roman fashion. The ship was fitted with benches for oars, but never were the oars employed; rather we progressed by sailing alone. At the head of the ship was the wooden carving of a fierce sea monster, such as appears on some Northman vessels; also there was a tail at the stern. In water this ship was stable and quite pleasant for traveling, and the confidence of the warriors elevated my spirits.

Near the helmsman was a bed of skins arranged upon a network of ropes, with a skin covering. This was the bed of Buliwyf, the other warriors slept upon the deck here and there, wrapping skins about them, and I did as much also.

We traveled upon the river for three days, passing many small settlements at the edge of the water. At none of these did we stop. Then we came upon a large encampment in a bend in the river Volga. Here were many hundreds of peoples, and a town of good size, and in the center of the town a kremlin, or fortress, with earthen walls and all of impressive dimensions. I asked Herger what was this place.

Herger said to me, "This is the city of Bulgar, of the kingdom of the Saqaliba. That is the kremlin of the Yiltawar, King of the Saqaliba."

I replied, "This is the very King I was sent to see as emissary from my Caliph," and with many entreaties I requested to be put upon the shore to do the mission of my Caliph; also I demanded, and made a show of anger, to the extent that I dared.

Verily the Northmen paid me no heed. Herger would not reply to my requests and demands, and finally he laughed into my face, and turned his attention to the sailing of the ship. Thus the Northmen's vessels sailed past the city of Bulgar, so close upon the shore that I heard the shouts of merchants and the bleating of sheep, and yet I was helpless and could do nothing, save witness the sight with my eyes. After the passing of an hour even this was refused me, for the Bulgar city is at the bend of the river, as I have said, and soon absent from my view. Thus did I enter and leave Bulgaria.

The reader may now be hopelessly confused about the geography. Modern Bulgaria is one of the Balkan states; it is bordered by Greece, Yugoslavia, Rumania, and Turkey. But from the ninth to the fifteenth centuries there was another Bulgaria, on the banks of the Volga, roughly 600 miles east of modern Moscow, and this is where Ibn Fadlan was heading. Bulgaria on the Volga was a loose-knit kingdom of some importance, and its capital city, Bulgar, was famous and rich when the Mongols occupied it in A.D. 1237. It is generally believed that Volga Bulgaria and Balkan Bulgaria were populated by related groups of immigrants moving out from the region around the Black Sea during the period A.D. 400-600, but little of substance is known. The old city of Bulgar is in the region of modern Kazan.

Then passed eight more days upon the vessel, still traveling the Volga River, and the land was more mountainous about the valley of the river. Now we came to another branching of the river, where it is called by the Northmen the Oker River, and here we took the leftmost branch and continued on for ten days farther. The air was chill and the wind strong, and much snow lay still upon the ground. They have many great forests also in this region, which the Northmen call Vada.

Then we came to a camp of North people which was Massborg. This was hardly a town but a camp of a few wooden houses, built large in the North fashion; and this town lives by sale of foodstuff to traders who come back and forth along this route. At Massborg we left our vessel, and traveled overland by horse for eighteen days. This was a difficult mountain region, and exceedingly cold, and I was much exhausted by the rigors of the journey. These North people never travel at night. Nor do they often sail at night, but prefer every evening to beach their ship and await the light of dawn before continuing farther.

Yet this was the occurrence: during our travels, the period of the night became so short you could not cook a pot of meat in the time of it. Verily it seemed that as soon as I lay down to sleep I was awakened by the Northmen who said, "Come, it is day, we must continue the journey." Nor was the sleep refreshing in these cold places.

Also, Herger explained to me that in this North country the day is long in the summer, and the night is long in the winter, and rarely are they equal. Then he said to me I should watch in the night for the sky curtain; and upon one evening I did, and I saw in the sky shimmering pale lights, of green and yellow and sometimes blue, which hung as a curtain in the high air. I was much amazed by the sight of this sky curtain but the Northmen count it nothing strange.

Now we traveled for five days down from the mountains, into a region of forests. The forests of the Northlands are cold and dense with gigantic trees. It is a wet and chilling land, in some locations so green that the eyes ache from the brightness of the color; yet in other locations it is black and dark and menacing.

Now we traveled seven days farther, through the forests, and we experienced much rain. Often it is the nature of this rain that it falls with such thickness as to be oppressive; upon one time or another I thought I might drown, so much was the very air filled with water. At other periods, when the wind blew the rain, it was as a sandstorm, stinging the flesh and burning the eyes, and blinding the vision.

Coming from a desert region, Ibn Fadlan would naturally be impressed by the lush green colors, and the abundant rainfall.

These Northmen feared no robbers in the forests, and whether from their own great strength or the lack of any bandits, in truth we saw no one in the forests. The North country has few people of any sort, or so it appeared during my sojourn there. We often traveled seven days, or ten, without viewing any settlement or farm or dwelling.

The manner of our journey was this: in the morning we arose, and lacking any ablutions, mounted upon our horses and rode until the middle of the day. Then one or another of the warriors would hunt some game, a small animal or a bird. If it was raining, this food would be consumed without cooking. It rained many days, and in the first instance I chose not to eat the raw flesh, which also was not dabah [ritually slaughtered], but after a period I also ate, saying quietly "in the name of God" under my breath, and trusting to God that my predicament should be understood. If it was not raining, a fire was lit with a small ember that was carried with the party, and the food cooked. Also we ate berries and grasses, the names of which I do not know. Then we traveled for the after-part of each day, which was considerable, until the coming of night, when again we rested, and ate.

Many times at night it rained, and we sought shelter beneath large trees, yet we arose drenched, and our sleeping skins drenched likewise. The Northmen did not grumble at this, for they are cheerful at all times; I alone grumbled, and mightily. They paid me no attention.

Finally I said to Herger, "The rain is cold." To this he laughed. "How can the rain be cold?" he said. "You are cold and you are unhappy. The rain is not cold or unhappy."

I saw that he believed this foolishness, and truly thought me foolish to think otherwise, and yet I did.

Now it happened that one night, while we ate, I said over my food "in the name of God, and Buliwyf inquired of Herger what it was I said. I told to Herger that I believed food must be consecrated, and so I did this according to my beliefs. Buliwyf said to me, "This is the way of the Arabs?" Herger was the translator.

I made this reply: "No, for in truth he who kills the food must make the consecration. I speak the words so as to be not forgetful."

This the Northmen found a reason for humor. They laughed heartily. Then Buliwyf said to me, "Can you draw sounds?" I did not comprehend his meaning, and inquired of Herger, and there was some talking back and forth, and finally I understood he meant writing. The Northmen call the speech of Arabs noise or sound. I replied to Buliwyf that I could write, and also read.

He said that I should write for him upon the ground. In the light of the evening fire, I took a stick and wrote, "Praise be to God." All the Northmen looked at the writing. I was commanded to speak what it said, and this I did. Now Buliwyf stared at the writing for a long period, his head sunk upon his chest.

Herger said to me, "Which God do you praise?" I answered that I praised the one God whose name was Allah.

Herger said, "One God cannot be enough."

Now we traveled another day, and passed another night, and then another day. And on the next evening, Buliwyf took a stick and drew in the earth what I had formerly drawn, and commanded me to read.

I spoke aloud the words: "Praise be to God." At this, Buliwyf was satisfied, and I saw that he had contrived a test of me, placing in his memory the symbols I had drawn, to show them to me again.

Now Ecthgow, the lieutenant or captain of Buliwyf, and a warrior less merry than the others, a stern man, spoke to me through the interpreter, Herger. Herger said, "Ecthgow wishes to know if you can draw the sound of his name."

I said that I could, and I took up the stick, and began to draw in the dirt. At once Ecthgow leapt up, flung away the stick, and stamped out my writing. He spoke angry words.

Herger said to me; "Ecthgow does not wish you to draw his name at any time, and this you must promise."

Here I was perplexed, and I saw that Ecthgow was angry with me in the extreme. So also were the others staring at me with concern and anger. I promised to Herger that I would not draw the name of Ecthgow, or of any of the others. At this they were all relieved.

After this, no more was my writing discussed, but Buliwyf gave certain instructions, and whenever it rained I was always directed to the largest tree, and I was given more food than before.

Not always did we sleep in the forests, nor did we always ride through the forests. At the border of some forests, Buliwyf and his warriors would plunge forward, riding at a gallop through the dense trees, without a care or a thought of fear. And then again, at other forests he would draw up and pause, and the warriors would dismount and burn a fire and make some offering of food or a few sheets of hard bread, or a kerchief of cloth, before continuing farther. And then they would ride around the edge of the forest, never entering its depths.

I inquired of Herger why this should be. He said that some forests were safe and some were not, but did not explain further. I asked him, "What is not safe in the forests that are judged so?"

He made this reply: "There are things that no man can conquer, and no sword can kill, and no fire can burn, and such things are in the forests."

I said, "How is this known to be?"

At this he laughed and said, "You Arabs always wish to have reasons for everything. Your hearts are a great bursting bag of reasons."

I said, "And you do not care for reasons?"

"It avails you nothing. We say: A man should be moderately wise, but not overwise, lest he know his fate in advance. The man whose mind is most free of care does not know his fate in advance."

Now, I saw that I must be content with his answer. For it was true that upon one occasion or another, I would make some manner of inquiry, and Herger would reply, and if I did not comprehend his answer, I would ask further, and he would reply further. Yet again, when I made of him an inquiry, he would reply in short fashion, as if the inquiry were of no substance. And then I would have nothing further from him, save a shaking of his head.

Now we continued on. Verily, I can say that some of the forests in the wild North country do provoke a feeling of fear, for which I cannot account. At night, sitting about the fire, the Northmen told stories of dragons and fierce beasts, and also of their ancestors who had slain these creatures. These, they said, were the source of my fear. But they told the stories with no show of fear, and of such beasts, I saw nothing with my own eyes.

One night I heard a grumbling that I took to be thunder, but they said it was the growl of a dragon in the forest. I do not know what is the truth, and report now only what was said to me.

The North country is cold and wet and the sun is seldom seen, for the sky is gray with thick clouds all the day. The people of this region are pale as linen, and their hair is very fair. After so many days of travel, I saw no dark people at all, and indeed I was marveled at by the inhabitants of that region on account of my skin and dark hair. Many times a farmer or his wife or daughter would come forth to touch me with a stroking motion; Herger laughed and said they were trying to brush away the color, thinking it to be painted upon my flesh. They are ignorant people with no knowledge of the wideness of the world. Many times they feared me, and would not approach me close. At one place, I do not know the name, a child cried out in, terror and ran to cling to his mother when he saw me.

At this, the warriors of Buliwyf laughed with great merriment. But now I observed this thing: with the passing of the days, the warriors of Buliwyf ceased to laugh, and fell into an ill humor, more each day. Herger said to me they were thinking of drink, of which we had been deprived for many days.

At each farm or dwelling, Buliwyf and his warriors asked for drink, but in these poor places there was often no liquor, and they were sorely disappointed, until at last there was no trace of cheerfulness about them.

At length we arrived at a village, and there the warriors found drink, and all of the Northmen became intoxicated in a moment, drinking in raucous fashion, heedless that the liquor poured over their chins and clothing in their haste. In truth, one of the company, the solemn warrior Ecthgow, was so demented from liquor that he was drunk while still upon his horse, and fell attempting to dismount. Now the horse kicked him in the head, and I feared for his safety, but Ecthgow laughed and kicked the horse back.

We remained in this village the space of two days. I was much amazed, for previously the warriors had shown great haste and purpose in their journey, yet all was now abandoned to drink and stuporous slumber. Then upon the third day, Buliwyf directed that we should continue, and the warriors proceeded, I among them, and they accounted the loss of two days nothing strange.

How many days further we traveled I am not certain. I know that five times we changed horses for fresh mounts, paying for these in the villages with gold and with the little green shells that the Northmen value more highly than any other objects in the world. And at length we came to a village of the name Lenneborg, situated by the sea. The sea was gray, and likewise the sky, and the air was cold and bitter. Here we took another vessel.

This ship was in appearance similar to the one previous, but larger. It was called by the Northmen Hosbokun, which means "sea goat," for the reason that the ship bucks the waves as a goat bucks. And also for the reason that the vessel was swift, for among these people the goat is the animal that means swiftness to them.

I was afraid to go upon this sea, for the water was rough and very cold; a man's hand plunged into that sea would lack all feeling in an instant, it was so dire cold. And yet the Northmen were cheerful, and joked and drank for an evening in this sea village of Lenneborg, and disported themselves with many of the women and slave girls. This, I was told, is the Northmen's custom before a sea voyage, for no man knows if he shall survive the journey, and thus he departs with excessive revelry.

In every place we were greeted with great hospitality, for that is considered a virtue by these people. The poorest farmer would set all he had before us, and this without fear that we would kill or rob him, but only out of goodness and grace. The Northmen, I learned, do not countenance robbers or killers of their own race, and treat such men harshly. These beliefs they hold despite the truth of the matter, which is that they are always drunk and brawling like unreasoning animals, and killing each other in hot duels. Yet they do not see this as murder, and any man who murders will be himself killed.

In the same way, they treat their slaves with much kindness, which was a wonder to me.  If a slave turns ill, or dies in some mishap, it is not counted any great loss; and women who are slaves must be ready at any time for the ministrations of any man, in public or in private, day or night. There is no affection for the slaves, and yet there is no brutality for them, either, and they are always fed and clothed by their masters.

Further I learned this: that any man may enjoy a slave, but that the wife of the lowest farmer is respected by the chiefs and earls of the Northmen, as they respect the wives of each other. To force attention on a freeborn woman who is not a slave is a crime, and I was told that a man would be hanged for it, although I never saw this.

Chastity among women is said to be a great virtue, but seldom did I see it practiced, for adultery is not accounted as any great matter, and if the wife of any man, low or high, is lusty, the outcome is not thought remarkable. These people are very free in such matters, and the men of the North say that women are devious and cannot be trusted; to this they appear resigned, and speak of it with their usual cheerful demeanor.

I inquired of Herger if he was married, and he said that he had a wife. I inquired with all discretion if she were chaste, and he laughed in my face and said to me: "I sail upon the seas, and I may never return, or I may be absent many years. My wife is not dead." From this, I took the meaning that she was unfaithful to him, and he did not care.

The Northmen do not consider any offspring a bastard if the mother be a wife. The children of slaves are slaves sometimes, and free sometimes; how this is decided I do not know.

In some regions, slaves are marked by a crop of the ear. In other regions, slaves wear a neckband of iron to signify their place. In other regions, slaves have no markings, for that is the local custom.

Pederasty is not known among the Northmen, although they say that other peoples practice it; they themselves claim no interest in the matter, and since it does not occur among them, they have no punishment for it.

All this and more I learned from my talking with Herger, and from witnessing the travels of our party. Further I saw that in each place where we rested, the people inquired of Buliwyf what quest he had undertaken, and when they were informed of its nature – that which I did not yet comprehend – he and his warriors, and I among them, were accorded the highest respect, receiving their prayers and sacrifices and tokens of good wishes.

At sea, as I have said, the Northmen become happy and jubilant, although the ocean was rough and forbidding to my way of thinking, and also to my stomach, which felt most delicate and unsettled. Indeed I purged myself, and then asked Herger why his companions were so happy.

Herger said, "It is because we shall soon be at the home of Buliwyf, the place known as Yatlam, where live his father and his mother and all his relatives, and he has not seen them for many long years."

To this I said, "Are we not going to Wulfgar's land?"

Herger replied, "Yes, but it is fitting that Buliwyf must pay homage to his father and also to his mother."

I saw by their faces that all the other earls, nobles, and warriors were happy as Buliwyf himself. I asked Herger why this was so.

"Buliwyf is our chief, and we are happy for him, and for the power that he will soon have." I inquired what was this power of which he spoke. "The power of Runding," Herger answered me. "What power is that?" I inquired, to which he made this reply: "The power of the ancients, the power of the giants."

The Northmen believe that in ages past the world was populated by a race of giant men, who have since vanished. The Northmen do not count themselves the descendants of these giants, but they have received some of the powers of these ancient giants, in such ways as I do not understand well. These heathens also believe in many gods, who are also themselves giants, and who also have power. But the giants of which Herger spoke were giant men, and not gods, or so it seemed to me.

That night we breached upon a rocky shore, made of stones the size of a man's fist, and there Buliwyf encamped with his men, and long into the night they drank and sang around the fire. Herger joined in the celebration and had no patience to explain to me the meanings of the songs, and so I do not know what they sang, but they were happy. On the morrow they would come to the home of Buliwyf, the land called Yatlam.

We left before the first fight of dawn, and it was so cold my bones ached, and my body was sore from the rocky beach, and we set out upon the raging sea and the blasting wind. For all the morning we sailed, and during this period the excitement of the men increased further until they became like children or women. It was a wonder to me to see these huge strong warriors giggle and laugh like the Caliph's harem, and yet they saw nothing unmanly in this.

There was a point of land, a high rocky outcrop of gray stone above the gray sea, and beyond this point, Herger told me, would be the town of Yatlam. I strained to see this fabled home of Buliwyf as the Northmen's vessel came around the cliff. The warriors laughed and cheered more loudly, and I gathered there were many rude jokes and plans for sport with women when they landed.

And then there was the smell of smoke on the sea, and we saw smoke, and all the men fell silent. As we came around the point, I saw with my own eyes that the town there was in smoldering flames and billowing black smoke. There was no sign of life.

Buliwyf and his warriors landed and walked the town of Yatlam. There were dead bodies of men and women and children, some consumed by flames, some hacked by swords – a multitude of corpses. Buliwyf and the warriors did not speak and yet even here there was no grief, no crying and sadness. Never have I seen a race that accepts death as the Northmen do. I myself was sick many times at the sights, and they were never so.

At last I said to Herger, "Who has done this?" Herger pointed in to the land, to the forests and the hills set back from the gray ocean. There were mists over the forests. He pointed and did not speak. I said to him, "Is it the mists?" He said to me, "Do not ask more. You will know sooner than you wish."

Now this happened: Buliwyf entered one smoking ruined house and returned to our company bearing a sword. This sword was very large and heavy, and so heated by the fire that he carried it with a cloth wrapped around the handle. Verily I say it was the largest sword I have ever seen. It was as long as my own body and the blade was flat and broad as the palms of two men's hands set side by side. It was so large and heavy that even Buliwyf grunted at the carrying of it. I asked Herger what was the sword, and he said, "That is Runding," and then Buliwyf ordered all his party to the boat, and we set out to sea again. None of the warriors looked back at the burning town of Yatlam; I alone did this, and I saw the smoking ruin, and the mists in the hills beyond.


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