A friend from Japan recently emailed to say she was taking a pilgrimage to the countryside to attend a “funeral of dolls”. Turns out two weekends ago was Hina Matsuri, a Japanese festival devoted to dolls.
In one of the more dramatic festival rites dolls are taken to a special shrine, carried by women to the end of a jetty then placed in wooden boats. A priest blesses the dolls and they are set out to sea in their boats. “It’s worth staying around after the end of the main ceremony,” reads one Japanese travel website. “Then the boats are doused in gas and set alight.”
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The ritual is thought to help women get pregnant. Many women place their panties in plastic bags and clip them to prayer boards. The tradition began about 1,000 years ago, in the Heian period. The Japanese believed dolls were alive and had spirits. People would float straw dolls in small boats down rivers, believing that with them went their bad spirits and troubles. Often, fisherman accidentally caught the dolls in their nets. In Japan the bodies burnt in boats are dolls, but in some places a similar ritual once involved actual people. Viking funerals, which are thought to have occurred across Scandinavia and northern Britain, involved placing an important chief in a special bed on a ship then setting the craft aflame. The custom appears in the epic Old English poem, Beowulf, and an exceptionally detailed and gory description comes from the 10th century Arab writer Ibn Fadlan.
Fadlan tells the story of a Scandinavian chieftain who died while on an expedition. While new clothes were being sewn for him, the chieftain was buried in a temporary grave. One of his serf woman, called a thrall girl, volunteered to join him in the afterlife. She was guarded day and night and given numerous intoxicating drinks. When the time came for the cremation the chieftain’s long ship was pulled ashore and put it on a platform of wood. A special bed was made for the dead chieftain and an old woman referred to as the Angel of Death decorated it with cushions. With the bed ready the chieftain was exhumed from the temporary grave and dressed in his new clothes. Once in bed he was given intoxicating drinks, fruits and a stringed instrument. Around him were laid out his weapons. Two horses were run until they were sweaty then cut to pieces and thrown into the ship. Both a hen and a cock were sacrificed as well.
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Meanwhile, the thrall girl went from tent to tent, having sex with all the men present. “Tell your master that I did this because of my love to him,” they would whisper in her ear. Come afternoon she was given sufficient intoxicating drinks until she had been put into an ecstatic trance that made her psychic. Then she was put between a door frame, structures thought of as portals to the netherworld. Men lifted her on their palms through the doorway three times. Each time the girl was thrust through the portal she blurted out the visions that she saw. The first time she saw her father and mother, the second time she saw all her relatives, the third time she saw her master in the after world.
The thrall girl was then taken to the ship, her bracelets were removed and given to the Angel of Death and her rings were removed and given to the Angel of Death’s daughters. She was given more intoxicating drinks. The thrall girl sang goodbye to her friends then was pulled into the tent where the chieftain lay. Half a dozen men entered and had sex with her. Other men beat on their shields to drown out the sound of her screams. A passage taken directly from Ibn Fadlan’s journals best describes the gruesome scene that unfolded next:
“They laid her at the side of her master; two held her feet and two her hands; the old woman known as the Angel of Death re-entered and looped a cord around her neck and gave the crossed ends to the two men for them to pull. Then she approached her with a broad-bladed dagger, which she plunged between her ribs repeatedly, and the men strangled her with the cord until she was dead.”
Just last year, archaeology circles were abuzz about an exceptionally well-preserved Viking boat found at a site called Ardnamurchan, in northern Britain. The ship was thought to be more than 1,000 years old. Two bodies were found. Buried alongside them was an axe, a sword, a spear, a shield, a bronze ring, a whetstone and a knife-like object thought to be the tip of a bronze drinking horn. “What is interesting about this burial,” noted a Michigan State University anthropology PhD student named Katy who blogged about the incident, “is that the two individuals, initially thought to be male warriors are actually female.”