10th Century Travels among the Norse, Bulgars, Khazars and Others
January 25, 2015 10:59 AM   Subscribe

The Risala of Ahmad ibn Fadlan is a tenth century travel narrative of an emissary of the Caliph to the Iltäbär of the Volga Bulgars. He described his encounters with many peoples on his journey, but the Risala is most famous for his account of the Rus and their funeral rites, who probably were Norse people who had settled along the Volga. If these were indeed the Norse, ibn Fadlan gives one of the most detailed contemporary descriptions of the Norse before they started writing down their own stories some centuries later. He was not the only Muslim to have encounters with the Norse, as Judith Gabriel explains in Among the Norse Tribes. Another 10th Century description of the Norse was by the Jewish al-Tartushi from Al-Andalus. Michael Crichton used the Risala as the basis for his novel Eaters of the Dead, which later was made into the movie The 13th Warrior. Both book and film left something to be desired in terms of historical accuracy.
posted by Kattullus (17 comments total) 73 users marked this as a favorite
Even though I wanted to have the translation of the complete Risala* as the first link, perhaps the best place to start reading is Gabriel's Among the Norse Tribes.

* I used the Google Cache because the translation is in .doc form on the Indiana University website
posted by Kattullus at 11:03 AM on January 25, 2015

My introduction to Ibn Fadlan's Risala, and an outstanding discussion of it, was in Timothy Taylor's The Buried Soul. He supplies a very vivid retelling of the burial of the Rus chieftan described by Ibn Fadlan, and analyzes the probable meaning of the horrifying ritual murder that caps the funeral, in terms of the surviving Rus/Viking chieftans helping their deceased master move from liminal semi-death fully into the afterlife. What a wonderful piece of comparative sociology Ibn Fadlan left to us!
posted by jackbrown at 12:02 PM on January 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

I first read ibn Fadlan in Carleton Coon (ed.), 1956, A General Reader in Anthropology, which in spite of the editor's worse than dubious legacy has some abridged/condensed versions of anthropological classics that I could still recommend, e.g. if you don't expect to read the full ~500 page versions of Argonauts of the Western Pacific or The Andaman Islanders but would like to read key points from them given their place in the history of the discipline.

It's pure speculation, but since Michael Crichton graduated with a degree in anthropology from Harvard in 1964 (where Coon had taught ~16 years earlier), it wouldn't surprise me if he was introduced to ibn Fadlan via the same source, because it's not something I've seen anthologized or even referenced much outside of closely connected work.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:47 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Well. That account of the "funerary right"/enslavement, rape, and murder of women sure does make my eyes blaze.
posted by xarnop at 12:48 PM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

We're whalers on the moon
We carry a harpoon
But there ain't no whales
So we tell tall tales
And sing our whaling tune

Just once (well ok, more than once) I would like to see a movie that does not just present a mishmash of
- historical facts that have been misinterpreted and/or shot full of holes
- random anachronistic crap inserted at random
- details completely dreamed up out of the blue
and call it a period piece. Then they start trotting out the bullshit about how audiences "wouldn't accept" a movie that wasn't a hot stinking mess of weird stuff they pulled out of their ass while stoned. How do they know that? Just for once, tell the damn story please. Or write some fiction and call it fantasy. That would be fine.
posted by bleep at 3:46 PM on January 25, 2015

Do you suppose this is the source of the red haired women the Greeks so loved?
posted by Oyéah at 4:00 PM on January 25, 2015

Great post, thanks. I just spent the afternoon chasing links. First the actual history angle, then movies and portrayal of history, different period clothing and on.
posted by Belle O'Cosity at 5:03 PM on January 25, 2015

I mean yes, obvsly the movie was gloriously terrible but on the other hand it inspired me to read interesting books so whatevs. Also I thought the bit where he slowly learns their language was really well done and ime totally realistic.
posted by poffin boffin at 5:11 PM on January 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

i remember reading the crichton book when i was a teen, and completely believing in the beginning that it was a non-fiction, though dramatized. i think it was about the time when the beowulf bits was undeniable that i had to pause and go, "wait a minute..."

as a result, for years i would not believe that ibn fadlan was an actual historical character.
posted by cendawanita at 8:04 PM on January 25, 2015

'The next day, we encountered a lone Turk of ugly countenance, shabby appearance, mean looks and despicable demeanor, just as we were overtaken by a heavy rain. He said: “Halt!” and the entire caravan, comprising close to three thousand mounts and five thousand men came to a halt. Then he said: “Not one of you will pass,” and we halted in obedience ot his order. We said to him: “We are friends of the Kudharkin.” Whereupon he began to laugh, saying: “Who is the Kudharkin? I shit on the beard of Kudharkin.” Then he said: “Pakand!” which means “bread” in the language of Khwarizm, and I handed him some round, flat loaves of bread. He took them and said: “Pass! I have taken pity upon you.”'

posted by moonbiter at 8:22 PM on January 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

This looks cool. Thanks.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:25 PM on January 25, 2015

The disgruntled Turk is very like the Legless Black Knight in Monty Python, somehow. I am fascinated with the history of this region, Pushkin covers some of this area in the nineteenth century, the tatooed Scandinavian traveling slavers, fascinating. Pushkin talked about the pillaging ways of the Don Cossacks, eerily similar.
posted by Oyéah at 9:19 PM on January 25, 2015

The 13th Warrior was ultimately very disappointing, but it was one redeeming feature: the single best montage of what it's like to learn a foreign language via immersion (ask me how I know....)
posted by digitalprimate at 11:25 PM on January 25, 2015

Ibn Fadlan's account, together with some other Arab travelers' stories, was published a few years back by Penguin.
Also, the article by Judith Gabriel mentions the tale of al-Ghazal's diplomatic mission to the Norse. Gabriel follows some recent scholarship [PDF] in claiming that this mission never took place. However, many are convinced that al-Ghazal did indeed travel to either Denmark or Ireland where he wrote poetry for the flirtatious Queen Noud (Aud?). (Denmark is more likely but the Irish story is quite captivating: W.E.D. Allen, The Poet and the Spae-Wife PDF) al-Ghazal was a professional diplomat who visited Constantinople on behalf of the Caliphate but his Andalusian background meant that he never quite got the recognition that he deserved -- or so his descendants said.
posted by CCBC at 11:48 PM on January 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Well that was disturbing.

I agree with bleep - I'd like to see a historical movie that really depicted the utter strangeness and horror of our ancestors' lives. Too often the characters come across as sensitive New Age pagans (e.g., Vikings), rather than ... whatever this was.
posted by kanewai at 12:30 AM on January 26, 2015

Geeze, I consider "The 13th Warrior" one of the most enjoyable movies ever made. An unheralded classic. You guys, like, bum me out sometimes.
posted by Chitownfats at 1:58 AM on January 26, 2015 [7 favorites]

digitalprimate - how do you know?
posted by longbaugh at 2:23 AM on January 26, 2015

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