Viking ship cannabis conundrum

Ritual pot probable on Norwegian Viking burial ship

Photo: Erik Irgens Johnsen / Museum of Cultural History, Oslo The Oseberg ship on display in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.

Photo: Erik Irgens Johnsen / Museum of Cultural History, Oslo
The Oseberg ship on display in the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

In 2007, some cannabis seeds were found in a small leather purse among the grave goods of two women buried for more than 11 centuries on a Viking ship. The ship was discovered in 1903 in a mound at the Oseberg Farm near Tønsberg on the west bank of the Oslofjord. The find raised new questions in the research on Viking uses of psychoactive agents as well as on the significance of the burial of the women.

After archaeological excavation in 1904-1905, the ship had been meticulously restored at the University of Oslo and in 1926 put on display in the purpose-built Viking Ship Museum on the Bygdøy peninsula nearby. Scientists studied the ship and its artifacts for decades thereafter. Slowly, the circumstances of the burial and the ship were revealed. The splendid artifacts indicated that the burial had been regal. Analyses of the remains of the women showed that they had been of different ages, the elder one most likely a queen. Comparison of the wood in the ship with that of other finds indicated that it most likely had been built around the year 820 in Rogaland on the west coast of Norway.

The two women were reburied in 1948 following a controversy on respectful treatment of human skeletons. That halted research on them until their bodies were exhumed in 2007. Research then resumed, aided by more modern techniques. The ages of the women at death were estimated to be 50 and 70 years. They were found to have eaten more meat than fish, which implies the high social rank that would have justified their burial on a ship. DNA tests to see if they were related proved inconclusive. The find of the cannabis seeds deepened the mystery of their burial. Two explanations of the new mystery suggested themselves, practical and ritual.

The practical explanation was that the Vikings needed cordage for their ships. The best cordage was made from hemp. In 2012, archeologists found that hemp had been grown from as early as 650 to 800 at Stosteli, an Iron Age farmstead in Vest-Agder County. This implied that the cannabis seeds found on the Oseberg burial ship were intended to enable the women to cultivate it upon their arrival in the next world.

But none of the ropes or textiles found on board the Oseberg ship were made from hemp. Likewise, the two women had clothing made from flax, nettle, silk, and wool, but not from hemp. This suggests that the cannabis seeds were intended for ritual use.

One or both of the women may have been a Völva (“priestess” or “seeress”), a high position in Viking society, as implied by the ship being moored to a large stone. Such ritual mooring may well have been reassuring to a Völva, who on her voyage after death wished to be tethered to this world.

Völvas are presumed to have employed psychoactive substances, as in burning cannabis seeds to induce a trance. Moreover, a metal rattle of the sort that a Völva could have used in rituals was found on the ship, fixed to a post topped by a carved animal head and covered with sinuous knotwork.

So evidence now points to purposeful ritualistic use of the cannabis seeds in rituals. Or does it? Perhaps some future researchers will clarify the conundrum of cannabis on the Oseberg ship.

Further reading:
• “The Oseberg Finds” on the University of Oslo Viking Ship Museum website, last updated December 20, 2015.

• “Norwegian Vikings grew hemp,” by Asle Rønning, posted December 14, 2012, on ScienceNordic website.

• “Oseberg Shamans: Sailing to Eternity,” by Mike Williams, posted March 25, 2011, on Prehistsoric Shamanism website.

• “Norway Oseberg ladies,” World Archaeology, Jan 7, 2011.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 29, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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