A Coin for the Afterlife

University essay from Lunds universitet/Historisk arkeologi

Abstract: Emgård Ryberg, H. 2018. A Coin for the Afterlife. Charon’s Obols in Viking Age Scandinavia? Lund University, Department of Archaeology and Ancient History. The Obolus tradition, the placing of a coin in the grave, appeared in the Germanic area during the Roman Iron Age. This tradition originated in the Greek mythology where it was meant as payment to Charon for the ferry transport across the river Styx to the afterlife. However, between the 5th and 8th centuries this tradition seems to be discontinued in Scandinavia, to later be reintroduced during the Viking Age. This reintroduction took different forms and was, according to Anne-Sofie Gräslund (1967) linked to trading contacts with the Byzantine Empire. In this study the following questions were explored: How is the Obolus tradition expressed in Scandinavia during the Viking Age and is there a correlation between the reintroduced Obolus tradition and Christianity? What can such a correlation, or lack thereof, say about the Obolus traditions religious symbolism during the second wave? To contrive this, the distribution of coins in Viking Age graves were investigated through case studies of Hedeby and Birka. To manage this, Gräslund’s (1967) article was used as an antecedent alongside Holger Arbman’s (1943a) grave index from Birka, Ute Arents and Silke Eisenschmidt’s (2010a) index of Hedeby and Fredrik Svanberg’s (2003) index over southern Sweden. The conclusion drawn was that the use of coins as grave goods greatly differed between the western and eastern parts of Scandinavia possibly due to their different proximity to the Christian regions. It is a probability that the reintroduction of the ritual was brought by Christians. However, do to the great variety it is not likely that the ritual has a religious Christian meaning but rather a purely symbolic ritualistic one.

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