Doors to the dead: The power of doorways and thresholds in Viking Age Scandinavia

Abstract: Mortuary practices could vary almost indefinitely in the Viking Age. Within a theoretical framework of ritualization and architectural philosophy, this article explores how doors and thresholds were used in mortuary practice and ritual behaviour. The door is a deep metaphor for transition, transformation and liminality. It is argued that Viking Age people built ‘doors to the dead’ of various types, such as freestanding portals, causewayed ring-ditches or thresholds to grave mounds; or on occasion even buried their dead in the doorway. The paper proposes that the ritualized doors functioned in three ways: they created connections between the dead and the living; they constituted boundaries and thresholds that could possibly be controlled; and they formed between-spaces, expressing liminality and, conceivably, deviance. Ultimately, the paper underlines the profound impact of domestic architecture on mortuary practice and ritual behaviour in the Viking Age.

Introduction: This article discusses how the power of the door was utilized by Viking Age communities to obtain contact with the dead in the Otherworld, materially and metaphorically. Doors and thresholds are near-universal expressions of social transformation, boundaries, and liminality. The main topic of the article is the practice of echoing domestic architecture, specifically doors, in mortuary contexts in Viking Age Scandinavia (A.D. 750–1050). It is suggested that the door could create an access point between the world of the living and the world of the dead, where the dead could be approached. Creating ritualized doors in mortuary contexts can be understood as one of multiple ritual strategies in a society with diverse cultic traditions, rooted in practice rather than dogma. Interaction with the dead was achieved through ritualized practices, by ritualized bodies, in a highly ritualized environment. Thus the ‘door to the dead’ constitutes an excellent case study for exploring ritualization.

The socio-ritual significance of doors has been sporadically explored in Viking Age research. In this article, I aim to expand on previous studies and underline the potential of exploring the door’s role as an influential spatial, social and ritual element of Viking Age society. Door and threshold are deep metaphors in almost all sedentary cultures and languages of the world – to paraphrase Lakoff and Johnson, they constitute metaphors we live by. The near-universal metaphorical significance of the door, while impossible to date, probably developed early in human history, because of the door’s vital role as a border between the inside and outside of inhabited space. The door controls access and marks the boundary between antagonistic spaces confronting each other. Yet it is also the architectural element allowing passage from one space to the next. Crossing the threshold means abandoning one space and entering the next, a bodily practice recognized both in ritual and in language as a transition from one social role to another. Doors and thresholds are thus closely linked with rites de passage – the word ‘liminality’ itself stemming from Latin for ‘threshold’. This does not imply that each and every crossing of a threshold constitutes a liminal ritual – but rather that passing through a doorway is an embodied, everyday experience prompting numerous social and metaphorical implications.

Top photo: Photograph of Þjóðveldisbærinn in Iceland, a reconstruction of the Viking Longhouse Stöng. Photo by Thomas Ormston / Flickr

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