Young men in Viking times, according to the Norwegian scholar R. Keyser, were allowed sometimes two or three years of ashes.

     Norwegians at that time lived in long communal houses, not unlike the long houses of the West Coast Indians.  In his book on the old Norsemen, Keyser described how thirty or forty people slept in the beds along the walls.  Down the center of the hall they laid out a pavement which acted as the fireplace.  Smoke went up through the holes in the roof.  Ashes lay in long heaps two or three feet from the pavement between it and the beds.  It turned out that young men sometimes would lie down in that space between the fire and the ash pile, and stay there two or three years.  “Such as these might constantly be seen crouching over the fire, rolling themselves in the ashes, eating ashes, and neither caring to employ themselves in anything useful, nor to keep themselves in a state of cleanliness.”  Apparently, some also chewed cinders.  They were called Cinder-Biters.  It’s clear that the young men were going through some kind of hibernation or ritual lethargy, and the older men and women allowed it. . . .

     Keyser mentions a Cinder-Biter in the eleventh century named Starkad, who remained in the ashes several years, until his foster father invited him to go on an expedition.  At that point he stood up, shaved, and dressed and became one of the best warriors on the expedition, and later became a distinguished poet as well, remembered in the sagas.

From Robert Bly’s Iron John: A Book About Men


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