In the early 920s AD Ahmad ibn-Fadlan, a chronicler and theologian in the employ of the Abassid Caliphate, was dispatched to Vulga Bulgaria to explain the contours of Islam to a newly converted people. In his manuscripts, ibn-Fadlan described an encounter near the Volga river with a tribe he named the “Rūs” (thought to be a Scandinavian tribe travelling along the trade route), as they conducted a funeral for a departed noble. To complete the ritual, a young enslaved woman was taken by the noble’s family and sacrificed in brutal fashion. Once the sacrifice was completed, the bodies of the slave woman and the dead noble were placed in the boat together, piled with flaming wood, and before long, “wood, girl, and master were no more than ashes and dust.”
There are many accounts of slaves, thralls, and even spouses and kin sacrificed in servitude to the world’s rich and deceased throughout human history. The veracity of some of them is in dispute, but the theme is more or less the same: wealthy rulers can’t just die. They must also drag the souls of their subjects across the funeral pyre with them.
For obvious reasons, the modern world no longer tolerates human sacrifice. And yet, as the global mean temperature continues to rise, glaciers melt, plastics and pollutants saturate waterways, and wildfires blaze uncontrolled across the Amazon, it’s difficult not to wonder what ibn-Fadlan might have made of the supernatural reach of today’s billionaires, and the undying devotion of their vassals.