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Athena Review:  Vol.2, no. 3

Dragon Ships and Viking Sagas

Since the Merovingian Age, during the post-Roman era of the 6th-7th centuries AD, Norsemen have been associated with ships - for trade, exploration, and of course war. No aspect of Viking life was entirely separate from the influence of ships, including death, and the heroic deeds of many have survived to our own day through epics and sagas. The greatest details regarding early Scandinavian history come from the writings of the Icelandic chronicler Snorri Sturluson, who composed the Heimskringla (History of the Kings of Norway) sometime between AD 1220 and 1235, plus numerous other works. Although much is lost in modern translations, the original poetry of the sagas remains on many levels, and historians are ever grateful to their predecessor for his attention to detail. For about four centuries, the sagas and legends were meticulous in their portrayal of ships. Documentation, of course, may have been embellished for the sake of a good story.

In addition to the legends, there is visible evidence; handfuls of ship burials have been discovered in the past two centuries, such as those at Gokstad and Sutton Hoo. Therefore, we can use both the archaeological and the literary evidence to piece together a small window into the world of the Vikings. It is particularly interesting that the ships that do remain to this day were buried, an intriguing practice which, due to its pagan implications, died soon after the Viking conversion to Christianity.

[Fig.1: Prow of Oseberg Ship  (Viking Ship Museum, Oslo).]

Epics and sagas were tales of pride and grandeur. Naval power, perfected early by Norsemen, had an exceptional place in these tales, and continued to be used in Christian narratives after the Conversion. There is not a great deal in the way of iconographic evidence for the earliest period of boat building by the Nordic people, but the record does increase from about the 11th century AD until the end of the Viking era. There is also literary evidence, present in many heroic sagas, of the abundance of Viking exploration and acquisition of land, beginning in about the 9th century (Illsley, 1999). The most valuable evidence, however, undoubtedly comes from archaeology.

In archaeological terms, the survival of a boat burial depends entirely upon the soil in which it was interred. For example, soil that surrounded the early 7th century AD find at Sutton Hoo is highly acidic, thus all that remained of the original vessel were the rivets in a ghostly outline. Nevertheless, this, combined with previous knowledge of Viking boat construction, sagas, and other finds, allows us to determine how the ships were produced.

The Nydam oak boat, found in 1863 in Southern Jutland, dates from the fifth century and is a precursor of the characteristic long boat associated with the height of the Viking period (Illsley, 1999). The Nydam boat, measuring 76 ft overall was most likely a warship, in a period when there was no real difference between warships and trading vessels. This formation of boat would improve until its climax in the Gokstad ship. The Vikings also decorated their ships with fearsome figureheads. Norse ships were decorated with heads and forms of various creatures: On the sterns could be seen different faces of metal ornamented with silver and gold.

The Gokstad ship, found in 1880 in Sandefjorde, Norway, is 79 ft overall, double-ended, like all Nordic ships, with a high curving stem and stern posts. The remains of the mast fitting suggest that the original would have been about 42 ft high, making the ship rather powerful and swift in the water. The Gokstad ship was also recovered with the shields attached to the gunwale, at the ready for the warriors on board. The technical perfection of this ship comes as a result of a long tradition of experience and experiment that first yielded sailing ships suitable for the open seas about one hundred years before the Gokstad ship was even built (Sawyer, 1971).

[Fig.2: Viking metal artifacts from the late 9th century Gokstad ship (Nicolaysen, 1882, Plate X). ]

The Ladby ship, believed to date from the 10th century, was unearthed in 1935 on Funen, Denmark. Like the ship at Sutton Hoo, the wood skeleton had disintegrated, leaving an impression in the soil. From this feature, archeologists were able to determine that the vessel was 67.5 ft long and 9.5 ft wide, much smaller than the Gokstad ship, but closer in length to beam ratio (1:7) for a fast-oared warship (Illsley, 1999, inside a nobleman's body was uncovered, together with 11 horses and several dogs. One of the nobleman's horses bore an elaborate harness, and many other artifacts were unearthed, including a game board, arrows and a shield (Ladby Ship Museum, 1999).

Boat burials in combination with sagas indicated that Viking activity, whether trading or raiding, depended upon reliable ships to sail, and without them the longer sea crossings that we know to have occurred. The voyages that had become commonplace in the 9th century would have been incomprehensible 100 years earlier.

The Vikings treated their mortal warriors with as much reverence as their deified ones, and this is evident in Norse mythology, particularly with the tale of Balder. This god of light was killed by a "dart of mistletoe" thrown by the mischievous Loki, resulting in "the greatest misfortune ever to befall gods and men" (Snorri Sturluson, Prose Edda). Balder was afforded a lavish funeral recorded in Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda.

The ship burial discovered in 1904 as Oseberg revealed itself as the grave of a noble woman of sufficient status to warrant a very lavish burial. Apart from the boat, the grave also contained an assortment of artifacts including three sledges, a cart, a saddle and the remains of ten horses and two oxen, tents, beds and other domestic items that the Lady would need in her next life. The ship was most likely used as coastal transportation by the noblewoman, rather than a working ship or "modern" warship, but still embodies transitional features found in later ships.

[Fig.3: Dragon heads from Gokstad ship burial; part of verge boards for a tent (Nicolaysen, 1882, Plate XI).]

By the beginning of the Viking period in the ninth century AD, these stone configurations became boat-shaped. Most of them were about eight meters in length, but there is one of a whopping 23 meters (Magnusson, 1980). Through the evidence found at ship-burial sites, and other grave locations, it is clear that there was a common belief among the Norse peoples in life after death - a continuing of existence in which death was only one chapter among many (Brent, 1975). It is also demonstrated that there was not only a continuing of life, but of social status - the most complex funerals were those of the most wealthy and powerful men, and this evidence comes not only from grave goods but from accounts such as those found in sagas and epics.

The introduction of Christianity to the northern realms of western Europe did not eliminate the Viking way of life in its entirety. It obviously quelled the more pagan practices, yet it is remarkable that saga literature, taken as a whole, did remain relatively unaffected by Christian norms. One may be tempted to suspect this was the result of an exceptionally faithful and tenacious tradition from the saga age. Vikings have always been portrayed as stubborn, determined and vigorous people - that their earlier ways of life should have survived the onset of Christianity it not surprising.

by Patricia Grimshaw

[For the complete, illustrated article, see the printed edition of Athena Review, 2,3.]

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