After the Bronze Age: Ships by Hilda Ellis Davidson (1969)

Source: ‘Part II: After the Bronze Age,’ Chariot of the Sun and Other Rites and Symbols of the Northern Bronze Age, 1969, pp. 155-158.

Chariot Fig 75

The Gotland stones of the fifth century A.D. frequently show a whirling disk with a ship beneath it, some with oars along the side, others including figures of the rowers and the steersman (pl. 5). These early boats have no sail, but on later stones the sail becomes the most important feature, depicted in considerable detail, and dominating the whole. The ship continues to appear on the stones in Gotland until the end of the Viking Age, long after the disappearance of the disk, and it seems it is closely associated with the dead. A few examples are found on stones from the Scandinavian mainland; one from Häggeby (Sweden), for instance, believed to be of sixth-century date, which shows a pair of horses (Plate 6), has a ship on the reverse side. On the Gotland stones these ships are depicted, like the disks, with a sureness of touch and economy of line which indicate considerable familiarity with the motif. Lindqvist (1941-2, pp. 91 ff.) suggested that the ships developed from the figure of the crescent moon found on Roman stones along with the disk of the sun, and although no simple moon-shaped vessels appear on the Gotland stones, there is an example from Austrheim, Nordfjord, in Norway, which Shetelig would date to the Roman period (Fig. 75). It may be noted that a formalized outline of a ship appears on a fragment of a cremation urn from Caistor-by-Norwich, now in Norwich Museum, believed to be of fifth-century date; here there is a dragon-like monster beside the ship (Fig. 76).

Chariot Fig 76This reintroduction of the ship symbol in association with the dead is found after what appears to be a long gap of nearly a thousand years, between the tree-coffins and ship-form graves of the Bronze Age, and the ships buried and burnt with the dead in the later pagan period. Shetelig (p. 402) claimed a few examples of ship-burial in Norway before A.D. 500, but most of them come from the seventh century onwards. At this time the practice of ship-burial was established on an impressive scale in Uppland in Sweden, and in the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of East Anglia. The royal ship-grave of Sutton Hoo, holding a king’s treasures, is now thought to date to the first half of the seventh century; there is at least one other ship-burial in the same group of mounds, which formed the royal cemetery of the East Anglian kings, and others farther along the coast, while in the cemetery of the East Anglian kings, and others farther along the coast, while in the cemetery of Caister-on-Sea in Norfolk sections of boats have been placed in the graves of humble folk (Davidson, 1967, pp. 113 ff.).

Swedish chieftains in Vendel and Valsgärde (Uppland) began a tradition of elaborate burial in ships, with personal possessions, weapons, ship’s gear, provisions for the voyage and a large number of animals laid in or around the ship. In some cases, as at Sutton Hoo, a large sea-going vessel was buried with the dead. The Norwegian ship-graves of Gokstad, Oseberg and Tune (Östfold, Norway) continue the same tradition, and though in most cases the contents have been removed by robbers, what survives at Odeberg indicated that they were superbly equipped. The use of a ship for burial continued sporadically in Norway and Sweden and lands colonized by Viking settlers until the close of the heathen period.

The Gokstad Viking ship in 1880 when it was discovered
The Gokstad Viking ship in 1880 when it was discovered

There were various ways of dealing with the ship or boat chosen to accompany the dead. Sometimes it was lowered into the grave like a coffin; sometimes it was inverted above the dead, or placed on top of the burial chamber; the dead might lie on deck under a canopy, or in a wooden grave-chamber built above the vessel. Sometimes the ship was burned on the funeral pyre, as was done in the case of a large ship on the Ile de Groix in Brittany. At Caister planks from boats were used, while sometimes, as in the Bronze Age, upright stones were set up in the shape of a boat to mark a grave. In certain places the tradition of ship-burial was firmly established; at Vendel and Valsgärde it continued for centuries with little change; in Tuna, Badalunda, Sweden, a number of women were buried in boats, and on the promontory of Kaupang in Norway there was a crowded cemetery filled with boat-graves in which both men and women were buried (Davidson, 1967, pp. 113-23).

Oseberg-ship under excavation
The Osberg ship under excavation in 1904 when it was discovered.

In the literary sources, the gods consistently associated with ships are the fertility deities, the Vanir. The god Freyr possessed the ship Skíðblaðnir, said to rank among the treasures of the gods; it was large enough to hold them all, yet could be fitted away in a pouch when not in use. This description suggests a processional ship, packed away when the ceremony was over. Njord, the father of Freyr, lived in Nóatún, ‘Enclosure of ships’, and places named after him are found mostly along the Norwegian coast and on the shores of lakes. There is also a persistent tradition that a divine king came across the sea as a little child in a boat, and grew up to rule the land, bringing great peace and prosperity. This concept has survived in its fullest form in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, where the tale is told of the ancestor of the Danish kings, Scyld, and he is sent back over the sea in a funeral vessel laden with treasures after his death. The king’s name means ‘shield’, so that once more, in the case of Ull, we have a divine figure associated with a shield, and also with the practice of ship-funeral. There are certain indications that ship-funeral was a custom associated with the Vanir, and I have elsewhere given reasons for believing that it was a priestess of their cult who was buried in the Oseberg ship (Davidson, 1964, pp. 95, 137). In Roman times there was a goddess Nehalennia worshipped on the island of Walcheren whose shrine has been recovered from the sand. She is linked with the Mothers, and was a goddess of peace and plenty, one of whose symbols was the ship (Hondius-Crone, pp. 102 ff.), so that the link between ship and fertility deities in the north goes back much earlier than the Viking Age.

Skíðblaðnir, from the blog Origem da Comédia
Skíðblaðnir, from the blog Origem da Comédia

After the end of the heathen period the ship symbol remained an important one. There is evidence for medieval processions which included ships (p. 52 above), and the indication is that their coming was held to bring good fortune and good crops. The air of carnival associated with them, which brought down the condemnation of the Church on such rites, is the natural response to fertility ceremonies. The connection between a wheel and a ship was still found at Douai in the eighteenth century, when a midsummer ceremony is described in an ecclesiastical document of 1770. It included a giant figure, le grand Gayant, a huge ‘wheel of fortune’ and a ship filled with people who made ‘strange gestures’ at the crowd (La vrai historie de Gayant, 1882). Almgren in his study of the rock-carvings pointed out that boats were buried at midsummer ceremonies in Estonia and along the coast of Norway. Moreover, the custom of hanging model ships in churches is well established in Denmark and in other places along the North Sea coasts, and these ships are sometimes carried through the fields at various church festivals (Henningsen, pp. 57 ff.). This practice of introducing a ship into the church is found not only in Catholic countries, where the ship symbol of the Church, the Ark of God. clearly this is a custom likely to persist in countries with a long tradition of fishing and seafaring among the people, and it is also consistent with the tradition of the ship as a symbol of prosperity and good harvests on both sea and land, as well as with the journey of the dead.


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