September 15, 2011

Lost Norse magic


I’VE ALWAYS FELT A GREAT AWE for the Viking longship. It undertook some very ambitious trading voyages between Scandinavia and Constantinople; and, of course, it carried abroad fierce warriors bent on plunder and conquering. It enabled great voyages of exploration, and crossed the ocean to the North American continent long before Christopher Columbus came along and missed it.

In addition, apart from all its practical applications, the lapstrake-hulled Viking longship was one of mankind’s most beautiful creations, and technically one of his most complex at that time.

Even so, the Viking ship was very simple at heart. It was really just a big rowing boat. Admittedly, it did have a squaresail that could be used when the wind was favorable, but basically it relied for power on men’s muscles. The fact that it achieved so much in so many different ways almost puts it in the realm of magic. But that description really belongs to the Skidbladnir.

She really was magic. In Scandinavian mythology, Skidbladnir was the ship belonging to Freyr, one of the most important of the pagan Norse gods. Freyr was the god of farming and fruitfulness. His portfolio also included the sun, the wind and the rain. And, just to add to his burden, Freyr was the Norse god of fertility and phallic worship, with a brief to bestow peace and pleasure on mortal beings. A tough gig, as they say.

Now it so happened that the sons of Ivaldi, who were dwarfs, built a very special boat for Freyr. It was big enough to accommodate all 12 of the most important Norse gods, with all their gear and weapons. It could also sail through both air and water, and it would go directly to its destination as soon as the sail was raised.

But here’s the even more magical part: it could be folded like a cloth and carried by Freyr in his pouch when it wasn’t needed.

Somehow, that particular marvel of Viking technology has been lost to us over the ages. Would that we could track down the sons of Ivaldi and put them to work for us now. Even working on a small scale, just think how many thousands of yacht owners would appreciate the convenience of tucking the ship’s tender into a pocket when it wasn’t needed.

There are times when I’m convinced that science is retrogressing. We can walk on the moon if we want to, but we can’t do a simple thing like making a fold-up Viking ship any longer. What’s the world coming to? I ask.

Today’s Thought
But beyond the bright searchlights of science,
Out of sight of the windows of sense,
Old riddles still bid us defiance,
Old questions of Why and of Whence.
— W. C. D. Whetham, Recent Developments of Physical Science.

“Paddy, you should be more careful about pulling your drapes at home. When I drove past your house last night I distinctly saw you kissing your wife.”
“Ha, well, then the joke’s on you, O’Riordan. I wasn’t home last night.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

1 comment:

Aaron Headly said...

Cool as the longships were, most historians aver that the knarr was the primary Viking vessel of Atlantic exploration and trade.

Knarrs are beamier and much less dashing than the longships, but the fact that they plied the routes from Europe to Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland a thousand years ago fills me with wonder and admiration.

W. Hodding Carter built a replica Knarr, sailed it to Newfoundland, and wrote an interesting book about it.