As dawn’s light touches the shore

William P. Reaves, The Cult of Freyr and Freyja

Archeological finds confirm the existence of such ceremonial vehicles, most notably the intricately carved wagon recovered from the 9th century ship burial at Oseberg. Einhard, the biographer of Charlemagne, says that Childeric III, the last of the long-haired Merovingian kings, annually proceeded to the public assembly in a two-wheeled carriage drawn by yoked oxen, driven by a cowherd in „rustic style.‟

Given its ceremonial status, Childeric’s ox-cart procession may belong to Merovingian tradition. Stuart Piggot has suggested that this royal procession had its origin in the wagon-tour of Nerthus, as the Franks had come south from the archeological areas which yielded ceremonial four-wheeled wagons in votive bog-finds, such as Dejbjerg and Husby. J.M. Wallace-Hadrill believes that the bull-drawn cart could be a reference to the Quinotaur, a mythical beast mentioned in the 7th century Chronicle of Fredegar. It was held to have fathered Meroveus, founder of the Merovingians, after ravishing the wife of the Frankish king Choldio. Described as bestea Neptuni Quinotauri similis, “Neptune‟s beast that looks like a Quinotaur,” its name translates from Latin as “bull with five horns.” The origin of the legend is unknown, and may derive from native Frankish mythology. The association of a bull and the sea, which has parallels in other Indo-European mythologies, once again points to the cult of the Vanir, headed by the sea-god Njörd.

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About the year 1133, in a forest near Inden (in Ripuaria), a ship, set upon wheels, was built and drawn through the country by pauper rusticus („country folk‟) who were yoked to it. We find a detailed report of this procession in Rodulf’s Chronicon Abbatiae S. Trudonis, Book XI.

Led by a guild of weavers, it traveled first to Aachen (Aix), then to Maestricht, where a mast and sail were added, then up the river to Tongres, Looz and so on, accompanied by crowds of people assembling and escorting it everywhere. In this it resembles the procession of a fertility deity paraded in a wagon throughout the countryside, so common in ancient Germanic sources.

That it was lead by weavers suggests a women‟s cult. Wherever it stopped, there were joyful shouts, songs of triumph and dancing round the ship far into the night. The approach of the ship procession was announced to towns, which opened their gates through which gathered throngs went out to greet it. Throughout the account everything is put in an odious light; but the narrative derives its full significance from the fact that it was so utterly exasperated the clergy, who tried to suppress it. The ship is described as a malignorum spirituum simulacrum („vehicle of malignant spirits‟) and a diaboli ludibrium („evil mockery‟). It is said to be associated with infausto omine („inauspicious omens‟) and that maligni spiritus („malignant spirits‟) travel inside it. The author speculates that it may well be called a ship of “Neptune or Mars, of Bacchus or Venus,” clearly connecting it with heathen gods, and therefore it must be burnt or destroyed somehow. It is generally accepted that such cult ships were built on land for the duration of the festival. It is important to note that secular powers, not the clergy, authorized the procession and protected it. It rested within the power of several townships to grant the approaching ship admission. Traces of similar ship processions at the beginning of spring are found in other parts of Germany, especially in Swabia, which became the seat of the Suebi mentioned by Tacitus. Minutes of the town-council of Ulm, dated St. Nicholas‟ Eve 1530 contain the prohibition: “There shall be none, by day nor night, trick or disguise him, nor put on any carnival raiment, moreover shall keep him from the going about of the plough and with ships on pain of 1 gulden.”

No doubt, among the common people of that region, there survived some recollections of ancient heathen worship which had not yet been entirely uprooted. A continuation of the ships on the rock carvings and the ship Skidbladnir is not unlikely.

Rodulf does not say what became at last of the terrea navis (“earthly ship”) but relates how, upon a reception being demanded for it and refused, fights and quarrels broke out, which could only be settled by open warfare. This proves the passion of its contemporaries, fanned to a flame by the participants on either side, both secular and clerical. The ceremony itself has Indo-European analogs, suggesting an ancient origin. The Greeks dedicated a ship to Athena. At the Panathenæa, her sacred robe was conveyed by ship to the Acropolis suspended from the mast as a sail. This ship was built on the Kerameikos, and moved on dry land by an unseen mechanism, first around the temple of Demeter and then past the Pelasgian to the Pythian, and finally to the citadel, followed by the people in solemn procession.