We’ll search for tomorrow on every shore

The-Oseberg-ship

William P. Reaves, The Cult of Freyr and Freyja
The other gift to Freyr, probably also shared by Freyja, was the ship Skidbladnir. Called the “best of ships” in Grimnismál, Snorri informs us that Skidbladnir was large enough to hold all the gods and their battle-gear, yet could be folded up like a napkin and stored in one’s pocket when not in use. It always “had a fair wind as soon as its sail was hoisted, wherever it was intended to go,” (Skáldskaparmál  35). It was given to him by the Sons of Ivaldi, a group of artisans that Skaldskaparmál characterizes as dwarves or dark-elves. In Hrafnagaldur Óðins 6, Ivaldi himself is designated as an elf, again directly linking the elves to Freyr. Ships played a central role in the prehistoric Germanic religion, figuring prominently in Scandinavian Bronze Age petroglyphs and other pictorial representations of this era such as the Kivik grave. About one hundred tiny bronze and gold leaf ships of uncertain date, some decorated with concentric circles interpreted as solar symbols, were discovered in a clay jar at Nors in North Jutland. Ritual use of these objects seems likely. Besides the ship-burials of Gokstad and Oseberg, hundreds of ship-graves have been found in Norway and Sweden. The ship can be seen as a symbol of both death and fertility. Jacob Grimm first drew attention to an ancient Germanic rite which appears to be connected with this. 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.

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Eric Csapo, The Dionysian Parade and the Poetics of Plenitude
Hermippus in a play called Stevedores launches into a mock-Homeric hymn to Dionysus in which the god is praised as a merchant-shipper (PCG F 63): ‘Tell me now you Muses who dwell in Olympus how many good things Dionysus brings here to men in his black ship since the time he began to carry merchandise over the wine-faced sea. From Cyrene, silphium stalk and ox hide. From the Hellespont, mackerel and every sort of salted fish. From Thessaly, barley and sides of beef and the mange for the Spartans from Sitalkes, and from Perdikkas a great many ships-full of lies. The Syracusans provide pigs and cheese …’ After a lacuna the list goes on to include products that originate from cities throughout the Eastern Mediterranean, from Carthage to Phoenicia. Most modern readers fail to see the humour that such lists of food are supposed to generate. There is none really. It is mainly about sustaining the buoyancy of the audience with effervescent reminders of the festival’s blessings. […] Four Attic vases, produced at the end of the sixth century show Dionysus and satyrs riding wagons, fitted out like ships. Later antiquity’s larger and more international festival economies seem to have required the magnificence of actual wheeled ships. By contrast the images on the Attic skyphoi are very much ‘wagons’ in the shape of ships—and unlikely to be called anything other than ‘wagons’ in ancient texts. Even the Panathenaic ship was referred to as a ‘wagon’ (in Latin currus) as late as the first century AD. In the case of the Tarquinian amphora, the vehicle is mythicised as an actual ship, but incorporates features of the ritual wagon including the piper and the mysterious wicker-like object at the keel. […] Some object that Dionysus Eleuthereus did not come to Athens by ship but overland. We have to respond that the ship is a symbol, not historical reconstruction. In part it suits the Athenian Dionysus because, as we saw, he brings for his festival food and wealth from overseas. But there is something deeper. The utopic vision inspired by the Athenian carnival is one of things spontaneously appearing and spontaneously moving under the influence of Dionysus. In the first messenger speech of Euripides’ Bacchae the presence of Dionysus is revealed by the sudden appearance of springs of water, wine, milk and honey (705-11), and by the effortless coordination, energy and equilibrium of the bacchants’ movements (esp. 693, 755-8). The spontaneous springs of water, wine, milk and honey recall the αὐτόματος βίος of the Cronian Golden Age when the earth freely produced an abundance of food and drink for all men at no cost or effort. This was of course also an ideal embodied by the Dionysian festival where food and wine really were abundant and free. But effortless coordination and equilibrium are also an expression of the processional god. Dionysus sets people and things in motion, particularly in a graceful and rhythmic motion: the power of music to animate the body (even at times against one’s will) is perhaps the supreme expression of this particular aspect of the god.


One comment

  1. I’m curious about the Germanic ship connection. With the Nordic and Mediterranean peoples, a ship seems obvious. The post mentions Swabia, and that’s far inland. The Indo-European peoples were horse and cart/wagon/chariot users. The use of a ship for processions seems odd. Perhaps an ancestral memory from the time spent in the Black Sea and Caspian Sea region or for river travel?

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