Geography made the Scandinavians a marine people, and not surprisingly ships of various kinds played an important part in their lives. It’s not surprising that they turn up in myth and art as well.
Many scholars have seen the Njörð-Skaði split as symbolic of the division between the Norse peoples who lived near coastland and fished and farmed, and the Sami who lived inland and were mainly hunter-gatherers.
Still, the popular image of the Scandinavians is of Vikings on longships, and commercial activity on the water was important enough to have a deity, Njörð. (Quite a few Nordic deities are associated with water one way or another, actually.)
He was still getting credit for successful fishing into the 18th or 19th century, according to folklore from Norway, which quotes someone saying: “Thanks be to him, to Njor, for this time”. (Dumézil: 220) If you follow those who equate Njörð and Nerthus, his cult reaches back to the first century CE, when Nerthus’ cult centered on an island in what would now be southern Denmark.
A Very Brief History of Ships in Scandinavia
Ships have the disadvantage of being made of wood. This means that they leave behind less in the way of remains than do other items used in earlier times, such as axes or other metal objects. Luckily, some have been preserved, along with Bronze Age art that gives us some idea of the kind of boats used back then, and the people who used them.
The earliest boats were log boats, and examples have turned up in bog finds, some quite late into the Iron Age. Since it’s a fairly simple way to make a boat, it seems that people were reluctant to abandon it completely. (Riek: 128.) Most logboats, however, come from the Mesolitihic and Paleolithic, and into the Bronze Age.
Remains from the Iron Age are usually far more elaborate, such as the oak boat from Nydam. Parts of boats, such as keels and prows, indicate ship-building sites, which no doubt came with the more elaborate boats. A log boat can be made by one or a few people but the Iron Age boats seem require specialist workers and quite a few of them. (The boat found at Sutton Hoo is another example of this specialized boat-building.)
We know from both rock art and finds of bronze objects that people were living in northern Norway during the early Bronze Age. Farming was going on there, as we know from evidence of postholes for houses and soil cultivation. On the island of Kveøy itself there are a number of farms today, and when looking from the Hundstat site, across Kvæfjord twoards Borkenes, a long row of farms in their agriculutral setting diminates the landscape.
Such a landscape view repeats itself wherever Bronze Age finds related to the Nordic Bronze Age Culture have come to light. (Kaul and Rønne: 27) Presumably these ships allowed greater trade and communication, which made living in the north a lot easier than it would be otherwise.
The fact that prestige items like decorated swords have been found in northern sites in Scandinavia indicates that people (some people, anyway) could afford such things.(Kaul and Rønne: 30.) The theory is that people were travelling to cult festivals, which allowed a common religion and ideology to exist. This would also allow people who lived as far north as Alta in Finnmark to feel connected to those further south. (Kaul and Rønne: 47)
Rock Art and Ships
The rock art of this period shows what sort of ships were used. Some of them are little more than a single line for the hull, which does not give much detail. Others, however, have both gunwale and keel lines, and show a crew, represented as vertical strokes. Two of the ships at Flatøy, Norway, have in-turned, raised stems typical of early Bronze Age ships, circa 1400 BCE.One of the ships cuts through three of the foot figures also depicted. (The feet seem to be in shoes – no toes shown.)
Some of the ships seem to be from a later period, because of a high raised keel extending from the prow, but these are actually “updated” versions of older ships. There was some overlap of ships with outward-turned horse’s head stems and the newer, in-turned stems. (Johan Ling raised an interesting point – the ships usually turn up in groups, which may well indicate fleets. He thinks the images may be records of events.)
Going back to the feet, they turn up near ship carvings quite a bit. Apart from the Norwegian setting discussed above, art from Scania, Bohuslån and Östergötland in Sweden also show the ship and foot symbolism (pdf). Two particularly suggestive images show: two large feet mounted over a ship, and another of a giant foot in front of a ship, with the little men inside it raising their arms in what may be a gesture of prayer. (Gelling and Davidson: 40-1)
Njörð and Ships
It is very tempting to associate this with the cult of Njörð, and the images I have just mentioned, which place a pair of feet where axes or sun-discs often appear implies that the feet were part of a cult, perhaps as a sign of the god/dess. (Footprints have often been a sign of a god or other being such as the Devil, in a wide variety of contexts.)
You often see Njörð defined as a sea-god, but it’s more accurate to say that he is the god of human activity on the seas. The role of the sea is taken by Ægir or Hler (or possibly Gymir). It’s the difference between Okeanus and Poseidon, for those more familiar with Greek myth.
Njörð, as Snorri tells us, is the one to pray to “for voyages and fishing”. (Faulkes: 23) He is proverbially wealthy, which probably reflects the long-standing trade routes the Norse had developed across the seas. The phrase “Njörðr-of-roller-horses” is used as a kenning for a sailor in chapter 28 of Saga of Hákon the Good.
He can give good weather, moderating the sea and the wind, and his home is appropriately called Nóatún, Ship’s Haven. This implies that Njörð was an important god, given the role of shipping in trading and communications, as well as for food. (Not just fishing, either, but also gathering eggs and hunting/snaring birds (Baldwin) as well as seals and other animals.)
As we have seen, elite goods and major rituals centered around ships and shipping. Thus it is not surprising that Njörð comes third in the list of gods in Gyflaginning, just after Oðin and Þor, or that he succeeds to the throne after Oðin dies in Ynglinga saga.
Freyr and Ships
The marine and elite associations are not limiited to Njörð; his son Freyr also is associated with ships. He was given the magical ship Skíðblaðnir for his tooth-gift. (The tooth-gift celebrated a baby’s first tooth.)
‘… It was certain dwarfs, sons of Ivalid, that made Skíðblaðnir and gave Freyr the ship. It is big enough for all the Aesir to be able to go aboard it with weapons and war gear, and it gets a fair wind as son as the sail is hoisted, wherevre it is required to go. And when it is not to be taken to sea, then it is made up of so many parts and with such great art that it can be folded up like a cloth and put in one’s pocket.’
The ship’s name comes from the Old Norse “assembled from thin pieces of wood”, which probably explains Snorri’s comment about the many parts that it is made of. (Simek (289) thinks it is a reference either to ships constructed for festivals and taken apart afterward, or else to the many planks in a ship, which would make the name a later one, as planked ships date from the middle of the first millenium CE.) In Grimnismal, when Oðin reveals during torture his “best of” list, he lists Skíðblaðnir for the boats. (Although Snorri tells us that Naglfar is bigger.)
Skíðblaðnir is another of Loki’s boons to the gods, which he obtains from the dwarfs along with new golden hair for Sif, the ring Draupnir, Mjölnir, and the spear Gungnir. (However, in Ynglinga saga, chapter 7, Snorri tells us that Skíðblaðnir belongs to Oðin, although it is exactly the same boat, with the same properties.)
Freyja’s connection to the sea, however, seems to be limited to the by-name Mardöll, which is usually interpreted as the glitter of sunlight on water. (Orchard (120) has “sea-brightener”.) The –mar element means ‘sea’. It also appears in kennings for gold. (Simek: 202) However, when we turn from ships to ship burials, an interesting pattern will emerge, which connects Freyja more closely to ships and the afterlife.
Baldwin, John R. 1973: “The Catching of Sea Birds in Northern and Western Scotland and the Faroes: A Summary of Historical and Contemporary Survival” Northern Studies 2: 7-19.
Dumézil, Georges, (trans. Derek Coltman) 1973: From Myth to Fiction: the Saga of Hadingus, Chicago, UChicago.
Kaul, Flemming, and Preben Rønne 2013: “Bronzes, farms, and rock art: The Agrarian Expansion of Northern Norway”, Adoranten: 25-56.
Ling, Johan 2012: ‘War Canoes or Social Units? Human Representation in Rock-Art Ships”, European Journal of Archaeology 15(3): 465-85.
Orchard, Andy, 1998/2002: Cassell Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend, Cassell, London.
Rieck, Flemming 1995: “Ships and boats in the bog finds of Scandinavia” in The Ship as Symbol in Prehistoric and Medieval Scandinavia. Papers from an International Research Seminar at the Danish National Museum, eds. Ole Crumlin-Pedersen, Birgitte Munch Thye, National Museum of Denmark, Department of Archaeology and Early History, Copenhagen, 5th-7th May 1994: 125-130.
Simek, Rudolf (trans. Angela Hall), 1996: Dictionary of Northern Mythology, D. S. Brewer, Cambridge.