People in Viking societies constructed ships that blended form and function. One only has to look at the gorgeous and intricate detail of uncovered Viking vessels, like the Oseberg ship full of beautiful artwork, to understand this synthesis.
The importance of ships in Viking societies is also reflected in Norse lore and myths.
All aboard a nail ship
Norse mythology is a rich tapestry of larger-than-life characters and stories. Perhaps one of the most unique – and slightly disgusting – objects found in the Norse sagas is Naglfar, a mythical ship said to be fashioned out of the nails (from both feet and hands) of the dead.
Naglfar, meaning literally "Nail ship" or "Nail farer" in the Old Norse tongue, was said to be captained by a giant, Hyrm, and is associated with death, chaos, and destruction as it will ferry an army of giants and monsters during the final climatic battle of Ragnarök.
Despite the rather grim building materials, Naglfar represents a real-life custom that many people in Viking societies practiced: the collection of nails from deceased loved ones.
The proper burial of the dead, including the trimming of nails and their collection, was essential lest they be used for the construction of Naglfar.
This spoke to a larger concern about the proper care of, and respect shown to, members of the community who had died.
In fact, the completion of Naglfar – essentially meaning that many deceased had not been adequately cared for in their death – would signal the events of Ragnarök.
Brought about the forces of chaos, death, and destruction
Aside from its rather unhygienic appearance, Naglfar would have left a psychological imprint on the minds of the Norse.
In the Prose Edda, compiled in the 13th century by Icelandic author and man of letters Snorri Sturluson, upon the final completion of Naglfar, it would set sail with a hold full of giants, monsters, demons, and even the dead themselves to bring upon the bloody destruction of the Norse universes of which we, humans, lived in but one.
The ship signifies the forces of chaos, death, and destruction doing battle with most of the Norse gods – conversely representing life, hope, and joy.
The Naglfar ship signifies the forces of chaos and death. Illustration: The Viking Herald
With the giant Hrym literally at the helm of the ship, it becomes almost a Norse personification of evil incarnate full of the forces that wanted to bring about a return to primordial chaos.
Part of this primordial chaos, it should be noted, was the fact that its construction was allowed to happen in the first place.
The ship fashioned from the nails of the dead represents the potential danger and evil that could arise should proper burial rituals and customs of the dead not be respected.
This only adds to the rigid structure and societal obligations that a family, or community, had when a member passed away.
Makes for a marvellous runestone
This image of a gruesome ship carrying the forces of chaos and death has inspired imaginations since the Viking era (c. 750 – 1100 CE). Perhaps the best representation we have is that etched onto a runestone near the town of Tullstorp, Skåne in Sweden.
Believed to have been created around the turn of the 11th century CE, it depicts a scene ripped out of Ragnarök, including the mythological wolf, Fenrir, and a ship that modern historians believe must be a representation of Naglfar.
Its appearance, however, is not similar to contemporary Viking ships (think the Oseberg ship) but appears to be shaped like an older galley – perhaps the type that would have been used in Viking-era funeral pyres.
Aside from the myths, this runestone is one of the most striking examples of the brilliantly decorative "Ringerike style," which dominated Viking art during the 11th century CE.
In more recent times, the ship has appeared in multiple video games, including the World of Warcraft and Witcher series. It seems that this ship, despite (or perhaps because of) its gruesome appearance, continues to inspire artistic minds centuries after first being described.
Given an era with so much talk of an apocalyptic downfall to our planet, this should be no surprise. Oh, and one last thing – don't forget to dispose of your nail cuttings hygienically and properly... we wouldn't want them winding up on Naglfar would we...
For more on the events of Ragnarök, visit the Sky History UK website here.
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