Yet did you know that even the Norse gods loved a good ship burning when farewelling one of their own to the afterlife? 

Ships of the land and the sky

We all know that the Vikings were, perhaps, Europe's most impressive and important shipbuilders during the early medieval period. 

There would be no rapid Viking expansion, from the mid-8th century CE onwards, no dashing Viking raids or early medieval blitzkrieg without their ship-building skills. 

The Viking longboat was the perfect weapon, balancing form and function to a deadly degree. 

It should be no surprise that these boats were held in high regard by people in Viking societies – they were not only the most efficient mode of transport, and war, but the Vikings would never have scaled the historical heights, subjugating so much of Europe, without their nautical nous. 

Yet it wasn’t just the mere mortals on earth that were building impressive ships. If we study the Norse sagas there is mention of one of the most impressive ships – Hringhorni. 

Though this was not technically the largest ship that the Viking gods had access to (that goes to the ship rather disgustingly fashioned out of the dead’s fingernails and toenails, Nagflar), Hringhorni was a legendary ship that was owned by the grandmaster of the Norse pantheon, Odin himself. 

Unlike Nagflar, this ship was beautifully bejeweled, its sails made from the feathers of a great eagle, Hraesvelgr, and was fashioned by the dwarves as a gift to Odin. 

However, the ship would play a central part in one of the most famous murders in Norse mythology.

A comedy of sad errors: Baldur’s funeral

The most famous mention of Hringhorni comes from the first part of the Poetic Edda, the Gylfaginning

Compiled by Icelandic author and politician Snorri Sturluson during the 13th century CE, this is one of the most famous pieces of the Norse mythological canon

Following a prologue, the 20,000-word Gylfaginning section deals with the origins and creation of the Norse pantheon of gods. 

One of the saddest parts of this large tome is the death of the god Baldur, associated with light and goodness. His death was foretold to bring Ragnarök, the end times of the Norse universe. 

Without turning all CSI, Baldur was accidentally murdered by an arrow fashioned out of mistletoe, launched by an unsuspecting minion, egged on by the Norse god of shenanigans, Loki. It showed that a God can actually be killed, let alone murdered (albeit accidentally), so a good sendoff was needed. 

The gods laid Baldur’s body on Hringhorni which was, like anyone of importance during the Viking era (c. 750 – 1100 CE) to be set alight and cast off onto a lake, a very fitting funeral pyre for this fallen god. 

Thor depicted kicking the dwarf into the funeral blaze. Photo: Emil Doepler / Public Domain

However, things did not exactly go to plan. Due to the size and weight of the boat, the gods could not push it into the lake. Not even Mr. Muscles himself, Thor, could move the ship an inch. 

Messengers were sent to round up more gods and eventually, a female giant, Hyrokkin, came to the funeral. Unfortunately for Baldur, Hyrokkin managed to push the ship through so hard and fast that it caught ablaze from the friction. 

The gods were aghast with horror whilst Thor had to be separated from trying to bash Hyrokkin on the head with his trusty hammer, Mjöllnir. 

Baldur’s wife, Nanna, who had perished of grief following her husband’s death, was also placed on the boat and Thor eventually managed to light a funeral pyre. 

In what was a shocking day for Thor, just as he was lighting the ship, a dwarf sprang out of nowhere distracting the god. 

Thor was so angry that he kicked the dwarf into the funeral blaze as it cast out in the middle of the lake, consuming the bodies of the husband and wife as well as the dazed dwarf and making the funeral surely one of the worst ever conducted. 

A vital part of life and death

Seafaring was vital for the survival of Viking societies. Not only was it a means of warfare, trade, and supplying food but the strength, beauty, and design of many Viking vessels captivated not only contemporaries but also continue to wow societies centuries after the last one ever sailed. 

Seafaring – and thus ships like Hringhorni (minus the jewels) were central to the survival and expansion of people in Viking societies for over 3 centuries.

Hringhorni remains an important symbol not only of the artisanal skills needed to require the aesthetically pleasing Viking ships and longboats but also of how central seafaring was to people in Viking societies, in both life and death. 

For more information on Viking ship-burning funerals, see this BBC History Extra article

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