Vikings were conquerors and settlers and in their voyages sailed as far as north America and Arabia. This made them skilled ship-builders, having to deal with long trips with heavy cargo and sailing both high seas and the tricky waters of the fjords. Their vessels had a unique structure which makes them very easy to recognise, and were mostly divided into warships and merchant ships, although these categories might overlap.
Meaning of Drakkar
Drakkar is the plural of dreki which means “dragon” and for this reason, drakkar are also know as dragonships. Contrary to popular belief, not all viking ships were drakkar, but the name comes from the carved dragon heads that were attached to the stem, and also other dragon motifs that could be found carved all over the ship. The dragons were a popular symbol among the sailors for various reasons. Being a mythical creature that inspires awe, only the most fierce warriors used the dragon as their house symbol, so it was a sign of social status, and also believed to scare enemies away. Also, due to Jӧrmungandr, the giant serpent who is the middle child of Loki and lives in the ocean that surrounds Midgard. It grew so large that it encircles all the world of men and holds its own tail in its mouth, and if it ever releases, Ragnarok will begin. Jormungandr was the biggest fear of the Viking sailors who believed that they could appease it by decorating their ships with images similar to it’s own, granting them safe passage across the oceans.
Structure of a viking ship
Drakkar were longships of about 16 to 20 meters long, entirely made out of wood (usually oak), with woven wool sails. These sails were square and measured approximately 12m. They were clinker-built, which means they were made of overlapping planks riveted together and had a shallow hull that allowed beach landings and made it possible to sail in waters only one meter deep, something that came in handy if there was ice right below the surface. These vessels were narrow, light and symmetrical, with oars along almost the entire length which made it possible to change directions quickly without having to turn around. This wasn’t so much used to escape from enemies, but to avoid icebergs and sea ice which were common in the northern seas.
Viking ships usually had crews of 25 to 60 men. All the passengers except the pilot would sit next to the oars, and their personal belongings would be stored under them. The pilot would sit at the stern, operating the rudder or steerboard.
For the Vikings, the drakkar were a means of transportation and a symbol of status, but they also believed that one could sail into the afterlife and that a deceased person would take with them all the grave goods with which they were buried or cremated. All these goods were meant to provide comfort, but also to prove to the gods the worthiness of the deceased. Although Viking funeral rites vary according to region and through time, it was common for influential members of society to be buried inside their ships, dressed in newly sewn clothes. Weapons, personal items, decorative objects and sacrificed animals would also be stored inside, and in some cases there are accounts of slaves or family members who volunteered to accompany the deceased. The ship would then be covered in earth and stones to form a burial mound or it could also be cremated in a funeral pyre.
According to tenth-century writer Ibn Fadlan, when a poor man died, his close friends and family would build a small boat to put the body, and then set it on fire.
For all these reasons, the drakkar were more than a way to get across bodies of water. They showed their owner’s social status, inspired awe, and were heavily linked to their spirituality, either by honouring the gods with their carvings or by being a vessel for the soul to travel into the afterlife. The dragon ships are symbol for courage, fierceness and safe passage into the realm of the dead.
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