Women and Ships in the Viking World
By Judith Jesch
Northern Studies, Vol.36 (2001)
Introduction: Perhaps the most splendid, and certainly one of the best-known, burials of the Viking Age is that of the two women who were put to rest in the Oseberg ship. And one of the most recent discoveries of a Viking Age boat-burial, found at Scar on Sanday, in Orkney, in 1991, was of a high-status, elderly woman buried along with a younger man and a child. This symbolic association, in death, of women and ships, though common enough in the Viking Age, deserves notice, for it is not easily paralleled in the evidence of poetry and sagas, in which ships are more commonly associated with the men who captained and crewed them in life. In this paper, I examine more closely some linguistic and literary evidence to see what, if any, associations there were between living women and ships in the Viking Age and after.
While poets of the Viking Age were more likely to have composed about ships and sailing than about women, one Icelandic poet managed to combine both of his poetic passions in one stanza. Hallfredr Ottarsson, famed as a convert to Christianity, and court poet of Olafr Tryggvason, king of Norway, compared his beloved, Kolfinna, to a ship in full sail:
It seems to me, when I catch sight ofthe Gunnr [valkyrie] of fine headdresses [woman], as if a fley were floating on the fley-roads [sea] between two islands, and looking at the Saga [goddess] of the seam [woman] in the stream of women, is like (looking at) the gliding of a splendidly prepared skeið, with gilded equipment.
The poet makes an explicit comparison using two words meaning ‘ship’, fley and skeið, but it is possible to find further implicit comparisons. Kolfinna is the ‘valkyrie of fine headdresses’, with her white linen headdress also suggesting the sail of the ship. She is the ‘goddess of the seam’, suggesting her carefully-made clothes, but the word saumris regularly also used of the rows of nails and rivets of a ship. The ship’s equipment is ‘gilded’, clearly suggesting her jewellery, since reiði usually means ‘tackle’, including both ropes and various devices for securing and controlling them, none of which would normally be gilded. The seascape in which this lady-ship is sailing is also significant. Although it is usual to interpret fley as a small ferry, shuttling between two islands, this distorts the semantics of meðal, which means ‘positioned between’ rather than ‘moving between’.