BOATS . It is not surprising that those who live by the sea or on a river often visualize a person's last journey as being undertaken in a boat. One enounters the use of boats in the burial rites of such peoples as well as in their mythology. Although boats figure in strikingly similar ways in the rituals and mythologies of peoples from all over the globe, their exact significance in a given culture or religion and the precise relationship between their cultic use and their appearance in myth are often far from clear. In some cases a specifically religious significance may be lacking, or the actual use of boats in the cult may bear no discernible relation to their role in mythology. These thoughts should be kept in mind as one considers individual cases of the use of boats or boat symbolism in the history of religions.
The Mythic Ferry across the Waters of Death
The use of a boat to cross the waters of death is fairly common in the ancient Near East and in classical antiquity. The Assyrian version of the well-known Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1200 bce) provides a particularly striking example. The tenth episode of the epic describes the hero's long and arduous attempt to reach Utanapishtim, the Akkadian Noah, and obtain the secret of immortality. In order to do so Gilgamesh must cross the sea and the Waters of Death, something no mortal has ever done. Only Shamash, the sun god, is able to cross the sea. However, with the help of Urshanabi, Utanapishtim's boatman, Gilgamesh manages to cross the waters in a boat equipped with 120 stout, ferruled punting poles, each 60 cubits in length. Since the Waters of Death must not be touched by human hands, each pole can be used for only a single thrust. As the final pole is used, Gilgamesh and Urshanabi arrive at the dwelling of Utanapishtim, the keeper of the plant of immortality.
Most of the elements contained in later accounts of the journey to the otherworld can be found in the Gilgamesh epic. Thus one can understand the enthusiasm of the German Assyriologist Peter Jensen (1861–1936), who thought he could detect traces of it in all subsequent epic writings.
In classical antiquity one finds a boat being used by Charon, the ferryman of the underworld. According to ancient Greek belief, first documented in the fragmentary epic Minyas and in paintings found at Delphi, Charon used a boat to ferry the dead across the rivers of the underworld to the gates of Hades, which were guarded by Kerberos. Vergil, in the sixth canto of the Aeneid, describes Charon's repulsive appearance and adds that his services are reserved for the dead alone. It was customary to bury the dead with an obol (a small coin) for Charon left in the mouth to make sure that he would perform the necessary service. Charon has survived in neo-Grecian Christian belief as the figure Charos.
The description of Charon's boat was detailed by the Greek satirist Lucian. In The Downward Journey, Lucian has Charon describe his vessel to Hermes, who has just delivered to him more than three hundred souls ready for the crossing: "Our ship is ready and very well prepared for putting to sea. It is bailed out, the mast is raised, the sail is ready hoisted and each of the oars is furnished with its thong. Nothing prevents us, as far as I am concerned, from weighing anchor and taking off."
Egyptian Grave Boats
Boats and ships were part of Egyptian burial gifts since earliest times. The simple clay representations of boats found in prehistoric times were replaced, during the Old Kingdom period (c. 3000–2200 bce), by reliefs or by references to boats in the sacrificial lists. Near the end of the sixth dynasty (c. 2350–2260 bce), representations of boats in wall decorations gave way to simple sculptures, including model ships complete with crews and cabins where the dead rested. Sailboats were to be used for the journey up the Nile toward the south, rowboats for the journey downstream toward the north. During the New Kingdom period (c. 1569–1085 bce), the use of such models was discontinued for all but the royal tombs.
The primary function of these boats was to facilitate the continued journeys of the dead to specific places in the otherworld, just as they had facilitated journeys in life. The presence of war ships and hunting boats suggests a continuity between this life and the next. There was also a belief in a journey to the west. A model boat or the ceremonial "formulas for bringing a ferry" were believed to guarantee that the deceased would successfully reach his goal. Some of the boats found in or around the tombs lack equipment and in all probability were intended not as burial gifts but for use during the funeral ceremonies.
As worship of Osiris, god of the dead, gained ground, boats acquired yet another function: to take the dead to Busiris and Abydos, the shrines of Osiris, so that they could partake of the life-giving blessings of the god. During the journey, the mummy rested on a bier under a canopy while a priest made offerings of incense and read from the sacred texts. Still later, the deceased acquired a superhuman quality, assuming an Osiris-like form during the course of the journey.
Toward the end of the Old Kingdom, models of the two sun boats—the ships in which the eye of the day traveled across the evening and morning sky—made their appearance. These are known from Tutankhamen's tomb dating from the New Kingdom period. From the Book of Going Forth by Day (often called the Book of the Dead ) it is known that these particular burial gifts expressed the desire to be united with Re, the sun god, and to accompany him in his sun boat. According to texts found in the pyramids, the dead king would thus be able to share in the governance of the world. Later this privilege was extended to commoners, and the sun boats were laden with food offerings to be shared among the fellow travelers.
Boats and ships constitute the most frequently encountered images in the Bronze Age rock carvings of central and southern Sweden (c. 1600–500 bce). Interpretation is difficult because no written sources exist from this period or the one immediately following. The images consist of two parallel lines that curve upward at the ends and are joined by cross strokes, one of which sometimes terminates in an animal head. The fact that several contain men obviously handling paddles argues against the theory that these images actually represent sleds. Occasionally, depictions of a steering oar or helmsman are found. The ships may be outrigged canoes or, in the case of the carvings found in northern Scandinavia, skin boats similar to the Inuit (Eskimo) kayaks. It is unclear, however, whether these images represent real boats, cultic objects associated with solar worship, or even scenes from mythology.
Ships and other objects represented in these rock carvings are also found in Bronze Age graves. The end of this period marks the appearance of both ship graves and ship settings (stones erected spaced so that they form the outline of a ship's deck). The island of Gotland in the Baltic contains around three hundred such ship settings from the late Bronze Age. After an interval of about a thousand years, ships were once more used as funeral symbols on memorial stones found on the same island. They remained in use until the end of the pagan era. These memorials stem mainly from the late Iron Age (c. 400–1050 ce). The dead were sometimes buried in boats, or a ship setting was erected either on top of the actual grave or as a memorial over an empty grave. All kinds of equipment were buried with the dead for use in the otherworld.
At about the same time, boat burials came into use in Sweden, Norway, and, through Norse invaders, in East Anglia. Seventh-century grave fields containing unburned boats have been uncovered in the Swedish province of Uppland (Vendel, Valsgärde, Ultuna, and Tuna in Alsike). The dead that the boats contain—in all probability they were wealthy yeomen and heads of families—have been equipped with costly weapons and ample provisions. Ordinary family members, by contrast, were cremated and their remains buried in mounds in a routine fashion. Numerous boat graves have also been found along the Norwegian coast—at the ancient trading center by the Oslo Fjord, for instance. However, the best-known Norwegian ship graves are in Oseberg and Gokstad in the southern part of the country. The ships found here are lavishly equipped seagoing vessels, leading one to suspect that the dead men were kings. The same applies to the famous Sutton Hoo find made in Suffolk in 1939, which also dates from the seventh century.
By 1970 Michael Müller-Wille had found a total of 190 Norse graves that contained boats. Graves containing burned boats or ships, however, are most numerous in Scandinavia (where a total of 230 have been found) and in the territories colonized by Norsemen, for example, in Knoc y Doonee, Parish of Andreas, and Balladoolee, Parish of Arbory, on the Isle of Man, and on Colonsay in the Hebrides. Evidence from the Hebrides makes it clear that women followed their men in death. A ship grave also has been discovered on the Île de Groix off the Brittany coast. Only a few cases of ship burial are known from Denmark (e.g., Ladby, c. 900 ce). Five boat graves from the tenth century have been found so far in Iceland.
Thus there is a wealth of Norse archaeological material attesting to the custom of real boat burial, a custom unique to Europe and limited both chronologically and geographically to a single ethnic group. Similar customs in the Near East and among North American Indians do not include burial of the actual boat. Nevertheless the significance of the Norse practice remains unclear. What can be the explanation for this way of burying the dead (or at least the most prominent among the dead)? Icelandic literary sources mention the practice of placing the dead in a ship that was then covered with a burial mound, but they offer no explanation of why this was done.
One could reasonably assume that boat graves are in some way tied to the notion of a voyage on the water. Norse mythology in fact knows several worlds of death, all of which are reached by a long journey. The Icelandic epic poet Snorri Sturluson (c. 1179–1241) relates that the wicked go to Hel and thence to Misty Hel (Niflhel, Niflheimr). The journey passes north through deep and dark valleys, and the traveler must be well equipped. Nastrand ("the shore of corpses") and the Land of Death, surrounded by rushing rivers, lie to the north. Still, neither the journey to the underworld nor the way to Valho̜ll calls for sailing ships. The ships of the dead that are sometimes set ablaze and launched, such as those mentioned in Beowulf, the Ynglingasaga, the Skjoldungasaga, and the Gylfaginning, all trace their origins to Celtic legends and are thus not thought to be associated with Norse burial customs. Nor may any sure conclusions be drawn from the early medieval German usage of the words naufus or naucus ("ship") alongside truncus ("trunk"), used to denote a coffin. These may well be terminological relics of the ancient custom of boat burial but only the terms survive.
One must conclude, therefore, that the Norse sources ultimately fail to explain the purpose behind boat burials. While the introduction of the boat into burial customs is certainly an interesting innovation, it may well have been intended merely as an addition to such other burial paraphernalia as weapons and food. Such boats do not necessarily have to be understood as burial ships designed to carry the dead to a distant and unknown land.
There is some evidence, however, that at least in some instances the funeral boat was understood as such. A famous and detailed eyewitness account of the funeral of a Norse chieftain on the banks of the Volga in 922 ce was given by an Arabian diplomat, Ibn Faḍlān, a member of a delegation sent by a caliph in Baghdad to the Bulgars along the Volga. According to Ibn Faḍlān's description, all the grave offerings were first placed in a ship, then, as a final offering, a servant woman was brought forward to follow her master into death. Before being killed, she looked three times over a kind of door frame to see what was awaiting her and told the men who lifted her that she could see her father, her mother, and her dead relatives. The last time she was lifted she added: "I can see my master, seated in Paradise, and Paradise is green and fair.… He is calling me; send me to him." She was then killed by an old woman known as "the angel of death," and everything was subsequently consumed by a fire lit by the nearest kinsman. A mound was built up over the site and crowned by a wooden monument. Ibn Faḍlān also reported that the Norsemen deride the Arabs for giving their dead to the earth and the worms: "We burn him in a moment, so that he enters paradise at once.… His master, out of love for him, sent him the wind to carry him off in an hour."
Although this description has been colored by Ibn Faḍlān's Islamic preconceptions and by his manner of presentation, the purpose of the funeral rites is clear, even though the role played by the ship remains uncertain. Does the wind refer to the breeze fanning the flames or to a sailing wind? If the latter is the case, it may be concluded that, at least in this case, the burial ship was indeed intended to carry the dead to the otherworld, although this may not have been its only purpose. In addition to the report by Ibn Faḍlān, other studies confirm a link between eschatological myth and burial rites among the Norse.
Among certain North American Indians, burial customs involving boats and a journey to the land of the dead have been documented. For instance, the typical grave of the Twana and other Coast Salish Indians consists of a canoe suspended on poles or on an elevated platform. A grieving husband traditionally spends four days and four nights near the canoe, waiting for his wife to depart for the otherworld. According to a Twana tale, the inhabitants of the realm of the dead come in a canoe to claim the newly deceased. Late at night it is said that one can hear their paddles in the water as they come to carry away their new companion.
The same vivid imagination characterizes a song from an entirely different part of the world, the Trobriand Islands, north of the eastern point of New Guinea. The tale is told of a warrior's sweetheart who, fearing that her lover has fallen in battle, waits by the shore to greet him in his spirit boat as he travels to the otherworld.
In Late Megalithic cultures, there is a belief among certain island people that their ancestors had arrived at their present location by canoe, having come across the sea from the west. On the Tanimbar Islands in Indonesia, for instance, this belief is reflected in the roofs of the ceremonial huts, which are shaped like canoes and have gables that are referred to as "stems" and "sterns." Canoes and stone or wooden representations of canoes also figure prominently in burial rites. The underlying thought is that the spirits of the dead journey across the sea in a spirit boat to the land of their ancestors in the west. The organization of the community itself is modeled on that of a ship's crew, exactly as it is in ancient Scandinavia.
Throughout central Polynesia the dead are placed in canoes or canoe-shaped coffins or receptacles. Robert W. Williamson (1977) speculates that the spiritual essence of the visible canoe was intended to carry the soul on its journey to the spirit land called Hawaiki. The voyage could be undertaken symbolically as well in miniature boats containing bones and images of the dead person. In the case of inhumation and cremation, the grave on land could be shaped like a ship, or pictures of ships could be carved on top of the memorials. The canoe was also used as an instrument for the removal of a dead person's sins.
Celtic Tales of Sea Journeys to Mythical Lands
The Celtic imagination is especially fertile when it comes to depicting the adventures of the deceased on the way to their final resting place. This place is represented as an earthly Elysium—the abode of the gods—a notion that is clearly derived from Classical Greek sources. This paradise on earth has many names, such as Magh Mór ("great plain"), Magh Mell ("plain of delights"), Tír na nÓg ("land of the young"), Annwn ("abyss"), and Tír nam Béo ("land of the living"). Tales are told of a sea voyage (imram ) to various scattered islands, often involving a magic ship or vessel. In what is possibly the earliest of these tales, the Voyage of Bran (eighth century), the hero sails from one marvelous island to another: the Land beneath the Waves, the Island of Laughter, and the Island of Women. Other islands are mentioned in the Voyage of Maeldúin (ninth to eleventh century), in which the voyager builds the boat himself. The same elements, combined with other motifs, are also found in the widespread account of the Navigation of Saint Brendan (c. tenth century), where the journey ends in the Land of Promise, or Paradise. In this case, the story is obviously colored by Christian legends. The role of the seagoing vessel appears to have faded in the medieval visionary literature and in the extracanonical apocrypha and apocalypses, possibly because of its pagan connotations.
Medieval allegories, ballads, and romances, as well as historical legends, contain stories about magic ships, often rudderless and unpiloted. Marie de France, the earliest known French female writer (twelfth century), describes such a ship in her lay Guigemar. Its sails are made of silk, the timbers of ebony, and it contains a sumptuous bed in a pavilion. It carries a wounded hero to a castle in an ancient town where he encounters a fairy endowed with healing powers. This same motif of a rudderless boat is found in Beowulf where Scyld (Skjold), the founder of the Danish dynasty of the Skjoldunger, is said to arrive as a child in an unpiloted ship. He also departs for an unknown destination in a burial ship. The story appears to be patterned on the theme of the journey to the otherworld but may also reflect notions connected with ship burials.
Ship symbolism was very highly developed in the Hellenistic world, a fact that helps explain its importance in Christian sources. But the Greeks did not go to sea with undiluted joy. "The sea is an evil thing, seafaring is a hazardous and dangerous undertaking," declares the Greek rhetorician Alciphron; "the sailor is the neighbor of death." But the danger, though mortal, was nevertheless considered wonderful and tempting, worthy of men who are like gods. Courage, hope, and joy characterize the names of the Athenian ships—names that might as easily refer to the ship of the church—and they are always feminine: Salvation, Grace, Bringer of Light, Blessed, Victorious, Virgin, Dove, Savior, Providence, Help, and Peace.
Allusions to ships are frequent in classical literature. The ancient ship of Theseus, in which the planks of the hull are successively exchanged, is compared by Plutarch to the human body that is also in a process of constant renewal. Meleager, the Greek epigrammatist (first century bce), turns this image the other way around and refers to his beloved in her old age as an old frigate: the various members of her withered body are compared with nautical precision to the different parts of a ship. Love is like a hazardous voyage; the cunning Greek or Roman "turns his sheet windward"; death overtakes one "with swelling sails." To act to one's own detriment was expressed by the ancient Greek or Roman as "drilling holes through the hull." To give up a fight was "to take down the sail"; from beginning to end was "from fore to aft." An expression still in use, "to be in the same boat," is borrowed from Cicero. A good ship is necessary for the voyage through life.
Three classical images are of special importance and exerted a strong influence on the development of Christian symbolism: the ship of state, the ship of the soul, and the ship of the world. In the shared fate of the crew and in their dependence on their captain—reflected in such expressions as "our governor" and "to be at the helm"—the Greek sailors saw a clear allegorical reference to their own city-state. The Greek lyrical poet Alcaeus wrote around 600 bce of "the storm-tossed ship of state." He is echoed by many, Horace among them. The Greek writers of tragedy, Aeschylus and Sophocles, used the same symbols, which entered the field of political philosophy through Plato: all is well on a ship where all obey the captain (nauklēros ), while nothing but misfortune awaits a ship where the captain is ignorant and each sailor wants to be in command. The human body too is likened to a ship where the soul and reason are the helmsman, and the eyes and ears constitute the lookout. Cooperation is vital, just as governors and governed must cooperate in a good state. Aristotle maintains that the common goal of all good citizens, regardless of their tasks and rights, must be a good voyage (that is, the welfare of the state). Nautical symbols are found in Demosthenes, Plutarch, and Cicero, as well as in the writings of emperors and church fathers.
The idea of the body as the ship of the soul is based on the image of a hull under construction: the spine is likened to the keel, the frame timbers represent the ribs, and the place of the helmsman is the head (see Ovid, Metamorphoses 14.549–554). This comparison between the human body and a ship later becomes important in the characterization of the ship as a symbol of the church. The church fathers perceived Noah's ark as a symbol of the church and interpreted it in terms of the human body. In this way, the images of the mystical body of Christ and the ship of the church were able to merge. What applies to the church as the collectivity of the redeemed applies as well to the individual soul, itself conceived of as a vessel, a navicula animae.
The relationship between body and soul, which in Platonism and Neoplatonism is likened to the dependence of a ship on its captain, is a recurring image in the Christian sermon. Death is spoken of as a shipwreck. The emperor Constantine talks of the flotsam of the body on the underworld river Acheron. In the image of Charon and his ferry, death becomes a voyage to the other side. The fluidity of such symbolism allows the images to merge independently of any restraints imposed by logic. This in turn leads to the Christian reference to "the blessed haven."
The Stoic philosopher Chrysippus claims that reason (logos ) governs humanity like a ship. Plutarch further develops this metaphor: the governing part of the soul is itself governed by God like a rudder, or it listens like an experienced helmsman to the divine captain. Jerome, in commenting on Psalm 103, is therefore able to preach to his attentive monks: "Who among us is such a sturdily built ship that he is able to escape this world without going down or running aground on a rock—if he wants to reach salvation, the right sense (sensus ) must be his pilot." The philosophical logos has thereby been replaced by reason enlightened by faith, and Christ as the true Logos becomes the real pilot of the soul. The ascetic tradition refers to "the ship of the soul," "the ship of the heart," and "the ship of life." Augustine gives further impetus to the notion of Christ dwelling in the heart as in a ship.
The divinely governed world is also likened to a ship. Although worshiping the thing created is as reprehensible as mistaking the ship for its captain, it is nevertheless possible to deduce the builder from the ship. Platonic, Neoplatonic, and Stoic thought lends itself especially well to adoption and christianization. The large eye, which is still painted on the bows of Mediterranean boats, is interpreted by ancient philosophers and Christians alike as a symbol of Providence. Furthermore, the ship of the world must perish one day; only the ship of the church will survive.
The image of the ship of the church or of salvation can be further extended so that the cross becomes the mast and the yard, a spiritual wind fills the sails, and Christ himself is at the helm. The account of Odysseus, fettered to the mast in order not to succumb to the sirens' song, is also easily christianized. The ship of salvation sails across the sea of time, past all temptations, toward the heavenly haven.
Arbman, Holger. "Begravning." In Kulturhistorisk Leksikon för Nordisk Middelalder, vol. 1. Copenhagen, 1956.
Baldwin, B. "Usituma! Song of Heaven." Oceania 15 (March 1945): 201–238. Includes a canoe and a war song from the Trobriand Islands, where the author served as missionary.
Bar, Francis. Les routes de l'autre monde: Descentes aux enfers et voyages dans l'au-delà. Paris, 1946. A good short survey treating European folklore, Asian, American, Near Eastern, and classical material, Jewish and Christian apocrypha, Norse and Celtic stories, medieval literature on visions, and parodies from antiquity.
Bonnet, Hans. Reallexikon der ägyptischen Religionsgeschichte. Berlin, 1952.
Davidson, Hilda R. Ellis, ed. The Journey to the Other World. Totowa, N.J., 1975. See pages 73–89. The South Sea and Egypt are touched on as an introduction to the Norse material. Caution is needed.
Foote, Peter, and David M. Wilson. The Viking Achievement: The Society and Culture of Early Medieval Scandinavia. New York, 1970. A chapter on religion treats the ship burials.
Fredsjö, Åke, Sverker Janson, and C.-A. Moberg. Hällristningar i sverige. Stockholm, 1956. A short critical survey of Swedish rock carvings written by trained archaeologists.
Hultkrantz, Åke. The North American Indian Orpheus Tradition: A Contribution to Comparative Religion. Stockholm, 1957. Tales of the recovery of a beloved person from the land of the dead.
Meuli, Karl. Gesammelte Schriften, 2 vols. Basel, 1975.
Müller-Wille, Michael. Bestattung im Boot: Studien zu einer nord-europäischen Grabsitte. Neumünster, Germany, 1970. Outstanding scientific monograph.
Müller-Wille, Michael, David M. Wilson, Hayo Vierck, and Heinrich Beck. "Bootgrab." In Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde, edited by Johannes Hoops, vol. 3. Berlin and New York, 1978. A concentrated, well-documented survey with an extensive bibliography.
Patch, Howard R. The Other World according to Descriptions in Medieval Literature. Cambridge, Mass., 1950. A reliable study starting with Oriental and classical material, as well as Celtic and German mythology.
Pritchard, J. B., ed. Ancient Near Eastern Texts relating to the Old Testament. 3d ed. Princeton, 1969. Contains Egyptian, Sumerian, and Akkadian myths of death and the otherworld.
Rahner, Hugo. Symbole der Kirche: Die Ekklesiologie der Väter. Salzburg, 1964. Half of this learned, voluminous work of a patristic scholar contains the Christian symbolism of the ship and its classical background.
Strömberg Krantz, Eva. Des Schiffes Weg mitten im Meer: Beiträge zur Erforschung der nautischen Terminologie des Alten Testaments. Lund, 1982. Study of the nautical terminology of the Israelites and of the small traces in it of their contact with seafaring people ever since their entrance into Palestine.
Turville-Petre, E. O. G. Myth and Religion of the North: The Religion of Ancient Scandinavia. New York, 1964.
Vendel Period Studies. Stockholm, 1983. A multi-author work of twenty specialists that was connected with an exposition in Stockholm of the boat graves from Vendel, Valsgärde (Sweden), and Sutton Hoo (England). A good, popular summary of the actual state of research. Contains a rich bibliography.
Vroklage, Bernardus A. G. "Das Schiff in den Megalithkulturen Südostasiens und der Südsee." Anthropos 31 (1936): 712–757. The author belongs to the Kulturgeschichtliche Schule.
Wachsmuth, Dietrich. Pompimos ho daimon: Untersuchung zu den antiken Sakralhandlungen bei Seereisen. Exp. ed. Berlin, 1967. A very substantial study of all religious rites in connection with classical seafare.
Williamson, Robert W. Religious and Cosmic Beliefs of Central Polynesia (1933). 2 vols. New York, 1977. A careful, systematic survey based on an extensive literature.
Carl-Martin Edsman (1987)
Translated from Swedish by Kjersti Board