Return to Long Serpent
The Heggen vane from the eleventh century is of gilded bronze and probably decorated the prow of a Norse ship. Hung from a metal rod, it was free to rotate, the holes along the edge holding streamers to indicate the direction and intensity of the wind. The dents in the metal are likely from the impact of arrows.
That weathervanes likely decorated the prow of the ship, rather than the sternpost or mast, can be seen in this line drawing incised on a wooden stick in the thirteenth century. The gilt bronze vane, depicting a lion entangled in the coils of a serpent, is from the early eleventh century and is an example of the Ringerike style of ornamentation.
Although ships such as those found at Gokstad and Oseberg had been stripped of whatever decorative fittings, the Viking longship was a display of wealth, rank, and power, often fitted out to impress one's friends and overawe one's enemies. In the Heimskringla, the Short Serpent is lovingly described.
"In front it had a dragon's head, and aft a crook, which turned up, and ended with the figure of the dragon's tail. The two necks and the whole of the stem were gilded. This ship the king called the Serpent. When the sails were hoisted they represented, as it were, the dragon's wings; and the ship was the handsomest in all Norway."
The Long Serpent was larger and more beautiful still. "The head and the arched tail were both gilt, and the bulwarks were as high as in sea-going ships. This ship was the best and most costly ship ever made in Norway."
The longships command by Swein Forkbeard, in his preparations to invade England in 1013, were later described by a learned cleric in his glorification of Emma, the widowed queen of both Æthelred and Cnut, the usurper of her sons' throne.
"On one side lions moulded in gold were to be seen on the ships, on the other birds on the tops of the masts indicated by their movements the winds as they blew, or dragons of various kinds poured fire from their nostrils. Here there were glittering men of solid gold or silver nearly comparable to live ones, there bulls with necks raised high and legs outstretched were fashioned leaping and roaring like live ones. One might see dolphins moulded in electrum, and centaurs in the same metal, recalling the ancient fable.... But why should I now dwell upon the sides of the ships, which were not only painted with ornate colours, but were covered with gold and silver figures? The royal vessel excelled the others in beauty as much as the king preceded the soldiers in the honour of his proper dignity....The blue water, smitten by many oars, might be seen foaming far and wide, and the sunlight, cast back in the gleam of metal, spread a double radiance in the air."
Encomium Emmae Reginae
The ship that takes Beowulf and his men to Denmark is described no less enthusiastically:
"...the heroes, the warriors on their eagerly-sought adventure, pushed off the vessel of braced timbers. Then with foam at its prow, most like to a bird, it floated over the billowing waves, urged onwards by the wind..."
And, on the return voyage, triumphant in the defeat of the monster Grendel,
"Then the ship went on, to ruffle the deep water; it left the Danish land. Then to the mast a sail, a mighty sea-cloth, was fastened by a sheet; the wave-borne timbers groaned, the wind over the billows did not throw out of her course the ship floating over the water. The ship journeyed on, with foam at her twisted prow she floated over the waves, the streams of the sea..."
Return to Top of Page