Renowned navigators, the Viking conquerors and merchants opened their culture to the world through their countless sea voyages. As a result, their civilization has always been associated with the magnificent ships that are so characteristic of them. The image that instantly comes to mind from this description is that of the drakkar boat, the one most portrayed in popular culture.
Identified as the main element of the Viking naval arsenal, these ships had numerous functions and played a key role in the military strategies of the time. Do you know the meanings hidden behind their name? Do you want to learn more about the origins of the Viking drakkar boats? We reveal everything in this article.
Contrary to what one might think, the discovery of Viking boats does not date back very far. Before this, nothing was known about their architecture and design. The same goes for the name "Drakkar Boat" which is an equally recent attribute.
Initially, the word "drakkar" did not exist in any language. This hybrid term was first used in 1840, appearing in the first volume of the book Naval Archaeology by Augustin Jal. The exact origin of the word is explained as follows:
Why was it associated with Viking boats? Extremely attached to their culture, it is known that the Vikings had the custom of carving the prows and sterns of their ships. They drew this inspiration from all sorts of Viking symbols, the most emblematic being that of the dragon, creatures feared by their adversaries. Thus, by extension, the term drakkar was used to designate Viking boats in addition to the sculptures found on them.
Like every aspect of life during the Viking era, drakkar boats were laden with symbols and religious insignia. Decorated with runes, they were considered blessed by the gods, under their benevolence and protection. Whether fishing or at war, the presence of symbols from Norse mythology was necessary to keep them safe.
The dragon is the most represented element, but it is far from being the only one. In addition to this almost mandatory standard structure, the Vikings scattered mystical motifs and symbols along the walls.
The Viking fleet was among the most impressive and diversified of the time. Having a head start in navigation, they dedicated themselves to the development of ships suited to their activity.
Many varieties of boats emerged during the Viking era, each with characteristics and specificities serving the intended use. From the series of boats resulting from Scandinavian genius, three main categories emerged:
With their length-to-width ratio of 7/1, they are one of the longest boats of the Middle Ages. To move smoothly, one could use its sails when the winds were favorable, and turn to oars when this was not the case. The crew of Viking sailors was large enough to row at a satisfactory speed, even to go upstream against the rivers.
Less known, they are more voluminous, and designed for deep seas. For their part, these Viking ships have a significant load capacity, and a reduced crew.
Ferjas, or fishing boats: which already existed in their current form
Two main functions were assigned to drakkars: some of them were used as war boats, and others served as commercial boats. These are two distinct entities, each with its properties, corresponding to the previous categories.
Often illustrated in Scandinavian works, war drakkars have characteristics that make them recognizable among thousands. Adorned laterally by a large number of shields, they concealed multiple oars that allowed them to penetrate rivers deeply. The driving force of the ships could thus be multiplied by the participation of the rowing troops positioned in parallel rows along the boat. These langskips, long and light vessels, could carry more than 400 warriors on board, and have traveled all over the world. They have reached the shores of Europe, North Africa, America, but also Asia.
When we delve into the subject, we discover that various types of drakkar boats were used for this purpose. The most well-known are the escheiz, or large ancient warships. The esneques, or snekkja in modern Icelandic, are modern warships that also fall into this category, even though they are smaller in volume and primarily dedicated to transporting war horses.
Commercial ships, on the other hand, had a completely different configuration. With the goal of transporting goods, their design was wider rather than longer, making them more stable. Consequently, their storage capacity was larger, allowing for significant trade on each voyage. These merchant ships are known as Byrðingr or Kenar, a term that originates from knör, the Icelandic word for boat.
While the former are easily recognizable as drakkar, it is more delicate for the latter, which do not conform to the stereotypical image. We identify the drakkar boat as being a Langskip type Herskip (warship). Indeed, their caricatured representation, particularly regarding the length and structure of the ships, is closer to these than to the kaupskip.
The first ship to establish this standard was a langskip discovered in 1997, at the German border of Denmark. This long warship has inspired the popular remakes that we associate with drakkar types. Nevertheless, putting aside preconceived notions, it is accepted today that merchant ships can also be referred to as drakkars in a broader sense.
Before taking on the definitive form of the drakkar boat, Viking ships underwent numerous transformations. Their development spanned several centuries, shaped by the needs of the Scandinavian inhabitants and by cultural and commercial exchanges with other civilizations.
We can trace their origin and evolution through Viking runes, ancient tapestries, but especially thanks to the discovery of well-preserved boats during archaeological excavations. Dating these finds allows us to accurately track the modifications made, and to place each new discovery in the correct chronological order.
The main discoveries of drakkar boats include:
Thanks to drakkar boats, researchers have learned a tremendous amount of new information about the Viking era. While some of it is directly related to conflicts and the geopolitical situation of the time, others tell us more about the civilization itself.
For example, it was deduced that the Vikings traded luxury products just by analyzing their merchant ships. Some were found to have a cargo ship structure, without having a significant storage space. This led to the conclusion that the value of the products far outweighed the expenses of transportation, and that they must have been valuable objects.
The excavations also demonstrated that Viking ship captains were buried with their boats. The association of these valiant warriors with battle even after death is the very essence of Viking culture. The sense of sacrifice for a noble cause is a recurring notion in Nordic civilization, as it allows one the privilege of going to Valhalla.
The very first Viking boats were far from the sumptuous appearance of the latest models. The structure of the masts, keels, and hulls was much more simplistic. Their optimization gradually occurred thanks to new knowledge and technical skills acquired.
The expansion of the kingdom allowed for greater investment in their design. The money from pillaging and Viking raids financed the creation of new drakkars using more robust and precious design materials.
Ultimately, kings and jarls made them sacred and precious objects. The Viking boats were dedicated the best materials, and the best carpenters, sculptors, and architects were solicited. The boats of the royalties were unparalleled in beauty and robustness. Nowadays, they are mostly displayed in museums.
The Vikings are known for their perfectionism, and boat design was no exception to this rule. True craftsmen at heart, the Vikings placed great importance on the structuring and construction of their ships. To ensure they were robust and could withstand the weather, each element had to be carefully chosen.
The Viking boats as we know them today are the result of centuries of continuous improvements. Initially, they were simple dugout canoes carved with rudimentary tools. It was only later that modifications to the structures were made to improve navigability.
The Viking design scheme gradually diverged from the European norm of the time. Their well-studied specificities were their strength, guaranteeing the Vikings' superiority in naval architecture.
Certain elements are consistently found in Viking works:
Drakkar boats are an integral part of Viking and Scandinavian civilization. A striking symbol of their conquests, they underscore the well-deserved title of conquerors of the troops. Intimately linked to their beliefs and cultures, this heritage traces back to us the historical evolution of Scandinavian society, testifying to their unparalleled craftsmanship and avant-garde spirit. These ships symbolize the triumph of Viking navigators who were able to tame the raging sea that surrounded them on all sides.
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