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QUINTESSENCE

The Value of a Good Ship

Viking Ship Museum: Oslo, Norway
The Vikings are a trendy topic in museum circles these days. The British Museum has a summer exhibition open now, with Viking runes, relics, ships, and cultural and military exhibits gathered from the Scandinavian and Celtic north. Viking culture is known to us from Viking era relics found in bog and mound burials (sometimes entire ships with their deceased owners and belongings), sacrifices of weaponry and wealth (and sometimes people), and of course Viking coins and decorative animal iconography dispersed by way of trade around the world. The Danish National Museum has a tremendous permanent exhibit, and the Danes view Viking culture as a somewhat artificial bracket around a greater timeline of Paleolithic development and anthropological phases of Nordic exploration and settlement.

A point of Nordic pride, the Viking period from 832 to roughly 1100 was a period of fierce raids, astounding technical seafaring exploration, tribal domination and strategic expansion. Viking shipbuilding during this period was distinctive and well-adapted to sudden raids and rapid escapes, enabling Vikings to mount terrifying and indefensible attacks on coastal settlements from the outlier North Sea islands to Ireland and Great Britain, even down into the Franc (French, Germanic, and Belgian) lands by river channel. Vikings represent that part of the human psyche that thrills and glories in adventure, dangerous raids and strategic conquest.

Having spent the last few days aboard the Sea Explorer, a ship designed for Arctic exploration, and roughly speaking, a wide-bottomed rubber ducky pitching on the seas, I can tell you I now fully appreciate the construction of a good seafaring boat. Viking ships were bellowed in the middle for stability in the harsh seas and the ability to navigate shallow coastal waters and rivers, high-prowed at both ends for maneuverability, and equipped with both oars and sails - the better to depart in any direction as strategic attack required. Indeed, the words associated with early monastery records of attacks by Vikings describe them as fierce, indomitable, “hoardes of thunderous heathen evil,” etc.. History admires Viking seamanship and boat design (watertight, stable and fast). And in the face of risk, a fearless lust for the unknown, for opportunities beyond the horizon.

I think what I most admire about the Vikings is this latter outlook: that what lies undiscovered is sight-unseen worth the risk. That discovery is inherently profitable to spirit and community. That the gods favor the brave, and success rewards the undaunted. Vikings were the pioneers of the Nordic seas. The spirited designs and relics of their era speaks to human wanderlust. When I think of our domesticated modern lives in sequestered urban/suburban structures, I can’t help but look at these high seas crashing outside the potholes and wonder at what we lose when we cease to boldly explore. Yes we explore intellectually – through the questions and necessities of science. But space is our last geographic horizon; our remaining frontier. I hope that we continue to say yes to our inner Viking and keep on with the quest. Less raiding, more discovery.

(And as I am now dizzy from using a keyboard on a swelling sea, time to post. Back on the satellite Internet when I can, friends.)
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