SKIDBLADNIR: WHEN YOUR SHIP COMES IN
Along with Thor's hammer Mjöllnir, one of the magical artifacts created in the contest between the Sons of Ivaldi and the dwarf Sindri, was the ship Skidbladnir, given to Freyr. A ship may seem like an odd gift for the harvest god, until we remember that Freyr is the son of the wealthy sea god Njörd, whose home was Noatun ("Shipyard'). According to Grimnismál 44:."The Sons of Ivaldi went in days of yoreTo create Skidbladnir,The best of ships for bright Freyr,The useful son of Njörd".In his Prose Edda, Snorri Sturluson informs us that Skidbladnir was large enough to hold all the gods and their battle-gear, yet could still be folded up like a napkin and kept in one’s pocket when not in use; it always “had a fair wind as soon as its sail was hoisted, wherever it was intended to go,” (Skáldskaparmál 35). This remarkable ship was gifted to Freyr by the Sons of Ivaldi, a group of artisans that Skaldskaparmál characterizes as dwarves or "black-elves' (svartalfar).
In Grimnismal 4, Freyr is given Alfheim, the home of the elves, as a tooth-gift, upon cutting his first tooth as a child. In the eddic poem Hrafnagaldur Óðins, verse 6, Ivaldi himself is designated as an elf, indicating that the elves also gave him gifts in return.. According to John Lindow, some scholars have suggested that the name Skidbladnir means "constructed from thin planks of wood". While that description may apply to any ship made of planks fitted together to some extent, scholars have also suggested that it may refer to a cult-ship which was assembled for ritual purposes and then disassembled for storage afterward. There is ample evidence that ships played a role in the ancient Germanic religion, figuring prominently in Scandinavian Bronze Age art, including petroglyphs known as hällristningar, depicting men gathered in ships, raising banners, playing instruments, making merry and even kneeling. In addition, about one hundred tiny bronze and gold leaf ships of uncertain date, some decorated with concentric circles interpreted as solar symbols, were discovered in a clay jar at Nors in North Jutland. Ritual use of these objects seems likely.
Besides the famous ship-burials discovered at Gokstad and Oseberg in the last century, hundreds of ancient "ship-graves" have been found across Norway and Sweden, consisting of rocks arranged in the outline of ships. The deceased god Baldur, who later turns up in Hel, is pushed out to sea and burnt in his own ship Hringhorn, suggesting that the ship is a means of transportantion to the underworld. In accord with that, we even find mention of a shore in the underworld, along the Nastrond ('corpse-beach'). The ship can thus be seen as a symbol of both fertility and death. .Jacob Grimm first drew attention to an ancient Germanic rite which appears to be connected with this. About the year 1133, in a forest near Inden (in Ripuaria), a ship, set upon wheels, was built and drawn through the country by pauper rusticus (‘country folk’) who were yoked to it. We find a detailed report of this procession in Rodulf’s Chronicon Abbatiae S. Trudonis, Book XI. Led by a guild of weavers, it traveled first to Aachen (Aix), then to Maestricht, where a mast and sail were added, then up the river to Tongres, Looz and so on, accompanied by crowds of people assembling and escorting it everywhere. In this it resembles the procession of a fertility deity paraded in a wagon throughout the countryside, so common in ancient Germanic sources. That it was lead by weavers suggests a women’s cult. Wherever it stopped, there were joyful shouts, songs of triumph and dancing round the ship far into the night. The approach of the ship procession was announced to towns, which opened their gates through which gathered throngs went out to greet it. Throughout the account everything is put in an odious light; but the narrative derives its full significance from the fact that it was so utterly exasperated the clergy, who tried to suppress it.
The ship is described as a malignorum spirituum simulacrum (‘vehicle of malignant spirits’) and a diaboli ludibrium (‘evil mockery’). It is said to be associated with infausto omine (‘inauspicious omens’) and that maligni spiritus (‘malignant spirits’) travel inside it. The author speculates that it may well be called a ship of “Neptune or Mars, of Bacchus or Venus,” clearly connecting it with heathen gods, and therefore it must be burnt or destroyed somehow. It is generally accepted that such cult ships were built on land for the duration of the festival. It is important to note that secular powers, not the clergy, authorized the procession and protected it. It rested within the power of several townships to grant the approaching ship admission.
Traces of similar ship processions at the beginning of spring are found in other parts of Germany, especially in Swabia, which became the seat of the Suebi mentioned by Tacitus.
Minutes of the town-council of Ulm, dated St. Nicholas’ Eve 1530 contain the prohibition: “There shall be none, by day nor night, trick or disguise him, nor put on any carnival raiment, moreover shall keep him from the going about of the plough and with ships on pain of 1 gulden.” No doubt, among the common people of that region, there survived some recollections of ancient heathen worship which had not yet been wholley uprooted. Rodulf does not say what became at last of the terrea navis (“earthly ship”) but relates how, upon a reception being demanded for it and refused, fights and quarrels broke out, which could only be settled by open warfare. This proves the passion of its contemporaries, fanned to a flame by the participants on either side, both secular and clerical.
The ceremony itself has Indo-European analogs, suggesting an ancient origin. The Roman historian Tacitus tells us that the Germanic tribes in common worshipped a goddess he called the Germanic "Isis" whose emblem was a ship. In Western Europe, we find evidence of a goddess named Nehellania, frequently depicted with a ship. The Greeks dedicated a ship to Athena. At the Panathenæa, her sacred robe was conveyed by ship to the Acropolis suspended from the mast as a sail. This ship was built on the Kerameikos, and moved on dry land by an unseen mechanism, first around the temple of Demeter and then past the Pelasgian to the Pythian, and finally to the citadel, followed by the people in solemn procession. A connection between the ancient images of ships on the Scandinavian Petrogylphs and Freyr's vessel Skidbladnir thus is not unlikely.
-William P. Reaves