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The Feared Dragon-Headed Viking Boat

Updated on June 6, 2013
John Clarke Ridpath (c. 1917-1919)
John Clarke Ridpath (c. 1917-1919)

Without the vital Viking longship, the Vikings would never have been able to successfully raid the rest of Europe. Viking pirates, mercenaries, explorers, traders, and adventurers all relied on the longship to expand their horizons. The English called these boats dragonships because of their dragon-shaped bow. Since the Roman empire had collapsed and Greco-Roman shipbuilding technology was lost, the Viking longship was the most advanced ship in the Medieval period. This light and swift boat carried Viking warriors to foreign beaches where they disembarked to pillage the cities that were often unprepared for the might of Viking warriors.

A diagram showing the clinker (left) and carvel (right) boatbuilding techniques.
A diagram showing the clinker (left) and carvel (right) boatbuilding techniques.

How They Were Built

Viking longships were made of oak and were designed to go fast. They were long, narrow, and lightweight. They were clinker built, meaning that the planks overlapped, which allowed these boats to go faster than the carvel built boats that were used in the rest of Europe. A short distance between the waterline and the bottom of the boat helped it to glide through the water with ease and allowed it to navigate through shallow water.

The boat's light weight also meant it could be carried across land to reach another body of water, a practice known as portage. Another interesting design aspect is that the front end and back end of the boat were symmetrical, which allowed the ship to change direction without turning around.

Oars were utilized along the entire length of the ship allowing it to reach its maximum speed of 15 knots. Some longships had a single square sale which made the ship even faster and helped the Vikings make longer journeys. Viking longships also incorporated rudders for navigation and anchors, although the boat was easily beached.

A recreated snekkja.
A recreated snekkja. | Source

Types of Longships

Longships were categorized by the number of rowing positions. The smallest longship is the Karvi which was used more for fishing and trade than warfare. Snekkjas had twenty benches and were one of the most common ships used in warfare. Skei had thirty rowing benches.

Viking Raids

A map showing the kingdom of Cnut the Great.
A map showing the kingdom of Cnut the Great.
Lindisfarne, Thomas Girtin (1798) - An English church destroyed by Vikings.  The attack on Lindisfarne is recognized as the Vikings' first invasion.
Lindisfarne, Thomas Girtin (1798) - An English church destroyed by Vikings. The attack on Lindisfarne is recognized as the Vikings' first invasion.

Viking fleets typically consisted of hundreds of ships, sometimes over a thousand. The longship was rarely ever used for naval battles. It's primary purpose was to transport Vikings for attacks by land. Viking warriors were so fierce that Viking mercenaries were hired by the King of England to defend England from other Vikings.

There were no powerful kingdoms in Europe during the Dark Ages after Rome was sacked by barbarians, leaving Europe vulnerable to Viking attacks. In a futile act to deter the Vikings, the English decorated their hillsides with the severed heads of Viking warriors on stakes, but this did not scare the Vikings who knew all about intimidating their enemies. (The word scare is even based on a Norse word.) Under the command of Cnut the Great, the Vikings eventually conquered all of England, forming the Viking kingdom of Danelaw.

The Vikings also descended into France under the command of Rollo, skimming down the Seine River to besiege Paris. This attack convinced the king of the West Franks to sign a treaty with Rollo that gave him the region in France known as Normandy in exchange for fealty.

Ship Burial

 Funeral of an old Russian nobleman, Henryk Siemeradzki (1883)
Funeral of an old Russian nobleman, Henryk Siemeradzki (1883)
A restored Viking runestone.
A restored Viking runestone.

Vikings were buried with their possessions, wives, and even their longship. The Oseberg ship was one such ship found in a burial mound in Norway. This practice was known as ship burial. The Vikings also built tumuli over the graves of great Viking warriors and marked their graves with runestones.

David Berarden (2008)
David Berarden (2008)

Viking Mastheads

While multiple historical records refer to dragon-headed ships, archaeologists haven't actually found any. The dragon carvings were said to scare the townspeople during raids and would ward off sea monsters during the journey. In Norse mythology the gigantic World Serpent encircled the entire world. The Vikings also believed in the existence of other sea serpents.

Olaus Magnus's Sea Orm, 1555
Olaus Magnus's Sea Orm, 1555
cowrie shells
cowrie shells

Viking Trade and Commerce

The versatile Viking longship enabled the Vikings to carry cargo to and from distant ports. The pagan Vikings may have established their foreign settlements because some Christian ports refused to trade with Vikings and Muslims. This practice may also have triggered the raids and plundering. Eventually the Vikings reached Anatolia where they traded with the Byzantines for silk, cowry shells, and coins.

Viking Mythology and the Longship

W.G. Collingwood (1908) - Njörd
W.G. Collingwood (1908) - Njörd

Njörðr was the god of seafaring, ships, and prosperity. He was able to calm the sea and grant wealth to the Vikings. In contrast the sea goddess Rán was said to capture sailors, causing them to drown.

The Vikings built their longships out of oak because oak was associated with their principal god, Odin. They were also said to keep cages of crows on board in case they got lost. When the crows were released, they would instinctively fly towards the nearest land.

The Vikings Discover America

It's not exactly clear how the Vikings managed to navigate their way all the way to America in 986, a feat not accomplished again until 1492, but archaeologists have various theories. They must have had some kind of navigational device, either an astrolabe, or a crystal that polarized skylight (called the Viking's Compass), or a sundial. The Vikings understood tides and currents, looked to the stars to guide them, and had charts that were nearly as accurate as their modern counterparts.

Leif Ericson attempted to establish a Viking colony in a land which he called Vinland. Vinland is located in present day Newfoundland. The colony didn't thrive, but Viking settlers in Greenland may have continued to sail to the area to collect timber since trees were scarce in Greenland. They also traded with the Natives for furs, although the Natives were often hostile towards the Norse invaders.

Descendants of the Vikings thrive in many countries and Viking influence is still present in many world cultures. The clinker technique is still used in modern boat-building and archaeologists have sailed recreations of Viking longships. In the 19th century painters Romanticized the image of the Viking, popularizing the horned helmet that is often associated with Vikings. Viking rule of England influenced the English language. The words anger, berserk, die, freckle, glitter, husband, knife, outlaw, race, scare, skull, slaughter, troll, and ugly all of Norse origin. Plus the word Thursday originally meant Thor's Day.

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