Notes On Giant Ships.
( Originally Published 1917 )
The eye of the imagination sees a world in which there are no fixed dimensions. The hero who has saved us from death becomes as we tell of him a giant of strength and prowess. The fish which we see just eluding our hook appears to be a vast and beautiful creature of untold weight and of strength sufficient to sink our boat. It is natural then that folk literature, engraved upon the very wax of fancy, should bear the distinguishing mark of this wonder spirit which ever seeks to give dimension to its objects. Giants and monsters lurk in the silence of the primeval forests, and to primitive man warring with the material world, size is the constant factor of dread and wonder. It is one of the conventions of folk-narration. Small wonder that the legendary lore of the sea should contain many stories of vast ships. Our story of the giant ship is based upon a sailor's account reported by Jal in his Scènes de la vie maritime (1832) II, p. 89. The Christian Testament brings the best known of these ancient legends is the story of the ark. We read that the earth was filled with violence and wrongdoing and God being angered with men said to Noah (Gen. vii) :
"Come thou and all thy house into the ark; for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation.
"And Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters was upon the earth. And Noah went in, and his sons, and his wife, and his sons' wives with him, into the ark, because of the waters of the flood. Of clean beasts, and of beasts that are not clean, and of birds, and of everything that creepeth upon the ground, there went in two and two unto Noah into the ark, male and female, as God commanded Noah. And it came to pass after the seven days, that the waters of the flood were upon the earth. In the six hundredth year of Noah's life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights... .And the waters prevailed, and increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth ; and all the high mountains that were under the whole heaven were covered. Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail ; and the mountains were covered. And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both birds, and cattle, and beasts, and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man : all in whose nostrils was the breath of the spirit of life, of all that was on the dry land, died. And every living thing was destroyed that was upon the face of the ground, both man and cattle, creeping things, and birds of the heavens; and they were destroyed from the earth; and Noah only was left, and they that were with him in the ark. And the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days.
"And God remembered Noah, and all the beasts, and all the cattle that were with him in the ark : and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the water assuaged ; the fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and the rain from heaven was restrained ; and the waters returned from off the earth continually: and after the end of a hundred and fifty days the waters decreased. And the ark rested in the seventh month, upon the mountains of Ararat."
This great craft was 525 feet in length, 87.6 broad and 52.6 high, which brings it easily within the realm of modern ship-building possibilities. The deluge myth itself is of almost universal dispersion but beyond certain fugitive Tlinket and Peruvian stories, which are plainly adaptations of the Hebrew legend, we find no stories of giant arks far from the shores of the Mediterranean, and the dimensions of the biblical ark are so reasonable and definite that she may almost be omitted from the list of giant ships of legend. Any inquiry into the significance of deluge myths would be a digression, but we note in passing that interesting prototype of the Ark described in the Gilgamesh narrative, or Babylonian Nimrod epic. This narrative was inscribed upon twelve tablets and the existing copy was once part of the library of King Ashurbanipal (668-626 B. C.). The eleventh tablet describes the deluge ship built by Kidin-Marduk.
"In its middle part its sides were ten gar high ;
In Marco Polo's day the ark was resting upon a mountain in Armenia, whereas today it is asserted that it has been found petrified on the Porcupine river near Rampart, Alaska, by the Yukon River Indians. In North America also we find the remains of a great canoe guarded by a giant, resting upon an island in upper Lake St. John. (Jesuit Relations, LXVIII, p. 45.) The ark was, as its name implies, a place of refuge, and as it is the saviour of the human race, it is the antithesis of the Flying Dutchman and other punishment ships. Noah is the chosen of God, Vanderdecken the accursed, the Ark the symbol of the covenant, the Dutchman the messenger of death.
Another reward ship is the Merry Dun of Dover, a veritable sailors' heaven. She is much the same ship as that known in France as "La Grande Chasse Foudre," and her prototype is the old Frisian Manningfual. This great ship was worldwide, and perhaps in the early forms of the story was in reality an allegorical picture of the world. Youths going into her lofty rigging returned old men, and so great were the distances aloft that inns and dining halls, were located in all her blocks. Passing north through the straits of Dover, she found scant passageway and her captain soaped her sides and so she managed to scrape through, leaving the white cliffs of "Albion" as a reminder. (Thorpe, Northern Mythology, III, p. 28.)` Later she found the Baltic Sea too narrow and had to be lightened to get through. The island of Bornholm is the metal ballast she then cast overboard, and Christianco was formed by her ashes and rubbish. (Muellenhoff, Sagen, Marchen und Lieder, p. 235.) It is said that once when she was tacking in the Channel her headbooms swept away a regiment of soldiers drilling at Dover, while, at the same time her spankerboom projected over the Calais forts. This story, however, depicts a ship of definite proportions, whereas the Chasse Foudre, as described by French sailors, is of such intangible size that she takes one hundred years to tack.
A great ship that once sailed the northern seas was the Benevender, which was built in Russia half a thousand years ago. She tried to ram the giant Kraken which crossed her course, sprung a leak, and sank. The heads of her masts are the Teufelsfelsen upon which many ships are wrecked every year. (Werner, Buch von der deutschen Flotte, p. 344.)
The giant ship of Swedish story is the Refanu ; she is so vast that it is a three weeks' journey from poop to prow, and her orders are transmitted on horseback. Each of her tops is as great as a kingdom, and like the Chasse Foudre she has an inn in every block. (E. Wigstrom in Germania, XXXIII, p. 109.) She is a nautical heaven. A Dutch brig once sailed into her hawsehole and was tossed for three days by the waves in her soup coppers until they were skimmed one day and the brig cast into the sea with the scum of the soup. Bean Island was formed by one day's skimmings, and Oeland and Gotland from jettisoned cargo of the Refanu.
Gargantua, the fabled son of Grangousier, built a great boat for whose timbers he felled a whole forest. (Sebillot, Gargantua dans les traditions populaires, p. 18, 1883.) She measured more than ten thousand tons and took seven years to tack.
An Irish story, which has often been said to be modern but which I think quite the contrary, is of the "Roth Ramhach," a great ship, which at the end of the world will go equally well over land and sea. She has a thousand beds, each of which will hold a thousand men. (O'Curry, Manuscript Material of Ancient Irish History, p. 401; Melusine, II, 161.) The name means literally "wheel with oars," and has been translated "paddlewheel." We remember that the first automobiles were not designed as self-driven vehicles, but were modifications of the old carriage or drawn vehicle with an engine added. In the same way we find the first attempts to apply steam to the propulsion of vessels were not centered upon the construction of new vessels for this new power, but sought to. reconstruct the old type of vessels driven by sails or oars, with the substitution of steam as the mechanical equivalent for man-power. We are not surprised, therefore, to find that the first steam-propelled vessels used sweeps or paddles attached to a wheel, the roue à aubes or paddlewheel.
But the legend goes on to describe the Roth Ramhach as a sailing ship and says that her sails will not be furled until she grounds near the promontory of Cnamchoill. Remembering the source and diffusion of Eddaic stories we cannot avoid seeing the striking similarity to the ship of Balder. His ship Hringhorni is the disk of the sun, whose sails will not be furled till Ragnarok, and we know that the sun was not only figured as a ship but as a wheel among many Aryan peoples. In the festivals of St. John's fires, which in most European countries are the direct descendant of the mourning over "Balder's bale," the rolling of wheels and burning brands is emblematic of the burning ship Hringhorni, the disk of the sun passing over its highest arc. "Wheel with oars" then is an apt description of that majestic orb which appeared to our ancestors as at once a wheel and a ship.
An interesting parallel to our story is that of La Patte Luzerne collected by Senequier in the province of Var and reported in La Revue des traditions populaires (XII, 390). According to this story La Patte Luzerne used to haunt the coast of Provence and was so large that when she left Toulon her stern had scarcely left the roads when her bowsprit was already passing the Straits of Gibraltar. Aboard her are fields of wheat, vines, fruit trees of every kind, and vegetables, all these in sufficient quantity to be able to nourish her crew during many a century. The fields are tilled by oxen which are also used for meats, and there are game-birds and animals.
The masts are so high that the cabin boys who go aloft to the tops come down the other side gray-bearded old men. Each block contains an inn, a brasserie, or a café. There are even other places of amusement so that the sailors shall not be too much tired of their long journey.
During the siege of Rhodes, in which the vessel assisted, the crew fought twenty-four years upon the forward deck, but aft they did not know of the battle and were dancing all the time.
The origin of the name Pape Lucerne or Patte Luzerne is not clear, though an extended inquiry into the folktales of these coasts might make it so. During the Middle Ages the church was often figured as a ship riding triumphant over the waves of the world in spite of the storms of disbelief and heresy. Perhaps this is the vast ship of the pope, with its promise of comfort and ease for good sailors, until the end of time.
A ship whose name recalls the Patte Luzerne is known in Italian popular story. She is called the "Nave di Pape Lucerna" and is said to date back to the days of Imperial Rome, and to be propelled by great sweeps in the hands of galley rowers. She is great enough to fill the whole sea from Capri to Capo di Minerva, and is often seen off Capri at night. (Gandage, Opera, VII, 69, 1834.) I am inclined to associate this story with the fabled galley of Ptolemy Philopater (224-204 B.C.), which was said to have forty ranks of oars.
An obscure Rhodian scribe named Callixenus left a description of this great ship, which was transcribed by Plutarch and Athenaeus, and perhaps by Pliny. It was said to be 280 cubits long, to have about four cubits draught and an elevation of bow and stern of 48 and 53 cubits respectively. The longest oars were of 38 cubits, which was also the extreme beam. The oars were said to be weighted inboard to balance the outboard length.
Athenaeus says there were several ships of thirteen banks and less, and that Ptolemy Philadelphos had one of twenty and two of thirty banks. Recent excavation of the temple of Aphrodite at Paphos in Cyprus has brought to light a dedication by Ptolemy to the architect of the thirty-banked ship. (See Journal of Hellenic Studies, IX, 255; Torr, Ancient Ships; Graser, De veterum re navale.)
Other accounts say the great ship of Ptolemy Philopater had four thousand rowers and 2850 fighting men, and four rudders each 45 feet long, and a double prow. The descriptions show that this was a great river barge rather than a sea-going ship, and the mention by Diodorus of a sacred barge 280 cubits long prompts the idea that this was the real basis of Callixenus' story. The weighted oars are steering oars which were- commonly weighted inboard. Such a barge was usually without oars but perhaps this had oars arranged in forty groups, whence the story of the forty banks. At all events we are not ready to believe that any forty-banked ship was practicable. Where history magnifies and exaggerates we may expect to find popular tradition idealizing, and perhaps the galley of Ptolemy described by an unknown historian of Rhodes lingers on in folk memory as the giant ship of the Mediterranean which took part in the siege of Rhodes. Accounts of Egyptian and Phoenician ships illuminate our story and recall the proud rivalry for the carrying trade of the Mediterranean. Cargoes of corn and grain are spoken of which we believe to be fabulous, as the size and carrying capacity of the ships of the day was very limited by reason of their mode of construction. It is scarcely to be believed that a ship bound together with wooden cleats and strengthened against strains by circumscribing cables would carry thousands of tons of cargo. Though we look upon the giant ships as in the main allegorical, there may be a discernible background of those contemporary stories which the boastful war captains and merchant kings of Phoenicia and the East related in the trading ports of the great sea.
Suetonius in his Lives of the Caesars says of Caligula (12-41 A. D.) ; "He built two ships with two banks of oars after the Liburnian fashion, the poops of which blazed with jewels and the sails were of various parti colors ; they were fitted up with ample baths, galleries and saloons and supplied with a great variety of vines and fruit trees. In these he would sail in the day along the coast of Campania, feasting amid dancing and concerts of music."
Two galleys of Caligula's time found in the Lake of Nemi near Rome are fitted with fountains and paved with tiles. They were 200 feet long and 90 feet in beam with bronze fittings and copper sheathing. They were found near the villa of Domitian and presumably therefore were in use up to 81 to 96 A. D. Certain tiles bear the name of Marcius, a Roman brickmaker of that period.
A giant ship which is both spectre and soul-bearer is known on the channel coast of France. It was formerly believed in the neighborhood of Morlaix in Finisterre that lost ships returned to haunt the coast with their ghostly crews of the drowned and that they often ran aboard vessels off the cape. These ships are said to have expanded so extraordinarily that a tiny coaster appears after a few years to be as great as a porte geolette. An old sailor tells that he was one of the crew of a brig which was wrecked and of which he was the lone survivor, having been cast miraculously upon the shore. Afterward in distant seas he met her many times and each time she was larger than ever before. "When I see her again," he adds, "she will be a three decker, and instead of dying in my bed, I shall sail forever."
It is believed in that province that foundered ships grow from year to year at the bottom of the sea. (Felix Frank, La danse des fous, Paris, 1885, p. 215.) There is no apparent connection between these expanding ships and the magic ships of the Skidbaldnir type, whose ability to hold all the gods or retire into a vest pocket is merely an incident of the omnipotence of the possessor and a proof of his magic powers. Quite different is the Norse ship Naglfar which on the day of world conflicts will be loosed from the island Lyngvi where in chains Loki awaits Ragnarok. Then with Loki as pilot and bearing Fenrer the wolf as a host of souls, this great ship will go out to meet the gods in battle. These must be devils or souls of the damned as they are led by Loki and Fenrer. Naglfar is built of the nails of the neglected dead. The Eddas as well as modern Icelandic folklore show that this great ship is allegorical of the cumulative force of that sort of physical evil which primitive man sees in the neglect of the rites of the dead. (Arnason, Icelandic Legends.) With this ship goes the great ship of the frost giants steered by Hrimnir. This ship is confused with Naglfar in the younger Edda.
Another giant ship of Teutonic mythology is Skidbaldnir which was smithied for Frey by the elf sons of Ivalde. This ship was great enough to contain all the gods and their war equipment. She always has a fair wind. When not in use she can by magic be reduced to such form that she may easily be held in one's pocket. A giant ship from the channel is thus reported by Sauvé in the French folklore journal Melusine (Sep. 1884) :
"In many localities in Lower Brittany, stories are current of a huge ship manned by giant human forms and dogs. The men are reprobates guilty of horrible crimes ; the dogs, demons set to guard them, and inflict on them a thoùsand tortures. These condemned vessels wander ceaselessly from sea to sea, without entering port or casting anchor, and will do so to the end of the world. No vessel should allow them to fall aboard, for its crew would suddenly disappear. The orders, in this strange craft, are given through huge conch-shells, and, the noise being heard several miles, it is easy to avoid her. Besides, there is nothing to fear if the Ave Maria is repeated, and the saints appealed to, especially St. Anne d'Auray."
Greater than all the ships of Norse legend, however, is Hringhorni, which served for the "burning voyage" of Balder. She is the disk of the sun, the vessel of Balder the sun-god, and his death voyage is the sunset when the hull of Hringhorni sinks into the mysterious western ocean. Another Norse sky ship is the ship of Nokve the moon-god. It is called by Grimnersmal Sokvabek, that is the setting or sinking ship. In it as in the moonship of the Rig Veda the liquid of inspiration, the life and strength-giving mead of the sagas and soma of the Vedas, was concealed.
Having thus compared the various legendary giant ships we are in a position to inquire into the meaning and origin of this type of story. The student of fairy tales may say at once that size is the fixed attribute of the legendary world and that it signifies power and magic and is to be explained psychologically by its relation to finite human mental and physical vision, and by the natural love of the folk-story teller for superlatives. But is this true in this case? The legends of the deluge ship are everywhere strikingly definite and the Christian legend is the only one in which we find a ship of great size though hardly to be considered one of the giant ships of story. Non-Christian deluge myths usually describe the ark of refuge as a raft (Mueller, Amerikanische Urreligion, p. 515, Teocepactli), a canoe (Schoolcraft, Algic Researches, p. 358. Cherokee), a ball of resin (Bancroft, Native Races, III, 79, Pima), or simply as a big boat. Moreover, we find that these deluge boats were not magic, sentient, or self-impelled, and except in the legend from the Jesuit Relations referred to, we find no giants or guardian spirits. We may, therefore, consider the deluge ship as out of the category of giant ships, the Christian ark being a great ship whose size was suited to her uses.
Passing from the arks to the Merry Dun, Chasse Foudre, Manningfual, Refanu, Roth Ramhach and Pape Lucerne, we find here what may be considered the true type of our story. These great ships are so strikingly similar in general attributes that the task of comparison is a light one. They are all intangibly vast in hull and rigging, all as comfortable as royal yachts. Sounds of revelry come from deck, yardarm and top by day and night and there is always a fair wind and plenty to eat. For the interpretation of the legend we must look into the sailor mind. We find that all the crew of these giant ships are happy and contented men with every sailor comfort. They are then sailor pictures of life at sea under the most favorable conditions. The great ship has nothing to fear from the storms which keep the short-handed coaster in terror. The "beneventus" is always abaft her beam and her canvas is never furled. The broils of the forecastle never reach her quarterdeck, and scurvy never vanquishes her truck patch. She is a ship so large that she has nothing to fear from the sea and so well appointed that even Jack can find nothing to grumble about. In fine, she is just such a ship as a sailor would wish to live aboard. She is at once at sea and ashore. She is the idealization of life at sea. The ethical test for her crew serves still more strongly to mark her as a creature of fancy and at the same time to afford a clear contrast to the punishment ships and devil ships of the Flying Dutchman type.
The sailor's dream of a life after death unbroken by labor or tempest is voiced by Masefield in his "Port of Many Ships" :
"It's a sunny pleasant anchorage, is Kingdom Come,
Returning to the question as to whether the size of these legendary ships is to be likened to the giant castles, giant horses and the like of fairy story, we must answer that it is not. It would seem that it is no way comparable, as their size is in no degree in keeping with their men. They have no giants aboard, no magicians, and none of the other people of the giant world, but just plain sailormen. Their size is such an essential part of their nature that it is scarcely incongruous as folk stories run.
The same cannot be said, however, of the terrible craft de-scribed in Lower Brittany, which is a demon ship whose vast form adds an element of terror and whose giant crew and ravening dogs constitute a terrible picture. This ship like Naglfar is one of the soul bearers, a floating hell, the antithesis of the Merry Dun and La Grande Chasse Foudre.
Hringhorni and the ship of Gargantua are giant ships for giant captains and both are allegorical, the one of the sun, the other of the vast resources of princes. Similar to these is the ship of Hrimnir, king of the frost giants, which at Ragnarok will bear all the frost giants to battle.
As to Skidbaldnir, the ship of Frey, it seems probable that this great expanding and contracting self-impelled ship is a vegetation symbol. It was made by the wonderful primeval artists, the elf sons of Ivalde, as a present for Frey and a proof of their powers, and at once suggests the living chariot or chariot ship made by the Vedic artists, the mythic Ribhus, for the Asvin.
Today in the age of world commerce we cease to wonder at giant ships. We read without comment of the launch of a seven-masted steel schooner, as mighty as the ships of the gods. We cross the Atlantic or Pacific in vast floating hotels which are kingdoms in themselves, and a hard-fisted skipper of Salem in a ship of his own building follows alone the path of Balder into the vast watery wastes of the lower world. For fisherman and coaster the giant ship of the steam age has all the terrors of its predecessors. For the deep-sea sailor the giant ship of the stories has come, with all its heaven of donkey engines, iceplants and fresh vegetables. Truth is indeed stranger than fiction.