The ship of song

The most elaborate objects made by joiners in early times were firstly boats and ships, from at least the Mesolithic period, and secondly wheeled vehicles: block-wheel wagons from sometime before 3300 bce and spoke-wheeled chariots from around 2000. Both ships and chariots appear figuratively in Indo-European traditions in connection with poetic activity. But just as in the real world these artefacts, once made, tend to be valued as means of transport rather than just as fine specimens of carpentry, so in poetry they are represented not so much as things the poet makes as conveyances to travel on.

Let us first consider ships.47 In a hymn to the Asvins the twin gods beyond the sea are invited to 'come in the ship of our mindings/songs to reach the opposite shore' (RV 1. 46. 7); the perfected hymn is imagined as the conveyance that will enable them to come into the worshippers' presence. Another

44 Skaldsk. 10; Durante (1960), 237 = (1976), 172 f.

45 Egill, ArinbiarnarkviSa 15; Sonatorrek 5. 3 f.; Hallar-Stein in Skaldsk. 47 (st. 203).

46 Cf. Gerd Kreutzer, Die Dichtungslehre der Skalden (2nd edn., Meisenheim 1977); S. N. Tranter in Tristram (1991), 255-9; W. Sayers, 'Scarfing the Yard with Words: Shipbuilding Imagery in Old Norse Poetics', Scandinavian Studies 74 (2002), 1-18.

47 Cf. Durante (1958), 8 f. ~ (1976), 128 f.; for Greek, Nunlist (1998), 265-76; for Latin poets, E. J. Kenney in N. I. Herescu (ed.), Ovidiana (Paris 1958), 206.

Rishi says to Indra, 'I come to you with prayer, as to the ship of eloquence in the (poetic) contest' (2. 16. 7). And another: 'For Indra and Agni I set my eloquence going: I drive it forwards like a ship on the river with my songs' (10. 116. 9; cf. 9. 95. 2). In 10. 101. 2 the images of weaving and the ship are juxtaposed: 'Make your thoughts gladsome, stretch them out (as on the loom); make a ship, to ferry them across!'

Pindar and Bacchylides play with nautical images in various ways. Bacchylides in the opening of one poem (16) announces that the Muse has sent him a cargo ship from Pieria, laden with songs, and in another (12) he prays her to steer his mind like a skilled helmsman, if she has ever done so before. Pindar resorts to this imagery especially in those passages where he changes tack in mid ode with an injunction to himself: 'Ease oar, plant anchor quick to ground from prow to avoid rocks!' (Pyth. 10. 51 f.). 'Has some wind thrown me off course like a boat at sea?' (Pyth. 11. 39 f.). 'My heart, to what alien headland are you diverting my voyage?' (Nem. 3. 26 f.). 'West of Cadiz there is no crossing: turn the ship's rig back to Europe's land' (Nem. 4. 69 f.). In a couple of other places (Pyth. 4. 3, Nem. 6. 28 f.) he desires the Muse to direct or strengthen the songs' ovpos, the following wind that helps a ship on its way.

Ship imagery reappears in the Latin poets, but there is no guarantee that it is independent of Greek models. It is perhaps more noteworthy that we find traces of it in the North. One skaldic expression for poetry was skip dverga, the Dwarfs' ship. Egill Skallagrimsson, whom I quoted above, has the remarkable line hlo8k msrSar hlut munknarrar skut, I loaded the stern of my mind-ship with a portion of praise, where the mental ship, the mun-kngrr, has its prow from the *men root previously discussed.48

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