The solar boat

The idea of a ship, boat, or other floating vessel as transport for the Sun is less widely attested, but certainly old. It is not, of course, exclusively Indo-European; it is well known as a feature of the Egyptian solar mythology.

In RV 5. 45. 10 Surya is said to have risen into the shining flood (arnas-; i.e. the air), after harnessing his straight-backed mares; these intelligent creatures have guided him like a ship through the water. This is only a simile, but in the Atharvaveda (17. 1. 25 f.) the risen Sun is twice told 'O Aditya, thou hast boarded a ship of a hundred oars for well-being'. The oars perhaps represent the rays of light.

As with the horse-drawn wheel, the Vedic image finds graphic expression in Bronze Age Scandinavia. Ships are a favourite subject of the rock artists, and in a number of cases there is a solar wheel—or sometimes two—riding just above them, or attached to the vessel by means of one or two ropes or posts. Some of these may be depictions of a ritual in which a solar emblem was carried in a ship, though others can hardly be understood in this way. At Nors in Jutland a clay jar was found containing about a hundred tiny model ships made of bronze and gold leaf and decorated with solar symbols. Again some ritual use seems likely.48

Three representations are of particular interest, because the solar horse appears as well as the ship, in such a way as to suggest that the horse is supposed to take the sun across the sky by day and then rendezvous with the ship. One is the carving from Kalleby already mentioned. The horse and sun-wheel are just above the ship, but clearly not in it; they could be

48 J. Dechelette (as n. 36), 329 fig. 14, 330-7, 338-40; de Vries (1956), i. 108 f., 122; GellingDavidson (1969), 11-15, 64; M. Green (1991), 77-9; Meller (2004), 31, 52 f.; F. Kaul, ibid. 58-63, 66-8, 72.

taken as just landing in it or taking off from it. Such an interpretation seems irresistible in the case of two of the bronze razors from Denmark.49 On one the ship sits at the left, and the flying horse with the sun attached is just ahead of its prow, as if having just taken off. On the other, both the prow and the stern of the ship are crowned with haloes of rays. Behind the prow a horse, outlined with stippling to suggest radiance, is landing from above, his fore legs already on the deck, his hind legs still high in the air. The radiant sun-disc, unattached, hangs low over the after deck.

A sensational find was made recently at Nebra in central Germany. It is dated to around 1600 bce.50 It is a bronze disc, 31-32 cm. in diameter, with gold embellishments representing the sun, the crescent moon, and about thirty stars, including a cluster suggestive of the Pleiades. Two arcs were later added on opposite sides of the rim (one of them is now lost): they subtended angles of 82° from the centre, and evidently represented the range of sunrise and sunset points on the horizon between midwinter and midsummer. A separate arc, touching the rim of the sky at the southern horizon, was added later still. It is divided by lines into three bands and outlined with a bristle pattern that has been compared to the lines of oars on some Bronze Age representations of ships. But the ends of the arc are cut off square with no suggestion of a prow or stern, and if it is meant for a solar vessel, as some have argued, it would seem to be a plain round bowl rather than a regular ship. If the bristles stand for oars, we are reminded of the hundred-oared ship of the Atharvaveda and the implication that a powerful driving force is required.

A round bowl or cup, not a ship, is the form that the Sun's vessel takes in Greek poetry and usually in Greek art. Like the horses and chariot, it finds no mention in the Iliad or Odyssey but appears in other seventh- and sixth-century poets. It conveys Helios at night along the river Oceanus that encircles the earth, and needs no rowers:

A wondrous couch (euv^) bears him across the waves—

winged, by Hephaestus intricately wrought in precious gold—as he in grateful sleep skims o'er the water from the Hesperides to Aethiopia, where a chariot and steeds await the early birth of Dawn; and there the god mounts his new equipage, Hyperion's son. (Mimnermus fr. 12. 5-11)

49 F. Kaul in Meller (2004), 61 (centre and bottom right), 62 f.; cf. Gelling-Davidson (1969), 133 fig. 58b.

50 M. Kerner, Helvetia Archaeologica 34 (2003), no. 134; Meller (2004).

Stesichorus and others called it a Senas, 'goblet'. Vase painters from the late sixth century onward show Helios in it with his horses, or Heracles using it to cross the Ocean to Erythea; the part that shows above the water-line sometimes looks like the top of a large jar.51

The integrated transport system, wheeled vehicle for the day connecting with night ferry, recurs in the Latvian folk tradition.

Qui l'a dit, il en a menti, que Saule court à pied:

par-dessus la forêt, dans une voiture, par-dessus la mer, dans une barque. (LD 33811, trs. Jonval no. 167)

The word rendered 'voiture', rati, is from the previously mentioned root that gives Vedic ratha- and Latin rota. In other songs we hear that Saule sleeps through the night in the golden boat (laiva). She brings it to the shore in the morning when she gets up, and it stays there rocking on the water.52

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