No one can claim Danish is a simple language, with its multiple accents, including a mysterious ball that levitates above the odd vowel. Other letters appear to have been scarred by an angry norseman, who slashed the offending vowels with his sword from shoulder to heel.

While the Arabs were pushing across the Al Bahr Al Abyad Al Muttaswasit, the Middle White Sea, en route to establishing the Iberian Caliphate, the Vikings were using tovværk, or ropes, manufactured from hestehår, also known as horsehair, to secure the starboard rødder (that would be rudder) on their longships. There is a possibility that the word starboard originated from the steering board of the Danes.

For a few hundred years the Viking longships were the terror of Europe, travelling routes west and south of Scandinavia, and building an empire which under King (or in Danish Kong) Canute, included England and parts of Sweden. Of course he was actually Knut, or Knud in Danish, and Kong Knud was celebrated in my fifth grade English history book as the man who tried to hold back the sea. In fact, that wasn’t his intent at all, he was actually demonstrating the limits of his powers. A good lesson for world politicians as they gather in Rome this weekend.

By contrast to surnames such as Obama, Hollande, or Monti, Kong Knud’s ancestors were called things like Svein Forkbeard and Harald Bluetooth. We could do with a couple of Forkbeards causing havoc among the investment bankers. I suspect we already suffer from an excess of bluetooth.

I always thought the square sails of the longships were a severe limitation to Viking exploration. I found out that the square sails can be rigged for a tack, although they don’t perform well compared to the lateen sail. They were light ships, built for speed, with a shallow keel, which will not oppose drift particularly well. And oarsmen were used for power, just as in the Phoenician galleys of two thousand years before.

By the eighth century B.C. the Phoenician vessels had an upper deck for helmsman and troops, and the rowing went on belowdecks. Executed by slaves, who were lashed enthusiastically by their overseer. Galley is translated as galera in Portuguese, and it is still today a Brazilian synonym for jail.

The Sea Stallion from Glendalough, a reconstructed thirty meter longship. The ship replica, built by the Danish Viking Ship Museum and the National Museum in Dublin at a cost of $2.5 million, sailed into the Liffey on August 14th 2007, ten centuries after the original.

In Roskilde you can see a bunch of Viking ships, both contemporary and ancient—the ancient ones were found buried in the silt, and the modern ones are mostly built locally. There is a thriving boatyard where the diferent professions are represented. It reminded me of the description in The India Road of the shipyard at Ribeira das Naus, in downtown Lisbon, to the west of what is now Cais do Sodré.

There were carpenters who worked on the wooden superstructures, molding them from timber, and others who built the decks and masts; caulkers who used oakum, a mixture of tar and rope, to pack the joints between the planks of wood; smelters and iron workers, dealing with ribbing, rudders, and pumps.

…within carpenters, there were tanoeiros, coopers who specialized in building and maintaining barrels for food and water in the ship’s hold; others, known as remolares, were experts in the manufacture of oars; and yet others, called voyage carpenters, shipped with the fleet and could jury-rig a mast or a breached hull and make a new rudder to replace a broken one.

Except in Lisbon the crafstmen were concentrated in streets named after their trade. Those streets are still there today.

The ancient Viking ships, built several centuries before the Portuguese discoveries began in the early XVth century, were constructed in a very different way. Instead of an inner frame to which the hull was added, building began from the outside-in, nailing planks to a keel to build the hull, before adding the internal components—benches for the oarsmen, the single mast, and occasionally on larger vessels, decking at prow and stern. As in nature, first came the exoskeleton of the arthropods and only after the vertebrate plan.

The Viking routes. West to Greenland and Newfoundland, east as far as the Caspian, and all around the Mediterranean. Navigation was often by line of sight, but in some cases there were significant journeys in the open sea, where the sun and stars must have played a part in navigation.

In general the ships lacked decks, which will definitely have been a danger in the stormy waters of the North Atlantic. It will also have hampered dry storage. In the serpent-shaped combat longships, there appears to be little place for stowing plunder. That may have limited the ability of the Vikings to bring home gold and sliver from the monasteries. The voyage of the Sea Stallion from Roskilde to Dublin illustrates the challenge of heavy seas, even though it took place in midsummer.

Despite these limitations, the Vikings travelled the seas of Europe, followed the rivers into Eurasia, and made it to the Newfoundland coast. How long did these journeys take? Apparently England was three days away, although that probably means northern Scotland, and Greenland was three weeks sailing.

It took fourteen days to get down to the Med, navigating along the coast. I can imagine the Bay of Biscay holds a few Drakkars in the deep. As does the western coast of Portugal.

When the Vikings met the Moors, in the Algarve and Andalucia, there were violent clashes. The Spanish caliphs hung a massive chain across the Guadalquivir river, on the shores of Seville, to stop the Scandinavian raiding parties sailing further upstream. One end was suspended from the Torre del Oro, on the eastern bank of the river. The tower on the other side was destroyed by the tsunami that shot up the Guadalquivir on November 1st 1755, in the gigantic earthquake that levelled downtown Lisbon.

But the Vikings also traded. One of the commodities the Moors were most interested in were the blonde Danish women, a particularly desirable prize for the harem.

And since in Muslim culture the lineage was passed down strictly through the male, women serving only as a ‘sperm receptacle’, presently blond and blue eyed Arab rulers began to emerge. In a society where women count for nothing, there are no bastard sons.

The India Road QR links for smartphones: point your camera and click.


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