19 January 2011

Flying Vikings

That wonderful compendium of the informative and the bizarre, the Guardian's 'Notes and Queries' section, today raised the curious question 'Why didn't the Vikings learn to fly?', in view of their undoubted skills in the sailing department. While it's true that they didn't actually come up with 'sail planes or hang gliders', the Vikings certainly spent a lot of time imagining flight, and indeed imagining the devices that might make it possible - their mythology is full of flight.
Freyja's feather suit (fjaðrhamr), is mentioned in Þrymskviða as a device which is borrowed by Loki in order to search among the giants for Thor's missing hammer. A similar falcon suit (valshamr), also owned by Freyja, is mentioned by Snorri in his Edda. This time Loki (again) is searching for the goddess Idunn of the golden apples, who has been abducted by the giant Thjassi. But things get complicated, because Thjassi, too, has his own flying suit, this time in the form of an eagle (arnarhamr).
Similarly, the maidens at the beginning of Völundarkviða flew in from the south wearing swan-feathers (svanfjaðrar). Later in the poem, Völundr himself rises into the air using something called fitjar, perhaps best imagined as flippers of some sort. He is however not really flying, just trying to raise himself up after the evil King Nidud had hamstrung him.
Others, too, have wanted the sailing Vikings to fly. A wonderful children's book, The Ship that Flew, by Nottingham author Hilda Lewis (1939), derives its central conceit from the god Freyr's magic ship Skidbladnir. According to Snorri's account, this ship can accommodate all the Æsir fully armed, and immediately raise a wind whenever the sail is hoisted, but can also be folded up into one's pocket when not required. In Snorri, the ship only sails, but Hilda Lewis imagined it flying and taking the children of her book on all sorts of magical adventures. I vaguely remember a TV adaptation of this some 15 or 20 years ago (has anyone got the details?) which rather boringly turned the central conveyance into a flying carpet, so much so that the story was hardly recognisable, yet I am sure it was the same story.


  1. What a fantastic vision first they came by sea now the norse terror from above!
    Oh there has to be a book in that!

  2. Jakob Øhlenschlæger20/1/11 16:57

    I have to add two registrations from the Danish registry of ancient monuments and finds, Fund og Fortidsminder, where Viking ships are registred as flying vehicles ("luftfartøj":



    I'm sure they are just errors but good fun.

  3. Splendid! Thanks for sharing these...

  4. Anonymous22/1/11 17:28

    Flying ships of course, ahem, "well documented" in the ninth century, as a quick perusal of the letters of Agobard of Lyons (cap. ii of this link) will show. Maybe that's why the Franks won in the end! (I presume it wasn't good flying weather at Paris...)

  5. Interesting, thanks for drawing my attention to this. I notice that Agobard, while explaining away the misguided belief in storm-makers, rather fudges the ships in the clouds. Are we meant to take these as something coming from God, since 'anything that occurs in the sky is attributed to the command of God' (cap. viii)?

  6. Anonymous27/1/11 17:59

    Intresting blog...

    For info about Scanian history go to my blog:


    My theory on the origins of the Proto-Germanic people go to my blog:


    Best regards - Keyo Ghettson

  7. Anonymous1/2/11 11:17

    I haven't seen any detailed work on this, but it does exist, and since some of it's by Paul Dutton it's probably thorough enough to answer that question. There are various references at the end of my post here.

  8. Michael McCaughan, 'Voyagers in the Vault of Heaven: The Phenomenon of Ships in the Sky in Medieval Ireland and Beyond' [http://collections.mun.ca/PDFs/cbu/Bulletin48.pdf]