Tuesday 19 November 2013

A Longship for Burning

In Memory of Malcolm Ernest Harris

By THL Asa Gormsdottir (mka Eve Harris)

For about a decade a Canadian named Wulfric has handcrafted and delivered a miniature Viking longship to Pennsic, the two-week SCA event held each August in Cooper’s Lake, Pennsylvania.

About 6’ long, the beautifully built ship with linen sail and rigging is armed with painted wooden shields and tokens of lost loved ones and brought to the shores of Cooper’s Lake at sunset, where it is dedicated and set adrift to burn in a Viking funeral.

This open-but-private event is well known but somehow secret. I had known about it for years but of course had never gone to the lake on that night. Death chooses its attendees.

Last year at Pennsic I decided to go.

One of the Pennsic merchants, a woodworker from Canada, makes and sells plain wooden bosse shields for the ship. They are about 2.5” across. He also sells little paint sets to decorate them. Sometimes if the person is poor he gives them a kit for free. I bought a shield and gave him extra.

During a lull the next day I went to our tent, pulled out my illumination box and painted the shield. A black emphatic M in Lindisfarne script with knotwork terminals. The center wooden bosse painted with a small red-black-and-white chequey design (in imitation of millefiori glass studs found in important Anglo-Saxon and Celtic pieces, such as the Ardagh Chalice and the Lismore Crozier). The ground in white. The rim of the shield in red.

The paint dried quickly in the hot weather and I slipped the little shield into a scrounged ziplock bag in my purse.

Later that day I was on Runestone Hill and a party of three marched up the hill with the wooden ship on their shoulders. I asked them if they were accepting the shields now. The leader nodded, and told his crew, “Present Deck!” They turned and presented the deck of the ship to me and I hurriedly scrabbled the shield out of my purse and placed it on the deck, where some others were already waiting. Before the ceremony all the shields would be carefully nailed along the topmost strake on both sides (the area now known as the gunwales).

After finishing my shift at the Pennsic Independent that afternoon I went back to the tent and changed out of my fine blue Gothic dress, made from the silk Holly bought me in Afghanistan. Instead I put on a green linen tunic, a herringbone apron dress and pewter tortoise brooches, braided my hair and put on desert boots. David changed into Norman wool.

Thus plainly arrayed as a Norsewoman, Asa Gormsdottir, I went down to the water’s edge in the steadily failing light, to stand with my friends of this night. They flowed in, quiet, discreet ripples, so imperceptibly filling the small clearing below the watchtower trees. Other than a short greeting, no one really spoke with one another.

Unnr Hringsdottir, another Canadian (it’s amazing how we create and infiltrate) led the ceremony with her plump and healthy babe in arms. She was in childbed in Toronto when her father died in Ottawa and could not go to his funeral.

Unnr has studied the Norse language and sagas at length, aided by the surviving Icelandic tongue, and can speak like a proper skald.

She spoke for a few minutes in Norse. I do not know what she said but it seemed to be a solemn invocation. I remember the fireflies were coming out. One hovered above her head for a few moments, slowly sparking, and I thought it was a blessing. I imagined they were the souls of the dead come to be honoured.

Then she led us in the words of the Viking funeral, made famous by the movie, The 13th Warrior.

Lo there do I see my father
Lo there do I see my mother and my sisters and my brothers
Lo there do I see the line of my people
Back to the beginning
Lo, they do call to me
They bid me take my place among them
In the Halls of Valhalla
Where the brave may live

Each person called out clearly the full name of the one they mourned. It was now quite dark.

A sudden stir as the men brought up the boat. I snaked my way through with my flash-and-smash camera to the port side where there weren’t as many people. The brave little shields were nailed fast to the sides of the ship. I found Daddy’s shield and took pictures. One shield bore the Eye of Horus; another, the symbol for infinity. People came up and laid personal tokens and little boxes of ashes onboard. I saw the linen sail, painted with a SCAdian device. I didn’t know whose heraldry it was. There were about a dozen candles. I secured a place as a candle bearer.

Some frigging and fooling around getting the ship ready.

At last the ship was brought down the bank. We lit our candles with splinters and stuck them in the special wells on the ship. Then the ship was placed onto the water as the candles flickered and wax hissed and spat on the deck. There wasn’t much wind and it was hard to get the ship off the beach. The builder included a hidden motor to help but it was fouled by weeds almost instantly.

The ship wasn’t moving; in fact, the waves were bringing it back in to shore, so I got into the lake with another guy and we walked the boat deeper into the water. A third man stripped off and swam the boat deep into the center of the lake, out of the lea of the hill.

Finally, gloriously the longship caught fire. The proud flames rose fiercely into the night, consuming the boat and its burden of painted prayers.

The torches from nearby camps softly answered, winking in the dark.

I was hauled back up the bank by the arms of weeping women I didn’t know. We huddled together, anonymous and free to cry without shame.

The boat’s champion stayed in the water. By tradition any pieces left floating would later be collected and burned at the campsite known as Enchanted Ground, where the modern world may not enter in word or deed.

As the ship burned lower, the group began to break up. My shoes were filled with water and rather than loudly squelch my way back to camp I took them off and walked barefoot down the stony hill to the path. Later I would find dried sand caked into the hems of my clothes, holy sand I was curiously reluctant to wash away.

Eve Harris

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