The Viking "drakkar" and the Kozak "chaika"

by Ihor Lysyj

During my recent sails in the North Sea and wanderings in the land of the Norsemen, I came face to face with a "drakkar," or Viking longship (the real thing), and discovered a tangible overlap of Norse and Slavic history.

The drakkar in question was the Oseberg longship on display at the Viking Museum in Oslo, Norway. This seagoing vessel was found in a large burial mound on Slagen farm in Vestfold, Norway, and was excavated in 1904.

The ship was built around 815 to 820 and had been used as a sailing vessel for many years before it was put to use as a burial ship for a prominent woman who died in 834. This funeral practice was common during the Age of the Vikings in the eighth through the 11th centuries. Buried within clay mounds, such ships were well-preserved over time; thus, they provide us with a window on history.

This Viking ship with a beautifully carved keel was approximately 71 feet long and 16 feet wide with 15 pairs of oars and a nailed-down deck. It was constructed using the clinker design, which means it was planked, using oak boards that slightly overlapped and were then nailed together.

Later, browsing through "Description d'Ukranie" (Description of Ukraine) by Guillaume Le Vasseur de Beauplan, which was published in 1660 in Rouen, France, I saw a detailed sketch and description of a Kozak warship ("chaika"; some sources also use the term "baidak") used in naval engagements in the Black Sea against the Turks in the 17th century. And Beauplan's description of the Kozak vessel matched, plank for plank, the design of the Viking longship that I saw in the Oslo museum. Here is how Beauplan describes a Kozak warship (in translation):

"... they (the Kozaks) build a vessel 60 feet long, 12 feet wide, and 12 feet deep. The hull of the vessel was finished with wooden planks from 10 to 12 feet long and one foot wide, overlapping each other... Usually the vessel is equipped with 10 to 15 oars on each side and their speed was faster than Turkish oar galleys."

Beauplan also included a detailed sketch of the ship design.

With 15 pairs of oars and overlapping planks, and lengths of 60 to 70 feet, the match between the drakkar and the chaika was quite close. According to historians, the Viking Age was over by the 11th century. And yet we see their longships quite active and doing well in the 17th century on the Dnipro River and the Black Sea.

Where was the connection and the overlap of history between the Norsemen and the Slavs?

Much has been written about the Viking Age and the Vikings' domination over the European continent for over four centuries. Norsemen from Norway entered the North Sea via the calm waters of Skagerrak in their longships and, jointly with the Danes, began to raid the present-day English, Scottish and Irish coasts in the eighth century.

Eventually, they established major Viking cities in York, England, and Dublin, Ireland. At the same time, they occupied the north of today's France, establishing the Duchy of Normandy with Rouen as its capital. Then they invaded and defeated the Anglo-Saxons in the south of England, establishing Norman hegemony of this corner of Europe.

Not satisfied with all of this, they sailed through Gibraltar into the Mediterranean, converting it into a virtual Viking lake with a stronghold on Sicily. They also ventured north to Iceland and Greenland, and west to Newfoundland in America.

The Swedish branch of the Vikings sailed to the east, establishing a trade route on the Volga River and the Caspian Sea to Baghdad in Mesopotamia, now Iraq, and a separate trade route to Constantinople along the Dnipro River, in present-day Ukraine. In the process, they laid the foundations for the powerful state of Kyivan Rus' with its capital in present-day Ukraine.

The secret to the success of their conquests was the drakkar, the ultimate war machine of the age. It was a superb product of naval design and engineering, and a weapon of mass destruction of its day. With an average length of 28 meters (85 feet) - the largest being 70 meters (210 feet) - they were unstoppable war machines. The key to their design was their seaworthiness on the high seas and their ability to function as amphibious craft capable of landing on beaches and navigating the shallow waters of rivers.

Historians and our guide at the Viking Museum claimed with sadness that the Age of the Vikings came to an abrupt end in the 11th century. Some historians even give the precise date of 1060 for the end of this era. Why, then, were longships of Viking design raiding the Turkish coast in the 17th century?

It was biology, more than anything else, that led to the end of the Viking Age as we know it in the 11th century. The Vikings' war and trade ships left Scandinavia without women on board. The warriors and traders married or otherwise engaged native women in conquered lands. Their descendants on the shores of the Seine and Dnipro rivers were brought up by their mothers in the local culture, speaking local languages.

Within a few generations, Thor became Ihor, Hilda became Olha, Olaf became Oleh and Valdimar became Volodymyr. And the Vikings in Rouen became Normans, while the Vikings in Kyiv became the people of Rus' who raided the Turkish coast in the 17th century much the same way their ancestors did six centuries earlier.

Ihor Lysyj is a consulting environmental engineer and a free-lance writer who lives in Austin, Texas.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, July 10, 2005, No. 28, Vol. LXXIII

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