The Longship in the Medieval Saga Texts

Most of the sagas that survive from the Early Middle Ages were written down in Iceland and deal with the Norwegian kings in particular – and it is therefore also the Norwegian longships that we hear about. 

Oseberg Ship The Oseberg ship located at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, built about 820 AD.

Snorri Sturluson writes in his work Heimskringla about the great longships from the latter half of the 10th century: Olaf Tryggvason’s ‘Trana’ (Eng: Crane) and ‘Ormr Inn Langi’ (Eng: the Long Serpent), and Olav Haraldson’s ‘Visundr’ (Eng: Bison) from 1026 and Harald Hardrada’s dragon-ship from 1061-62. Snorri, however, did not write his sagas until about 1230 and his descriptions are probably more likely to apply to shipbuilding early in the thirteenth century than in the Late Viking Age. His descriptions are nevertheless valuable sources for us, because they give us an insight into shipbuilding that in spite of everything had not changed radically since the 11th century.


In Olaf Tryggvason’s saga Snorri describes the building of Ormr Inn Langi as follows:

The winter after King Olaf came from Hålogaland, he had a great vessel built at Ladehammer, which was larger than any ship in the country, and of which the beam-knees are still to be seen (…) Thorberg Skafhogg was the man’s name who was the master builder of the ship; but there were many others besides, – some to fell wood, some to shape it, some to make nails, some to carry timber [Oak]; and all that was used was of the best. The ship was both long and broad and high-sided, and strongly timbered.

While they were planking the ship, it happened that Thorberg had to go home to his farm upon some urgent business; and as he remained there a long time, the ship was planked up on both sides when he came back. In the evening the king went out, and Thorberg with him, to see how the vessel looked, and everybody said that never was seen so large and beautiful a ship of war. Then the king returned to the town.

Gokstad Ship The Gokstad ship located at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, built about 850 AD.

Early next morning the king returns again to the ship, and Thorberg with him. The carpenters were there before them, but all were standing idle with their arms across. The king asked “what was the matter?” They said the ship was destroyed; for somebody had gone from stem to stern, and cut one deep notch after the other down the one side of the planking. When the king came nearer he saw it was so, and said, with an oath, “The man shall die who has thus destroyed the vessel out of envy, if he can be discovered, and I shall bestow a great reward on whoever finds him out.”


“I can tell you, king,” says Thorberg, “who has done this piece of work.”

“I don’t think,” replies the king, “that any one is so likely to find it out as thou art.”

Thorberg says, “I will tell you, king, who did it. I did it myself.”

The king says, “Thou must restore it all to the same condition as before, or thy life shall pay for it.”

Then Thorberg went and chipped the planks until the deep notches were all smoothed and made even with the rest; and the king and all present declared that the ship was much handsomer on the side of the hull which Thorberg had chipped, and bade him shape the other side in the same way, and gave him great thanks for the improvement.

Afterwards Thorberg was the master builder of the ship until she was entirely finished. The ship was a dragon, built after the one the king had captured in Hålogaland; but this ship was far larger, and more carefully put together in all her parts. The king called this ship the Long Serpent, and the other the Short Serpent. The Long Serpent had thirty-four benches for rowers. The head and the arched tail were both gilt, and the bulwarks were as high as in sea-going ships. This ship was the best and most costly ship ever made in Norway.

(Snorri Sturlason: Olav Tryygvason’s saga, chap.95, here in the translation of Samuel Laing, Everyman edition 1915)

·         See also: A Viking Burial Described by Arab Writer Ahmad ibn Fadlan  

Snorri’s text gives us some significant information, both about the building of the ship and its appearance. The building takes place close to Trondheim and many men are employed upon it. The most skillful of these is Thorger, who has been given the task of making the stems, but it is not he who directed the building to begin with.

Gokstad Ship Excavation The Gokstad ship during excavation in 1880.

We note that Snorri’s listing of those taking part in the building is hierarchic: First the kings are named as responsible for building the ship, then Thorberg as the stem-smith, then the shipbuilders (those who construct the ship), then those who shape the timber, those who forge the nails and finally those who merely carry the timber.

About the ship itself we read first how large it is – 34 ‘rum’ is an indication of how many spaces between the frames there had been for the rowers and this corresponds to 34 pairs of oars, and secondly the vessel is equally as high up to the gunwale as the gunwale on a sea-going ship. This corresponds well with the picture presented by the medieval saga-texts of the great rowing-ships. In many descriptions of sea-battles we read that it is difficult to attack these because they are much higher.

The saga texts refer to about 15 examples of large ships with 30 pairs of oars or more from shortly after the year 1000 to the middle of the 13th century.

Although detailed descriptions of individual ships are rare, the sagas are full of descriptions of battle-scenes and pictures of life on board and they therefore provide a rich source of information about maritime terminology and practical processes in the Early Middle Ages.

Source: The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark 

Text modified by: ThorNews

Photos from top: The Oseberg Ship: NRK. The Gokstd ship: Wikipedia. The Gokstad ship excavation: Museum of Cultural History, University of Oslo.


Categories: Culture, History, Vikings

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