Naglfar, the Giant(‘s) Ship of Nails

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It was foretold that during the events of Ragnarök, a massive ship called Naglfar will carry an army of jötnar to a large field called Vígríðr to host a battle between the forces of the gods and the forces of Surtr (a jötunn).

Naglfar (also Óskópnir or Naglfari), means “nail ship” in Old Norse. It is a massive ship which was foretold that will ferry hordes to do battle with the gods – and it is not held together by timber and iron nails, but by finger and toe nails!

Yo-ho-yuck is right!  

It’s a ship made entirely from the fingernails and toenails of the dead.
(We don’t recommend eating anything from the galley.)

In order to deny the jötnar their much-needed building material, Nordic people trimmed or even removed the fingernails and toenails of the dead.

Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda references a funeral rite involving the cutting of nails, “lest unpared nails from the dead be available for the completion of the construction of Naglfar, the ship used to transport the army of jötnar at Ragnarök.”

– No fingernails left on the dead means no nails for the jötnar.
– No nails, no ship, and no Ragnarök.

High describes the composition of Naglfar as that of the untrimmed nails of the dead, and warns about burying the dead with untrimmed nails, stating that “the ship is made of dead people’s nails, and it is worth taking care lest anyone die with untrimmed nails, since such a person contributes much material to the ship Naglfar which gods and men wish would take a long time to finish”.

High, Just-As-High, and Third (Old Norse Hár, Jafnhár, and Þriði, respectively) are three men that respond to questions posed by Gangleri (described as king Gylfi in disguise) in the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning. The three figures sit upon thrones; High upon the lowest, Just-As-High on the mid-highest, and Third on the highest of the thrones.

It is stated in Chapter 20 of Gylfaginning (translation by Anthony Faulkes) that these names are pseudonyms employed by Odin:

[Odin] called himself various other names on his visit to King Geirrod:
“I call myself […] Third, […] High, [… and] Just-as-high”

— Snorri Sturlusson, Prose Edda

The gods did whatever it took to prevent or delay the coming of Ragnarök, even binding Fenrir.

One version of foretold events of Ragnarök, states:

“After the stars disappear from the sky, the landscape will shake so severely that mountains fall apart, trees uproot, and all binds will snap, causing the wolf Fenrir to break free. After, the Midgardr Serpent Jörmungandr will fly into a rage and swim to the shore, causing the ocean to swell unto land. Naglfar, too, will be break free from its moorings.”

High adds that the ship will be captained by the jötunn Hrym and that Naglfar will be carried along with the surging waters of the flood that were caused by the Midgard Serpent.

The poem continues: “The Midgard serpent Jörmungandr furiously writhes, causing waves to crash. “The eagle shrieks, pale-beaked he tears the corpse,” and the ship Naglfar breaks free thanks to the waves made by Jormungandr and sets sail from the east. The fire jötnar inhabitants of Muspelheim come forth.

A variation: In chapter 51 of Gylfaginning when High describes the events of Ragnarök:

“Amid this turmoil the sky will open and from it will ride the sons of Muspell.  Surtr will ride in front, and both before and behind him, there will be burning fire. His sword will be very fine. Light will shine from it more brightly than from the sun.” High continues that when the sons of Múspell ride over the bridge Bifröst it will break, and that they will continue to the field of Vígríðr. The wolf Fenrir and the Midgard Serpent will also arrive there. By then, Loki will have arrived with “all of Hel’s people”, Hrym, and all of the frost jötnar; “but Muspell’s sons will have their own battle array; it will be very bright”.

Hrym (Old Norse “decrepit”) is a jötunn (plural: jötnar) and the captain of the ship Naglfar according to the Gylfaginning (chapter 51). During the end time conflict of Ragnarök, he will set sail from Jotunheimr (Home of the Jötnar) , transporting the legions of jötnar toward the battlefield of Vígríðr to confront the gods in the final battle.

Yet in the eddaic poem Völuspá, it is said that it is the god Loki who is the captain of Naglfar, but Hrym is still described arriving for Ragnarök in stanza 50 as follows :

“From the east comes Hrym with shield held high

This changes the ship’s captain, but still includes both Hrym and Loki as arriving at the battle.

There are other references to this massive ship Naglfar.

The ship is also on the Tullstorp Runestone.

Tullstorp Runestone in Scania, Sweden.

If the images on the Tullstorp Runestone are correctly identified as being from Ragnarök, then Naglfar is the ship depicted below the monstrous wolf Fenrir. (see sketch image below)

Sketch highlight from the Tullstorp Runestone in Scania, Sweden.

It is also noted that the ship image on the Tullstorp Runestone has beakheads, both fore and aft unlike any known Viking ship, and is thus likely to be a symbolic ship. 

A beakhead is the protruding part of the foremost section of a sailing ship. It was fitted on sailing vessels from the 16th to the 18th century and served as a working platform by sailors working the sails of the bowsprit, the forward-pointing mast that carries the spritsails. The beakhead would be one of the most ornate sections of a ship, particularly in the extravagantBaroque-style ships of the 17th century. The sides were often decorated with carved statues and located directly underneath was the figurehead, usually in the form of animals, shields or mythological creatures. 

The bow and beakhead of the 17th century warship Vasa seen from above.

There is no mention or hint as to what these beakheads were used for or what they represented on this massive ship. There has also been argument that they are not beakhead, but rather rams such as those on Greek and Roman Triremes, for example.

The only other references to Naglfari are when the ship is first mentioned in chapter 43 of Gylfaginning, where the enthroned figure of High notes that while Skíðblaðnir is best the ship—constructed with the finest skill—”the biggest ship is Naglfari, it belongs to Muspell”.

Naglfar receives a final mention in the Prose Edda in Skáldskaparmál, where it is included among a list of ships.


by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing

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