The Ship

Great Symbols Series @ Theosophy Trust


There go the ships: there is that leviathan, whom thou hast made to play therein.

Psalms 104:26

 White arching wings rose slowly over the curving edge of the world. With majesty they rose, billowing upon tall masts, driven by easterly winds fresh out of an endless sea. Those whose eyes watched from an undiscovered land trembled and believed that the gods approached. Closer they came, bearing down upon them from greater and greater height, splitting the waves and bristling with airy power. At the time of his voyage to the New World, Christopher Columbus attempted to describe the wonder that seized the Caribbean natives with the arrival of his fleet. He wrote that "they know neither sect nor idolatry, with the exception that all believe that the source of all power and goodness is in the sky, and they believe very firmly that I, with these ships and people, came from the sky, and in this belief they everywhere received me, after they had overcome their fear"

 The gods of many an ancient religion were believed to sail the skies in heavenly ships. Inspired by this almost universally shared notion, the Indians imagined the Spanish ships to be portable shrines in which the immortal ones navigated the celestial seas. Had Columbus's men shown equal recourse to sacred themes, they might well have recalled the biblical passage which speaks of the Lord as one "who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters". Even as they made anchor and lowered their sails in the island bay, a few may have recalled near-forgotten childhood stories of the Egyptian Barque of a Million Years, in which the sun-god Ra traversed the heavens, or the tale of ivy-crowned Dionysus reclining in his dolphin ship with its Tree of Life mast. A few may have remembered such things when confronted with the expressions of awe and reverence in the faces of their island hosts.

 There is an old saying, whose origin nobody knows, which states that "the three most beautiful things in the world are a full-rigged ship, a woman with child and a full moon". Surely the windblown sails of a graceful ship seem to expand with generational promise. Her hull is like a sheltering womb carrying seed across the vaster womb of chaos to a promised land. The Egyptians envisioned the ship of the sun making its voyage through daily adventures with various adversaries. But sailing the subterranean abyss of the ocean at night, its perils increased. They believed there were two ships to complete the journey: Me'enzet by day and Semektet by night, when the spirits of the dead were awakened by the solar light and arose to draw the barque on its course. Thus, the full cycle of the journey involved two aspects of the solar barque. The daytime voyage was self-propelled, but the subterranean voyage entered the lunar realm of mortality, where it had to be helped on by the souls of men. Centuries later the Vikings would build ships that had an uncanny resemblance to the solar barque of Ra, but they did not always sail with the promise of a woman with child or the full moon. They themselves were not fearful of death, and their black sails bore for them only a sense of daring as they hunkered on board beneath them. But many a stranger stood on the shore and dreaded their coming. For them it was no solar light that neared but the perils of the long, dark night.

Oh build your ship of death. Oh build it!
For you will need it.
For the voyage of oblivion awaits you.


 Ships carry the seed of promise but they also bear the dead across the unknown waters to the world beyond. They leave far behind the known and the ordinary. They go beyond all recognized landmarks in an uncharted course and thus become a powerful symbol of transcendence. They are like the raft in Buddhist teachings which enables the disciple to cross the ocean of experience to the shores of enlightenment. Many of the prow-shaped curves on temples and houses in various parts of the world artistically assert this longing for transcendence, whilst some more primitive people simply place small ships in their entirety atop their roofs. The old idea of the ship of fools inverts the symbolism by suggesting sailing as an end in itself instead of the notion of sailing in order to transcend.

Our life is closed – our life begins,
The long, long anchorage we leave,
The ship is clear at last – she leaps!
She swiftly courses from the shore,
Joy! shipmate – joy.


 Sailing off across the flood, what is the ship that travels on when ordinary life is done? Is it the barque that bears the seed of life's next play upon the boards? Is it Aguirre's ship of death topping Amazonian trees, or the ark that Ravan saw in his haunting ancient dream? As the demon king watched from lofty Lankan towers, he discerned an object looming through the darkness. He felt at first relief to see what appeared to be a barque coming towards him, but there was "something supernatural. . . in this dim phantasmal ship. Its outline is nowhere sharp and firm, but wavy and ragged, like a swaying cloud; it has neither helm nor sails, and appears to move and to stop at will. There are human figures on board; but they appear shadowy, and almost transparent; they neither speak nor move, but seem wrapped in Samadhi." Pulled by Matsya's strength, this was the ark in which the germ of Nature floats upon pralaya's abyss. It was the argha, the crescent-shaped moon of Diana, whose wake is the umbilicus connecting the old with the embryos of the new race. It was the vessel of rebirth, the sarcophagus afloat in the king's chamber, from which the novice rises up initiated into the arcane mysteries. And those who ride in it, in shadowy transparency, are the Rishis who never sleep.

 On the distant horizon, on a lowering day. Viking ships may also have seemed outlined in clouds. But no phantom would they be, nor would those robust adventurers have been wrapped in meditative silence. Theirs were the longships', whose prows rose to a high spiral, ending in a serpent's head. The top of their stern-post was their tail, the whole ship looking like a fabulous monster breasting the waves, its head and tail glistening, its body filled with men. The biggest vessels of Knut the Great were nearly two hundred feet long, and so fearsome was their mien that in A.D. 930 Ulfljots laws decreed that sailors must not approach land with the figureheads on their ships. It was ordered that they be taken off so that the land-vaettir would not be frightened by their y awning jaws and grimly gaping heads.

 Such ships were the Vikings' supreme achievement, the pinnacle of their cultural expression, their delight and most treasured possession. The unearthing of the Gokstad ship revealed a vessel with a mast forty feet high, which was rigged with a square sail in its day. Its stern and stern-posts being composed of a single piece of timber, it possessed a true keel and its rows of planking overlapped each other in a clinker-built design. When built, its strakes were caulked with tarred rope and lashed to the ribs by withes passing through cleats cut from the strakes. Sixteen pairs of nineteen-foot oars were used to propel this ship, and an eleven-foot-long rudder fastened to the starboard quarter by stout riveted cleats was used to steer it. This was done by means of a thick rope that ran through the ship's side, the cleat and the rudder itself. When Captain Magnus Andersen sailed a facsimile of the Gokstad ship to America in 1893, he claimed that the rudder was a work of genius and that a man could steer with such a tiller in all kinds of weather without the least discomfort.

 What the temple was to the Greeks the ship was to the Vikings, and at places like Gokstad, Tune or Oseberg great mounds concealed the nautical tombs of chiefs and kings. Ship burials followed the example set by the myth of Balder's funeral, in which it was said the god's corpse was brought to the sea and placed on a pyre in Hringhorni, the greatest of all ships. The boat was thrust upon the water by the giantess Hyrrokin and the pyre was kindled as it floated out. Nanna, his wife who had died of grief, was placed beside him in the blaze, a Nordic version of suttee oft repeated by the Vikings. Of those ships that burnt while floating out to sea, there remains no trace. Only from evidence found in those buried on land and from the remarkable description of a tenth century Arab scholar who witnessed a ship's burial do we learn about the practice and come to realize more deeply how central a part the ship played in the life and death of these barbarous people.

 When the Vikings spread south, they came as seamen so deeply inbred with the spirit of their ships that they seemed a new kind of people. Theirs were certainly not the first vessels to open up new worlds of trade or conquest, but never before had ocean craft embodied the very essence of a culture. The ancients of the Mediterranean tended to feel only a guarded enthusiasm for ships which were treadmills for oarsmen and torture chambers for passengers. By contrast, the Vikings took to their ships for the gay pursuit of perilous conquest and rolled down the water in vessels sporting glorious carvings and heroic lines expressive of their loftiest aspirations and deepest feelings. They entered a world wherein the splendid barques of gods and pharaohs had long retreated into the mists along with the earliest Red Sea trading ships and galleys rigged for war. The development of the great Phoenician art of seamanship had already taken place more than two thousand years before, when, led by a "canny, unimperial intent upon profit", they had constructed superior cargo carriers in which they sailed the East African coast.

 The earliest vessels were fashioned of hollowed trees and paddled along rivers and the edges of lakes. They were followed by the skin boats (the coracles) of the Stone Age Norsemen, who fished twenty or thirty miles offshore to ninety fathoms. Rudderless and paddled on the rough and unpredictable seas, they scurried over the hills and valleys of Atlantic-born rollers from the northwest coast of Norway to the outer Skerries. Several thousand years later, in calmer seas, the Egyptians were carrying three-ton cargoes in thirty-five-foot papyrus reed boats. They paddled and steered with an oar in the relative calm of the Mediterranean and eventually developed acacia-planked vessels in the same shape. Trading with India, East Africa and Persia, they evolved true oars that proved efficient enough to inspire the notion that superimposed rows of oarsmen could double and triple the ship's power. Thus were born the multibanked galleys, the biremes and triremes of the Levant and the Greek isles. Those were the days when the fortunes of galley slaves depended desperately on the fleetness of their ship and chances of war. The ram on such warships was their chief weapon, and slim indeed were the chances of men chained to their oars in the bottom tiers if the side of the vessel was breached. A typical Greek trireme ran a narrow length of one hundred and thirty feet and carried one hundred and seventy oarsmen, working oars of three different lengths on three levels. Slim and flexible, they cut through the bright sea with their crowded, disciplined oars, simultaneously lifting and dipping in time to the metronomic notes of a flute. They could achieve up to eight knots in speed and must have provided an awesome study in motion.

 During the reign of King Sahure (2480 B.C.), the passage up the Syrian coast, into the eye of the northerly wind, required much rowing. But on the way back the masts were hauled up, and with square sail set they ran before the westerlies. Such palm or matted-leaf sails had been around for centuries, and their invention set the stage for the essential story of ships and seamanship, having at its heart the struggle with the wind as a major mode of propulsion. The Mediterranean galley was highly specialized and confined to coasts, owing to its size and the provisional needs of the many men aboard. Such a vessel could never have won the freedom of the oceans available only to a craft that could move quickly enough and carry enough stores to survive a long absence from land. But with sails the need for steering arose, rudimentarily accomplished by sweeping oars towards or away from the ship's sides. From this, side rudders evolved, necessitating the team-work of helmsmen controlled by a master, who guided them as though conducting an orchestra through the waters. The Roman corn ships, one hundred and eighty feet long, possessed twin quarter rudders, which evolved into the larger, deeper rudders in the classical Mediterranean form of one per quarter. To hold against the wind and ocean currents, anchors of stone or of bags of shingle with a trip-line were developed, and masts both collapsible and stationary were raised to fifty feet or more.

 Believed to act as a magical axis between heaven and the sea, masts were identified with the Tree of Life and often given special treatment at the time of their construction. Even in later medieval times German shipbuilders held that Klabautermann (the helpful spirit of the ship) dwelt in the mast made from a tree which, as a sapling, was split in order to pass a sickly child through and then joined together again. If the child died, they believed its soul passed into the growing tree, which then took on a peculiar form and was eventually cut for a mast. When the mast was fully rigged, they referred to its beauty as a living spirit, which was raised in spring and lowered in winter in the stormy northern seas.

 Sailing ships sail with the wind and the tide. The wind commands. It gives the power and creates the limit, but men have learnt that, within the parameters of obedience they can win a subtle victory. Like a study in the operation of the free within the framework of the cosmic will, the sailing ship courses the ocean span. Of all creations made to move man where he will, they arc the most noble and bravely poised on the fine line which separates the divine from human design. Driving ocean-going ships along this line, the square rig was well adapted to gather the great steady belts known as the trade winds. Square riggers, as they came to be called in the fifteenth century, sported from two to four masts and six basic sails: the mainsail, main topsail, foresail, fore topsail, a lateen on the mizzen-mast and a small sail under the bowsprit. Various modes of rigging came to be identified with vessels ranging from ships proper to barques, brigs, schooners, ketches, cutters and yawls. They could be used on different hulls for varying purposes and sometimes made a significant difference in speed or manoeuverability. This was often lacking in early square riggers whose fo'c's'le (forecastle) and aft'c's'le (aftcastle) were very high and cumbersome affairs, built as floating fortresses for the cannon's advantage in warfare. Such vessels had lost the elegance of the Viking ship's sleek lines or the gracefulness of early Greek galleys. They sported figures of impressive monsters or angels on their bows but often resembled heavily hustled ladies lumbering over the swells.

 The image of a beautiful woman is the proper ending to a sailing ship's bow. . . . A windship should have an amazon or a valkyrie.

 Bow ornaments were very important to sailors as charms and as that to which they entrusted their lives. They thought the figure, like the ship's name, conveyed the life of the vessel, its unique individuality. Joseph Conrad once described a gathering of tall ships at a South China Sea quay. "It was", he wrote, "a noble gathering of the fairest and the swiftest, each bearing at the bow the carved emblem of her name as in a gallery of plaster casts; figures of women with mural crowns, women with flowing robes, with gold fillets on their hair or blue scarves round their waists, stretching out rounded arms as if to point the way; heads of men helmeted or bare; full lengths of warriors, of kings, of statesmen, of lords and princesses, all white from top to toe; with here and there a dusky turbaned figure, bedizened in many colours of some Eastern Sultan or hero." Whatever gender the ornament, sailors everywhere address a ship as being feminine and would agree with a famous navigator who once said that ships were all a "wayward she" and needed handling accordingly. Certainly, a sailing ship is an exceedingly complex, sensitive and capricious creation, borne up by an equally unpredictable mother sea. Her close association with the wind gives her a masculine aspect, but her hull and rigging are constantly giving and swelling and creaking and displaying all the changeability and moods of the moon and of all that is feminine. But does she carry a solar cargo? Will she bring onto that foreign shore all the promise that her winged sails and bow ornament suggest?

 Without the sail real ships would not have been evolved; without real ships the continents and their people would have remained separate entities.


 The people of the New World, and later of the Pacific, must have thought the European ships that rose over the horizon before them were like envoys of the solar deity they all worshipped. Like the natives that greeted Columbus, they welcomed the white-winged vessels to their shores and believed that a divine wind had wafted them hence. Painful though the fruits of these encounters would prove to be, they were the first lines cast out upon the deep that would eventually knit together races that had lived in largely separate worlds. The wind, Pravaha (the mystical force that gives the impulse to and regulates the course of stars and planets) had guided ships through the ocean, like tiny islands brought into contact with spheres revolving in the waters of space. The business of connecting the seven seas and the seven continents and races had begun. Like spiders blown by the wind from one tree to another, the ships connected the subtle magnetic webs which had been traced ages prior by the instrument of karma.

O keep us from the Sailing Gods
That they bring not death and disease among us.

Old Samoan Prayer

 By the end of the sixteenth century English and Dutch ships were in a position to challenge the Portuguese domination of the Far East. The Red Dragon Fleet of the East India Company had set about the business of war and trade, and the Dutch, in spite of having no trees in their homeland, had rounded the Cape of Good Hope in their lightly built East Indiamen in large numbers. By 1610 there were sixteen thousand Dutch ships trading wherever there were ports. To navigate they used rutters, cross-staffs, and compasses eventually fixed with an adjustable double card so that the needle could be turned at will to offset variation. From the Cape they often passed inside Madagascar, before sailing east with the monsoon, along the Maldines and finally up to Goa. The British came from east and west, rounding Africa or braving the murderous one-hundred-and-twenty-foot waves that rolled unchecked below Cape Horn. They plied their trade, fought their competitors and divided the spoils won from the treasures that flanked the Celebes, the Sulu and the South China Seas. Along Sumatra's jungled cliffs they sailed the Strait of Malacca to Kuala Lumpur and Singapore and Sarawak's rivered shores. Their ornamented prows rounded each isle of the Philippines and penetrated the harbours of China and Japan. The connecting lines were thus drawn down the winds, and the booty of the East, in rolling storm-chased holds, was shifted, sail by sail, to the opposite side of the globe.

Home is the sailor, home from the sea;
His far-borne canvas furled.
The ship pours shining on the quay
The plunder of the world.

 The names of captains are remembered along with their ships. Who does not link the fame of Drake with the Golden Hind, Bligh with the Bounty, Anson with the Centurion, Cook with the Endeavour or Columbus with the Santa Maria? Amongst the sailing men of clipper ship days the reputations of captains and ships likewise conveyed a quality of fortune both good and evil. To such men the name of a vessel conveyed its aura. It defined, somehow, the nature of its mana, its elemental force, which then became augmented by years of marine talk, gossip and tales amongst those who gave the better part of their lives to the sea. Conrad once said that "all that talk makes up her name", which could never quite be divorced from that of her commander. The Marco Polo, a very famous Canadian-built ship, lost her reputation for speed after a change of captains, and it was said of the English captain de Cloux that "if he had had the sluggard Mozart, he still would have won the grain race" (from Australia to England). Such captains had a reputation for recklessness, and others more authoritarian were sometimes called brutal. The beautifully built Bluenoses and Downeasters from Nova Scotia and the northeastern states were notoriously captained by 'drivers' who maintained discipline with "belaying pins, knuckle-dusters and six-shooters". Typically, American merchant captains enforced their authority by sheer power of character and will against overwhelming odds of brute force and often among cutthroats and desperadoes. Strong-armed tactics sometimes bred calamitous results, and it was wisely said that captains who could maintain morale without them were more important than sound rigging or sturdy masts.

 Lucky and unlucky captains and ships tended to be like self-fulfilling prophecies. Firmly associated with Conrad was the lucky clipper Torrens, whose outstandingly successful passages featured even such flukes as finding a barrel of lamp oil afloat at sea when her own supply was running low. In contrast to this, Commander Byron of Dolphin fame never shook the sobriquet of Foulweather Jack', and seamen firmly believed that, on whatever ship, his presence ensured gales, and it did! Still, quite aside from these more subtle examples of superstitious anticipation, clipper captains like 'Bully' Forbes plowed the seas, making up to twenty-one knots. On masts one hundred and sixty-five feet tall they kept their sails unfurled even in the worst gales, resulting in record clips of ninety-two days from New York to San Francisco around the Horn. But neither superstition nor danger nor bully captains kept the seamen from shipping out again. They had been seduced by the endlessly receding horizon curving over a plunging bow, the wind moaning in the mainmasts and the promise of paradise that lay ahead. They were bitten with sea fever and many, if they could, would have echoed Melville when he prayed, "Forbid it, sea gods! intercede for me with Neptune, 0 sweet Amphitrite, that no dull clod may fall on my coffin! Be mine the tomb that swallowed up Pharaoh and all his hosts; let me lie down with Drake where he sleeps in the sea."

 I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea
 and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel's kick and the wind's song and the
 white sail's shaking,
And the gray mist on the sea's face and a gray dawn


 The haunting beauty and majesty of the great China tea clippers racing under the British flag was matched by names like Black Prince, Ariel, Yang-tze, Thermopylae, Sir Lancelot and Cutty Sark. American clippers sported names of equal power, such as the famous Witch of the Wave, Romance of the Seas, Neptune's Car, Phantom, Alert and Flying Cloud. The clippers and the windjammers were the 'tall ships' bearing as many as twenty-nine sails and captains who had a reputation for keeping them on. During a Cape Horn passage one observer recorded with awe this sight: "Bearing down on us, with the wind on her quarter, was a huge square-sailed vessel bearing full topsails and, like a gesture of defiance, above them a close-reefed topgallant on the main. . . . By her snowy white cloths and her glistening black hull – for she lifted with the speed of an express – we knew her an American."

 The American clippers were built of soft wood. They were fast, light and of short life, which, it has been said, is true of all that is beautiful. Because they leaked, they tended to become waterlogged, and much longer hours were required at their pumps than in the oak and teak ships of the English. A clipper like the two-hundred-and-twelve-foot Cutty Sark was called a 'wet' ship, having a "long snaky hull", over which the water would sweep from end to end in a high wind and sea. Her handsomely raked masts carried a 'skysail', and at her prow sailed a beautiful witch, with her long hair and cutty sark (short chemise) flowing in the wind. She was a British 'composite' type built of wooden planks over an iron frame, with copper sheathing on her bottom to discourage ship worms and reduce friction with the water. Like her sister Thermopylae, she was beautiful and swift, representing a rare flowering of shipbuilding as an art. The windjammers that followed were less elegant, deriving their speed from length and strength rather than shape. They received their name from the fact that they habitually sailed with their yards jammed into the wind. Built of steel with light, strong steel masts and rigging, they were in their element in a powerful gale. Carrying sails when lesser ships had long furled theirs, vessels like the Herzogin Cecilie, with her fifty-nine thousand square feet of sail and eighteen and three-quarters miles of running rigging, set records of twenty-three knots and more.

 With the sailing ship the primordial power of the wind and sea exhilarated and inspired sailors to accomplish feats perhaps impossible under ordinary conditions. Those who struggled together in a storm felt the fury of the gods in their faces and shared with each other the life-or-death trials of the long voyage home. Ships tossed and floating on the ocean's swell are communities isolated from the world. Melville spoke of a whaling ship as his Yale College and Harvard. But it is more than that. For the gathered crew that mans the rigging is faced with the inescapable immediacy of working mightily with one another in the face of overwhelming forces from which none of them can walk away. Surrounded by endless-seeming sea, a strange spell descends upon ship-goers. A sense of reason and proportion familiar on land is lost, and is replaced with an urgency and reckless potential well suited to meet some of the exigencies of a stormy passage but often absurdly played out in modern steamship antics. Ordinary life, with its endless capacity for dodging issues and avoiding the unpleasant or difficult, is left behind, and all one's stark hopes and fears and foibles surface and pour out in unforeseeable mixtures with those of the others on board.

 The ships of old, crossing and connecting the continents and races of men, were each embarked upon a voyage mirroring that of the ark whose shrouded shape approached Ravan's isle. They reflected the passage of stars and planets moving as little worlds across the uncharted depths of space. They carried seeds blown by the Breath of Life across the astral thresholds of becoming. Few perhaps of the rough sailors among the Vikings or the 'Cape Homers' would have been conscious of such a mission. Their idea of treasure was usually both tangible and capable of worldly conversion. But dreamers sailed among them and some of the world's most haunting and beautiful imagery has come from the experience of men who toiled upon the sea. Men of nondescript backgrounds, with unformulated hopes, have been thrown together on a ship, where they saw and heard, as though with a shared soul, the mysteries revealed on a long ocean voyage. Conrad described the wonder shared by the whole crew of the Marco Polo in 1861 when their ship passed a floating iceberg in which lay, as if asleep, a fully clothed man. Unable to reach him and certain that he was dead, they left him to ride the berg mysteriously until he and it became part of the sea. A hush enveloped the ship and all felt as one with this silent passenger. They too voyaged as in a dream, facing dangers as a matter of course, sailing to a safe harbour but never fully arriving home. They were aware, each in his own unspoken way, that they were closer to truth on the voyage and that their real home would always lie beyond the world's busy quays.

 I have seen old ships sail like swans asleep . . .


 Phantom ships carry dead men's dreams. They sail the astral oceans of our consciousness and we quake with foreboding as they loom over the edge of our minds. Ghostly barques, filled with the dregs of human passions and fears silently looming, are blown by evil winds. Even painted up and jauntily rigged, such ships bring corrupting fancies and dread disease. These are the fallen sisters of the ark, wombs that have gathered the astral flotsam that drifts upon the sea. Theirs is not the godly cargo descendant from the sky, nor is their mast the Tree of Life borne out in sacrifice upon the waters of the world. Among all the ships that have sailed the seas, they have carried over to other minds and other lands the failure of mankind to grasp the essential meaning of its voyage in the world. They have drawn out the lines of karma into an ever-entangling web of causes and effects and collected around them the great night that imperils the solar barque as it descends into the worldly subterranean sea.

 But there have been gallant ships whose majestic beauty was matched by courageous sailors who pooled their energies time and time again in an enterprise far greater than they consciously understood. Skipping down the waves like the crescent moon on Shiva's flowing locks, the pure arching lines of such noble ships have lit up and awakened men's spirits even as they inspired the deepest poetry within their souls. Windjammers, rising over the tide with the speed of an express, stir up dreams of transcendent voyages in men who have never even watched them. The soul is aroused and rises buoyantly with their sails, sight unseen. We long for the voyage and we revere the pure-crafted vessel that can make it. Afloat on the greater cosmic sea, such a blessed vessel knows the perils of the deep yet sails above them, skimming the swells and tacking round the rocks and floating bergs. She is not stilled in the doldrums nor sluggish in the seaways, but has the strength and resilience to carry her canvas even in the heaviest storms. Only a fearless sailor can sail this ship, for she is built to cross the uncharted deep and she carries only the distilled cargo of the soul. She is a pure womb that transports the seed beyond the horizon of death and on to an unknown shore. Those who man her do so in humility even as she bears them faithfully on the long voyage home.

Pinnacled masts that pierce the sky.
Sails leaping in the wind.
We take the sea upon our faces,
Our anchor we rescind.
Tossed and merging with the stars
On the track of gods we sail.
Our ship a gallant clipper,
Our life a seaman's tale.