Magonia #4: Sky Ships and Moebius Strips June 3, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback
Back to Magonia. Agobard leaves no space for doubt: in early medieval popular tradition there are sky boats and these sky boats are connected with a magical land named Magonia. Now after reviewing the evidence for Agobard himself, a crusty old sceptic, and looking too at the folklore traditions about European hail medicine (Beach would love to hear a better term) it is time to move onto the sky boats themselves.
The first hint that we have of European sky boats appears in the Irish annalistic tradition in the 740s. It is a one line reference – that one scholar has tried to do away with by emending the Latin to ‘the clouds seem to become green’! But the fact that it is in Latin has led most to assume that it is an early and very likely a contemporary reference as later annals tend to be in Gaelic. Anyway, the all too brief words are: Naues in aere uisae sunt cum uiris suis (‘ships seen in the air with their men’). This one line reference is often argued to be the beginning of the tradition of the European skyboat flap, which will last for the next six centuries: Beach is skeptical because he doubts that an eighth-century sighting in Ireland could create early ninth-century folklore, and apparently deeply-rooted folklore, in southern France, see again Magonia. More likely the Irish reference is – if we reject the green clouds – part of a wider European folklore tradition and this particular annal is to be seen as part of a long series of anomalous effects in the heavens described in the Irish annalistic tradition. We’ve looked at some before on this blog.
In any case there follow a series of European sightings of skyboats over the next centuries. This one comes from Gervase of Tilbury, that thirteenth-century marvel merchant and might date to the twelfth century or, indeed, the once-upon a time land of so many of Gervase’s accounts.
As people were coming out of church in Britain, on a dark cloudy day, they saw a ship’s anchor fastened in a heap of stones, with its cable reaching up from it into the clouds. Presently they saw the cable strained, as if the crew were trying to pull it up, but it still stuck fast. Voices were then heard above the clouds, apparently in clamorous debate, and a sailor came down the cable. As soon as he touched the ground the crowd gathered around him, and he died, like a man drowned at sea, suffocated by our damp thick atmosphere. An hour afterwards, his shipmates cut the cable and sailed away; and the anchor they left behind was made into fastenings and ornaments for the church door, in memory of this wondrous event.
Sorry for the lack of Latin but it is 4.56 AM and the library is closed. If anyone can send it in please do so.
This story repeats itself in several parts of Europe and is particularly associated with the monastery of Clonmacnois in Ireland. Again this has led some scholars to suggest that Clonmacnois or Ireland more generally was the origin of this tale. Again Beach is gently skeptical as more marvelous Irish material survives from the early middle ages than for other countries.
Let’s anyway stop worrying about provenance and start worrying about something rather more serious: I mean boats, in the sky… The first thing to say is that these are not UFOs, despite enthusiastic attempts to classify them as such. They are clearly ships with anchors and sailors. Other versions of this tale have men who throw salmon spears down after fish! The second point is a question. Why are boats in the sky, apparently under the impression that they are, instead, in the water?
Beach can think of two possibilities. The first is that the world is split into a tripartite sky, earth and underworld/underwater. The sky that for us is sky is actually just another level of existence where other men and women carry out their normal daily tasks drowning in the ‘humid’ atmosphere of the earth. (Does this reference to humid connect the skyboats to rain and hail?) Various references, particularly those from Ireland, also play with the idea of an underground water kingdom, where, likewise, mermen continue their happy lives, not knowing or caring that there are grotty humans in the world above, ready to intrude.
The second possibility is a little subtler but it is worth exploring. We quote one Miceal Ross, quoting a friend Alan Smith:
The ocean was believed to curve somewhat like a Moebius strip [see picture at head of post]. This latter curiosity resembles the fanbelt of a car, except that it has twists in it which impart to it the property that a resolute movement forward from any point inside the lower belt will bring the traveller over the starting point outside the belt and ultimately back to the original position. Put on a cosmic scale, ships sailing westward before the European discovery of America could, by this process, it was believed, ‘shoot the gulf’ and sail across the sky.
Perhaps it all sounds a bit too theoretical, but consider this story from Gervase (again no Latin, it is now 5.14):
This port [Bristol] is the one used by the most of those who travel to Ireland. On one occasion a native of that place set sail from that port for Ireland, leaving his wife and family at home. His ship was driven far out of its course to the remote parts of the ocean and there it chanced that his knife fell overboard, as he was cleaning it one day after dinner. At that very moment his wife was seated at table with their children in the house at Bristol, and, behold, the knife fell through the open skylight, and stuck in the table before her. She recognised it immediately, and when her husband came home long afterwards, they compared notes, and found that the time when the knife had fallen from his hands corresponded exactly with that in which it had been so strangely recovered
So there you are. If someone from Bristol sails west he will eventually sail high in the sky over his own house! The location of Magonia is not necessarily as simple as it may first seem (another post another day). Beach wonders idly whether skyboats were more common in Ireland because Ireland was reckoned to be closer to the point where you ‘shoot the gulf’? Not though that Beach has been successful in tracing any belief like this back before the twelfth century.
Other thoughts on medieval skyboats? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
30 June 2013: NHR writes in: Although Plato’s “Phaedo” was almost certainly not directly available in the C8 West, perhaps some Latin paraphrase of it was, or some quotations were preserved by a Church Father. Phaedo 109ff describes the earth as the bottom of the air-sea, and in 111 says “There are also men … some [dwelling] on the shores of the air as we of the ocean, and others in islands encircled by the air … what to us the water and the sea is in regard to our use, that the air is there.” Then Radko: Just a quick note to the above post. Perhaps there could be a connection to the biblical firmament which separates the waters above from the waters below. Yes, christians used to believe it and I’m sure there are some kooks that believe it to this day. 🙂 I’m not sure how would the anchor rope got through it but considering that it would be attached to a ship in the sky I think it’s just a minor problem. Thanks NHR and Radko!