this page was composed and posted without reference to and in virtual ignorance of the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss
the surface of his work is scratched on here: Myth, Language, Structure, Etc


The Structure of The Seafarer

[click on well-head, below]

bronze box lid: diameter 81 mm
Ireland: late Iron Age

from Early Celtic Art, Shire Archaeology 1994, by R & V Megaw

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Form and Content

The separation of these concepts is now frowned on; ie form is content, content form. The media are the massagers. McLuhan may have a point, but the distinction remains useful. Avoiding the terms "Celtic" and "Old English", which are less useful --- historically dubious and otherwise mischievously divisive --- it seems to me that the form of The Seafarer could be called brythonic, and its content englisc, the elements fusing to create its "structure". While the design of the box lid, above, could possibly be thought to express something of The Seafarer's spiralling form, its essential content, squarely and symmetrically addressing la condition humaine, seems rather well represented by a limestone memorial stone, to be found at Bro church, Gotland. In fact, form and content optimally merge in "Old Scandinavian".




the arrow points to the stone's location in the wall



photo © raymond hejdström 1999

This is one of the finest, most carefully executed and symmetrically designed of the picture stones found on the Baltic island of Gotland. Now immured on its side in the wall, left of the smaller south door of Bro Church, it has often been reproduced. This photo was taken in sharply side-angled evening sunlight. Printing and scanning has affected its colour.

sketch signed o sörling c 1940

This illustration, from Gotlands Bildsteine by Sune Lindquist, 1940-41, is not totally accurate, omitting several details, except for its representation of the large "cosmic whorl", which correctly includes the teeth jutting from the curved rays. Their inclusion alters the character of the disc, making it less Bridget Riley and more like the rose window of a cathedral. See the window of Exeter Cathedral below.

The seafarer is rowed on his last voyage by a crew plying ten pairs of oars, with steersmen at both helm and bow. The boat has a non-northern appearance; in fact it seems akin to certain Mediterranean¹ vessels, and the superstructure resembles numerous depictions and models of boats in Egyptian sources.

Picture stone: C 5th-7th AD

On the Aegean island of Thera magnificent frescos from the 16th century BC have been discovered, one of which includes the vessel depicted at right. It is difficult to believe that over 2000 years separate this image from the Gotlandic one above.

Minoan style fresco: C 16th BC

Nearer in time, some resemblance to the Gotland pictures is fancied in this illustration of the mummy of Kerasher, an Egyptian, pulled (over land) in a boat-shaped bier. Attention is drawn to the frieze on the side of the kiosk's roof, of cobras balancing sun-discs, more visible in the detail below [click].

Book of the Dead: C 1st BC

The circles, left, are sometimes thought to represent shields, but look more like small sun-discs, like those carried by the cobras, right. Snakes occur with ships and discs on other Gotland stones.

The two smaller whorls seem to suggest the concept of a transition, perhaps via moon and sun, from this world to the next.

Did they inspire the icon on the cover of the 1979 Manchester UP re-issue of I.L.Gordon's edition of The Seafarer?

In Vår svenska guldålder, 1945, Lindquist restored the original appearance of the upper part of the stone, squared off for building purposes in the 13th century, and pointed out that it would have been considerably taller than its present 188 cm.


In Järnålder,Guldålder, 1957, Eric Oxenstierna must have used the same basic picture. Neither he nor Lindquist includes the teeth noted by Sörling, although they are certainly present. Is there a hint of another motif below the ship?

Here is another stone from the same period, 5th to 7th century AD.

Picture stone from
Vallstena Church, Gotland
now in Stockholm

Copy, with conjectural
colour restoration

These stones were originally painted and would have had a colourful appearance.

The large disc might represent that which "rolls through all things", as Wordsworth noted. Though neither sun nor moon is mentioned in The Seafarer, there is a powerful sensation of "earth's diurnal round"; or what John Cruickshank called "the sense that time is rapidly and inexorably bearing us towards physical disintegration; the consciousness of our brief human lives in contrast to the endurance of inanimate nature." Cruickshank was discussing the existentialism of Camus.

exeter cathedral

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Essays & Papers

Mediterranean vessels. cf. Österholm, Sven; Forntidens Båtar, 1996, p.29: "Dessa är emellertid starkt stiliserade roddarskep, som tillsammans med en del formelement i stenarnas kantbårder troligen bör betraktas som främmande fåglar, alltför eleganta i nordiska järnåldersammanhang. Den baldakinliknande uppbyggnaden på båtarna förstärker intrycket att de är mera släkt med grekisk vaskonst än med gotländsk järnåldersvardag. Både roddarna och styrmännen, för övrigt en i varje ände på båten, tycks sväva fritt i luften, när de hantera sina åror och är ännu ett exempel till de ovan nämnda på konstgreppet att lyfta ut detaljer, som annars skulle undgå betraktaren."

© Charles Harrison-Wallace 2001, 2014, 2016