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Sketch of Greek warship

The Seaman’s Sword (on the Symbolism of the Oar)


For the Greeks, oars were much more than simple tools; they symbolized an entire life on the ocean.

Greek sailors had a relationship with their oars that was very similar to that of medieval knights and their swords. In ancient Greece there was a profound coastal culture and a deep link with the sea. Their ships, also called triremes, had up to 180 oarsmen who were indispensable for its power and speed. Made from young spruce trees, their oars measured around 13ft long.

Due to storms, rocks and other maritime dangers, many sailors lost their lives at sea, and many of their bodies sank forever. When it was possible to recover the corpses of the drowned, these were buried on the coast as close as possible to the site of the shipwreck. The tombs would often be placed on hills or mounds where they would be visible to seamen. Sometimes tombs would carry an inscription that warned of the dangers of the sea and the oar of the sailor would be placed on the tomb.

Illustration of ancient Greek warship

There are two episodes in the Odyssey that demonstrate the importance of oars to the Greeks. Both occur when Ulysses is among the dead. In the first, Ulysses speaks to Elpenor, one of his mariners who dies but is not given a burial. Elpenor asks him to bury his corpse and Ulysses weeps for him. He asks to be burned with his armor and be buried on a hill, “at the edge of the gray sea, in memory of an unfortunate man.” He also asks that his oar with which he rowed during his life in the company of his friends be placed on his tomb.

Ulysses obeys him. “Where the cliff penetrates deeper,” he burns him with his weapons and he weeps for him. He builds a tumulus, constructs a stele and at the top of the stele he places his “his maneuverable oar.”

Illustration of ancient Greek canoe

Before leaving the dead, Ulysses talks to Tiresias, the seer, who gives him advice on how to calm the ire of Poseidon. He tells him that a time will come on his journey when he will meet another traveler who will confuse his oar for a sieve. At that moment, Ulysses must make an offering to Poseidon and plant his oar in the ground, there where people do not know the sea.

The oar became a symbol of the strength of the mariner and of life at sea. An oar in the ground, planted on a tomb, is useless; it suffocates, as a man would drown in the water. The mariners’ cemeteries that the seamen observed from the ocean were reference points, useful to avoid getting lost or crashing into rocks. At the same time they were reminders of the end of life at sea, and which for them was the end of life itself.

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