Norway Worships Warship, Not Its Namesake

Attention, everyone: the Norwegian navy just got a new warship. It is 440 feet long, featuring anti-surface naval strike missiles, Sea Sparrow missile air-defense missiles, and an anti-aircraft gun and torpedo system.

I’m not usually a follower of Scandinavian military technology. But this ship has an unusual name: HMNS Thor Heyerdahl.

Maybe you recognize it. Thor Heyerdahl, Norwegian explorer, successfully sailed a balsa-wood raft, the Kon-Tiki, all the way from South America to the South Pacific in 1947 (and starred in a wildly popular 1951 documentary film). He went on to build lots of other watercraft from natural materials and pilot them vast distances, to prove that ancient man could have done so. He wanted to show the interconnectedness of the world’s cultures. Heyerdahl served for years as Vice President of the Association of World Federalists, who believed in the urgent creation of a worldwide government that would do away with national boundaries and, among other things, weapons of war. (World federalists also believe that the United Nations wasn’t working quite hard enough for world government.) True, the Norwegians are not exactly known as a militant superpower; they do after all award the Nobel Peace Prize. But wasn’t naming the newest, most high-tech, most lethal Norwegian warship after a peace activist just a little strange?

The authorities offered a feeble answer: the ship, built by a Spanish company, “contributed positively to the development of bilateral cooperation between Norway and Spain,” according to Norwegian Defense Minister Grete Faremo. Had Norway and Spain been engaged in covert military action against each other before HMNS Thor Heyerdahl? It seemed hard to believe. But then, many of Heyerdahl’s voyages did have a fairy-tale quality.

In 1977, Heyerdahl built the Tigris out of marsh reeds grown in southern Iraq, following the drawings of the ancient Sumerians. Heyerdahl believed he was going “all the way back” to human origins, which is why he began his voyage in a place traditionally associated with the Garden of Eden. The unusual craft he called the “floating haystack” made it through the Persian Gulf and out to the Indian Ocean, and almost to Egypt. But not quite: Heyerdahl and his crew were stopped at Djibouti. The surprisingly seaworthy haystack could have continued, but its human occupants were in danger: neighboring North and South Yemen were blowing each other up—one with Soviet weapons, one with American weapons. Frustrated in his attempt to prove that the world’s earliest people had been seagoing, cooperative, and peaceful, Heyerdahl wrote a letter of protest to the Secretary General of the United Nations:

Surrounded by military aeroplanes and warships from the world’s most civilized and developed nations we are denied permission [to land the ship] … We are all irresponsible unless we demand from the responsible decision makers that modern armaments must no longer be made available to the people whose former battle axes and swords our ancestors condemned.

– The Tigris Expedition: In Search of Our Beginnings

Then he set fire to the Tigris, in hopes of drawing attention to the cause of disarmament. Sadly, it didn’t work.

Brook Wilensky-Lanford is the author of Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden (Grove Press, 2011). An editor of Killing the Buddha, she lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Follow Brook on Twitter: @modmyth