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“Havorn I Austerveg” expedition

Viking ship Havorn


The vikings’ picture of the world and navigation

We know little about the vikings’ world picture, what we do know is mostly from Snorre’s Edda, the manual on the art of poetry writing. It is written after the time of the vikings and is based on handed-down information which was already several hundred years old. The earth is a fiat disc made from the body of the jotne Ymer. The sky, made from Ymer’s skull arches above the earth disc. Around the earth there is deep ocean. Along the beaches live the jotner. Further inland on the disc is the world of the human beings, Midgard, and right in the middle of the disc is the home of the gods, Asgard. This is where the gods gather beneath asken Yggdrasil, it rises like a pillar holding the semi-circle of the sky. Out in the sea is the Midgardsorm (the snake of Midgard), big enough to stretch around the world and bite its own tail. Snorre’s report of the heathen world picture is colored by his own Christian belief, and it is not possible to know for sure if the sailors of viking times really believed they were on the way to the open mouth of the Midgardsorm when they went westwards from Stadt and the land disappeared below the horizon.

The points of the compass had the same names as they have today. The horizon was divided into 8 parts, with names suited to the North and the West of Norway, where the directions went roughly north-south. North-west is called “utnordr” (out-north), north-east “landnordr” (land-north). The corresponding names for the southern directions were “utsudr” and “landsudr”. From around the year 800 there were ships in the sea every summer destined for western Europe, the islands in the West, the Baltic or France. At the time of Eirik Raude (Eric the Red) and Leif Erikson in late viking age, people knew about the countries around the Mediterranean and the Baltic, and they might have had relations and friends from Greenland to Constantinople. Thanks to finds of ships in Norway and Denmark we have acquired extensive knowledge about the boats they used, and Norwegian archaeologists are in die fortunate position to be able to find answers to 1000 year old technical questions from present-day boat-builders; this is how strong these traditions are in the west and the north of Norway. The coastal voyage was well developed at the time of the vikings. All along the Norwegian coast there were plenty of natural landmarks, and several burial mounds are so placed as to have been able to serve as navigation points. In unchartered waters a guide was used, who in old Norse is called “leidsogumadr” — the one who knows the course.

One of the Islandic handwritten documents gives information about the course from Norway to Greenland. “Sail directly west from Hernar in Norway, far enough north to see Shetland in good weather, south of the Faroes with half the country below the horizon. Sail far enough south of Island not to see land, but close enough to have contact with birds and whales outside the coast, and you will arrive at the southern tip of Greenland.” To press the point, this is coastal navigation transferred to the open sea, voyage right across the North Atlantic from navigation point to navigation point without other technical aids.

The question arises: did they really have nothing else to guide them? We know that compass, marine charts and log are later inventions. Depth soundings may have been used in coastal waters and in rivers, and it is likely that the polar star “Leidarstjernen” (the guiding star) did not come by that-name by chance, even though it is hardly visible in the light summer nights, which was when sailing was most popular.

It has been common to accredit the vikings with astronomical knowledge, and a “bearing disc” found in Greenland has played a central role in this discussion. In ecclesiastical circles astronomical knowledge was very important in order to find the dates for the movable feasts, in particular Easter. There is little reason to connect the astronomy of the church with the navigation of the heathens, and the “bearing disc” is very disputed, moreover it is from the time after the vikings. In the long saga on Olav den Hellige (St. Olav) there is mention of a “sunstone”, which can indicate where the sun is even on a day with a blizzard. This has been combined with certain feldspar minerals’ ability to polarize sunlight, and in this way give the direction of the sun. Even though this may have been known in viking times, it is unlikely that it has been a common aid at sea.

The seafarers of the viking age had excellent ships and extensive knowledge about the waters where they sailed. There is, however, no foundation for believing that they made use of advanced astronomical navigation. They knew a lot about waters and land formations, about differences in the colour of the sea where the great ocean currents met, and they must surely have used the swell-systems to decide directions, even when the wind changed and the cloud cover made sun and stars invisible. Birds and animals could signal land below the horizon. But if the mist descended and the wind dropped for long periods, they were in a bad way — “hafvilla” — as it was called in old Norse. Then there was nothing for it but to wait for good weather, and holding counsel as to which direction to sail.

Having considered and rejected most of what has been proposed as navigational aids as we know them, we are left with superbly accomplished sailors making use of experience and knowledge of the natural environment to navigate up rivers and across oceans from Newfoundland to far east in Russia, probably with a shipwreck ratio which would have been totally unacceptable today.

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