Saturday, June 20, 2015

Ohthere of Hålogaland

Inserted into the Anglo-Saxon translation of Orosius' Seven Books against the Pagans is a marvelous first-hand account of seafaring in the Viking Age. The tale comes from a Norseman named Ohthere, usually called Ohthere of Hålogaland. Ohthere came to the court of King Alfred of Wessex around the year 890, bearing gifts and stories. For both of these he was made welcome. It is wonderful to imagine him in King Alfred's firelit hall as the king's friends gather close to hear his stories of amazing travels, the servants straining to hear from the shadows. I see Ohthere pausing to ask for more mead, leaving his audience waiting on the edge of their benches for him to resume.

Ohthere's Voyage to the North
Ohthere told his lord, King Alfred, that he lived the furthest north of all Norwegians. He said that he lived in the north of Norway on the coast of the Atlantic. He also said that the land extends very far north beyond that point, but it is all uninhabited, except for a few places here and there where the Finnas have their camps, hunting in winter, and in summer fishing in the sea. He told how he once wished to find out how far the land extended due north, or whether anyone lived to the north of the unpopulated area. He went due north along the coast, keeping the uninhabited land to starboard and the open sea to port continuously for three days. He was then as far north as the whale hunters go at their furthest. He then continued due north as far as he could reach in the second three days. There the land turned due east, or the sea penetrated the land he did not know which - but he knew that he waited there for a west-north-west wind, and then sailed east along the coast as far as he could sail in four days. There he had to wait for a due northern wind, because there the land turned due south, or the sea penetrated the land he did not know which. Then from there he sailed due south along the coast as far as he could sail in five days. [Into the White Sea, we think.] A great river went up into the land there. They turned up into the river, not daring to sail beyond it without permission, since the land on the far side of the river was fully settled. He had not previously come across any settled district since he left his own home, but had, the whole way, land to starboard that was uninhabited apart from fishers and bird-catchers and hunters, and they were all Finnas. To port he always had the open sea. The Beormas had extensive settlements in their country but the Norwegians did not dare to venture there. But the land of the Terfinnas was totally uninhabited except where hunters made camp, or fishermen or bird-catchers.

The Beormas told him many stories both about their own country and about the lands which surrounded them, but he did not know how much of it was true because he had not seen it for himself. It seemed to him that the Finnas and the Beormas spoke almost the same language. His main reason for going there, apart from exploring the land, was for the walruses, because they have very fine ivory in their tusks - they brought some of these tusks to the king - and their hide is very good for ship-ropes. This whale [i.e. walrus] is much smaller than other whales; it is no more than seven ells long. The best whale-hunting is in his own country; those are forty-eight ells long, the biggest fifty ells long; of these he said that he, one of six, killed sixty in two days.

He was a very rich man in those possessions which their riches consist of, that is in wild deer. He had still, when he came to see the king, six hundred unsold tame deer. These deer they call 'reindeer'. Six of these were decoy-reindeer. These are very valuable among the Finnas because they use them to catch the wild reindeer. He was among the chief men in that country, but he had not more than twenty cattle, twenty sheep and twenty pigs, and the little that he ploughed he ploughed with horses. Their wealth, however, is mostly in the tribute which the Finnas pay them. That tribute consists of the skins of beasts, the feathers of birds, whale-bone, and ship-ropes made from whale-hide and sealskin. Each pays according to his rank. The highest in rank has to pay fifteen marten skins, five reindeer skins, one bear skin and ten measures of feathers [eiderdown], and a jacket of bearskin or otterskin and two ship-ropes. Each of these must be sixty ells long, one made from whale-hide the other from seal.

He said that the land of the Norwegians is very long and narrow. All of it that can be used for grazing or ploughing lies along the coast and even that is in some places very rocky. Wild mountains lie to the east, above and alongside the cultivated land. In these mountains live the Finnas. The cultivated land is broadest in the south, and the further north it goes the narrower it becomes. In the south it is perhaps sixty miles broad or a little broader; and in the middle, thirty or broader; and to the north, he said, where it is narrowest, it might be three miles across to the mountains. The mountains beyond are in some places of a width that takes two weeks to cross, in others of a width that can be crossed in six days.
Ohthere told other stories as well, about traveling south to a Norwegian port Alfred's scribe called Sciringes heal, and then across to Hedeby in Denmark. He was a great voyager, carrying the wild riches of the north south to trade. What a stroke of luck that his tale survives.