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Ohthere's Voyage

(From: Johansen and Roesdahl (eds), Borg in Lofoten: A chieftain's farm in North Norway, 2003, Appendix 1, Translated by C.E. Fell)

The account of Ohthere's voyage, written around 890 AD, is one of the most exciting contemporary sources for Viking Age Scandinavia. It tells of the life, economy and travels of a north Norwegian chieftain and is, therefore, of particular interest in any interpretation of Borg.

The account was taken down in Old English at the court of King Alfred of Wessex and was included in the king's translation from the Latin of the Spanish churchman Orosius' classic work Historiarum adversum Paganos Libri Septem (Seven Books of History against the Pagans), which was originally composed in the fifth century.

The account is published here in extenso as translated by Christine E Fell, with the kind permission of the executor of her academic estate. It was first published in Lund, N. (ed.): Two Voyagers at the Court of King Alfred, York 1984. This volume also includes an important chapter by Fell: 'Some Questions of Language' (pp.56-63), where the presence of an interrogator is stressed and the meaning of certain Old English words is discussed, including the problems of translation of certain words used to describe north Scandinavian fauna (e.g. walrus and reindeer), which were unknown in England and for which there were no words in contemporary English. (Else Roesdahl)

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. 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, 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.

Beyond the mountains Sweden borders the southern part of the land as far as the north, and the country of the Cwenas borders the land in the north. Sometimes the Cwenas make raids on the Norwegians across the mountains, and sometimes the Norwegians make raids on them. There are very large fresh-water lakes throughout these mountains, and the Cwenas carry their boats overland onto the lakes and from there make raids on the Norwegians. They have very small, very light boats.

Ohthere said that the district where he lived is called Halgoland. He said no-one lived to the north of him. In the south part of Norway there is a trading-town which is called Sciringes Heal. He said that a man could scarcely sail there in a month, assuming he made camp at night, and each day had a favourable wind. He would sail by the coast the whole way. To starboard is first of all Iraland and then those islands which are between Iraland and this land, and then this land until he comes to Sciringes heal, and Norway is on the port side the whole way. To the south of Sciringes Heal a great sea penetrates the land; it is too wide to see across. Jutland is on the far side and after that Sillende. This sea flows into the land for many hundred miles.

From Sciringes heal he said that he sailed in five days to the trading-town called Hedeby, which is situated among Wends, Saxons and Angles and belongs to the Danes. When he sailed there from Sciringes Heal he had Denmark to port and the open sea to starboard for three days. Then two days before he arrived at Hedeby he had Jutland and Sillende and many islands to starboard. The Angles lived in these districts before they came to this land. On the port side he had, for two days, those islands which belong to Denmark.


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