By Grethe Authen Blom
Arctic, Vol 37, No 4 (1984)
Introduction: Today one-third of Norway lies north of the Arctic Circle. But the realm has not always gone so far north. In earlier times Finmark and the inner parts of Troms were not inhabited by Norwegians but by a Finnish-Ugrian-speaking nomadic people, few in numbers, called the Fins.
The first move of Norwegians into the polar regions was to Finmark. Archaeologists cannot say for certain how early the Fins and the Norwegians came into cultural contact with each other. However, from the end of the ninth century we have a well-known written statement that deals with the settlement and casts light upon the economic structures thereof the supplementary translation into the Anglo-Saxon language, made by King Alfred the Great, of the Latin World History by Orosius.
One of King Alfred’s informants was Ottar (Ohthere), a chieftain and merchant from Halogaland in northern Norway. He lived – so he said – farther north than any Norwegian, at the West Sea. From here northward the land was unsettled, apart from a few places where Fins pursued a hunting economy. Ottar himself was engaged in cattle breeding, farming, and whaling. His greatest asset, though, was a flock of domesticated reindeer, and his most precious income was a tribute, which – like other chieftains – he collected annually from the Fins. It consisted of furs, eiderdown, walrus teeth, and sealskin hawsers used for ships. The Fins, because of their nomadic way of life, had little opportunity to profit from their hunting surplus. The Norwegian chieftains, however, were in a far better position.