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A Journey to the Far North in the Ninth Century

The name Ohthere does not usually rank among the great explorers of the Middle Ages, such as Leif Erikson, Marco Polo and Christopher Columbus. However, his exploits are very impressive, for he would sail into Arctic Circle over eleven hundred years ago.

Detail of a map of Scandinavia, created by Abraham Ortelius in the 16th century

Detail of a map of Scandinavia, Russia and the White Sea, created by Abraham Ortelius in the 16th century

We only have one source that tells us about Ohthere and his journey – an Old English adaptation of a fifth-century work known as Seven Books of History Against the Pagans. The Anglo-Saxon version was produced in the court of King Alfred the Great at the end of the ninth century, and includes new material about the geography of Europe. This includes an account of a Norwegian merchant named Ohthere speaking with Alfred and relating his voyage of discovery.

Ohthere lived in a part of Norway called Hålogaland and explained that no Norwegians inhabited the lands north of him. The text explains:

He said that once he wished to ascertain how far the land extended due north, or whether anyone lived to the north of the uninhabited land. So he went due north along the coast; he kept, for three days, the uninhabited land to starboard and the open to sea to port, all the way. Then he was as far north as the whalers go at their furthest. Then he went on – still due north – as far as he could sail in the next three days. Then the land curved away due east (or the sea entered the land – he did not know which of the two); he only knew that there he waited for a westerly wind with a touch of north in it; and he then sailed along the coast as far as he could sail in four days. There he had to wait for a due north wind because the land curved away there due south (or the sea entered the land – he did not know which of the two). Then he sailed thence south along the coast as far as he could in five days. There a great river went up into the land. Then they turned up into the river, because they dared not sail on past the river for fear of hostilities; because, on other side of the river, the land was thoroughly cultivated.

It seems that Ohthere has described a voyage that took him along the entire northern coast of Scandinavia, past the Kola Peninsula before sailing south into the White Sea. It would be a journey of over 1,700 kilometres (or more than a thousand miles). The river he mentioned was likely was the Northern Dvina – if so Ohthere had reached what is now part of northern Russia.

Ohthere explained that the people living in this region were called the Beormas, and although at the time he did not go to meet, at some point he spoke with them:

The Beormas told him many tales, both of their own country, and also of the countries which were round about them; but, as to these, he did not known what was truth in them, because he had not seen for himself. It seemed to him that the Lapps and the Beormas spoke almost the same language.

We next learn more about Ohthere and his wealth, part of which came from hunting walruses, which were valuable for the tusks and skins. He also owned a herd of reindeer, over 600 in his herd, but most of his wealth came from tribute the Lapps (now known as the Sami people) paid to him:

The tribute consists of skins of animals, or birds’ down, of whalebone, and of the cables which are made of whale-hide and seal-skin. Everyone pays according to his rank. A man of the highest rank must pay fifteen martens’ skins, five reindeer hides, one bear-skin, ten measures of down, a kirtle made of bear- or otter-skin, and two ships’ cables (both to be sixty ells long, one made of whale-hide and the other of seal-skin).

Page from British Library MS Cotton Tiberius B.i, the Old English version of Orosius' Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, early 11th century - it contains Ohthere's account of his travels

Page from British Library MS Cotton Tiberius B.i, the Old English version of Orosius’ Seven Books of History Against the Pagans, early 11th century – it contains Ohthere’s account of his travels

Ohthere also offered King Alfred this description of the lands of Norway and Sweden:

He said that the country of the Norwegians was very long and very narrow. All of it that can be grazed or ploughed lies by the sea; but even this very rocky in some places. And wild mountains lies to the east, parallel with and above the cultivated land. On these mountains dwell Lapps. And the cultivated land is widest in the south; and, always, the further north you go the narrower it becomes. In the south it may be sixty miles wide, or a little wider; in the middle, thirty or more; and, in the north where it was narrowest, he said that it might be three miles across to the mountains; after this the mountains are, in some places, as wide as can be traversed in a fortnight, and, in others, as wide as can be transversed in six days.

On the other side of the mountains, parallel to the south part of the country, there is Sweden; parallet to the north part, Cwena-land. The Cwenas sometimes makes attacks on the Norwegians across the mountains, at other times the Norwegians attack them. Throughout the mountains there are very large fresh-water lakes, and from there they attack the Norwegians; they have very small and light boats.

Besides his voyage over the north of Europe, Ohthere’s account also includes a trip to Hedeby, an important Viking-age trading settlement that now lies on the border of Germany and Denmark. His is one of the oldest accounts we have of medieval Scandinavia. You can read an English translation of his trip north in The Terfinnas of Beormas of Ohthere, by Alan S.C. Ross (Viking Society for Northern Research, 1981). You can also read this 19th-century English translation of the text.

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