Early Norse Navigation Tools
By Gypsey Teague
Paper presented at the 105th Annual Meeting of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies on May 9, 2015
Abstract: In the History Channel series Vikings Ragnar Loðbrok tells his brother Rollo he wants to sail west to raid the rich lands there. His brother points out that no one can sail across the open water. In this scene Ragnar pulls out two tools that while being interesting in the development of the story are both also historically factual. This paper will discuss these two tools, the sȯl-skuggafjöl and the sólarsteinn, as well as the bearing dial and a more observational technique of polar mirages used by the early Norse sailors as they explored the North Atlantic waters.
Introduction: Norse sailors are portrayed as hardy, fearless adventurers. The Vikings, a more popular name for Norse sailor, were portrayed further as ruthless, bloodthirsty marauders who pillaged and terrorized the English coast for decades. While neither is completely accurate both are most likely close to the truth. The Scandinavian adventurers were predominantly farmers and fishermen. They sailed the coasts of their country fishing and eking out as successful a living as possible in the harsh climate until lack of food and arable land drove them to seek new areas to farm and fish.
The first recorded raid on the English coast was in 793 at Lindisfarne, a small island off the coast of Northumberland. The Holy Seat was an easy target to the Norse when they came ashore on June 8th of that year. Some claim the Vikings came to pillage from the beginning of their mission. Others offer that at some point in the negotiations, since Vikings had traded with other areas of the country prior to this encounter, one of the monks, or the bishop himself, might have angered or insulted one of the Norsemen and tragedy ensued. Whoever is correct what happened next set the stage for a hundred plus years of raiding and bloodshed. But the question of what happened is not as important as how it happened. How did the Norse get to the island in the first place?