Seafaring in the Norse world: Advice from the Konungs skuggsjá

By Karin Murray-Bergquist

The medieval ocean was in equal measure vital and dangerous. The Konungs skuggsjá, a thirteenth-century Norwegian text, details some of the dangers and the marvels to be found in the North Atlantic, by way of a dialogue between father and son. In amongst the advice on conversing with nobility, court manners, and the justice system, there are several chapters on merchants and their travels, which provide an overview of mercantile life, based on observations of the sun and the winds, geographical information, and animals encountered. The text highlights the necessity of seafaring in the Norse world, with connections between Norway, Orkney, Shetland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland. It also elaborates on the need for a traveler by sea to be ready for nearly anything.

At the beginning of the dialogue the son states that he would like to journey abroad before taking up a position at court, he is still lacking in seafaring experience and must rely on the knowledge of others. The father, in response, expands on the perils that any traveler is likely to face at sea, advising him to approach them boldly but to be ready for adversities. The son likewise observes that:


sometimes the ocean appears so blithe and cheerful that one would like to sport with it through an entire season; but soon it displays such fierce wrath and ill-nature that… those who have anything to do with it are endangered.

The nature of winds, tides, and latitudes fills the early part of the text, laying out the bigger picture in which the mercantile traveler operates. In treading out a picture of conditions at sea, the father personifies the sun and the winds, envisioning them as earthly rulers. The need for skill in navigation is explored through an explanation of the motions of the sun, preparing the son to develop a keen eye for differences in light, indicating differences in latitude. One of the most striking passages concerns the nature of sea ice, information about which, the father states, comes directly from those who have had to abandon their vessels in its grasp. He describes its motions and sounds, its inhabitants, namely seals and walrus, and the dangers it posed to ships, which could easily be caught within it.


A page from Konungs skuggsjá. This work was first written around 1250, and was originally intended for the education of King Magnus Lagabøte, the son of King Håkon Håkonsson.

Whales and wonders

Yet another danger came in the form of wildlife, and here great attention is given to sea animals both identifiable and obscure. Twenty-one species of whale and six species of seal are described in the text, with details as to whether the whales in question were edible or useful or actively dangerous to ships. Some, such as the hrosshvalr or horse-whale, were said to attack ships. Others were not necessarily malicious but were still dangerous due to their behavior. The right whale, though popular among later generations of whalers for its buoyancy and relative slowness, is said to be “much inclined to sport with ships.” That the text differentiates between these and the apparently aggressive horse-whale is an interesting point of distinction, seeming to attribute different intentions to each species.

Some whales were seen as actively helpful towards humans, as in the case of the “fish-driver,” described in the chapter on Iceland as sending the fish toward shore. It is also, appropriately, seen as a whale that should not be harmed, due to its helpful behavior. Perhaps most unusually, the fish-driver is said to know when any blood has been spilled on board ships, thus encouraging crews to behave well so as not to lose its assistance.

In speaking of strange sights in faraway seas, the father gives the disclaimer that the things he describes may seem implausible. Specifically, he cites the alleged size of the hafgufa, translated as the Kraken by Larson, as unbelievable, but he chooses to describe its supposed appearance and behavior in detail rather than leave it out. Other phenomena, such as the merman, the mermaid, and the sea-hedges of Greenland, are given equal attention, along with their interpreted meaning – the merman and mermaid were viewed as storm warnings.

A whale depicted in the Carta marina in the 16th century

Shipbuilding and Crews

The need to understand shipbuilding is addressed in the early parts of the dialogue, though in limited detail. The father gives advice on tarring a ship and maintaining it so that it would be ready for a voyage. He also addresses the matter of bringing materials on board for sail repairs if necessary, enumerating a list of supplies. The focus is on the journey rather than the building of the ship, but he recommends learning the use of carpenters’ tools in case repairs should be necessary.


The attention to danger at sea is mostly concentrated on the external, but the father nonetheless warns his son to keep his ship attractive, so that good men would want to join the crew. This matter is touched on tangentially in a few places, such as the fish-driver’s reaction to bloodshed – the need to keep the peace on board is illustrated through the response of the natural environment, and life at sea is shown through an outward-facing lens.

The details given in the Konungs skuggsjá, the dangers enumerated, and the suggestions regarding how to meet them are of interest because they provide color to the process of preparing for such a journey. Through this text, the aspiring seafarer is informed of dangers both avoidable and unavoidable, whether caused by weather or whales. Perhaps most interesting are the occasional reminders of the vital importance of a well-chosen crew – a constant factor in a sea voyage, and one that could have made the difference between success and shipwreck.

You can read the English translation of Konungs skuggsjá from

Karin Murray-Bergquist is a PhD student at Memorial University in Newfoundland. You can follow her on Instagram.


This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.