Ţorsteinn Vilhjálmsson


[Paper given at the conference “Vestur um haf” on the sources for explorations and settlements of the Old Norse in the North Atlantic, Reykjavík, August 9-11, 1999. To be published in conference proceedings.]



In much the same way as Völuspá, Njáls saga and Hrafnkels saga are regarded as the outstanding works of the medieval Old Norse literary corpus, we may regard the Vínland voyages as the crowning medieval Norse achievement in the field of seamanship and navigation. Far from being unplanned or chance events, the voyages were the result of several centuries' development of long-distance sailing across the wide and sometimes hostile North Atlantic Ocean. The long-term impact of these voyages to North America may have been limited (Haywood 1995:88; Boorstin 1985:215), yet accounts of them were known in Iceland down the centuries and remain an integral part of the Icelandic saga heritage. The importance of the Vínland voyages, rather like that of a royal crown, may be symbolic, but it is a rich and well-deserved symbolism.

         In general, the historical value of the Íslendingasögur [Sagas of Icelanders] is problematic and has been the subject of extensive debate over the centuries. Recent scholarship has pointed out, firstly, that the sagas are largely secular in content. Few of them contain marvels and miracles, and individual narratives (or parts of narratives) could be literally true. Secondly, the sagas can obviously be viewed as an historical source for the conceptual world of the Old Norse and Icelandic people, perhaps at the time when the events described took place, and certainly at the time when the sagas recording such events were actually written down (Vésteinn Ólason 1987).

         Nevertheless we soon become aware of different saga presentations of (purportedly) the same events or persons. Thus, when an individual saga tell us that a given person performed a given action in a given context at a given time, we should beware of immediately accepting this information as an historical fact in the usual sense of the phrase. More particularly, using the Vínland sagas as historical sources is certainly no straightforward matter. They were written down on vellum some two centuries after the events they purport to describe. Thus we may expect the original oral accounts to have undergone change as they made their way from raw reportage to written account. The extent of such changes depended on the various links in the transmission process, not least on the knowledge, common sense and judgement of the saga writers. Fortunately we are not completely at a loss when it comes to estimating the extent of these potential distortions, for we can compare different saga accounts of the same events or individuals. Studied carefully and guarding against preconceptions we find that while the sagas may not necessarily be trustworthy in matters of detail such as identities, events or voyages, they are sources which convey an illuminating general view of the Vínland voyages. For example, an account of a voyage attributed to a particular character may very well be a mixture of information deriving from more than one actual voyage undertaken by that character or by others. And the accounts as assembled may not represent the complete picture; there may have been many more voyages or expeditions than those described in the extant accounts. On the other hand, since we now know for sure from the L'Anse aux Meadows excavations that the Norsemen really did reach North America, there is no obvious reason to doubt that the general narrative of the sagas is true.

         In this paper, in order to avoid placing undue reliance on specific details, I will minimise discussion of the identity of individuals and related questions, and instead treat single accounts of voyages as virtually independent units for interpretation.


The Westward Expansion

The maritime expansion to the west started from the coasts of Norway around year 700. Although the infamous Viking raids may loom large in our view of those first voyages, we should not forget the high levels of seamanship and navigational skill which such travelling demanded. Having mastered the sea routes to Shetland, the Orkneys, Scotland, England and Ireland, the Norsemen ventured further west to the Faroes whose settlement was initiated by Grímur Kamban and his company c. 825. Their arrival served to frighten off Irish monks who had been on the islands for over a century.

         After the Norsemen had settled in the Faroes it was only a matter of time before they headed north to Iceland. Permanent settlers were in a position to take note of various indications of the existence of land to the north; there were birds on their annual migration routes; and people fishing or sailing would also eventually stray sufficiently far north west to pick up even clearer indications of the proximity of land.

         Though we have no direct evidence for these indications, we do have trustworthy reports of the Norse exploration of Iceland from around 860 onwards, which proceeded in a very cautious and natural way. The first Norse explorers found remains of Irish monks who had preceded them there, and such remains may well have encouraged the Norsemen to continue their voyages to Iceland despite the distance involved. The actual settlement period in Iceland is generally supposed to have started around the year 870.

         From that date onwards continuous traffic was maintained to Iceland every summer, with people and goods being transported back and forth. Such regular sailings were necessary if the burgeoning Icelandic population was to survive and thrive, because the natural resources of the island and its surrounding waters were relatively meagre in range. So it was that several dietary elements and other daily necessities had to be imported. Navigational and nautical knowledge from these regular voyages accumulated steadily, particularly among the emerging class of professional pilots/merchants who seem to have come mainly from Norway.

         Contrary to what is sometimes claimed, Greenland is not visible to the naked eye from Iceland. This is true even if we factor in the possibility of exceptional (but not inconceivable) atmospheric conditions such as the well-known hillingar [Arctic mirages] (Ţorvaldur Búason 1993). Nonetheless, it is possible that permanent settlers in western Iceland could have seen various indirect signs of a large glacial land mass to the west. Also, sooner or later their sailors would have strayed far enough from the Icelandic western coast to catch sight of the Greenland mountains, which appear quite high when viewed from the east.

         So it was, in due course, that Eiríkr rauđi initiated the Norse settlement of Greenland around year 985, and skilled coastal navigators would soon have suspected that there were lands even further to the west. The Davis Strait is no more of an obstacle than the Iceland-Greenland passage, and, moreover, the American continent was potentially within the range of inevitable navigational uncertainty for people used to navigating from Norway to Greenland. The Vínland sagas suggest that these geographical possibilities soon turned into historical realities.

         Within a time span of some thirty to forty years, the Norsemen's association with Vínland went through the successive phases of discovery, exploration and attempted settlement. Though the saga accounts of this process seem quite matter-of-fact and trustworthy, many scholars have been dissatisfied with this evidence, not least because of a general climate of scepticism regarding the historical value of saga narratives. For the Vínland sagas, such doubts were dispelled by the excavations of the Ingstads in the 1960s. Since then the temporary presence of the Norsemen in North America is now generally considered to be an historical fact as well-grounded as any other.

         According to the sagas, the three phases of discovery, exploration and attempted settlement are associated with the names of Bjarni Herjólfsson, Leifr Eiríksson and Ţorfinnr karlsefni. However the sagas are not without their ambiguities in their identifications of individual voyages and the parts played by particular people in those enterprises. In the discussion that follows, therefore, we will examine each account as an individual entity.



Report GB: Discovery without Landfall

According to the Grśnlendinga saga Bjarni Herjólfsson was an experienced pilot who intended to follow his father from Iceland to Greenland:


      Then Bjarni said, 'This voyage of ours will be considered foolhardy, for not one of us has ever sailed the Greenland Sea.'

       However, they put to sea as soon as they were ready and sailed for three days until land was lost to sight below the horizon. Then the fair wind failed and northerly winds and fog set in, and for many days they had no idea what their course was. After that they saw the sun again and were able to get their bearings; they hoisted sail and after a day's sailing they sighted land. They discussed amongst themselves what country this might be. Bjarni said he thought it could not be Greenland. ... [T]hey could see that the country was not mountainous, but was well wooded and with low hills. So they put to sea again, leaving the land on the port quarter; and after sailing for two days they sighted land once more. ... They closed the land quickly and saw that it was flat and wooded. ... They turned the prow out to sea and sailed before a south-west wind for three days before they sighted a third land. This one was high and mountainous, and topped by a glacier. ... They...followed the coastline and saw that it was an island. Once again they put the land astern and sailed out to sea before the same fair wind. ... They sailed now for four days, until they sighted a fourth land. ...

       'This tallies most closely with what I have been told about Greenland,' replied Bjarni. 'And here we shall go in to land.'

       They did so, and made land as dusk was falling... (The Vinland Sagas 1965:52–54)


It seems reasonable to think that the locations sighted represent Labrador, Baffin Island and Greenland, though the first location might have been in Newfoundland. This would imply a total sailing distance of around 800–1200 nautical miles for the second, third and fourth legs of the voyage, all of which segments were blessed with relatively clear weather.

         On the first leg Bjarni misses Greenland, perhaps because he misjudged the winds west of Iceland, taking them to resemble those of the Norwegian Sea which he knew much better (Páll Bergţórsson 1997:14–17). The sailing time for this stretch is not specified because of the fog, which in turn means that we can extract no information on sailing speeds. On the other hand, the text indicates that the second, third and fourth legs occupied a total sailing time of nine days. The average effective sailing speed would thus have been of the order of 90–130 miles per day, or between three and five knots, which is not unreasonable for an almost totally wind-assisted voyage.


Report EL: Discovery with Landfall

Bjarni Herjólfsson does not feature in Eiríks saga rauđa. The story of Vínland's discovery starts when Leifr Eiríksson is at King Ólafr Tryggvason's Norwegian court. The king assigns him the task of preaching Christianity in Greenland:


He ran into prolonged difficulties at sea, and finally came upon lands whose existence he had never suspected. There were fields of wild wheat growing there, and vines, and among the trees there were maples. They took some samples of all these things. (The Vinland Sagas 1965:85–86)


These two translators point out that all the details given 'are consistent with a landfall somewhere in the New England region'. The south coast of the Gulf of St Lawrence seems an equally plausible possibility. Greater specificity can hardly be expected from such a terse account.

         The saga goes on to describe Leifr's journey to Greenland that same autumn. Thus the saga account has him accomplishing the round trip from Norway to Vínland and from there to Greenland in a single summer. The distances involved in such a voyage are considerable—of the order of 15,000 km or 8,000 nautical miles. Put another way, this is equivalent to making a Pacific Ocean crossing from Ecuador or Peru to Australia.

         Since Leifr's point of departure was Norway he may very well have set sail early in the spring, and we may allow him some ninety effective sailing days to complete the whole voyage. This would yield an average efficient speed of the order of ninety miles per day, or between three and four knots, which is perfectly possible. We may conclude, therefore, that such a voyage was feasible for Old Norse sailors, though exhaustion and disease may well have caught up with the crew during such a stressful summer.

         This account of the discovery of Vínland is less trustworthy or plausible than account GB (above). It thus seems more natural to regard Bjarni as the discoverer and Leifr as the explorer; but our knowledge of both of them as historical figures is too vague to justify any heated discussion of such matters. We cannot, indeed, exclude the possibility of other candidates!


Report GL: Exploration

According to Grśnlendinga saga, 'some time later' Leifr Eiríksson organised an expedition to explore the lands which Bjarni had sighted. This is generally thought to have taken place in the year 1000. 'The first landfall they made was the country that Bjarni had sighted last' (The Vinland Sagas 1965:55). They called the country Helluland [Slab Land or Flat Stone Land]; this is commonly believed to have been the location which we now call Baffin Island.

         After an undefined period of time they came to a second land which they called Markland [Forest Land], which might have been somewhere in Labrador. They then sailed on a north east wind for two days until again they sighted land, later named in the saga as Vínland [Wine Land or Grape Land]. The lengthy description of this location and the events which took place there is by no means coherent and may represent a conflation of original reports from a variety of locations on the east coast of present-day Canada and the United States. The following excerpt is a relevant example:


Ţar var svo góđur landskostur, ađ ţví er ţeim sýndist, ađ ţar mundi engi fénađur fóđur ţurfa á vetrum. Ţar komu engi frost á vetrum og lítt rénuđu ţar grös. Meira var jafndćgri en á Grćnlandi eđa Íslandi. Sól hafđi ţar eyktarstađ og dagmálastađ um skammdegi. (Grśnlendinga saga 1935:251)


[The country seemed to them so kind that no winter fodder would be needed for livestock: there was never any frost all winter and the grass hardly withered at all.[1] Night and day were more equal in length than in Greenland or Iceland. The sun reached Southeast and Southwest on the shortest days of the year.][2]


Such a description of the mild winters would be inappropriate for east coast locations north of New England, whereas the overall description of the voyage does not suggest a New England location. The last sentence of the extract implies that the observation was made at a location somewhere south of 58 degrees north, which points to northern Labrador. The observation is natural, relevant and memorable—certainly worth reporting to Old Norse navigators who were more familiar with voyaging off the Atlantic coast of Europe. If, subsequently, such sailors found themselves off the east coast of North America, they would, to their surprise, find the climate to be much colder than at places of equivalent solar motion (that is, latitude) in Europe. In other words, solar motion on the American East Coast is more extensive than they would expect from the climate.

         Theoretically there is no southern limit for an identification of the site at which this observation might have been made. However, it seems most natural to assume that the location was within ten degrees (1,100 km or 600 miles) of the northern limit for such a statement. On that assumption the area of mild winters and the area giving rise to this description of solar motion do not overlap and the report as a whole is not coherent.

         This Grśnlendinga saga account of Leifr's Vínland is thus revealed as incoherent and misleading. It seems most unlikely that the information it provides refers to the same place or even to the same expedition.

         As in other voyage accounts of this kind, no duration is indicated for the period during which they sailed along the coast. The duration of two days on the open sea between Markland and Vínland fits no other data given for these locations (for instance, the palpable climate difference) and may well represent some kind of a confused interpolation deriving from other itineraries—from report EK, for example (see below).

         In this report Leifr sets off from Greenland, with sea ice having prevented him from commencing his voyage as early in the spring, as was customary in sailing from Norway or Iceland. The total distance covered will have been of the order of 1,500 nautical miles. He needed between twenty and forty days to do this, each way, and thus had ample time during July–August for the southbound leg and even more time for the return journey next summer.


Report GŢv: Further exploration

According to Grśnlendinga saga, Leifr's brother, Ţorvaldr, did not find the first voyage extensive enough and soon organised a new expedition to Vínland. This venture came to an abrupt end the following summer when Ţorvaldr was killed by an arrow fired by one of the native Skrćlings. The account is reasonably coherent and (for instance) matches locations in the southern part of the Gulf of St Lawrence. For our purposes, though it offers little in the way of significant new information, it does serve to reinforce the general picture.


Report GŢs: Abortive Circular Voyage

Now the third brother, Ţorsteinn Eiríksson, wished to convey home the body of Ţorvaldr. The experience of his crew may have been more common than the sources show and is a very important part of the whole picture:


When they were ready they put to sea and were soon out of sight of land. But throughout that summer they were at the mercy of the weather and never knew where they were going. Eventually, a week before winter, they made land at Lysufjord in the Western Settlement of Greenland. (The Vinland Sagas 1965:62)


Ţorsteinn may have broken one of the unspoken rules of early navigation by failing to follow the land whenever possible. It may have been his intention to make a shortcut by heading directly west from Greenland instead of first heading north to the Davis Strait as the more successful navigators usually did. He thus reached an area of open sea which would have taken some five or so days to cross in normal weather if the mariners were able to keep their bearings. However, this area of the sea was completely unknown to Ţorsteinn. For medieval navigators at this stage of technical development, seas at similar latitude were by no means all the same. The behaviour of winds, currents and rain could differ markedly from one area to another, as could the correlations between these phenomena. Since these were among the principal navigational features used by Old Norse sailors, it is hardly surprising that they tended to proceed cautiously when voyaging in a new area.

         It is very important to recall this story of unsuccessful navigation when considering the feats that the Norsemen did and did not accomplish. Clearly, it is in the nature of things nautical that there are more accounts extant from successful than from unsuccessful voyages—the latter would tend to produce fewer survivors able to provide such accounts. Yet unsuccessful voyages represent an important aspect of Old Norse pre-industrial navigation. Undertaken without the aid of late-medieval or modern instruments, they marked the frontier of the feasible at this time. We may conclude from numerous saga references to unsuccessful voyages that the navigators in question had little in the way of navigational technology at their disposal. For example, a report like GŢs could not arise from a voyage undertaken by a navigator with access to a compass or other similarly effective navigational aid.

         In particular, Ţorsteinn's voyage highlights one reason why permanent settlement in Vínland was simply not viable for the Norsemen: they would have been unable to sustain regular marine traffic between Vínland and the mother countries.


Report EŢs: Sighting lands.

 Although the report of the voyage attributed to Ţorsteinn in Eiríks saga rauđa is essentially similar to that in Grśnlendinga saga, there are some interesting additional details:


They ran into prolonged difficulties and were unable to reach the seas they wanted. At one time they were within sight of Iceland; at another they observed birds off Ireland. Their ship was driven back and forth across the ocean. In the autumn they turned back towards Greenland and reached Eiriksfjord at the beginning of winter, worn out by exposure and toil. (The Vinland Sagas 1965:87)


The locations mentioned in this report can be reached by ship in a single summer, even if the voyagers might not have started from Greenland until the beginning of July. In other respects the comments made in the previous section apply here as well.


Report GK: Settlement Attempted

This report on an expedition attributed to the wealthy Ţorfinnr karlsefni is relatively brief and contains little information of interest to us. It states explicitly that Karlsefni's group intended if possible to settle in Vínland. They sailed to Leifr's station (Leifsbúđir) where they made use of his houses, but the text includes no details of the voyage. During their two winters' residence the Norsemen traded and skirmished with the native 'Skrćlingjar'. Neither are there any details given of Karlsefni's return voyage to Greenland.


Report EK: Settlement Attempted

After reporting the fate of Ţorsteinn Eiríksson, Eiríks saga rauđa tells us about Ţorfinnr karlsefni in what is certainly the most comprehensive and coherent account of any voyage reported in the Vínland sagas. Accordingly it merits pride of place in any serious discussion of the sagas as historical sources.

         It is of interest for us to know that 'hann [Karlsefni] var í kaupferđum og ţótti fardrengr góđr' (Eiríks saga rauđa 1935:218, 420) [a sea-going merchant and was considered a trader of great distinction] (The Vinland Sagas 1965:91). The time was ripe for an attempt to settle Vínland, and this was Karlsefni's intention, along with the group of 160 people based at Eiríkr the Red's farm in Greenland.

         Karlsefni began by heading north west along the west coast of Greenland. He and his companions then passed the Davis Strait and on to 'Helluland', generally taken to be Baffin Island. The passage through this strait is reported to have taken two days (tvö dćgur; for discussion of the meaning of dćgur in sailing reports, see Ţorsteinn Vilhjálmsson 1997). Since the distance in question is of the order of 150–200 nautical miles, this seems perfectly plausible. Immediately after leaving Helluland they sailed for 'two days before a northerly wind,' according to the Skálholtsbók (hereafter S) manuscript. Another manuscript, Hauksbók (hereafter H), has them sailing 'first south and then shifting course to south east' (The Vinland Sagas 1965:94). This might, for instance, have led them to the Hudson Strait, between Baffin Island and Labrador. H then has them sailing 'south along the coast for a long time' whereas S allows them only two days. The first description fits the coast of Labrador well enough although admittedly that coast deviates from south to south east. It is, in truth, not easy to make any real sense of the description in S.

         Karlsefni has by now arrived in the area where he was to spend the following three years, according to the lengthy saga account. From all the given information it seems likely that at this point he is somewhere in the southern part of the Gulf of St Lawrence, either in the neighbourhood of the Anticosti island or near the south-eastern end of Newfoundland. From here he sails along the 'Furđustrandir' [Marvel Strands] and enters 'Straumfjörđr' [Fjord of Currents]. These locations might have been, respectively, the eastern coast of Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy. Unfortunately, no durations are given for the remainder of the voyages.

         After a winter in the Straumfjörđr area several members of the group, led by Karlsefni, sail further south along the coast 'for a long time' to a place which they named 'Hóp' (a common name for a tidal lake). Páll Bergţórsson believes that this might have been the present New York area (1997:83 and passim), and this may well be the case, though other New England locations may fit the description just as well, making a definitive identification impossible.

         After the winter at Hóp, including an encounter with the native 'Skrćlingjar', Karlsefni returned to Straumfjörđr. From there he set out on an expedition to search for one of his men, and this may have taken him to the western part of the Gulf where the St Lawrence River gradually becomes the sea. After returning to Straumfjörđr later that summer, Karlsefni spent a third winter there: 'But now quarrels broke out frequently; those who were unmarried kept pestering the married men' (The Vinland Sagas 1965:102). Underlying this laconic remark we can sense some of the factors which destabilised a relatively small group of settlers in spe as they struggled to survive in an alien country whose native inhabitants were hostile. Small wonder that the Norsemen set sail for Greenland the following spring.

         The distances covered in the various sections of Karlsefni's voyages are in general well within the limits of what was feasible and reasonable in respect of sailing speed. The distance from the Eastern Settlement in Greenland to the Bay of Fundy is of the order of 2,000–2,500 nautical miles, depending on the exact route, which meant a journey of some fifteen to thirty days. This was perfectly viable even in a summer which starts as late as the Greenland one. In addition, the extra leg from Straumfjörđr to Hóp was easy, no matter the exact locations of these two places. That said, it is noticeable that Karlsefni is not reported as having done the whole voyage from Greenland to Hóp or back in a single stretch.


Report GF: Settlement Attempted

The report on the expedition of Freydís, Leifr's sister, to her brother's station in Vínland, adds nothing to our present discussion.


General Evaluation

The Vínland voyages were a natural continuation of the previous westward expansion of the sea-going Norsemen. They were, however, in several respects right at the limit of their powers. In hindsight we can say that the Norsemen lacked several of the prerequisites for successful settlement in North America. Firstly, the Greenland colony was too weak to serve as a base for a decisive settlement further west, because of the distance involved, the alien conditions and the hostility of the Vínland natives. Secondly, the mother countries in Iceland and Norway were too distant to replace the Greenlanders in this role. Thirdly, although the nautical and navigational skills of the Norsemen had proved sufficient to support the settlement of Iceland and Greenland and to maintain regular traffic between Iceland and Norway, these skills were insufficient to sustain regular traffic to Vínland.

         It may seem only natural to compare this situation with the later story of the European settlement in America after Columbus. Expansion was again the keyword but this time it was supported by technological progress. The compass was absolutely essential for the Columbian traffic, and gunpowder may have been equally important after the landfalls, in helping to gain sufficient space for maintaining the traffic to come. Thus, viewed in this light, there is no way of rewriting history in such a way as to cast the Norsemen in the role of North America's natural historical settlers, for all that they may have discovered the land first. History very seldom lends itself to being written in the subjunctive.

         The status of the Vínland sagas as historical sources has improved considerably over recent decades, not least as a result of the L'Anse aux Meadows excavations. Within the context of the history of ideas in Iceland, this is really no novelty since Vínland has always been part of Icelandic historical reality—referred to in history books and shown on maps and the like as a part of the old northern world. Our examination of the navigational aspects of the sagas strongly supports such a positive scholarly evaluation. For all the distortions in the saga accounts, the general picture is clear enough. The EK account described above is by any standards a consistent, comprehensive and coherent narrative of an exploratory expedition to an unknown territory and an attempt at settlement. It may not yet have received the attention it deserves. It might, thus, be appropriate to use it as a kind of frame of reference when examining all the other Vínland sources.


The Question of Navigational Instruments

People in the modern world have grown so dependent on all kinds of instruments that they tend to exaggerate the role of such objects when thinking about the past. In particular, because modern navigation has become so instrumentalised, discussions of early navigation tend to be coloured by the same mindset. So it is that most modern scholars who examine old Norse navigational methods tend to propose a favourite navigational instrument which, they seem to believe, offers a definitive solution to the problem of how the Norsemen navigated.

         In this context people also appear to miss the paradox inherent in exaggerating the role of allegedly valuable medieval instruments and devices. The sagas and other Old Norse sources show quite clearly that the efficiency of the navigational technology of the times was, in practice, limited. We might add that if Norsemen had been in possession of good navigational instruments, then the kinds of faltering voyages of discovery and exploration represented by reports GB and EL would never have taken place, not to mention the abortive GŢs and EŢs voyages.

         Hence, not only do the proponents of the various navigational instruments have to tip-toe silently past the fact that no such instruments are mentioned in any of the saga literature, but they have also to close their eyes to the fact that saga sailing accounts reveal that any navigational instruments which may have been available seem to have exercised very little influence on the outcome of actual voyages.

         It seems appropriate at this point to say something about proportions. Between Columbus's time and that of the Norsemen, several new navigational instruments were developed. Just one of them was the key to success: the compass. The fundamental inadequacy of all the other instruments of the time was that they made use of the sun or the stars and thus presupposed a clear sky, which was (and is) by no means always the case in the North Atlantic. It was precisely in overcast or foggy conditions that navigational aids were and are so vital. Thus, we may safely say that the importance of the compass far exceeded all the other navigational instruments, and this remained the case until twentieth-century technological developments. And we know for sure that the compass did not reach Europe until the thirteenth century. Those who fantasise about some sort of Old Norse compass should simply read again the kinds of saga accounts already discussed in this paper. Those voyages were all too clearly undertaken without the aid of any compass or similarly useful equipment!

         The present author has discussed elsewhere some possible candidates for Old Norse navigational instruments. I summarise my findings in the table below. We should note that very few of the instruments would be of any practical value in real navigation, because of the bright nights, the frequent absence of a clear sky, the lack of independent time measurements, and all the related complications associated with using solar motion at sea for calculating direction or time.


Table. Possible Old Norse navigation instruments.









Sounding lead



Shown on Bayeux tapestry

Cross staff



Simple; some form likely




Some form likely; difficult at sea

Sun dial



Horizon/gnomon of same use in north

Bearing dial



Candidate artefact found in Greenland

Solar stone



Substantial report for land use only




Mentioned in late C13 astronomical text




Adapted to sea use in C15




C13 Europe; no signs of ON compass


In short, the table reflects the present author's scepticism towards the existence of any medieval Norse navigational instruments beyond the simplest devices. Simple instruments are also the most likely ones to have been in use without being mentioned in written accounts. The table also shows how few of the instruments would have been of much use in North Atlantic navigation; most of the information which they would have yielded could have been obtained by other and simpler means.

         The evaluation of usefulness applies to instruments as they would have been in the Viking Age. For example, modern people with up-to-date knowledge of optics could make a solar stone from Iceland spar and formulate procedures for using it in the optimal way, but this would not tell us much about how medieval people might have used it. In any event, the extra information which could be gained today from a solar stone would have been of only limited practical use for navigation had it been available in the Middle Ages.

         The quadrant and the astrolabe have recently been proposed as candidates for Old Norse navigational instruments (Páll Bergţórsson 1997:140–42, 154–57). As such these items are well known from the history of early astronomy, albeit unconnected with navigation. However, many ideas and instruments from ancient Greece are generally believed to have been lost for early medieval Europe. It is the case that mention is made of the quadrant in a late thirteenth-century Icelandic manuscript, but that is in the context of general ancient astronomy and represents no evidence for the instrument having been used almost three centuries earlier in the north for astronomy, let alone for navigation, for which it would have been utterly useless. The astrolabe was developed by the Arabs during the Middle Ages. It is primarily an instrument for general astronomy and perhaps travel on land, and was not adapted for navigation until the time of Henry the Navigator in the fourteenth century.


The Question of Sailing Speed and Time

It is well known that Christopher Columbus took decades to prepare for his famous voyage of 1492. Among other things he collected all the available information that could be of potential help to him. For instance, he studied the North Atlantic wind systems and had definite ideas on how to organise his outward and homeward voyages in order to optimise wind use. Thus, on his westbound voyages he tended to set sail from the Canary Islands and follow the north-easterly trade winds. Despite such precautions, and notwithstanding the fact that Columbus had the magnetic compass at his disposal for stabilising his bearings, his effective sailing speed was only of the order of 3–4 knots (see, for example, the map on single voyages in Fernández-Armesto 1992:xxiv–xxv).

         The distances traversed by the Vínland voyagers are often known, or can be inferred from the texts when, for example, a model of the localities involved is available. The duration of single voyages is, however, not so often reported in the texts, though we may have implicit information, for some statement is usually included if a voyage is supposed to have taken more than one summer.

         The information obtained by analysing the individual accounts of the Vínland expeditions can be summarised briefly. Nothing in the reports leads us to assume a higher sailing speed for the Norsemen than that of Columbus mentioned above. The average, effective sailing speed may very well have been of the order of 3 knots. Indeed, this also holds for the totality of voyages in the Icelandic sagas.

         However, it should be said that such matters remain the subject of scholarly debate and disagreement, because of a measure of verbal ambiguity in sailing itineraries. Suffice to say that such dispute is only tangential to the issues being treated in this paper.



The Vínland sagas describe voyages to 'Vínland', a location on the continent of North America which is also mentioned in other Icelandic and Nordic sources. We may take the essence of these reports as historical fact, just like any other historical fact, as a result of the excavations at L'Anse aux Meadows. The tone of the saga accounts is matter-of-fact, and few of the phenomena described can be dismissed as mere fantasy or superstition. On the contrary the accounts show that the Old Norse explorers of Vínland were keen observers of nature. Nevertheless, because of internal and external inconsistencies the single accounts cannot be taken as historical sources in any purely literal sense. Some element of interpretative compromise is required, and it is a valid and interesting scientific puzzle to extract as much information as possible from the sagas.

         The report EK (Eiríks saga rauđa on the voyage of Karlsefni) is by far the most trustworthy of the Vínland accounts and should be regarded as a frame of reference for the others. It describes two or three distinct localities or areas, with characteristics and features consistent with locations in the southern part of the Gulf of St Lawrence, the Bay of Fundy and near New York.

         The Vínland sagas are an informative source for the study of both the strengths and weaknesses of Old Norse navigation. The accounts show clearly that on these voyages the Vikings had reached the limits of their nautical and navigational abilities. Neither distance nor speed was a problem, but compared with the technology available to Columbus, the Vikings' most serious deficiency was lack of a magnetic compass. It is sometimes stated that the Vínland expeditions are of limited historical importance because they lack any influence on the later history of the region. Be that as it may, these accounts are still a fertile source for studying how people apply knowledge and skills to achieve control of their environment and supposedly to improve their living conditions. In this sense we have something to learn from history's 'losers' as well as its 'winners'!




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Eiríks saga rauđa, Grśnlendinga saga. 1935. In Einar Ól. Sveinsson and Matthías Ţórđarson, eds, Eyrbyggja saga. Íslenzk fornrit 4. Reykjavík: Hiđ íslenzka fornritafélag.

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Páll Bergţórsson. 1997. Vínlandsgátan. Reykjavík: Mál og menning. [English translation by Anna Yates. 2000. The Wineland Millennium. Reykjavík: Mál og menning].

Vésteinn Ólason. 1987. 'Norrřn litteratur som historisk kildemateriale', in Gunnar Karlsson, ed., Kilderne til den tidlige middelalders historie, 331–439. Reykjavík: Sagnfrćđistofnun Háskóla Íslands.

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——. 1998. 'Páll Bergţórsson: Vínlandsgátan' [review]. Saga 36:289–96.

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[1] The Vinland Sagas 1965:56.

[2] Translation by the present author. This is of central importance. There were no clocks or watches in Norse society at this time—only the natural diurnal motion of the sun. Translating dagmálastađur and eyktarstađur by referring to time therefore would not change the essential meaning for a medieval Icelander, but for the modern reader it represents a major and unjustified anachronism.