Time and Travel in Old Norse Society

Thorsteinn Vilhjalmsson

Science Institute, University of Iceland

Dunhaga 3, ÍS-107 Reykjavík, Iceland

e-mail: thv@raunvis.hi.is

Published in Disputatio, II: 89-114, 1997.

0 Abstract

(not published)

In this paper we discuss the main sources we have on daily life and technical knowledge and skills in the Viking society of medieval Scandinavia. We try to combine these various sources, thus applying research methods ranging from text analysis through knowledge of subarctic nature to modern science. We treat some methods of measuring and following time during the day in the subarctic regions of the earth, especially the method of "eyktir" and "eyktamörk" (octant marks). We discuss the question whether people had any instruments worthy of the name. We collect some of the textual sources on time in relation to travel and navigation, i.e. in connection with the so called Wineland sagas which report on the Viking expeditions to America. Finally, we argue for a certain interpretation necessary to reach a clear-cut and plausible conclusion as to average effective sailing speed in regular ocean traffic.

1 Introduction

1.1 A Note on Context and Evidence

When a society produces intellectual works like the Eddas and the Icelandic sagas (1) you may normally expect that this has not been an isolated feat. Rather, you may anticipate that the works of fame have grown from a fertile soil which may also have fostered other species of intellectual and cultural work. Indeed, it may sometimes appear to be a matter of chance, which type of works attains the fame.

The methods and views of history of science have been badly missing in the discourse on medieval Scandinavian society and culture. For instance both the learned and the lay have tended to overlook the intellectual aspects of the transoceanic traffic initiated and maintained by the Vikings and their successors. One of the reasons for this blindness may be that the literary achievements of the Old-Norse have outshone other factors in their culture. Also, for many people there is such a long way from more or less fictitious literature to practical navigation that they fail to see the cultural link.

Another reason is of course that the sources are so different. In the case of the sagas we have access to most of the texts in a form close to the original. Since the text is the essence of the cultural achievement you may say that the sagas speak for themselves in the true meaning of the words, and you certainly need no other evidence. On the other hand, in the case of the navigation, say, the evidence is more indirect and contextual. Thus, we have to make do with the general historical record, scarce and maybe indirect textual references to navigation, and archaeological data of limited geographical extension.

1.2 The Sources

The pieces of evidence we have on the knowledge and skill related to science in medieval Old Norse community are of several quite disparate types. Let me mention the following:

This itemization shows that there is no single dominant comprehensive source of information. Hence, it is crucial to bring all these fields of information together in the research in order to assemble a clear-cut, broad and balanced picture.

1.3 Time and Calendar

All organized societies need to have various ways of handling time. On the one hand you may discern the need for dating various actions, meetings, etc. For this purpose people use what we call a calendar. On the other hand, we see the need for measuring time intervals in various contexts.

The Viking society of medieval Scandinavia is no exception from this and you only need a superficial survey of its treatment of time in order to grasp the main features. Thus, you will see an interesting mixture of indigenous methods and ideas on the one hand and specific items from the continental common goods on the other. On closer investigation you may further realize that the indigenous features may have to do with environment and culture. Thus they constitute an interesting object for a partly theoretical study of cultural history.

Almost everywhere on earth the climate entails seasons that are relevant to human activities. Therefore the usefulness of the calendar is universal albeit somewhat variable. For instance, the specific seasonal activities in question may vary. The relative importance of the calendar and its precision may hence also vary from one society to another, even at a similar stage of technological development. Thus, in farming societies, whether they be based on growing corn or cattle, grass or sheep, a good calendar is obviously quite useful. It helps the farmer to know when he should sow the grain and let the ram to the ewes, just to mention two examples of annually periodic activities which would otherwise be difficult to date in an optimal way.

The present author has recently written a paper in English on the calendar in Icelandic and Old Norse society before literacy.(8) Therefore this will not be treated at any length here. Instead, we will focus on the treatment of time intervals in the Icelandic and the Old Norse society. This kind of time measurement is especially relevant in the context of travel, which further explains the title and the focus we have chosen for the paper.

1.4 Travel and Navigation

When you consider ancient or early medieval coastal navigation it is indeed not surprising that people every now and then lost their way in coastal travel. In some cases they might find new hitherto unknown lands and, what is most important for the historian, return to tell the story. Some of the lands thus found and reported tended to become lost again. This holds for the famous voyage of Pytheas of Marsilia to Thule, which might have been Iceland or a similarly out-of-the-way place in the North-Atlantic. In such cases people have at the time of "discovery" lacked the ability or the motivation to maintain regular traffic to the new land.

However, the Old Norse Vikings were not only able to find their way over the ocean on single, more or less stray voyages, but they also maintained regular transoceanic traffic for centuries. This was indeed necessary for their more or less permanent settlements in the British Isles, the Faeroes, Iceland and Greenland. The knowledge and skill needed for this involves astronomy and other fields of natural science, according to the classification of knowledge now in use. In the beginning this knowledge was imported from the common goods of early medieval Europe but was subsequently nurtured and developed by independent observation and contemplation. This is explicitly documented in 12th-14th century writings in the vernacular on astronomy and calendar and other encyclopaedic matters.(9) Some of these specialized texts may be likened to modern monographs while others are more like textbooks. The documentation in the more celebrated saga literature is more implicit but not less interesting to decipher and interpret. The general thrust of their message as to knowledge and skills in the society fits quite well with the more direct evidence of the monographs. Modern archaeology is also providing strong and inspiring data on ships and sailing gear, not to forget the recent evidence on Old Norse presence in Newfoundland.(10)

Literacy and literary interest gradually entered Iceland and Norway from around 1100 onwards. It then became easier to obtain knowledge related to navigation from imported books rather than from first-hand observations or independent contemplation. At the same time the dissemination of the best of ancient knowledge greatly improved the benefit to be gained from books as to astronomy and related matters. Subsequently, the vein of originality seems to have dried up.

As to the practical aspect, it is a matter of common knowledge how the Nordic Vikings expanded their sphere of activity on land and sea, reaching in the end both the Black Sea and the North-American continent, Sicily and Volga. On the seaside to the West they started with Shetland, the Orkneys, the Hebrides and the larger British Isles. After they had settled in the Faeroes it was only a question of time when they would take the step to Iceland, in so far as they would consider it habitable. For that they would, among other things, have to be able to maintain regular sea traffic to this distant island. The knowledge and skill necessary for that had been developing and accumulating in the eighth and the ninth centuries, until Iceland finally was settled around year 870 AD, followed by Greenland about a century later. But in the case of Wineland they had stretched themselves beyond the limit of their capability to maintain a continuous link of traffic.

2 The northern sun and the time

2.1 The Peculiarities of Subarctic Solar Motion

On first thought you might think that, after all, solar motion will obey the same general principles when observed from arctic or subarctic regions as it does in the more temperate zones of the world. But on second thought you will see that actually the solar motion in the North is quite different from the more temperate zones. We are not only concerned with the well known and prominent phenomena of the arctic midnight sun, the bright nights of the subarctic or the less frequently mentioned counterparts of these phenomena in the dark part of the year. Rather, we want to consider the differences which manifest themselves, for instance, in the possibilities of using the solar motion as a more or less accurate measure of time during the day.

Of course, the length of the diurnal arc of the sun can be used as a measure of time from any part of the earth. You would just have to be able to mark and memorize the places of sunrise and sunset on the horizon for the day of observation. However, this only works if you are staying at a fixed place and you have some prominent marks on the horizon or you take the precaution of making them yourself. In southern regions there may also be practical difficulties in measuring the arc when the sun is high in the sky, unless you have some kind of specialized instruments.

Here in the North this situation is quite different. The celestial pole is high in the sky and the diurnal orbits of the sun and the moon do not rise nearly as steeply as they do in the South. This means for instance that they can naturally be referred to the horizon almost all the time. The simple approximation of taking the speed of solar or lunar motion along the horizon to be constant is much better up here than it would be in more southern zones. This is reflected in several well-known peculiarities of speech in describing time and solar motion both in medieval sources and also in rural language, place names etc., even today in Iceland.

2.2 The Octant Marks

A special feature of this kind in the Old Norse and Icelandic language is the concept of eykt in the sense of an eighth of the 24 hr long day. The word "eykt" may be etymologically related to the number eight, a point to which we will return later. Hence, we may have an extra reason for picking the natural English translation of octant. The octants of day and night have special names as shown in table 1.

Corresponding to these eight time points of the day Old Norse operated with the term átt/ætt in the meaning of an octant of the circle or, in particular, of the horizon.(11)

Local solar time


Rough translation

Time of day


Rough translation

0 a.m.



12 noon


high day

3 a.m.

ótta (12)

3 p.m.

nón, undorn,


6 a.m.

miður morgunn


6 p.m.



9 a.m.


"day mark"

9 p.m.


"night mark"

Table 1. Names of the octants.

In Icelandic farms up to the present so called eyktamörk or octant marks are quite common. These are normally some prominent landscape features on the horizon, as seen from the area in front of the farm houses ("hlað"). Thus you may have "Miðmorgunshnjúkur" (Mid-morning Peak), "Dagmálahóll" (Day Mark Hill), "Hádegisskarð" (Noon Pass) etc. Note that these names are heavily dependent of the farm in question; what is seen as a "Mid-morning Peak" from one farm would be a "Mid-evening Peak" for another farm on the opposite side of the peak.

The fundamental idea is that the sun should be above the horizon point in question at the time indicated by the name. Thus the sun should be above "Noon Peak" at 12 o, clock local solar time. And, sure enough, if this holds for a given day of the year it will be so all through the year, given that the peak is not so high as to hide the sun behind it during the darkest period of the winter.

However, when you come to the other octant marks this is not quite so straightforward. You may for example pick your mid-morning octant mark to be straight east from your farm. Then you have ensured that the sun will be exactly at this mark at 6 a.m. local solar time at the vernal and the autumnal equinoxes, when it will be rising at this point of the horizon. But for the time between these two dates this will not be exactly so. For example, at the summer solstices in Northern Iceland the sun will be some 10-15 degrees south of east at 6 a.m., corresponding to almost an hour’s time. In other words the "solar clock" obtained by using such octant marks might be up to an hour off in this region. (Needless to say, in more southerly regions this "clock" would be even more off, which presumably is one reason why it has not been used).

For us modern people it may be difficult to visualize what would have been important here and what not. The methods described were introduced at a stage of technological development when people had no good independent means of checking the time. The error or uncertainty in time measurements implied by the subtleties in solar motion might very well have been tolerable, and even pass unnoticed at that stage. Even if people might have managed to spot the error by the means of a time-glass or some kind of a clepsydra, they might have found it too small to be of any concern for their purposes.

In fact, the annual rhythm of agricultural work in northern regions like in Iceland is such that time keeping through the day would have been most important during the summer, at the time of grazing, haymaking, etc. It is at least conceivable that people could have adapted their octant marks to this fact, picking them such that they would be "right" or, rather, consistent during summer at the cost of being further off during winter when the sun might not even pass them at all. To my knowledge this has not yet been subject to scholarly study.

2.3 The Textual Sources

According to the sagas, the first Old Norse people to see America beyond Greenland was Bjarni Herjólfsson and his crew. According to the Grænlendinga saga (Saga of the Greenlanders) he intended to sail from Iceland to Greenland:

Þá mælti Bjarni: "Óviturleg mun þykja vor ferð þar sem engi vor hefir komið í Grænlandshaf."
En þó halda þeir nú í haf þegar þeir voru búnir og sigldu þrjá daga þar til er landið var vatnað en þá tók af byrina og lagði á norrænur og þokur og vissu þeir eigi hvert að þeir fóru og skipti það mörgum dægrum.
Eftir það sáu þeir sól og máttu þá deila áttir, vinda nú segl og sigla þetta dægur áður þeir sáu land. (13)

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.(14)

What is most interesting here is the statement that when they saw the sun they could "get their bearings". This demonstrates quite clearly the strong connection between the sun and the directions in the minds of the people we are considering. This was around year 1000, so they had no exact instruments to speak of. They were at open sea and had lost all sense of orientation. So, there is good reason to ask what they could use the sun for; what is "að deila áttir"?

Of course, they could observe the culmination of the sun to tell them true south. But in my opinion, by comparing with other sources, there is more than that. They could also observe or measure roughly the altitude of the sun at noon to tell them the latitude. This would not have been quite trivial since the noon altitude of the sun not only varies with latitude but also with the time of year. But if you had some kind of a formula or algorithm to cope with this variation you would be able to obtain a fairly accurate result. From the so-called Oddi’s Tale from the middle of the 12th century we have reason to think that the Old Norse people had a good and efficient formula or algorithm for this purpose. (15)

An interesting piece of text with a similar phrasing is found in the Norwegian King’s Mirror from around 1260. After a description of the moon and the tides the author comments:

En þessa hluti mega kaupmenn varla markað fá fyrir sakir svo skjótrar rásar því að tungl stígur svo stórum annaðtveggja upp eða niður að varla fá menn ættum skipað af rásum þess fyrir þá sök. En sól er fyrir því markandi að hún fyllir seinna rásir sínar hvorttveggja til uppstigningar og niðurstigningar og mega menn vel marka allar ættir af hennar rásum.(16)

But these things tradesmen can hardly mark for the sake of their swift course because the moon takes so large steps either up or down that people can for that reason hardly determine directions from its courses. But the sun can be marked because it fills its courses more slowly both in ascending and descending and people can well determine all directions from its courses.(17)

To my mind this text strongly supports the idea that people in this society knew how to cope with what we call the changes in declination of the sun, for the purpose of determining geographical latitude. On the other hand, these changes in the case of the moon are so quick that it would have been much more difficult to use the moon for the same purpose.

So much for the "átt" for the moment. As to the time division of "eykt/octant" we may just state that the saga literature abounds with references to the individual octant divisions of the day as described above. When we would have stated the hour of an event the sagas simply state the octant instead, sometimes using, e.g., half an octant when such a precision is needed.

When we come to the relation of the octant marks and the sun the most famous quotation is again from the Grænlendinga saga. When describing the circumstances in "Vínland" (Wineland or The Land of Vine, i.e. some place on the eastern coast of North America) one of the observations goes as follows:

Meira var þar jafndægri en á Grænlandi eða Íslandi. Sól hafði þar eyktarstað og dagmálsstað um skammdegi.(18)

In this country, night and day were of more even length than in either Greenland or Iceland. The sun passed the points of "eykt" and "day mark" in the period of the shortest days.(19)

In modern language the most straightforward interpretation of this implies that the sun would pass the horizon points of Southeast and Southwest (20) in the shortest day of the year. You may also note that the author clearly finds this worthwhile to report.

The main purpose of bringing this up here is that of showing the reader how the Old Norse seafaring people used available means for orienting themselves and gaining information on their location and their surroundings. It is therefore not of major concern there what exactly this tells us about the actual location. Let it suffice to say that this has been a matter of strong controversy and that in the opinion of the present author we can only draw the conclusion that the place in question must have been south of 58 degrees north, but it could have been much further south.(21)

2.4 The Question of Instruments

The abundance of all kinds of tools and instruments in modern society is such that we tend to find it difficult to do anything without such aids. Thus, looking at the practical navigational skills of the Old Norse, we find it incumbent to ask about the instruments they used for finding their way over the ocean, keeping time etc. In brief, the answer is that they had no exact "hardware" instruments to speak of but they might rather have had useful "software" equipment in the form of knowledge of winds and currents, sun and stars, etc.

First of all I want to warn you that this question may strongly depend on what you are prepared to call an "instrument". If somebody holds out a stick to make a rough measurement of angles, would you call that an instrument? What if he uses his fist or his fingers instead? Clearly, you would not expect to find evidence of methods of this kind through archaeology or even through direct textual reference. So, your only way to make inferences would be through observing what the people accomplished and thinking about how they did it.

A well-known candidate for a Viking age navigational "instrument" has been called a bearing-dial. It is a disk-shaped piece of wood with a notched edge found in an excavation near Narsarsuaq in Greenland in 1948.(22) The notches on the edge of the disk are fairly regular although not overwhelmingly so. Some authors have also wanted to lend significance to some scrapes on the surface of the disk, which to other observers will look like incidental scratches. For me it is quite conceivable that such a device might have been used for time-keeping, e.g. at a farm. The peculiar northern feature of the nearly horizontal motion of the sun through the day as described above would have made this simple device useful in certain circumstances, e.g. for people living at a southern shore with no natural direction marks near the route of the sun. This might also hold for people staying through the day at a given place in otherwise unknown territory. But for people at open sea it is not easy to see how such a rough device would add decisive and significant information to what they would be able to get without it.

Another puzzling candidate for the role of a navigational instrument is the so-called solar stone.(23) It has been suggested that this was one out of several possible minerals now known to be sensitive to the polarization of light. Several such minerals occur naturally within the sphere of activity of the Old Norse. And, for sure, such a polarizing stone could have been used to find the direction of the sun in certain circumstances similar to the context of the main medieval textual report on a solar stone, which we will now relate.

The source is the so-called Rauðúlfs þáttur, a kind of a short story preserved in an early 14th century manuscript but may be a century older. The Norwegian king Ólafur helgi (Saint Olaf, d. 1030) is visiting a rich and wise farmer, Rauðúlfur. Late in night one of his sons, Sigurður, is asked about his capabilities and replies that he masters one skill:

"Það er að greina gang himintungla þeirra er eg sé og kenna stjörnur þær er stundir merkja svo að eg mun vita lengd um dag og nótt þó að eg sjái eigi himintungl og veit eg þó grein allar stunda bæði dag og nótt." Konungur svarar: "Þetta er mikil íþrótt."(24)

"That is to discern the motion of heavenly bodies, those which I see, and to know the stars which mark the hours, so that I will know time length at day and night although I do not see the celestial bodies, and still I know how to discern all hours both day and night." The king replies: "This is a great skill."(25)

The next day king Ólafur conducts a test:

Veður var þykkt og drífanda sem Sigurður hafði sagt. Þá lét konungur kalla til sín Sigurð og Dag. Síðan lét konungur sjá út og sá hvergi himin sk‡lausan. Þá bað hann Sigurð segja hvar sól mundi þá komin. Hann kvað glöggt á. Þá lét konungur taka sólarstein og hélt upp og sá hann hvar geislaði úr steininum og markaði svo beint til sem Sigurður hafði sagt.(26)

The weather was thick and snowy as Sigurður had predicted. Then the king summoned Sigurður and Dagur [Rauðúlfur´s sons] to him. The king made people look out and they could nowhere see a clear sky. Then he asked Sigurður to tell where the sun was at that time. He gave a clear assertion. Then the king made them fetch the solar stone and held it up and saw where light radiated from the stone and thus directly verified Sigurður’ s prediction.(27)

This account is not too far from the possible, although somewhat exaggerated. Thus, the weather should not have been too "thick" since a part of the sky around zenith would have to be visible. Also, it seems somewhat besides the point to talk about light radiating from the stone. But the main point concerns the usefulness of a "solar stone" with the polarising properties mentioned above. Such a stone would actually have been quite helpful to a farmer for following the solar motion along the horizon during a partly overcast day. By comparing with knowledge gained from clear days he would have been able to translate this to an observation of time.

This is the only Old Norse text referring to this kind of stone in some detail. You may note that the text describes its use on land only. On the other hand, it is not at all obvious how this could have been used as an efficient navigational instrument yielding significantly more information than could otherwise have been available.(28)

The compass was not introduced in Europe until around year 1200, and extant texts refer to some primitive versions of it in Scandinavia in the 13th century.(29) Thus I think we can safely conclude that in the first centuries of Old Norse ocean traffic people had no advanced observational or navigational instruments worthy of the name.

3 Time in travel and navigation

3.1 The Report of Ohthere

When king Alfred the Great had his famous Orosius translation made in the last decade of the 9th century, some other texts were included. Among those was the report of a certain Ohthere from Hålogaland (Helgoland) in Norway who had sailed to England and visited the court:

Ohthere sæde ..., þæt he ealra Norðmonna norþmest bude ...

He sæde þæt he æt sumum cirre wolde fandian hu longe þæt land norþryhte læge, oþþe hwæðer ænig mon be norðan þæm westenne bude. Þa for he norþryhte be þæm lande; let him ealne weg þæt weste land on ðæt steorbord, 7 þa widsæ on ðæt bæcbord þrie dagas. Þa wæs he swa feor norþ swa þa hwælhuntan firrest faraþ. Þa for he þa giet norþryhte swa feor swa he meahte on þæm oþrum þrim dagum gesiglan. Þa beag þæt land þær eastryhte, oþþe seo sæ in on ðæt lond, he nysse hwæðer, buton he wisse ðæt he ðær bad westanwindes 7 hwon norþan, 7 siglde ða east be lande swa swa he meahte on feower dagum gesiglan. Þa sceolde he ðær bidan ryhtnorþanwindes, for ðæm þæt land beag þær suþryhte, oþþe seo sæ in on ðæt land, he nysse hwæþer. Þa siglde he þonan suðryhte be lande swa swa he meahte on fif dagum gesiglan. &emdash;a læg þær an micel ea up on þæt land. ... ac him wæs ealne weg weste land on þæt steorbord, butan fiscerum 7 fugelerum 7 huntum, 7 þæt wæron eall Finnas; 7 him wæs a widsæ on ðæt bæcbord.(30)

Ohthere told ... that he dwelt northmost of all the Northmen. ... He said that he was desirous to try, once on a time, how far that country extended due north, or wether any one lived to the north of the waste. He then went due north along the country, leaving all the way the waste land on the right, and the wide sea on the left, for three days: he was as far north as the whale-hunters go at the farthest. Then he proceeded in his course due north, as far as he could sail within another three days; then the land there inclined due east, or the sea into the land, he knew not which, but he knew that he there waited for a west wind, or a little north, and sailed thence eastward along that land as far as he could sail in four days; then he had to wait for a due north wind, because the land there inclined due south, or the sea in on that land, he knew not which; he then sailed thence along the coast due south, as far as he could sail in five days. There lay a great river up in that land ... but all the way he had waste land on his right, except fishermen, fowlers, and hunters, all of whom were Fins, and he had constantly a wide sea to the left.(31)

First of all we may realize that this is roughly a good description of the coast of Norway and then the Kola Peninsula and the White Sea. It is quite clear that it is based on real experience of the route. However, when we look at the details we soon recognize that the coastline in question is not so rectangular in shape as suggested by the bearings north-east-south. Thus, there does not seem to be a firm base for a detailed specification of the three sections of 2*3, 4 and 5 days, respectively. Still, you may presume that the voyage started at Ohthere’s homestead in Halogaland, and ended at the present location of Arkangelsk as suggested by the description of the river (Dvina). You then get an average sailing speed of around 3 knots.

Some authors seem to think that this speed is somehow too small as an average for sailing day and night.(32) Hence they speculate that Ohthere only sailed by day and took to land for the night. Sure enough, the Norwegian skerries are not easy to handle in darkness, but Ohthere of course had bright nights. Thus daily landfalls on an unknown coast might have been riskier than just sailing at "night".

Thus we find the average effective speed of 3 knots to be a reasonable figure which in turn reinforces the trustworthiness of the report. At the same time we may notice that the whole story is quite down-to-the-earth and contains an interesting emphasis on the time intervals as an important navigational item in describing the route.

3.2 Reports from the Saga Literature in General

The best known and the most prominent part of the medieval Old Norse literature consists in the so called sagas of Icelanders or Íslendinga sögur.(33) They were written in Iceland in the 13th and 14th centuries and each of them is normally preserved in several manuscripts, albeit not originals. They report on events that should have happened roughly in the period from 930 to 1030. They do this mostly in a secular, down-to-the earth way with not too many supernatural phenomena entering the narration.

Since the literary quality of the Icelanders’ sagas is such that they may be read as novels, the scholarly view of them as historical sources has been quite vacillating. Nowadays, however, the scholarly community seems to be leaning towards the view that they should be taken as valid historical sources in a general sense albeit not in detail. It may then depend on the context whether you conceive them as describing the period of the writing or the earlier period which they purport to describe.

The sagas describe numerous voyages undertaken by their characters during summer. Most of these voyages start or end in Iceland although there are also long voyages between other countries. In many cases the time span of the voyage is mentioned, the typical time scale being a couple of weeks, say, for a voyage between Iceland and Norway which was the most frequented route. But it also happens quite often that the seamen get overcast or rainy weather so that they are unable to orient or locate themselves – "get their bearings" as it is called in the quotation on Bjarni Herjólfsson above. In these more unfortunate cases the voyage may take months and it is not at all certain that the ship finally hits the land that the seafarers had in mind. This is quite apart from the voyages that ended in shipwreck, either at open sea or on some coast that might have been unknown and desolate; but on such voyages we do of course have no direct reports.

From the sagas and other parts of the medieval Old Norse literature it is clear that people gradually accumulated all kinds of knowledge relevant to sailing in the North Atlantic. This somewhat specialized knowledge would reside with a well-defined group of people – the tradesmen or the professional navigators. One of the most efficient methods at their disposal was that of dead reckoning as it is called by English-speaking seamen.(34) It consists in following closely the time span of the voyage as a whole and of single stretches, for example how long you sail in a given direction. The ocean sailors have taken this custom from their forerunners, the coastal navigators and even the people doing long-distance land travelling where this was a well known and useful tradition. The Old Norse use of the method emerges clearly from marine itineraries that have probably been consciously and purposely utilized in navigation. As an example we give the following one from the Icelandic Book of Settlements:

Svo segja vitrir menn, at úr Noregi frá Staði sé sjö dægra sigling til Horns á austanverðu Íslandi, en frá Snæfellsnesi fjögurra dægra sigling til Hvarfs á Grænlandi. Af Hernum af Noregi skal sigla jafnan í vestur til Hvarfs á Grænlandi, og er þá siglt fyrir norðan Hjaltland, svo að því að eins sjái það, að allgóð sé sjávar s‡n, en fyrir sunnan Færeyjar, svo að sjór er í miðjum hlíðum en svo fyrir sunnan Ísland, að þeir hafi af fugl ok hval. Frá Reykjanesi á sunnanverðu Íslandi er þriggja dægra haf til Jölduhlaups á Írlandi í suður; en frá Langanesi á norðanverðu Íslandi er fjögurra dægra haf til Svalbarða norður í hafsbotn, en dægurs sigling er til óbyggða á Grænlandi úr Kolbeinsey norður.(35)

So the wise men say, that from Stadlandet in Norway there is seven days’ sailing to Horn in the East of Iceland, but from Snæfellsnes four days’ sailing to Cape Farewell in Greenland.(36) From Hennøya in Norway you should head always to the west to Cape Farewell in Greenland, and then you sail to the north of Shetland, so that you only see it if the sight at sea be fairly good, but to the south of the Faeroes, so that the sea is midway in the mountain slopes, but in such a way to the South of Iceland that you observe birds and whales from there. From Reykjanes in the South of Iceland there is a sea of three (37) days to Slyne Head (?) in Ireland to the South; but from Langanes in the North of Iceland there is a sea of four days to Jan Mayen (38) in the North at the bottom of the sea, but a day’s sailing to uninhabited land in Greenland from Kolbeinsey in the North.(39)

The most important and the best substantiated of these data is the first point of the trip from Norway to Iceland, a stretch that was very frequently sailed. The distance in question is about 530 nautical miles so that the average time of 7 days corresponds to 76 miles per day or 3,2 knots on average. Such an average implies that single voyages might well have been twice as fast, thus taking only 3-4 days, say. All of this fits fairly well with information from other sources and also with modern experiments with replicas of Viking ships.

The other data in the text are not quite so easy to deal with. However, taking the most plausible reading in each case, and taking the figure of "1 day" for the Kolbeinsey-Greenland stretch with the uncertainty implied by the figure,(40) the data give speeds in the range 3-6 knots. In several of these cases the data can only have been based on single stray voyages. They may have been undertaken involuntarily so that the likelihood is that they were done under favorable circumstances. Of course you are quicker in moving at sea when the wind more or less forces you to take a given route than you are when you are going to a certain destination and then put yourself at the mercy of the caprices of North Atlantic weather.

3.3 The Wineland Sagas

Two of the sagas of the Icelanders may reasonably be called "Wineland Sagas", the Grænlendinga saga and Eiríks saga rauða (the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Eirik the Red). They are nowadays readily available in English in a thoroughly edited translation for Penguin by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson.(41) They contain several reports of early 11th century voyages of the Old Norse habitants of Iceland and especially Greenland to America. The first sighting was done by Bjarni Herjólfsson as already mentioned. The quotation above ends with the sighting of the first land and continues as follows:

[Þeir] ræddu um með sér hvað landi þetta mun vera en Bjarni kveðst hyggja að það mundi eigi Grænland. ... Síðan sigla þeir tvö dægur áður þeir sáu land annað. ... settu framstafn frá landi og sigla í haf útsynningsbyr þrjú dægur og sáu þá land þriðja. ..., sigldu nú fjögur dægur. Þá sáu þeir land hið fjórða. ... Bjarni svarar: "Þetta er líkast því er mér er sagt frá Grænlandi og hér munum vér að landi halda." Svo gera þeir og taka land undir einhverju nesi að kveldi dags.(42)

They discussed amongst themselves what country this might be. Bjarni said he thought it could not be Greenland. ... And after sailing for two days they sighted land once more. ... They turned the prow out to sea and sailed before a south-west wind for three days before they sighted a third land. ... 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 ...(43)

Upon closer exploration of the new lands sighted by Bjarni his followers discerned three areas to the West and South of Greenland, called "Helluland" or "Slab Land", "Markland" or "Forest Land", and "Vínland" or "Wineland." The descriptions of the landscape, vegetation and the human inhabitants of the regions in question are quite realistic. There are several localities under the common denomination of "Wineland", the descriptions fitting roughly the area from the southern coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence to Virginia.

The fact that the Norsemen were present in America in this period was corroborated beyond doubt in 1969 when a team led by the Norwegian scholars Anne Stine and Helge Ingstad had finished excavating a Viking site at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.(44) Helge Ingstad thought that he had found Wineland itself but most scholars now agree that Wineland could not have been so far north and that the site should be seen as a station on the way further south.(45) One fundamental question concerning time and the Wineland sagas is that of the feasibility of their travelling so far. The base of the Old Norse being in the North Atlantic they would normally only have 4-5 months of the year for safe travel (roughly May to September for the case of Iceland, but beginning later in the case of Greenland because of sea ice). So there is real reason to ask: Would they have had time enough to get to Wineland in the summer in a reasonably regular way?

The Old Norse settlement in Greenland, "Eystribyggð" (Eastern Settlement), from which the Wineland explorers started their voyages was a little Northwest of the southern tip of Cape Farewell, near the present village of Narsarsuaq. They would normally begin by sailing several hundreds of miles to the North to obtain a shorter open sea passage to Baffinsland at the Davis Strait. This brings the total distance from "Eystribyggð" to "Wineland" up to the order of 2500 miles. Under favorable wind this would take some 20 days. In practice, however, you can not expect to have such a wind for such a long time, so that a real one way trip is more likely to have taken 25-40 days.

Still, this can clearly be done in one summer, and when you are lucky you can even do a round trip that is actually reported in some of the cases. But you had better not plan for that as an a priori given result of your efforts.

Apart from the point that most of the Wineland voyages took about a half or a whole summer the sagas do not contain too much information on sailing times. The most comprehensive report is that of the voyage of Þorfinnur karlsefni in Eirik´s saga. Three times in this itinerary stretches of two days at open sea are mentioned but the duration of sailing along the coasts is not mentioned at all. This may reflect the fact that knowledge of sailing times is never so soothing as when you are crossing the open sea without the sight of land; it may help you in feeling that there is really something ahead. In coastal navigation this is not quite as crucial. The first stretch in question is clearly described as the passage of the Davis Strait between Greenland and Baffinsland, where the length also fits nicely. One of the other passages might be that of the Hudson Strait between Baffinsland and Labrador. It is not quite so clear where to look for the third open sea passage of this kind.

3.4 The Puzzle of the "dægur"

The length of the Old Norse voyages was such that "a day" would have been an adequate time unit for sailing reports. However, one of the characteristic features of early Icelandic or Old Norse time reckoning was its emphasis on the "dægur" instead of a "dagur" which for most purposes corresponds to "day" in English. In the context of sailing itineraries the meaning of the last word has been the subject of much scholarly scrutiny, speculation and controversy. Unfortunately some of the participants have lacked sufficient knowledge of the language in which this is embedded or of fundamental features of the natural environment in the North. This has given rise to even more controversy than would otherwise have been necessary.

In Old Norse as well as modern Icelandic the fundamental meaning of "dægur" is that of a common name for a day or a night. For comparison in English you may consider the use of "season" as a common name for summer or winter, or for summer, autumn, winter or spring. "Dægur" having no direct counterpart in English it may often be translated as "half-day" although in some contexts such a translation may look like an awkward tautology. We are then referring to the word "day" in the somewhat astronomical meaning of the 24 hours' period of revolution of the earth around its axis. But we should note that in daily life "dægur" is not so strictly defined as to be a time unit of constant length, no more than a "day" in the everyday meaning of "the bright part of the diurnal 24 hour period".

The old Scandinavian word "dægur" later developed into "døgn/dygn" in Danish, Norwegian and Swedish where it attained the different meaning of the 24 hours' day mentioned above. This seems to be one of the sources of scholarly confusion here, in spite of the fact that this change of meaning took place rather late. Thus, for instance the Norwegian author of the above-mentioned 13th century King’s Mirror does not waver at all in his understanding of "dægur":

En stundir má eg þér vel kunnar gera hversu langar þær kunna að vera því að 24 skulu vera á tveim dægrum, nótt og degi, meðan sól veltist um átta ættir, og verður svo að réttu tali að það eru þá þrjár stundir dags er sól veltist um eina ætt.(46)

But I can easily acquaint you with the hours, how long they may be, for there shall be 24 in [two dægur] a night and a day while the sun rolls through eight directions [octants], and so it will be on the correct count, that there are three hours of the day when the sun revolves through one direction.(47)

In the manuscripts of Rímbegla or Rím I, a work on practical astronomy and time reckoning dating from around 1180 AD, the various time units are explained as follows:

Ár heitir tvö misseri. Í misseri eru mál tvö, í máli eru mánuðir þrír, mánuði vikur vel svo fjórar, í viku dagar sjö, í degi dægur tvö, í dægri stundir tólf.(48)

A year is two semesters. In each semester there are two quarters, in a quarter three months, in a month a bit more than four weeks, in a week seven days, in a day two "dægur", in a "dægur" twelve hours.(49)

The emphasis on the term "misseri" is manifest in Old Norse texts in the frequent use of "tvö misseri / two semesters" instead of "one year".(50) The time reckoning system is also often referred to as "misseristal" (literally "counting of semesters"). The word "misseri" is actually a composite with an etymology corresponding directly to "half-year".(51) The English word "semester" is here used as a translation although in modern English it only has the academic meaning of "half of the academic year". According to standard dictionaries, its Latin and Greek origins correspond to "six months".

The term "mál /quarter" is not so frequent or important as the others and will not be treated further here.

The week was of a special importance in the old calendar that might also be called "viknatal" (literally "counting of weeks"). In the period from the settlement around 870 AD up to almost 1100 a year, or rather two semesters, would consist of an integer number of weeks, that is normally 52 but sometimes 53 so as to get the correct length of the average year.(52) With the "misseristal" and "viknatal" combined people would give a date by a phrase like "fimmtudagur í tíundu viku sumars / Thursday in the tenth week of summer".

Returning to the "dægur", its relation to the day is the same as the relation of semester to the year. The use of "dægur" was also quite parallel to that of "misseri"; people would for instance speak of "two dægur" where we would say "one day".

So far, we can conclude that there is no doubt about the meaning of "dægur" as a time unit in the context of pure and simple time-reckoning. In such a context the word unambiguously would mean "12 hours".(53)

The "dægur" is of special importance when you turn to travelling, as you might indeed expect since the time span of longer travel would be of the order of magnitude of several "dægur". We have already given several examples of its use in previous sections of the paper, in the context of itineraries and their time length. From a 12th century itinerary by a pilgrim for Rome we add the following one:

Svo er sagt, að umhverfis Ísland sé sjö dægra sigling að rauðum byr, og skiptist svo sem þarf, því að eigi má eitt veður hafa. Svo og meðal Íslands og Noregs er kallað jafnlangt.(54)

So they say, that it is a sailing of seven days around Iceland under a favorable (55) wind that should change as needed because you can not use the same wind all the time. So also between Iceland and Norway; it is considered equally far.(56)

The statement of a sailing of seven "dægur" between Iceland and Norway also appears in the quotation from the Book of Settlements given above. We there gave the average speed implicitly given by the various sailing itineraries to be of the order of 3-6 knots. In so doing we tacitly assumed the word "dægur" in this context of sailing distances to mean "a day" or 24 hours. Our arguments for this are as follows.

The most important point concerns the speeds which would obtain by the other alternative of understanding "dægurs sigling" as "a sailing of 12 hours". This would bring the sailing speed of the various itineraries where "dægur" occurs up to the order of 6-12 knots. Thus we may describe the alternatives by the Table 2.

Meaning of
"dægurs sigling"

Number of hours
of sailing

Average speed in itineraries

dagsigling =
a day's sailing

24 hours

3-6 knots

half a day's sailing

12 hours

6-12 knots

First of all, we compare this with the following generalizing quote from the mid-13th century Rím II:

Á milli Björgvinjar og Niðaróss eru nær 4 gráður.(57) Þá verður ein gráða nær tylft sjávar. ... En jafn mikið er gráða á jörðu og tylft sjávar, en tvær tylftir ein dagsigling. Þá verður um kvaðrant jarðar 45 dagsiglingar, en í kringum jörð er meginhaf 180 dagsiglingar.(58)

Between Bergen and Trondheim there are nearly 4 degrees. Then one degree is nearly a nautical dozen [i.e. a dozen of "vikur"]. ... But a degree on earth is the same as a nautical dozen, whereas two dozens are one day’s sailing. Then the quadrant of the earth makes 45 day’s sailings but around the earth along the grand ocean there are 180 day’s sailings.(59)

This text is schematic and clearly emphasizing round figures in order to define "dagsigling / a day’s sailing" as a kind of a unit of length. From the figures given you get the day’s sailing as 2 degrees or 120 nautical miles, yielding an average speed of 5 knots. Thus, it fits somewhat better in with the first alternative described in Table 2, although the deviation from the speeds implied in the second alternative is not very decisive.

A more decisive evidence is obtained from collecting and comparing all the reports on single voyages from the saga literature. One then sees that voyages between random places in Norway and Iceland most often take several weeks and voyages of less than a week were extremely rare. It seems most natural to take the itineraries quoted above for this frequently trafficked stretch to be describing some kind of an average result of many voyages. It would then not fit in with the saga reports to assume the average time to have been 7 "dægur" in the literal sense of three and a half day.

A third piece of evidence comes from considering directly the capability of real ships. Several sources seem to agree that a ship like the so-called Viking ships (knerrir) used for Old Norse ocean traffic might make up to 12 knots in favorable wind, relative to water. Note that "favorable wind" here not only means "wind in a favorable direction" but also "wind of favorable force", i.e. not too slow and also not too strong since too strong a wind in the North Atlantic implies a rough sea which will force you to reduce your speed by lowering the sail. Anyhow, since the ship would only rarely be heading directly towards its destination this means that the effective speed (measured as the crow flies between the starting and ending points) would be somewhat (10-30%, say) less. In adverse wind, the effective speed would be much less, i.e. something like one or two knots only.

An average effective sailing speed of the order of 3-6 knots not only fits experiments with replicas of Viking ships. It also fits other data on sailing speeds in the history of navigation for the whole period from antiquity up to the late middle ages, where reports generally yield average speeds of the same order of magnitude.(60)

As mentioned above, an average effective speed of 3,2 knots on the route between Staður in Norway and Horn in Iceland, the shortest route between the two countries, will make the voyage last 7 days. A voyage between some other two places in each country would easily take twice as long as you may glean from a map. This actually fits nicely with the reports according to which voyages of several weeks were quite common and, for instance, a voyage of 4 days was considered quite exceptional.(61) Such a voyage corresponds to an average effective speed of 7 knots which is not implausible for single voyages. – A normal effective sailing speed of the order of 3 knots in the North Atlantic also fits in with the experiences of modern sailboats in this area.

Now we have to ask, how it came about that "dægur" meant "12 hours" whereas "dægurs sigling" should mean "a sailing of 24 hours". Two observations may help to explain this translation of meaning.

First, there is the possibility of a so-called pars pro toto effect. When we give the age of domestic animals in Icelandic we often state it in "winters" instead of years. Thus we may say of a 7 year old horse that it is "sjö vetra / seven winters old." Also, we state the age of the moon in "nights" rather than days even if we have a special word ("sólarhringur", corresponding to "døgn / dygn") to emphasize that we mean the day of 24 hours. This way of speech might have been used also in the case of the "dægurs sigling".

Another and maybe even more convincing point is that of the circumstances in sailing. This was mostly done during high summer where the night is bright so that the total diurnal period of 24 hours may look like one bright day or one "dægur".

We thus come to the conclusion that, on the one hand "dægur" in normal speech certainly means "half-day", but the composite "dægurs sigling" in Old Norse may in effect quite well mean "24 hours’ sailing". As a minimal conclusion we may state that this must be the meaning of the words if we take the itineraries to describe some kind of an average of real sailing times.

4 Conclusions

The Old Norse society had its own ways of measuring and treating time. These methods were related to the natural environment of the subarctic and to the needs of society at this stage of technological development. Thus the rural agricultural society developed its own methods for following time during the day, especially during the economically decisive period of summer. This was done by utilizing the oblique diurnal motion of the sun in the North and defining the so called "eyktir" of 3 hours and the corresponding octant marks on the local horizon. The knowledge of solar motion related to this also enabled these northern people to utilize the sun for rough observations of their geographical latitude on voyages. Thus, for instance, shrewd observations on solar motion are reported in the Wineland sagas.

The Old Norse society had essentially no instruments for measuring time or for navigation. A disk of the kind found in an excavation in Greenland would only have been of limited help for these purposes. There is no clear-cut evidence for a solar stone having been used at sea. It could, however, have been used for local timekeeping in partly overcast weather.

Time keeping was quite important in Old Norse navigation and this is manifest in the many itineraries giving details of dead reckoning, for instance the average time length for various stretches. From the various data yielding sailing speeds we conclude that the average effective speeds of Viking ships in regular ocean traffic were of the order of 3-6 knots. In order to reach this conclusion we have argued for a definite interpretation of the word "dægur" when used in sailing itineraries.


(1) For a recent overview see Jónas Kristjánsson, Eddas and Sagas: Iceland’s Medieval Literature, trans. Peter Foote (Reykjavík: Hið íslenska bókmenntafélag, 2nd edn., 1992).

(2) The most important texts of this kind are printed in the diplomatic edition: Natanael Beckman and Kristian Kålund (eds.), Alfræði íslenzk: Islandsk encyklopædisk litteratur: II. Rímtöl, (Copenhagen: Samfund til udgivelse af gammel nordisk litteratur, 1914– 16).

(3) Thorsteinn Vilhjálmsson, "Time-reckoning in Iceland before literacy", in Clive Ruggles (ed.), Archaeoastronomy in the 1990s (Loughborough, UK: Group D Publications, 1993), 72-4, and references therein.

(4) The standard edition for reference is Ludvig Holm-Olsen (ed.), Konungs skuggsiá (Oslo: Kjeldeskriftfondet, 2nd. rev. edn., 1983). – English translation in Laurence M. Larson (trans.), The King’s Mirror: (Speculum Regale – Konungs skuggsjá), (New York: The American Scandinavian Foundation; London: Humphrey Milford; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1917).

(5) As to the sagas of the Icelanders the recently published CD with the saga texts accessible for computer work and with a concordance will prove quite valuable for studies of this kind. See Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson et al. (eds.), Íslendinga sögur: Orðstöðulykill og texti (The Sagas of the Icelanders: Text and Concordance), (Reykjavík: Mál og menning, 1996).

(6) For a recent and thorough review see Seán McGrail, Ancient boats in N.W. Europe: The archaeology of water transport to AD 1500 (London and New York: Longman, 1987).

(7) Anne Stine Ingstad, The Discovery of a Norse Settlement in America: Excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland 1961-1968 (Oslo, Bergen and Tromsø: Universitetsforlaget, 1977).

(8) Vilhjálmsson, "Time-reckoning".

(9) Cf. the first and second categories of sources in section 1.2 on sources.

(10) A. S. Ingstad, The Discovery; Helge Ingstad, The Norse Discovery of America, Vol. 2: The Historical Background and the Evidence of the Norse Settlement Discovered in Newfoundland (Oslo, Bergen, Stavanger, Tromsø: Norwegian University Press).

(11) Helle Degnbol et al. (eds.), A Dictionary of Old Norse Prose, Vol. 1: a-bam (Copenhagen: The Arnamagnean Commission, 1995), 733.

(12) The noncomposite words ótta, nón, etc., do not have any clear-cut meaning in terms of other words or concepts.

(13) Einar Ólafur Sveinsson and Matthías Þórðarson (eds.), Íslenzk fornrit IV: Eyrbyggja saga, Grænlendinga sögur, (Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1935), 246; Bragi Halldórsson et al., Íslendinga sögur og flættir: Síðara bindi [II] (Reykjavík: Svart á hvítu, 1986), 1097-8. – We have normalised the spelling as is done in the latter edition.

(14) Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson (eds. and trans.), The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), 52-3.

(15) Vilhjálmsson, "Time-reckoning", 72-4.

(16) Holm-Olsen, Konungs skuggsiá, 10, here with standardized spelling.

(17) My translation. The translation of Larson, King’s Mirror, 94, goes as follows:

Merchants are, however, scarcely able to note these changes, as the course is too swift; for the moon takes such long strides both in waxing and in waning that men, on that account, find it difficult to determine the divisions of its course. The sun, on the other hand, completes its course more slowly both in ascending and declining, so that one may mark all the stages of its course.

(18) Sveinsson and Þórðarson, Íslenzk fornrit IV, 251; Halldórsson et al., Íslendingasögur og flættir II, 1100.

(19) Magnusson and Pálsson, Vinland Sagas, 56, have the following for the last sentence: "On the shortest day of the year the sun was already up by 9 a.m., and did not set until after 3 p.m." Although the meaning is strictly speaking not the same it may be so in practice because of the uncertainty in observation and interpretation.

(20) In other words 45 degrees east and west of south. Some scholars tend to read this as 67,5 degrees each way which would bring the maximum latitude much further south. However, the arguments for this reading as such are not convincing and for those interested in finding a maximum latitude the logic of preferring that reading does not apply.

(21) In the northern hemisphere of the earth the sun does not rise at winter solstice further than 66.5 degrees from south. Hence it is not obvious that people would describe this in different words even if they were in the tropics. In other words the statement yields no southern limit for the location.

(22) Søren Thirslund, "A presumed sun compass from Narsarsuaq", in Christen Leif Vebæk, The Church Topography of the Eastern Settlement and the Excavation of the Benedictine Convent at Narsarsuaq in the Uunartoq Fjord (Meddelelser om Grønland, Man and Society 14) (Copenhagen: The Commission for Scientific Research in Greenland, 1991). Cf. also Uwe Schnall, Navigation der Wikinger: Nautische Probleme der Wikingerzeit im Spiegel der schriftlichen Quellen, (Schriften des Deutschen Schiffahrtsmuseums, Band 6), (Oldenburg/Hamburg: Gerhard Stalling, 1975), 85-8.

(23) Thorkild Ramskou, Solstenen: Primitiv navigation i Norden før kompasset, (Copenhagen: Rhodos, 1969); Schnall, Navigation, 92-115; Allan A. Mills, "Polarization of Light from the Sky, and its Application to Timetelling and Navigation", Bulletin of the Scientific Instrument Society, No. 33, (1992), 8-14.

(24) Oscar Albert Johnsen and Jón Helgason (eds.), Saga Óláfs konungs hins helga: Den store Saga om Olav den Hellige I–II, (Oslo: Kjeldeskriftfondet, 1941), 662; Bergljót S. Kristjánsdóttir et al., Heimskringla III: Lykilbók, (Reykjavík: Mál og menning, 1991), 19.

(25) My translation.

(26) Johnsen and Helgason, Saga Óláfs, 670-1; Kristjánsdóttir et al., Heimskringla III, 23.

(27) My translation.

(28) Mills, "Polarization", 12, is similarly nonplussed.

(29) In a report on ostensibly 9th century events in the manuscript Hauksbók from around 1300 it is explicitly stated that "at that time no seamen had a lodestone in the Nordic lands"; Jakob Benediktsson (ed.), Íslenzk fornrit I: Íslendingabók, Landnámabók (Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1986), 37. – This comment is not found in Sturlubók, another manuscript of the Book of Settlements which is thought to be some 50 years older.

(30) Janet Bately (ed.), The Old English Orosius, (London, New York, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1980), 13-14.

(31) B. Thorpe (ed.), "Alfred’s Anglo-Saxon Version of Orosius with a Literal English Translation and an Anglo-Saxon Alphabet and Glossary", Reinhold Pauli (trans.), in The Life of Alfred the Great, (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853), 249.

(32) See McGrail, Ancient Boats, 263-4 and references therein.

(33) Previously often called "family sagas" outside Iceland, cf. Jónas Kristjánsson, Eddas and Sagas, 203 ff.; 207 for this particular point.

(34) Geoffrey Jules Marcus, The Conquest of the North Atlantic, (Woodbridge, Eng.: Boydell Press, 1980), 108-9, 209.

(35) Benediktsson, Íslenzk fornrit I, 33. - Spelling is normalised in the same way as in other quotations in the paper.

(36) "straight west to Greenland" in another manuscript, which fits better in with most of the other data.

(37) "five" in another manuscript, which is more plausible.

(38) Jan Mayen is much closer to Iceland than the present Svalbard. Thus you would expect that Jan Mayen was discovered before Svalbard. Since there is no other term for Jan Mayen in the Old Norse literature this seems to be the most natural identification.

(39) My translation.

(40) i.e. that "1 day" may mean between 0.5 and 1.5 days.

(41) Magnusson and Pálsson, as cited above.

(42) Sveinsson and Þórðarson, Íslenzk fornrit IV, 246-7; Halldórsson et al., Íslendingasögur og flættir II, 1097.

(43) Magnusson and Pálsson, Vinland Sagas, 53-4

(44) A. S. Ingstad, The Discovery; H. Ingstad, The Norse Discovery.

(45) Birgitta Linderoth Wallace, "The L’Anse aux Meadows Site", Appendix VII in Gwyn Jones, The Norse Atlantic Saga: Being the Norse Voyages of Discovery and Settlement to Iceland, Greenland, and North America, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), 300-302; Gwyn Jones, A History of the Vikings (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2nd edn 1984, repr. 1990, 303-6; Magnusson and Pálsson, Vinland Sagas, 42; Jónas Kristjánsson, Eddas and Sagas, 15-16.

(46) Holm-Olsen, Konungs skuggsiá, 10. – An "ætt" here clearly means an azimuth angle of 45 degrees or one eighth of the full circle of the horizon (it is even conceivable that átta and ætt/átt are etymologically related, see e.g. Ásgeir Blöndal Magnússon, Íslensk orðsifjabók [Icelandic Etymological Dictionary, Reykjavík: Mál og menning, 1989]). The statement implies that the sun moves with equal speed relative to the horizon. As discussed in subsection 2.1 this is not a bad approximation when you are at or above 60 degrees of latitude, say.

(47) My translation.

(48) Beckman and Kålund, Alfræði II, 7.

(49) My translation.

(50) In the sagas of the Icelanders the term "misseri" occurs 89 times whereas there are only 10 occurrences of the term for "year" (Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson et al. (eds.), Orðstöðulykill.

(51) Magnússon, Orðsifjabók, under "misseri".

(52) See Vilhjálmsson, "Time-reckoning".

(53) In some softer contexts the meaning might soften such that the length of a single "dægur" might be unspecified whereas there would still be two "dægur" in each 24 hours. This corresponds to the fact that in the north the lengths of bright day and dark night are quite variable.

(54) Kristian Kålund (ed.), Alfræði íslenzk: Islandsk encyklopædisk litteratur, I. Cod. mbr. AM. 194, 8vo, (Copenhagen: Samfund til udgivelse af gammel nordisk litteratur), 12-13.

(55) literally "red"

(56) My translation.

(57) The actual difference in latitude is around 3 degrees. However, the direction is not at all straight NS so that the shortest distance as the crow flies is actually close to 4 degrees.

(58) Beckman and Kålund, Alfræði II, 125.

(59) My translation.

(60) McGrail, Ancient Boats, 263-4.

(61) Cf. the famous voyage of Þórarinn Nefjólfsson from the area around Staður to Eyrar in Iceland. He got an extremely favorable wind and was only 8 "dægur" on the way, corresponding to 6,5 "dægur" from Staður to Horn. He stated later on that the trip had only taken 4 nights. So, in this context, it is clear that "dægur" means 12 hours which, however, does not contradict our interpretation of "dægurs sigling" in general sailing itineraries. Cf. Snorri Sturluson, Heimskringla I, eds. Bergljót S. Kristjánsdóttir et al., (Reykjavík: Mál og menning, 1991), 405.


Þorsteinn Vilhjálmsson

Professor of Physics and History of Science

Science Institute, University of Iceland

Dunhaga 3, ÍS-107 Reykjavík, Iceland

E-mail: thv@raunvis.hi.is

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