Viking Sources in Translation

The Accounts of Othere and Wulfstan

The travel accounts of Othere and Wulfstan, two merchants from the ninth century, are preserved in the context of an Old English translation of the Seven Books of Histories Against the Pagans by the fifth-century Spanish author Paulus Orosius. Othere, as he tells us, lived "furthest north of all the Norwegians," probably somewhere around Tromsø in northern Norway. From there, he sailed south, down the length of Norway to Kaupang (directly north of Denmark), and north, around the North Cape and into the White Sea. Wulfstan sailed along the northern European coast from Hedeby to Truso, in Poland.

In addition to adding the accounts of Othere and Wulfstan, the ninth-century translator of Orosius also added a description of northern Europe to the opening passages of Orosius' Histories. This description, along with the stories of Othere and Wulfstan, is included here.

The text is translated from the Old English.

Note that when the text says "north", it usually means "east", etc. This is typical for early-medieval geographical descriptions of Northern Europe. No scholar has been able to come up with a plausible explanations for this phenomenon.



Orosius

Now we intend to record the boundaries within Europe as far as we know them. From the river Don west to the river Rhine (which has its source in the mountains called the Alps, and runs due north into the arm of the ocean surrounding the land called Britain), and also south to the river Danube (the source of which is near the bank of the river Rhine, from where it runs east, north of Greece out into the Mediterranean), and north to the ocean called the Cwensae; within these boundaries are many tribes but it is all called Germania.

Then to the north of the Danube's source and to the east of the Rhine are the East Franks, and to the south of them are the Swaefas on the other side of the river Danube, and to the south and east of them are the Bcegware - the part called Regensburg - and directly east of them are the Baeme and northeast are the Thyringas. To the north of them are the Old Saxons and northwest of them the Frisians. West of the Old Saxons is the mouth of the river Elbe and Frisland, and northwest from there is the land which is called Angeln and Sillende and some Danish territories. North of them are the Afdrede and northeast the Wilte known as the Haefeldan; east of them is the land of those Wends who are called Sysyle, and southeast the Maroara who extend over a wide territory; the Maroara have to the west of them the Thyringas and some Behemas and half the Begware, and south of them on the other side of the Danube river is the land Carendre extending south as far as the mountains called the Alps. To that same mountain range lie the boundaries of the Begware and Swaefas. Then to the east of the land Carendre beyond the uninhabited district is the land of the Pulgare and east of that is the land of the Greeks. To the east of the land of the Maroara is the land of the Vistula, and east of that are those Datia who were formerly Goths. To the north east of the Maroara are the Dalamentsan and to the east of the Dalamentsan are the Horigti. North of the Dalamentsan are the Surpe and west of them the Sysyle. To the north of the Horigti is Maegtha land and to the north of Maegtha land the Sermende as far as the Riffen mountains. West of the South-Danes is the arm of the ocean surrounding Britain, and north of them is the arm of the sea called Ostsae. To the east and north of them are the North-Danes both on the main lands and on the islands. To the east of them are the Afdrede, and south of them is the mouth of the river Elbe and part of the Old Saxon lands. The North-Danes have to their north the same arm of the sea which is called the Ostsae, east of them are the tribe the Osti, and to the south the Afdrede. The Osti have to the north of them the same arm of the sea and the Wends and the Burgendan; south of them are the Haefeldan. The Burgendan have the arm of that sea to their west and Swedes to the north. East of them are the Sermende and to their south the Surfe. The Swedes have south of them the arm of the Ostsae and to their east the Sermende and to their north beyond the uninhabited land is Cwenland. Northwest of them are the Scridefinne and west are the Norwegians.

Ohthere's Account

Ohthere told his lord, King Alfred, that he lived the furthest north of all Norwegians. He said that he lived in the north of Norway on the coast of the Atlantic. He also said that the land extends very far north beyond that point, but it is all uninhabited, except for a few places here and there where the Finnas have their camps, hunting in winter, and in summer fishing in the sea.

He told how he once wished to find out how far the land extended due north, or whether anyone lived to the north of the unpopulated area. He went due north along the coast, keeping the uninhabited land to starboard and the open sea to port continuously for three days. He was then as far north as the whale hunters go at their furthest. He then continued due north as far as he could reach in the second three days. There the land turned due east, or the sea penetrated the land he did not know which - but he knew that he waited there for a west-north-west wind, and then sailed east along the coast as far as he could sail in four days. There he had to wait for a due northern wind, because there the land turned due south, or the sea penetrated the land he did not know which. Then from there he sailed due south along the coast as far as he could sail in five days. A great river went up into the land there. They turned up into the river, not daring to sail beyond it without permission, since the land on the far side of the river was fully settled. He had not previously come across any settled district since he left his own home, but had, the whole way, land to starboard that was uninhabited apart from fishers and bird-catchers and hunters, and they were all Finnas. To port he always had the open sea. The Beormas had extensive settlements in their country but the Norwegians did not dare to venture there. But the land of the Terfinnas was totally uninhabited except where hunters made camp, or fishermen or bird-catchers.

The Beormas told him many stories both about their own country and about the lands which surrounded them, but he did not know how much of it was true because he had not seen it for himself. It seemed to him that the Finnas and the Beormas spoke almost the same language. His main reason for going there, apart from exploring the land, was for the walruses, because they have very fine ivory in their tusks - they brought some of these tusks to the king - and their hide is very good for ship-ropes. This whale [i.e. walrus] is much smaller than other whales; it is no more than seven ells long. The best whale-hunting is in his own country; those are forty-eight ells long, the biggest fifty ells long; of these he said that he, one of six, killed sixty in two days.

He was a very rich man in those possessions which their riches consist of, that is in wild deer. He had still, when he came to see the king, six hundred unsold tame deer. These deer they call 'reindeer'. Six of these were decoy-reindeer. These are very valuable among the Finnas because they use them to catch the wild reindeer. He was among the chief men in that country, but he had not more than twenty cattle, twenty sheep and twenty pigs, and the little that he ploughed he ploughed with horses. Their wealth, however, is mostly in the tribute which the Finnas pay them. That tribute consists of the skins of beasts, the feathers of birds, whale-bone, and ship-ropes made from whale-hide and sealskin. Each pays according to his rank. The highest in rank has to pay fifteen marten skins, five reindeer skins, one bear skin and ten measures of feathers, and a jacket of bearskin or otterskin and two ship-ropes. Each of these must be sixty ells long, one made from whale-hide the other from seal.

He said that the land of the Norwegians is very long and narrow. All of it that can be used for grazing or ploughing lies along the coast and even that is in some places very rocky. Wild mountains lie to the east, above and alongside the cultivated land. In these mountains live the Finnas. The cultivated land is broadest in the south, and the further north it goes the narrower it becomes. In the south it is perhaps sixty miles broad or a little broader; and in the middle, thirty or broader; and to the north, he said, where it is narrowest, it might be three miles across to the mountains. The mountains beyond are in some places of a width that takes two weeks to cross, in others of a width that can be crossed in six days.

Beyond the mountains Sweden borders the southern part of the land as far as the north, and the country of the Cwenas borders the land in the north. Sometimes the Cwenas make raids on the Norwegians across the mountains, and sometimes the Norwegians make raids on them. There are very large fresh-water lakes throughout these mountains, and the Cwenas carry their boats overland onto the lakes and from there make raids on the Norwegians. They have very small, very light boats.

Ohthere said that the district where he lived is called Halgoland. He said no-one lived to the north of him. In the south part of Norway there is a trading-town which is called Sciringes heal. He said that a man could scarcely sail there in a month, assuming he made camp at night, and each day had a favourable wind. He would sail by the coast the whole way. To starboard is first of all Iraland and then those islands which are between Iraland and this land, and then this land until he comes to Sciringes heal, and Norway is on the port side the whole way. To the south of Sciringes heal a great sea penetrates the land; it is too wide to see across. Jutland is on the far side and after that Sillende. This sea flows into the land for many hundred miles.

From Sciringes heal he said that he sailed in five days to the trading-town called Hedeby, which is situated among Wends, Saxons and Angles and belongs to the Danes. When he sailed there from Sciringes heal he had Denmark to port and the open sea to starboard for three days. Then two days before he arrived at Hedeby he had Jutland and Sillende and many islands to starboard. The Angles lived in these districts before they came to this land. On the port side he had, for two days, those islands which belong to Denmark.

Wulfstan's Account

Wulfstan said that he travelled from Hedeby, arriving in Truso after seven days and nights, the boat running under sail the whole way. To starboard he had Wendland, to port Langeland, Lolland, Falster and Skane. All these lands belong to Denmark.

'Then we had Bornholm to port, where the people have their own king. Then after Bornholm we had on our port side the lands which are called Blekinge, More, 01and and Gotland, and these lands belong to the Swedes. Wendland was to starboard the whole of the way to the mouth of the Vistula.' This Vistula is a very large river which separates Witland and Wendland. Witland belongs to the Este. The Vistula flows out of Wendland into Estmere which is at least fifteen miles wide. The Elbing flows into Estmere from the lake on the shore of which Truso stands, and they flow together into Estmere, the Elbing west from Estland and the Vistula north from Wendland. Then the Vistula deprives the Elbing of its name for the estuary is known as the Vistula estuary and flows from Estmere northwest into the sea.

This Estland is very large and has many fortified settlements, and in each of these there is a king. There is a great deal of honey and fishing. The king and the most powerful men drink mare's milk, the poor men and the slaves drink mead. There is very much strife among them. There is no ale brewed among the Este but there is plenty of mead. There is a custom among the Este that after a man's death he lies indoors uncremated among his relatives and friends for a month, sometimes two. The kings and other high-ranking men remain uncremated sometimes for half a year - the more wealth they have the longer they lie above ground in their houses. All the time that the corpse lies indoors it is the custom for there to be drinking and gambling until the day on which they cremate it. On the very day on which they intend to carry the dead man to the pyre, they divide his property -whatever is left of it after the drinking and gambling - into five or six portions, sometimes more, depending on how much there is. They place the biggest portion about a mile from the settlement, then the second, then the third, until it is all distributed within the mile, so that the smallest portion is closest to the place where the dead man lies. All the men who have the swiftest horses in the country are assembled at a point about five or six miles from the property, and then they all gallop towards it. The man who has the fastest horse comes to the first portion (which is also the largest) and then one after another until it has all been taken. He has the smallest portion who gets from his ride the one nearest to the settlement. Then each of them rides on his way with the property and is allowed to keep it all. For this reason good horses are extremely valuable there. When the man's treasures have all been spent in this way, then he is carried out and burned up with his weapons and clothes. They use up most of the dead man's wealth with what they squander during the long period of his lying in the house, and with what they put by the wayside which strangers ride up to and take. It is the custom among the Este that the men of each tribe are cremated, and if one bone is found not completely burned, heavy compensation must be paid.

There is a tribe among the Este that knows how to cause cold, and this is why the dead men there lie so long and do not rot, because they keep them cold. If two containers are put out full of beer or water, they can cause one of the two to be frozen over whether it is summer or winter.


Source: Two Voyagers at the court of King Alfred, trans. by Christine E. Fell (York, 1984). Scanned and proofread by Eric C. Knibbs, 2006.

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© 2006 Anders Winroth
Anders.Winroth@Yale.edu