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The Voyages of Ohthere of Hålogaland and Wulfstan of Hedeby


Wulfstan of Hedeby and Ohthere of Hålogaland were two ninth-century travelers who became known for their short accounts of some of the Finnic lands and tribes of the Northern Europe. These are among the earliest of the very few surviving descriptions still available on our times. The latter was a wealthy Hålogalandian hunter, who journeyed along the northernmost shores of Finno-Scandia to the Kola Penisula and south thence to Bjarmaland, the legendary nation of the Northern Chudes. The previous then again was a Danish merchant. He sailed from the city of Hedeby to the Estonian Trusö, which likely was a trading post along the Amber Road, a route from the Gulf of Finland down to the Mediterranean Sea along which Baltic Sea amber was transported to the courts of the southern high civilizations. Besides some Baltic landmarks, he describes Estonian customs and curiosities in his narrative.

I have re-translated and edited the texts from the original Old English versions, due to the existing translations having errors in tribal names besides outdated geographical assignations that are hard to find on modern maps unless one speaks several languages. I have used the translation included in Discovery of Muscovy by Richard Haklyut1 as a loose reference. To help with visualizing the locations and the ninth-century Nordic world, some maps have been included to go alongside with the text.

The Finnic tribes and nations mentioned in these stories:

The Lapps (the Sami, 'Finn') -- wandering hunter tribes inhabiting the northernmost Scandinavia, Lapland, and Kola Peninsula.

Ter-Sami -- Sami folk living in the Kola Peninsula. Folklore tells that Bjarmaland had Sami tributaries: these likely were one such tribe. Till the day, their language is almost extinct, with only about ten speakers left.

The Kvens -- Inhabitants of a large nation called Kvenland (Quenland, Kainuunmaa, Kaland...) situated on both sides of the Gulf of Bothnia. Such modern-day areas as Satakunta in Finland belonged to Kvenland. It had fixed settlements, agriculture, trade, and other high culture besides its own kings, with the Laitila-Eura district being notably wealthy. Fundinn Noregr described that the Kvens, among others, worshiped the high king of the Finno-Scandian empire, the Finnish Tiera (Thor). The council of Kvenland decreed him a thunder-god after his death.

Bjarmians (Permic Finns, Northern Chudes, taipaleentakaiset tsuudit) -- Bjarmaland is a rather frequent nation in the Norse sagas and was known for its riches, fixed settlements, and own kings (including Harek, Egther, etc.) In many stories the treasure-laden temple of the chief god Jomali (compare with the Finnish Jumala, 'God') and the sacrifices therein are mentioned. They apparently lived along a busy trading route, and valuable goods were exchanged for pelts and whalebone.

Estonians (Baltic Finns) -- The concept of Estonia or Finland cannot be understood the same as in the modern times. Around 800AD, the area named as Esthland in, say, Wulfstan's account, meant the whole eastern side of the Baltic sea (Witland, Livonia, Curonia, etc.) including the eastern banks of Vistula further down to the south. In the far north, portions of the modern-day Southern Finland stood under their banner. There is a great deal of confusion in the sagas as of how this nation ought to be named. Messenius stamps these yoreday Finnic races as Northern Wends and their dominion as Vandalia, explaining that this was an obsolete name for Finland. The idea of the pseudo-historical Finland would thus be the same as Wulfstan's 'Esthland'. In any case, the area was inhabited by Baltic Finns speaking a more or less homogenous Finnish dialect. It is notable that even today the Turku area dialect in Finland resembles considerably the modern-time Estonian, which more than merely hints that they were parts of the same dominion ere the conquests of Denmark and Sweden. The southernmost areas of Esthland have likely included Slavonic tributaries, where mayhaps a non-Finnic language dominated over the peasants.

Some of the inhabitants were merchants (and sometimes Vikings and pirates) before the Hanseatic movement, and traded for instance amber which was found in plenty along those eastern Baltic shores. The area was famous for its splendid honey-wine, mead. Gods worshiped therein included Ukko/Uku/Taara (Iku-Tiera) and Vanemuine/Väinämöinen. One of the Slavic chronicles tells that the Finnic tribe of (Southern) Chudes were amongst the founders of the Kievan Rus' state.

It seems that Kvenland together with Finland/Esthland formed what is kenned collectively as Jotunheim or Kalevala in the Nordic folklore.

The matter of fixed settlements and genetics created the most notable difference between the various Finnic tribes. As mentioned above, the Lapps were nomadic but also shorter of stature and darker of complexion than the Southern Finns (i.e. those dwelling in the Southern Kvenland and along the Baltic shores, etc.). The latter mostly resemble(d) your average Scandinavian with predominance in fair hair, blue-grayish eyes, and a stocky, tall stature. Recent genetic studies have shown that the Sami folk possess traces of an Iberian haplogroup, whereas the Southern Finns are a mix of Germanic, Slavonic, and Finnish (Ugric & Siberian) bloodlines.


The Voyage of Ohthere of Hålogaland

Ohthere told his lord and king Ælfrede (Alfred the Great) that he dwelt farther north than any other Norseman. His country lay northwards along the West Sea (Norwegian Sea), but according to him it spreads out much further north thence as an unsettled wasteland. There are only the Lapps who camp out on a couple of sites, hunting during the winters and fishing by the sea during the summers. Once, he told that he desired to find out how much the land actually lay to the north, or if any man lived even further up there, beyond the waste. Therefore, he journeyed along the coast, always northwards, keeping the waste to his starboard and the wide sea to the larboard. Three days he sailed, till he was as far as the wayfare of the whalehunters ever reached. Thence he sailed northwards for three days more. Finally the coast curved eastwards or the sea there turned into land: whichever that be, he could not tell. He however awaited there for the west- and north-winds, and continued sailing eastward along the shoreline for four days, as far as he ever could. Then the land twisted to the south or perchance the sea there grew into land, once again this could not be concluded. The north-winds had to be waited by this place. As the sail ultimately bellied out, a southbound travel of five days began. Once more he journeyed as far as achievable, till he met a mighty river pushing itself out of the land before. Dreading conflict due to the country being inhabited on the other bank, they abandoned the quest and dared not sail across the river and forward. Never had he met any settlements since the beginning of the journey. The open sea had always been on his larboard, and solely waste had lain on his starboard, apart from some fishers, fowlers, and hunters: all those had been Lapps. The Bjarmians had settled their country excellently, but the crew was short of courage to enter. The land of the Ter-Sami however lay all as wild wasteland, excluding the sites where hunters, fishers, and fowlers camped.

The Bjarmians told him many stories of their own country and the lands beyond, yet he could not decide whether to believe them or not, as he had not beholden these terrains himself. In his opinion, the Lapps and the Bjarmians spoke almost the same language [the Bjarmians used perhaps an early form of Komi or even a Finnish dialect]. The most notable reason for his traveling thither was the inspection of the land for horse-whales (walruses), as their teeth-bone is most noble, and their hide equally good for ship ropes. They brought a few such teeth to their king. This horse-whale, no longer than seven ells, is much smaller than others of the whale type. The best whale-game could be found in his own country, where the largest beasts were fifty ells long. He told that once he, one in a company of six [ships], killed sixty animals in the course of two days.

He [Ohthere] was a notably wealthy man with his possessions, and their [Hålogalandians'] riches are bound to wild animals. When he visited the king, he still owned six hundred tame deer, not a beast of them yet sold. These deer are called reindeers, and out of the lot six were decoys. Such beasts are of great value to the Lapps, as with their aid they capture wild reindeers. He was together with some of the first people in the land [Hålogaland]. His estate consisted of no more than twenty cattle and the same amount of sheep and swine each, and there was some minor ploughing with horses. The Lapps however pay tribute to them, which adds to their property: deer hide, feathers, whale-bone, and ship rope which is fabricated from the hides of seal and whale. The amount of tax depends on the tributee's rank. The most high-born must donate fifty marten's hides, five reindeers, a bear hide, ten ambers (an unknown quantity) of feathers, a garment made from bear or otter hide, and two ship ropes which must be sixty ells long and made from whale or seal skin.

According to him, the land of the Norsemen is very long and narrow. Everything fertile, that might be cultivated or used as a pasture, lies towards the sea. Even so, the soil is occasionally very rocky, and to the east of the cultivated land wild moors spread out. The Lapps live on those moors. The cultivated land has the most breadth towards the east, and tapers towards the north. The eastern portion is perchance sixty miles broad or slightly more. The middle is around thirty miles and the northernmost part, as he told, is the narrowest. On certain sites the moor might be but three miles away, whereas the wasteland itself occasionally extends so afar that one must spend a fortnight by traveling through it. In some other places this might be done only in six days.

Sweden is then situated southward along the land. On the other side of the moors and to the north unfolds Kvenland. The Kvens sometimes journey to foray the Norsemen across the moors, and sometimes it is the other way round. A plentiful of fresh-water lakes lie just beyond the moors. The Kvens haul their small and light skiffs over the land and into the waste, wherefrom they arrive to plunder the Norsemen.

Ohthere said that the shire he dwelt in was called Hålogaland and that nobody lived further north in a steady settlement. Southwards of that land is situated a port hight Sciringesheal (Skiringssalr). He recounted that none would be able to sail thither within a month, if one always anchored the ship for the night and had favorable winds during every day. All the while the course must be kept along the shoreline. Iceland is first to the starboard, and then the islands in-between Iceland and this land. Then the coast must be pursued till one arrives at Sciringesheal, and all the way to the larboard extends the North Way. To the south from Sciringesheal a vast sea pushes its way up into the land for many hundred miles, so mighty that no man can see across its breadth. To the opposite of this lies Jutland on the other side of the sea, and therewith comes Zealand.

He told that from Sciringesheal it took five days to sail to a port called Hedeby, which stands between the Wends, Saxons, Angles, and belongs to the Danes. Thitherward he sailed from Sciringesheal, and Denmark he kept to his larboard, and to his starboard the open sea for three days. But two days ere he arrived at Hedeby on his starboard were Jutland, Zealand, and several other islands. Eventually he debarked into that land which is inhabited by the Angles.

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The location of Bjarmaland in two selected old maps. First below: a portion of Olaus Magnus's Carta Marina2 from the sixteenth century, and further down a detail from Abraham Ortelius's map3 from the same era.

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The Journey of Wulfstan of Hedeby

Wulfstan told he journeyed from Hedeby to Trusö in seven nights and days, with his ship all the while under full sail. Wendland was to his starboard, and Langeland to his larboard together with Lolland, Falster, and Skåne. All this land is under the Danes' command. Sometime thereafter Bornholm, which is an independent dominion with its own king, stood to the larboard. Pursuing Bornholm came the lands that have been called since the elderdays Blekinge, Möre, Öland, and Gotland. These are ruled by the Swedes [and Goths]. They remained to the larboard, and Wendland stood to the starboard ever until the mouth of Vistula. Nigh the large river of Vistula are situated Witland and Wendland. The previous belongs to the people of Esthland. Vistula runs out of Wendland and into a lake about fifteen miles wide, named Estmere (Vistula Lagoon). Then Elbing, east of Vistula, flows into Estmere, on the banks of which stands Trusö. Together the rivers reach Estmere, Elbing from the east out of Esthland, and Vistula from the south out of Wendland. Thereupon Vistula strips Elbing of its name, as it on the western end of the lake takes a northbound course and flows into the sea. Thereby the delta is called Vistula-mouth.

Many fortified towns lie in the far-reaching Esthland, and every fort has its own [low] king. The land is most affluent in honey and fish. The king and the wealthiest folk enjoy mare's milk, whereas the poor and the slaves drink mead. No ale is brewed there, as the freely flowing mead satisfies everyone. There is however a great deal of strife in-between the tribes.

According to an Estonian custom, a man that has passed away must lay unburned amidst his kinsfolk and friends for a full month or sometimes two. The kings and high-ranking men may rest longer in such waiting, sometimes for half a year, unburned and aboveground inside their houses. The greater the wealth, the longer the funeral wake. And while the corpse lies inside, there shall be drinking and feasting until the cremation day, all this being funded from the dead man's property. Finally, on the day when the dead is brought to the pyre, the remaining belongings are divided into five or six heaps, sometimes more, depending on their amount and value. These piles are then deposited within a mile from the dead man's village. The largest portion is placed down first, farthest to the settlement, then the second and third, until everything is contained within that mile and the smallest pile stands nearest to the village.

Thereafter the owners of the fastest horses around the countryside shall gather within five or six miles from the heaps, towards which they then race. The flightiest reaches the first and largest portion, and so one after the other, until everything is taken. The man who arrives at the outskirts of the village first acquires the smallest pile. Thereafter the winners can keep the property and go separate ways. For this reason speedy horses are of great value there. And, after all the dead man's wealth is thus spent in these rites, he is carried out of the house and laid onto a pyre with his garments and weapons. Not much however will be left, as the property is mostly consumed during the feasting and racing.

Custom also dictates that every dead body of any tribe or family must be burned. If a person comes across even a single, unburned bone, he is heavily fined. The Estonians furthermore possess the magic-power of summoning the cold. Therefore their bodies do not decay even when they remain so long aboveground, as they put the spell of coldness upon them. And if two dishes are poured full of either ale or water, they can make both freeze over, regardless of whether it be summer or winter.

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Below: an approximation of the Baltic Sea nations after the death of Charles the Great depicted in a map from the Texas University historical maps collection.4

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Matti Klinge, Ancient Powers of the Baltic Sea, Aspasia Books, Ontario, Canada 2007.
Johannes Messenius, Scondia Illustrata Tomus X.
The map bases are from OpenStreetMap.
Bright's Anglo-Saxon Reader/The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan
1The Discovery of Muscovy by Richard Hakluyt
2Olaus Magnus's Scandinavia -- Carta Marina @ James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota
3Ulla Ehrensvärd, The History of the Nordic Map, John Nurminen Foundation, Helsinki 2006.
4Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin