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Ohthere of Hålogaland

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Ohthere of Hålogaland

Ohthere of Hålogaland (Norwegian: Ottar fra Hålogaland) was a Viking Age Norwegian seafarer known only from an account of his travels that he gave to King Alfred (871–99) of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex in about 890 AD. His account was incorporated into an Anglo-Saxon, or Old English, version of a Latin historical book written early in the 5th century by Paulus Orosius, called Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII, or Seven Books of History Against the Pagans. The Old English version of this book is believed to have been written in Wessex in King Alfred's lifetime or soon after his death, and the earliest surviving copy is attributed to the same place and time.


In his account, Ohthere said that his home was in "Halgoland", or Hålogaland, where he lived "north-most of all Norwegians … [since] no-one [lived] to the north of him". Ohthere spoke of his travels north to the White Sea, and south to Denmark, describing both journeys in some detail. He also spoke of Sweoland (central Sweden), the Sami people (Finnas), and of two peoples called the Cwenas, living in Cwena land to the north of the Swedes, and the Beormas, whom he found living by the White Sea. Ohthere reported that the Beormas spoke a language related to that of the Sami.

Ohthere's story is the earliest known written source for the term "Denmark" (dena mearc), and perhaps also for "Norway" (norðweg). Ohthere's home may have been in the vicinity of Tromsø, in southern Troms county, northern Norway.


Ohthere said that he lived furthest north of all Norwegians, and that his home was in "Halgoland", in the north of Norway, by the sea. Halgoland is identified in modern historiography as Hålogaland, a historical region of northern Norway comparable in area to the modern region of Nord-Norge. While greater precision is impossible, suggested localities for Ohthere's home include Senja, Kvaløya and Malangen, all near Tromsø. He claimed to be a leading man in his homeland, perhaps to be understood as a chieftain, and described himself as wealthy, owning 600 tame reindeer, of which six were "decoys" used for catching wild reindeer. Conversely, according to the report in the Old English Orosius, Ohthere "had not more than twenty horned cattle, and twenty sheep, and twenty swine, and the little that he ploughed he ploughed with horses." But his main wealth was in tax paid by the Finnas, or Sami people, of whom the highest-born paid 15 marten skins, 5 reindeer skins, 1 bear skin, 10 ambers of feathers, 1 coat of bear skin or otter skin and two ship's ropes, each 60 ells long, made of either whale skin or seal skin.

Another source of Ohthere's wealth was the hunting of whales and walrus. He is reported as saying that his own land was best for whale-hunting, with walrus up to 7 ells long and whales mostly 50 ells long, and that with five men he had killed sixty of them in two days. While the killing of this number of whales in two days seems unlikely, historian Kjell-Olav Masdalen suggests that, rather than whales, Ohthere intended the number killed to refer to walrus; Janet Bately suggests that it might best be seen as an indication of how many whales could be caught in good conditions. Ropes of whale skin were of sufficient value to be included in the tax paid to Ohthere by the Sami, and Ohthere said that walrus had "very noble bones in their teeth", some of which he brought to King Alfred.

Anthropologist Ian Whitaker notes that Ohthere has been described as primarily a merchant, and that his visit to King Alfred has been connected with the king's plans for a navy, a desire to escape the Norwegian King Harald Fairhair, or a need to rebuild a lost fortune. Whitaker notes also that there is "no shred of evidence" to support any of these ideas, but for the fact that he had visited the trading centres of "Skiringshal" (sic) and Hedeby. Ohthere said that he had travelled north chiefly to hunt walrus, and his journey south to the Danish trading settlement of Hedeby, via the "port" of Sciringes heal, may have been a trading mission. There is no account of Ohthere's journey to Wessex or explanation for his visit to King Alfred.

Ohthere's Norway

Ohthere's reported use of the term "Norway" (norðweg) in the earliest copy of the Old English Orosius pre-dates the earliest written Scandinavian use of the term, in the runic form "Nuruiak", on the 10th-century Jelling stones by between 40 and 80 years. He describes Norway as being very long and very narrow, saying that it was about 60 miles (97 km) across "to the east", about 30 miles (48 km) across in the middle, and about 3 miles (5 km) across in the north. While Ohthere is here referring broadly to the width of Norwegian territory between the sea and the mountains, the land described as being about 60 miles across "to the east" is probably to be understood as representing the modern Norwegian region of Vestlandet, in the south-west of the country.

The land of the Norwegians is further delineated through reference to their neighbours. Away from the sea a wilderness of moors, or mountains, lay to the east and was inhabited by Finnas, a reference to the Sami people. Alongside the southern part of the land, on the other side of the mountains and continuing north, was Sweoland, the "land of the Svear", or Swedes. To the north of the Swedes was Cwenaland, the "land of the Cwenas", and to the north of the Norwegians was wasteland.

Ohthere's travels

Ohthere described two journeys that he had made, one northward and around the Kola Peninsula into the White Sea, and one southward to the Danish trading settlement of Hedeby via a Norwegian "port" which, in the Old English Orosius, is called "Sciringes heal". He described his journeys partly through the lands and peoples he encountered, and partly through the number of days it took to sail from one point to the next:

[e]xperiments with replicas of Viking ships have shown that, somewhat depending on the hull form and cargo, under optimal conditions, with a cross wind or more to aft, they can hold an average speed of 6–8 knots over a day's voyage, and that they may reach speeds of 10–12 knots in a breeze. Moreover, they can maintain an effective speed of approximately 2 knots at 55–60° to the wind when tacking.

Journey to the north

Ohthere said that the land stretched far to the north of his home, and that it was all wasteland, except for a few places where Sami camped to hunt in the winter and fish in the summer. He said that he travelled north chiefly to hunt walrus, but he had also wanted to know if anyone lived to the north of the waste. He sailed north along the coast for three days, as far as whale-hunters would go, and another three days' sailing brought him to a point where the land turned eastwards, after which he sailed east for four days, when the land turned to the south. Then he sailed south for five days until he came to a large river: he said that the far bank of this river was the first inhabited land that he had encountered since leaving his home, and for this reason he did not dare sail beyond the river because of "unfrið", usually translated as "hostility", instead sailing up into the river. To this point, Ohthere said that all the land had been waste, except for the Sami fishermen and hunters, and he did not know if the change in direction was because of the shape of the land, or if it was because of an inlet of the sea. Further, at each turn of the land he had waited for a favourable wind.

According to Ohthere, the far bank of the river was "well cultivated" and inhabited by Beormas: historian T.N. Jackson suggests a location for this land – "Bjarmaland" – in the vicinity of the present day Russian town of Kandalaksha, on the western side of the White Sea, while noting that others have identified Ohthere's "large river" as the Northern Dvina, on the eastern side of the White Sea, and place Bjarmaland accordingly. Having just explained how Ohthere did not dare enter the land of the Beormas because it was so well cultivated and because of "unfrið", the report of Ohthere's travels then indicates that he had spoken with them. He explained that the Beormas had told him much about their own land and those of their neighbours, but he says nothing further of this: "he knew not what was true, because he did not see it himself". This incongruity may be explained by his learning of these things from Beormas encountered elsewhere, or from Sami, whose language Ohthere reports as being almost the same as that of the Beormas. Historian Christine Fell suggests that the Old English Orosius' use of the word "unfrið" might rather indicate that Ohthere made a diplomatic approach to the Beormas because he had no trading agreement with them.

The Beormas have been linked with the Old Permic culture, for example through late-medieval treaties dealing with, among other things, a territory called Koloperem', a place-name which "must have emerged as a designation of a land of perem' [i.e. Beormas] on the Kola Peninsula": the latter forms the north-western coast of the White Sea, and is defined in part by an inlet of the sea leading to the town of Kandalaksha. The ethnicity of the Beormas and the Perm' remains uncertain, but the term "perem'" may have originated as a word used for nomadic tradesmen, rather than an ethnic group.

Journey south to Hedeby

Ohthere's account of a journey to the Danish trading settlement of Hedeby begins with a reference to a place in the south of Norway named "Sciringes heal", to which he said one could not sail from his home in Hålogaland in less than a month if he camped at night and always had a fair wind. Ohthere then described sailing to Sciringes heal, keeping near the Norwegian coast on the port side and having first "Iraland" to starboard, then the islands between "Iraland" and Britain, and finally Britain itself until arriving at Sciringes heal.

The principal interpretations of "Iraland" in the Old English Orosius are that it might mean either Ireland or Iceland. While it is possible that the original text of Ohthere's account read "Isaland", for "Iceland", and that the "s" was at some point substituted with an "r", geographically the circumstances described are better suited for Iceland than for Ireland. Alternatively, given that "Iraland" occurs in the same form, with an "r", twice on the same manuscript page, and given that Ohthere was a seafarer, it may be that he was describing sea-routes to Ireland and Britain rather than actual directions, with no thought for Iceland. Britain, or England, is regarded as self-evident, represented in Ohthere's account through the phrase "this land" (þis land): Ohthere is reported as giving his account in person to King Alfred of Wessex.

Sciringes heal has been held to represent Skiringssal (Old Norse: Skíringssalr) in almost all relevant historical writing since the early 19th century, mainly by reason of the superficial similarity of the names, to the extent that some modern translations of Ohthere's account feature the name "Skiringssal" in place of "Sciringes heal". Skiringssal is a historical location, mentioned in Scandinavian sagas, which has been identified with some certainty as an area comparable to the parish of Tjølling, a little over 3 miles (5 km) east of Larvik, with important Viking Age archaeological sites at Huseby, just south of Tjølling, and at Kaupang, near the shoreline south-west of Tjølling, in the south-eastern county of Vestfold in modern Norway. An alternative view is that an identification of Sciringes heal with Skiringssal is impossible to reconcile with the detail of Ohthere's account, and is unlikely for historical and linguistic reasons. According to this interpretation, a location for Sciringes heal west of Lindesnes, the southernmost extremity of Norway, is to be preferred, perhaps at Lunde on the Lista peninsula. Whether Sciringes heal was identical with Skiringssal, or was located in Tjølling parish or west of Lindesnes, it is described in Ohthere's account in the Old English Orosius as a "port" (an port). Ohthere's account uses the same word for the Danish trading settlement of Hedeby (þæm porte), suggesting that Sciringes heal may have been similar in nature, though the Old English word "port" can signify nothing more than a haven.

When Ohthere sailed on from Sciringes heal, he reported having first had Denmark to port and a wide sea to starboard for three days, after which for two days he had islands belonging to Denmark on his port side and Jutland (Gotland and Sillende) and many islands to starboard, before arriving at Hedeby, which lay at the head of the Schlei inlet in what was then south-eastern Denmark. It is in Ohthere's description of this part of the journey that the earliest copy of the Old English Orosius gives the first known mention of the term "Denmark", in the form "dena mearc". However, his first reference to Denmark being on his port side presumably makes reference to areas of the 9th-century Danish kingdom that lay on the Scandinavian peninsula.

The reason for Ohthere's visit to King Alfred of Wessex is not recorded. There is also no mention in the Old English Orosius of how recent the journeys were when Ohthere described them to the king, where the meeting took place, or the route by which Ohthere arrived in southern England.

In modern culture

Ohthere's audience with King Alfred is dramatised in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "The Discoverer of the North Cape: A Leaf from King Alfred's Orosius", and Ohthere and his journey appear in the 1957 novel The Lost Dragon of Wessex by Gwendolyn Bowers.


Ohthere of Hålogaland Wikipedia