Voyage of Ohthere from King Alfred's Orosius
From The Discovery of Muscovy: From the Collections of Richard Hakluyt with the Voyages of Ohthere and Wulftsan from King Alfred's Orosius. London: Cassell and Company, 1904, pp 174-180.
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Excerpt from the introduction to "The Geography of Europe by King Alfred" translated in 1807 by the Rev. James Ingram, M.A., Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford.
The "History of Orosius" itself is bad, confused; but it was enriched and improved by Alfred's addition to the first book of much new matter, enlarging knowledge of the geography of Europe, which he calls Germania, north of the Rhine and Danube. Alfred adds also to the same book geographical narratives taken from the lips of two travellers. One was Ohthere, a Norwegian, who sailed from Halgoland, on the coast of Norway, round the North Cape into the Cwen-Sæ, or White Sea, and entered the mouth of the river Dvina, the voyage ending were there is now Archangel, the most northern of the Russian sea ports. Ohthere afterwards made a second voyage from Halgoland along the west and south coast of Norway to the Bay of Christiania, and Scrirngeshael, the port of Skerin, or Skien, near the entrance of Christiania fjord. He then sailed southward, and reached in five days the Danish port æt Haedum, the capital town called Sleswic by the Saxons, but by the Danes Haithaby [Hedeby]. ...
Ohthere was a man of great wealth and influence in Norway, as wealth was there reckoned; for he had 600 reindeer, including six decoy-deer; but though accounted one of the first men in the land, he had only twenty horned cattle, twenty sheep and twenty swine. The little that he ploughed he ploughed with horses, and his chief revenue was in tribute of skin and bone from the Finns. The fame of his voyages attracted him the attention of King Alfred. He said that he dwelt "Northmost of all northen," in Halgoland; and wishing to find out how far the land lay due north, and whether any man dwelt north of him for the sake also of taking the walruses, "which have very good bone in their teeth; of these teeth they brought some to the king; and their hides are very good for ship ropes" he sailed northward. Ohthere may have obtained some of his wealth by whale-fishing. He says that "in his own country is the best whale-hunting; they are eight-and-forty ells long, and the largest fifty ells long;" of these he says "that he was one of six who killed sixty in two days;" meaning, no doubt that his vessel was one of six. He relates only what he saw. "The Biarmians," he says, "told him many stories both about their own land and about the countries which were around them, but he knew no what was true, because he did not see it himself."
Wulfstan was perhaps a Jutlander, and his voyage was confined to the Baltic. Neither his account nor that of Ohthere contradicts the opinion then held, that Scandinavia was a large island, and the Gulf of Bothnia or Cwæner Sea flowed into the North Sea.
Ohthere told his lord, King Alfred, that he lived to the north of all the Northmen. He says that he dwelt on the mainland to the northward, by the west sea; that the land, however, extends to a very great length thence onward to the north, but it is all waste, except in a few places where the Finlanders occasionally resort, for hunting in the winter, and in the summer for fishing along the sea-coast. He said that he was determined to find out, on a certain time, how far this country extended northward, or whether any one lived to the north of the waste.
With this intent he proceeded northward along the coast, leaving all the way the waste land on the starboard, and the wide sea on the backboard, for three days. He was then as far north as the whale-hunters ever go. He then continued his voyage, steering yet northward, as far as he could sail within three other days. Then the land began to take a turn to the eastward, even unto the inland sea, but he knows not how much further. He remembers, however, that he stayed there waiting for a western wind, or a point to the north, and sailed thence eastward by the land as far as he could in four days. Then he was obliged to wait for a due north wind, because the land there began to run southward, quite to the inland sea; he knows not how far.
He sailed thence along the coast southward, as far as he could in five days. There lay then a great river a long way up in the land, in to the mouth of which they entered, because they durst not proceed beyond the river from an apprehension of hostilities, for the land was all inhabited on the other side of the river. Ohthere, however, had not met with any inhabited land before this since he first set out from his own home.
All the land to his right during his whole voyage, was uncultivated and without inhabitants, except a few fishermen, fowlers, and hunters, all of whom were Finlanders; and he had nothing but the wide sea on his left all the way. The Biarmians, indeed, had well cultivated their land; though Ohthere and his crew durst not enter upon it; but the land of the Torne-Finnas was all waste, and it was only occasionally inhabited by hunters, and fishermen, and fowlers.
The Biarmians told him many stories, both about their own land and about the other countries around them; but Ohthere knew not how much truth there was in them, because he had not an opportunity of seeing with his own eyes. It seemed, however, to him, that the Finlanders and Biarmians spoke nearly the same language.
The principal object of his voyage, indeed, was already gained; which was, to increase the discovery of the land, and on account of the horse-whales, because they have very beautiful bone in their teeth, some of which they brought to the king, and their hides are good for ship-ropes. This sort of whale is much less than the other kinds, it is not longer commonly than seven ells: but in his own country (Ohthere says) is the best whale-hunting; there the whales are eight and forty ells long, and the largest fifty; of these, he said, he once killed (six in company) sixty in two days.
He was a very rich man in the possession of those animals, in which their principal wealth consists, namely, such as are naturally wild. He had then, when he came to seek King Alfred, six hundred deer, all tamed by himself, and not purchased. They call them rein-deer. Of these six were stall-reins, or decoy deer, which are very valuable amongst the Finlanders, because they catch the wild deer with them.
Ohthere himself was amongst the first men in the land, though he had not more than twenty rother-beasts, twenty sheep, and twenty swine; and what little he ploughed, he ploughed with horses. The annual revenue of these people consists chiefly in a certain tribute which the Finlanders yield them. This tribute is derived from the skins of animals, feathers of various birds, whalebone, and ship-ropes, which are made of whales' hide and of seals. Everyone pays according to his substance; the wealthiest many amongst them pays only the skins of fifteen martens, five reindeer skins, one bear's skin, ten bushels of feathers, a cloak of bear's or otter's skin, two ship-ropes (each sixty ells long), one made of whale's and the other of seal's skin.
Ohthere moreover said that the land of the Northmen was very long and very narrow; all that is fit either for pasture or ploughing lies along the sea coast, which, however, is in some parts very cloddy; along the eastern side are wild moors, extending a long way up parallel to the cultivated land.
The Finlanders inhabit these moors, and the cultivated land is broadest to the eastward, and, altogether, the more northward it lies, the more narrow it is. Eastward it may perhaps be sixty miles broad, in some places broader; about the middle, thirty miles, or somewhat more; and northward, Ohthere says (where it is narrowest), it may be only three miles across from the sea to the moors, which, however, are in some parts so wide that a man could scarcely pass over them in two weeks, though in other parts perhaps six days.
Then parallel with this land southward is Sweoland, on the other side of the moors, extending quite to the northward; and running even with the northern part of it is Cwenaland. The Cwenas sometimes make incursions against the Northmen over these moors, and sometimes the Northmen on them; there are very large meres of fresh water beyond the moors, and the Cwenas carry their ships overland into the meres, whence they make depredations on the Northmen; they have ships that are very small and very light.
Ohthere said that the shire which he inhabited is called Halgoland. He says that no human being abode in any fixed habitation to the north of him. There is a port to the south of this land, which is called Sciringes-heal. Thither he said that a man could not sail in a month, if he watched into the night, and every day had a fair wind; and all the while he shall sail along the coast; and on his right hand first is Island, then the islands which are between Island and this land.
Then this land continues quite to Sciringes-heal; and all the way on the left is Norway. To the south of Sciringes-heal a great sea runs up a vast way into the country, and is so wide that no man can see across it. (Jutland is opposite on the other side, and then Sealand. This sea lies many hundred miles up into the land.) Ohthere further says that he sailed in five days from Sciringes-heal to that port which men call Æt-Hæthum, which stands between the Winedæ, the Saxons, and the Angles, and is subject to the Danes.
When Ohthere sailed to this place from Sciringes-heal, Denmark was on
his left, and on his right the wide sea, for three days; and for the two
days before he came the Hæthum, on his right hand was Jutland, Sealand,
and many islands; all which lands were inhabited by the English, before
they came hither; and for these two days the islands which are subject
to Denmark were on his left.