Othere’s Voyage to the White Sea

“Ohthere told his lord, King Alfred, that he lived farthest to the north of all the Norwegians. He said that he lived by the western sea in the north part of the land. However, he said that the land extends very much further north; but it is all waste, except that Lapps camp in a few places here and there, hunting in winter and fishing in the sea in summer.

He said that on one occasion he wished to find out how far that land extended due north, or whether anyone lived north of the waste. Then he travelled close to the land, due north; he left the waste land on the starboard and the open sea on the port all the way for three days. Then he was as far north as the whale-hunters ever travel.

Then he travelled still due north as far as he could sail for the next three days. Then the land turned due east – or the sea in on the land – he did not know which; he knew only that there he waited for a wind from the west and a little from the north, and then sailed east, close to the land, for as far as he could sail in four days. Then he had to wait there for a wind directly from the north, for at that point the land turned due south – or the sea in on the land – he did not know which. Then from there he sailed due south, close to the land, for as far as he could sail in five days. There a great river extended up into the land. Then they turned up into that river because they dare not sail beyond the river for fear of hostility, because on the other side of the river the land was all inhabited.

Previously he had not met with any inhabited land since he left his own home. But to the starboard there was waste land all the way, except for fishers and fowlers and hunters – and they were all Lapps; and there was always open sea on his port. The Permians had cultivated their land very well; but they dare not put in there. But the land of the Terfinns was all waste, except where hunters or fishers or fowlers lived. The Permians told him many stories both of their own land and of the lands which were round about them; but he did not know what the truth of it was, since he did not see it for himself. The Lapps and the Permians, it seemed to him, spoke almost the same language.

He travelled there chiefly – in addition to observing the land – for the walruses, because they have very fine bone in their teeth (they brought some of those teeth to the king), and their hides are very good for ship’s ropes. This whale is much smaller than other whales: it is no longer than seven ells long. But the best whale-hunting is in his own land: those are forty-eight ells long, and the largest fifty ells long. He said that, as one of six, he slew sixty of those in two days. He was a very wealthy man in that property in which their wealth consists, that is, in wild animals. When he visited the king he still had six hundred tame animals unbought. They call those ‘reindeer’; of those, six were decoy reindeer; they are very valuable among the Lapps because with them they capture the wild reindeer. He was among the first men in the land. Nevertheless he had no more than twenty cattle, and twenty sheep and twenty swine, and the little that he ploughed, he ploughed with horses.

But their income is chiefly in the tribute that the Lapps pay them. That tribute consists in animal skins and in bird feathers and whale-bone and in the ship’s ropes which are made from the hide of whales and seals. Each one pays according to his rank. The noblest must pay fifteen marten skins, and five reindeer, and one bear skin, and ten ambers of feathers, and a bear- or otter-skin coat, and two ship’s ropes, both to be sixty ells long, one to be made of whale’s hide, the other of seal’s.

He said that the land of the Norwegians was very long and very narrow. All that they can either graze or plough lies by the sea; and even that is very rocky in some places; and to the east, and alongside the cultivated land, lie wild mountains. In those mountains live Lapps. And the cultivated land is broadest to the south, and increasingly narrower the further north. To the south it may be sixty miles broad, or a little broader; and in the middle thirty or broader; and to the north, he said, where it was narrowest, it might be three miles broad to the mountains; and then the mountains in some places are as broad as one might cross in two weeks, and in some places as broad as one might cross in six days. Then alongside that land to the south, on the other side of the mountains, is the land of the Swedes, extending northwards; and alongside that land to the north, the land of the Finns. Sometimes the Finns make war on the Norwegians across the mountains; sometimes the Norwegians on them. And there are very large freshwater lakes throughout the mountains; and the Finns carry their boats overland to the lakes, and make war on the Norwegians from there; they have very small and very light boats. Ohthere said that the district in which he lived was called Halogaland. He said that no one lived to the north of him. In the south of the land there is a trading-town which they call Sciringesheal. He said that a man could sail there in a month, if he camped at night and had a favourable wind every day; and all the time he must sail close to the land. On the starboard is first Ireland, and then the islands which are between Ireland and this country. Then this country continues until he comes to Sciringesheal, and Norway all the way on the port side. To the south of Sciringesheal a very great sea extends up into the land; it is broader than any man can see across. And Jutland is opposite on one side, and then Zealand. The sea extends many hundred miles up into the land.

And from Sciringesheal, he said that he sailed in five days to the trading-town which they call Hedeby; this stands between the Wends and the Saxons and the Angles, and belongs to the Danes. When he sailed there from Sciringesheal, then Denmark was to the port and open sea to the starboard for three days; and then for two days before he came to Hedeby there lay to his starboard, Jutland, and Zealand and many islands. The Angles dwelt in those lands before they came here to this country. And for those two days there lay to his port those islands which belong to Denmark.”

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