Sagas reveal Vikings were 'first oceanographers'
24 March 2009 by Eric Scigliano
When Hallstein son of Thorolf Mostbeard found a suitable homestead on Iceland, he sacrificed to Thor, imploring the god to provide the ceremonial high seat posts he needed to complete his great hall. Evidently Thor heard: a mighty log washed ashore, big enough to supply seat posts for all the settlers round about. Years earlier, when Hallstein's father and other Norse pioneers sailed for Iceland, they had found themselves in the opposite fix. They had brought seat posts from home but needed a good place to settle. As they approached Iceland, they tossed their precious posts overboard and followed them to the places Thor supposedly chose for them. But the two prayers had something in common: the same sound ocean science underlay them both.
OLD Kveldulf knew it was time to get out of Norway. He had pushed his luck by refusing to swear allegiance to Harald Tanglehair - a king not to be trifled with. When the king slew his son Thorolf, Kveldulf went berserk. He and his surviving son Skallagrim ambushed two of the king's emissaries, killing them and 50 companions, and fled to sea.
Luckily, safer shores awaited them. This was the 9th century and Norsemen had lately begun to settle Iceland, a thousand kilometres to the west. As they sailed, though, father and son's ships became separated. Exhausted by his killing spree, Kveldulf felt his strength slipping away, as the Norse sagas tell us often happens to berserkers when they come down. When he felt he was close to death he instructed his companions to "make me a coffin, and put me overboard" that he might "come to Iceland and take land there", and to tell his son "that if he reaches Iceland and I am there already, to make himself a home as close as possible to the place where I have come ashore". They obeyed, and later chanced upon the coffin washed up in a creek entering the firth called Borgarfjord. Skallagrim dutifully built his farmstead there and prospered.
Strange as his last wish might sound, Kveldulf was not merely exercising an old man's whim. He was following what was already a hallowed tradition among Norse explorers, a tradition that made oceanographers of Kveldulf and his fellow Vikings.
The practice goes back to the first recorded Norse settler in Iceland: Ingolf Arnarson, who fled Norway in 874 after a killing. As Ingolf approached the island, he threw his öndvegissúlur, his high seat posts, overboard. This was no frivolous gesture; these pillars, often carved with an image of the god Thor, framed the high seat in a Norse great hall where the master of the house sat, and were infused with totemic power and family symbolism. But Ingolf had no intention of losing his, any more than Kveldulf had of being lost. He landed on Iceland's south coast and sent his slaves westward to find the posts. Where they found them, he made his home - at Reykjavik, Iceland's capital to this day.
As more fugitives and emigrants followed Ingolf, seat posts and other precious wooden objects flew off the longboats. Bjorn Ketilson, who was also fleeing King Harald's wrath, found his posts - and settled - where the steep walls of Breidafjord opened onto an appealing beach. His sister Unn the Deep-Minded, shipwrecked at Vikrarskeid, overwintered with her brother and then found her seat posts at the head of Hvammsfjord, near today's village of Hvamm. Hasteinn Atlason jettisoned his setstokkar, the partition beam from his old hall, and followed it to his new home.
What prompted the Vikings to risk their precious heirlooms this way? The tale of Thorolf Mostbeard, recounted in the Eyrbyggja saga, offers one explanation. Thorolf, a "great friend" of Thor, was obliged to flee after he sheltered Bjorn Ketilson from King Harald. He made a sacrifice and asked Thor what he should do. Sail for Iceland, the thunder god replied. Cast your seat posts upon the waters and follow where I take them. Thorolf obeyed and, where the posts washed up, he built a great temple dedicated to Thor and declared the site a sanctuary where killing and defecation were strictly forbidden. Alas, one faction among his successors refused to observe the second of these prohibitions, and the faithful non-defecators drove them off in a fierce onslaught.
Cast your seat posts upon the waters and follow where I take them, replied Thor
For a millennium after these accounts were recorded, they lay buried in the sagas. Then, in 1962, in an otherwise conventional doctoral dissertation on the waters around Iceland, a young oceanographer called Unsteinn Stefansson re-examined the tales. The jettisoned posts, he wrote, were the "drift bottles" of their day, markers that helped the settlers discern the currents around Iceland.
Stefansson's insight might likewise have been filed and forgotten, except that soon afterwards he visited the University of Washington in Seattle and presented a leather-bound copy of his dissertation to oceanographer Cliff Barnes. Barnes had a particular interest in North Atlantic drifters: during the second world war he had helped allied convoys thread the safest route between the icebergs and German U-boats by tracking the icebergs that calved off Greenland.
In the 1980s, Barnes was incapacitated by Alzheimer's and his protégé Curt Ebbesmeyer inherited his papers. Ebbesmeyer (with whom I've written a book, the forthcoming Flotsametrics and the Floating World) came across Stefansson's dissertation and decided to follow the clues he had left. Delving further into the sagas and the minutiae of Icelandic geography, he plotted the drift routes of Kveldulf's coffin and sundry seat posts and reached a surprising conclusion.
The Icelanders knew well what treasures the currents could carry. They collected sea beans, floating seeds from tropical America widely believed to bring good luck, and washed-up logs from Siberia and the Americas. Such wash-ups can be vital to those who live on islands with limited supplies of timber. Even on the relatively lush Hawaiian islands, Polynesian kings needed drift logs from America's west coast to build their giant war canoes. The esteem in which such flotsam was held is evident from the account of one 19th-century missionary to Hawaii, Titus Coan. He wrote how a native assistant helping to translate a Pauline epistle stumbled over the word "virtue" until he found a Hawaiian equivalent - "a stick of Oregon pine".
Driftwood was needed even more on nearly treeless Iceland and the washed-up seat posts marked beaches where it accumulates. "Wood follows wood," says Ebbesmeyer. Other valuable flotsam, such as beached whales, concentrated there and marine mammals also took advantage of the currents to haul out. Kveldulf's son Skallagrim found that the firth where his father's coffin washed up offered "seal-hunting in plenty, and good fishing".
Thor's instructions were "sound practical oceanography", says Ebbesmeyer. After plotting their jetsam's arcing drifts around southern and western Iceland, he believes the Vikings deduced that a current circled the entire island, the first recorded discovery of an oceanic gyre. "I'd have to call the Vikings the first oceanographers."
The idea is so practical that Ebbesmeyer thinks the Norsemen probably practised the same sort of oceanographic observation in Norway, although he hasn't found any evidence. He hopes others will follow the trail Stefansson began when he dared to open his dissertation with data derived from ancient tales generally dismissed as legend. "It was brave of him," says Ebbesmeyer. "Even anthropologists did not take the sagas seriously. They did not believe the sagas when they said that Vikings had reached America. Then the discovery of the Viking settlement at l'Anse aux Meadows changed all that. We need to listen to the sagas more carefully."
Perhaps future discoveries of far-floating seat posts will pique rather more interest. So many eddies spin off the currents circling Iceland that Ebbesmeyer thinks most jettisoned artefacts would have been borne away from the island to Norway, to North America and, via the Norwegian and North Atlantic Currents, to the Arctic, where some may have lain a thousand years encased in ice. Now the Arctic is thawing. Perhaps Thor's drifters will emerge to beckon future emigrants - refugees from a baking planet rather than a vengeful king - to new homes in the once-frozen north.