In our blog today, Dr Tom Birkett, who was a guest lecturer with us last year on a 15 day cruise to Iceland, reflects on the experiences of the first Norse seafarers who crossed the North Atlantic to settle on this remote island. It was their extraordinary mastery of the seas, as much as their conquests in Europe, that came to define the Viking Age. But what made Norse people leave their homes and set out into the unknown?
Scandinavians weren’t the first people to visit Iceland – medieval sources talk about Irish monks spending summer retreat on the island – but Norse seafarers were probably the first to settle permanently. They were also the first to make these seas their own, not only creating a vibrant network of North Atlantic trade between Scandinavia, Iceland and the British Isles, but also sailing west to Greenland and establishing short-lived settlements in what is now Newfoundland.
Cruising to Iceland with the Aegean Odyssey last summer, I couldn’t help thinking about the experiences of those Norse explorers and settlers. They would have sailed exactly the same routes – stopping in the Scottish Isles or the Faroes and island-hopping their way north – and they would have experienced the same swell and summer winds on their way to Iceland. But it also led me to think about the gulf between their experience and our own. Whereas we cruise in comfort, enjoying good food and entertainment, and secure in our knowledge of the weather and exactly where we are in the open sea, the Norse seafarers had none of this security.
Setting out from the Norse enclave of Dublin, it might take the best part of a week sailing up the west coast of Scotland and across the open sea to the Faroes. From here, with the right winds, it would be at least another two days of sailing to Iceland – though in reality voyages could take weeks, and weeks more waiting on land for the right conditions. And once they set out, there was no knowing when the wind would drop or a storm blow up. The sailing season was short – from May until September – for the simple reason that outside the summer the weather was too unpredictable to risk the voyage. Even in the long days of summer, heading out into the North Atlantic was an adventure: the Icelandic sagas tell us about many voyages which ended up wildly off course and some that missed Iceland altogether. The man credited with being the first to circumnavigate Iceland, Garðar Svavarsson, was actually blown there whilst trying to reach the Hebrides: some 600 miles to the south! Of course the first settlers to Iceland often didn’t have a specific destination in mind, and would leave much of the decision about where they settled down to fate, or to the Norse gods that they worshipped. One foolproof technique to find out where to settle was to throw a high-seat pillar – representing a deity of particular importance to your household – over the side of the ship when land was sighted, and then to settle wherever it made shore.
It wasn’t only the household pillars that were taken to Iceland by these first adventurers – the rest of the household came along as well, from dependents and slaves, to animals, farming equipment, tools, supplies and even timber for building houses. The ships were not large – a typical ocean-going knarr would have been around 16m in length – and the conditions would have been unpleasant: livestock and people and supplies crammed into every available space, the smell of tar and horse-hair ropes and animal waste, and little shelter from the elements. Reaching the barren coast of Iceland must have been an incredible relief.
So what made people risk everything to cross the North Atlantic to this wild, volcanic Island? It may have been political upheavals in Norway that caused families to emigrate. The Norse ruler Haraldr Hárfagri famously vowed that he wouldn’t cut his tangled hair until he’d made himself king of Norway, and his efforts to depose other chieftains and consolidate his power is the reason given in the sagas for so many noble families heading west: an escape from tyranny in other words. But there were other forces in play during this time. Good land may have been hard to come by in Norway, and this was certainly one reason for the Viking raids and eventually settlement elsewhere in Europe. It was also a great age of Norse expansion: the vikings conquered great swathes of England, opened up the river systems to trade with the East, and were the first people to visit four continents. We still call this the Viking Age and define a whole period by these activities.
There is no doubt that the medieval Scandinavians were extraordinarily skilled seafarers, but there was also something in the Norse attitude to the world that made them put these skills to use and set off into the unknown. Perhaps it was the courage of gods like Tyr and Thor – who give their names to Tuesday and Thursday – that set the tone. Tyr allowed his hand to be bitten off by the great wolf Fenrir, and Thor famously rowed out into the encircling seas to try to fish the Midgard Serpent from the depths: this was a serpent that was so large it enclosed the whole world in its coils. Perhaps these myths helped to instil the courage needed to explore and settle in new lands, or perhaps they simply reflect the spirit of an age.
Dr Tom Birkett is a lecturer in Old English and Old Norse, and an expert on the mythology and literary culture of medieval Scandinavia and he will be joining Aegean Odyssey in August on her ‘Iceland, Faroes and Shetlands’ cruise. For our UK guests, this is a NO-fly cruise option.