The Vikings are known for having been excellent sailors. The superiority of their ships allowed them to dominate their corner for Europe for centuries. They discovered new lands, such as Iceland and Greenland, which were otherwise known to Europeans. They also made it to the Americas half a millennium before any other European.
But without the help of modern navigations tools or even a basic magnetic compass, how did the Vikings manage to navigate their way around the high seas?
The Vikings haven’t left any written records of the navigation knowledge, so most of our assumptions about how they found their ways to new lands are purely speculative. But let’s take a look at some of the tools that the Vikings probably did use to navigate the seas.
In the early days, the Vikings probably navigated primarily by keeping the shoreline within sight. But, while this would have worked while they were close to home, if they did this alone, the Vikings would never have found England, Iceland, Greenland, or the Americas.
But it is very likely that the Vikings used the physical characteristics of the terrain to understand where they were. The depth of the ocean, the presence of birds, and the presence of certain sea creatures could be clear indicators of land nearby, but not in sight.
In the TV series Vikings, we see Ubbe Vikings travelling with birds on board. When they are looking for land, they released the bird. If the bird returned, there was no land nearby. If the bird did not return, they could follow its path to find land. This is probably a technique that the Vikings and their contemporaries used. We know that the Vikings also measured the depth of the water, at least when they were in relatively shallow water. This kind of “sounding” is done with a lead weight on a string or pole. Lead weights have been found in Viking era harbors, and sounding poles are illustrated in the 11th century Bayeux tapestry. But whether these were used for deep-sea navigation, or just to prevent ships from becoming stuck in shallow waters is unclear.
No physical maps survive from the Viking age, and they are not mentioned in any of the sagas, so it is entirely unclear if the Vikings used the kinds of maps that we are familiar with from the later Age of Exploration.
It seems likely that some kinds of maps, either physical or orally transmitted, probably did exist because we often hear of Vikings finding new territory and then telling others about it. For example, Leif Ericsson was not the first Viking to reach the Americas, he was told about it by another Viking who had already been there.
But whether the Viking passed on physical maps, or just described the journey so that others could recreate it is unclear.
The same is true when it comes to mapping on the basis of celestial bodies, in other words, letting the stars guide you. It seems logical to assume that Viking sailors used this type of navigation, but no physical evidence survives to verify this assumption.
Seeking the Sun
The other heavenly body that the Vikings must have used to navigate is the sun. Its position at midday is the most effective way to determine your latitude, and if you are still on course.
We know that other cultures, even before the Viking period, used tools such as astrolabes and quadrants to measure latitude, but no evidence of these tools survive in Viking archaeological sites. Also, because the height of the sun changes throughout the year, charts tracking this height are also necessary to determine latitude, and no evidence of these survive either.
But the sagas indicate that the Vikings must have used the sun in their navigation, as they often mention sunstones, which were designed specifically to locate the sun on overcast days. In the most famous story, King Olaf asks the hero Sigurd to determine the position of the sun behind dark clouds with no instrumentation. Sigurd does so, and King Olaf uses a sunstone to determine if he is correct.
However, again, no sunstones survive in the archaeological record, and it is not clear what natural material they would have been made from, but it must be some type of crystal that polarizes light.
If the Vikings did use the sun to navigate, then they probably used something called a sun compass. This is simply a vertical pointer on a horizontal surface that is engraved with a curved line. The shadow cast by the pointer on the surface is different at different latitudes, and at different times of the year.
The Vikings had a “sailing season” and were probably very aware of where the sun should be hitting during those months of the year.
Excavations at a Viking age farm in Greenland found the remains of part of a circular disk with carvings. This may be part of such an instrument.On the Faroe Islands, they use an instrument called the Solskyggafjol, which is very similar to the sun compass. This may have been a technology that they adopted from the Vikings that settled there.
One of the most well-known symbols contained in the Icelandic magical grimoires is Vegvisir, known as the Norse Compass. The magical text says that this is an enchanted stave made from the Viking runes.
The text says that the symbol is to be used by travelers and that the symbol ensures that a person will never become lost, even if they do not know where they are going.
While the Vikings certainly had sophisticated ways of navigating that we simply don’t understand today and have been lost over the ages, it is not hard to understand why such a magical symbol would have been very appealing to Viking navigators.
What Do You Think?
Would you like to have been on a Viking ship, making your way across vast oceans to new lands with nothing but the sun and stars to guide you?