One of the more prominent elements of the History Channel’s The Vikings series is the early plotline about Ragnar’s determination to sail west to Britain. Like many other parts of the series, this is a mixture of fact and nonsense.
But before I can get into that issue, there’s another question that needs addressing.
Where do the main characters live?
The pilot sets the series in “Scandinavia”, which is pretty vague, allowing for anywhere in Norway, Denmark, or Sweden. The series makes regular use of footage (shot in Norway) of high, cloud-covered mountains with deep fjords. Since Denmark is relatively flat and low-lying, that would seem to put the series in Norway or Sweden somewhere.
Earl Haraldson’s village appears to be called ‘Kattegat’; in one episode characters talk about going to Kattegat from Ragnar’s farm. However, Kattegat isn’t actually a village; it’s the narrow body of water between Jutland and southern Sweden. (The series creators have acknowledged this fact and admitted that they took a liberty here.) Since Jutland is probably too low-lying for the scenery we’re shown, Kattegat is probably on the Swedish side, with the Vastra Gotaland district probably working best. That would fit into a few other clues the series gives, such as the marriage alliance Haraldson makes with the Svear earl Bjarni, since the Svear were the people living in central Sweden who ultimately unified Sweden. Also, the men of Kattegat travel to the eastern Baltic to raid, which was broadly the destination of Vikings from Sweden much more than Denmark or Norway. (This means, incidentally, that Ragnar’s community belongs to the same people as Beowulf’s Geats.)
The Situation at the Start of the Series
In the pilot, it is established that Haraldson always raids into the Baltic, specifically into Russia. No one has ever gone to the west, because they don’t know that there is anything west of Denmark and Norway. They are convinced that there is just endless open sea to the west.
But Ragnar (Travis Fimmel) knows better. He has met a traveler who has told him there are lands to the west, and who has, for reasons unexplained, given Ragnar two exotic items that will help him navigate. The first is what the show calls a sun-board, a wooden disk with notches around the edge and a gnomon that sticks up. When floated in water to keep it level, it allows the user a crude way to determine latitude by the length of the shadow from the gnomon. The second is a sun-stone, a piece of light-polarizing crystal that allows the user to locate the sun through clouds or fog.
Whoever this stranger was, he was apparently very persuasive, because Ragnar is absolutely convinced that he can sail west. The show does nothing whatsoever to establish any basis for Ragnar’s certainty. As a result, he’s another example of the modern cinematic convention that faith/confidence is superior to scientific knowledge; he doesn’t need evidence because he’s got certainty, and certainty is always right, even when it’s nothing more than a hunch. So really, he’s just a spiritual ancestor of the cinematic Christopher Columbus.
Regardless, the series proves him right (because certainty is always reward in these stories). He sails west in the second episode and, after a mandatory moment of doubt when the ship is lost in the fog, he finds Lindisfarne monastery, raids it, and everything is set for his growing clash with the earl.
But Does Any of This Make Sense Historically?
The idea that the 8th century Norse thought there was nothing west of Norway and Denmark is simply preposterous. The primary Norse navigational method was to sail along the coastline, and if you think about a map of Europe for about two seconds, you’ll remember that the west coast of Denmark extends in a south-westerly direction to Frisia (the Low Countries) and France. The Norse had been raiding and trading down into that region for centuries. That region had also had contact with the British Isles for centuries; the Angles and the Jutes, two of the three peoples who conquered low-land Britain, came from the region around Denmark and invaded by boat (just like everyone else who invades England). So the idea that the characters have no idea that the British Isles exist is about as silly as doing a film in which the English have no idea that Ireland exists.
Norse Navigational Techniques
The Norse were skilled navigators, far more skilled than this series lets on. Their basic navigational technique, as I mentioned, was simply following the coastlines. Experience was particularly important, because it allowed a sailor to know how many days north or south to go, where there were submerged reefs to watch out for, and so on.
They relied on the sun and the stars for navigation, as virtually all ancient and early medieval sailors did. They also understood how to follow currents; from Norway, prevailing currents take one straight toward the western side of Britain, for example, making getting from Norway to Britain relatively easy. They also watched birds (since the presence of birds gives clues about how close land is). In the second episode, Ragnar releases a raven to see if it will return; if it doesn’t that means land is near. That’s a trick mentioned in a source about the discovery of Iceland, so it’s genuine.
If you go online and do a Google search on Norse navigation, you’ll find a lot of discussion about sun-boards and sun-stones and how they were used. Some of these pages are even maintained by scientific institutions like the University of Chicago or teaching sites like the Mariner’s Museum. But it’s important to realize that these are science sites, not history sites, and an academic astronomer is not likely to be an expert on Norse history and archaeology. When you actually look at what we can genuinely prove about Norse navigational tools, you discover that it’s a lot iffier than all those web pages suggest.
First, let’s deal with the sun-board. All notions of a Norse sun-board go back to this:
It was discovered in Greenland in the late 1940s by a Danish archaeologist. It’s half of a flat wooden disk (the image on the left is the back side of the image on the right) about 7 cm across (so the complete item would apparently have been about the size of a hockey puck), with triangular notches carved into the outer edge and space for a hole at the center. It was dated to c. 1200 AD. Almost immediately, a man named Captain C. V. Sølver (who presumably was a naval officer or ship’s captain with an interest in archaeology) suggested that it was a bearing dial, a navigational aid mentioned in late medieval Norse records but only in passing. He suggested that it was used with a gnomon to determine latitudes. And that was the starting gun for a race to prove that the Norse had a complex series of tools with which they navigated the North Atlantic. As far as I can determine, all subsequent claims about Vikings having either hand-held bearing dials or water-floated sun-boards are based on Sølver’s theory.
What gets overlooked in this was the response to Sølver’s theories by scholars of the day. They identified numerous flaws in his theory. His gnomon was a reconstruction, not something found with the disk, and the hole is too large for a proper gnomon (assuming that the gnomon didn’t taper, which it could have). More seriously, the disk has 17 notches on it, suggesting that the whole disk would have had 36 notches. Since a compass is based on four quarters, it has to have 4, 8, 16, 32, or 64 markings, not 36, and as far as we know, the Norse only recognized 8 directions anyway (the four cardinal directions and those halfway between them). Additionally, our best Viking-era description of Viking navigation makes no mention of any such tool. And, I would add, the disk dates from about 150 years after the end of the Viking raids; just because the 12th century Norse might have had a bearing dial is not evidence that Ragnar Lothbrok could have had one 400 years earlier.
So if it’s not a navigational aid, what is it? The simplest explanation is just that it was a piece of decoration of some sort. But it’s also been suggested that it might have been part of a child’s top or, more intriguingly, a tool for tracking the number of parishioners who came to confession. (To me, it also looks like it could be a spindle whorl for a drop-spindle.)
What about sun-stones? Scientifically, they’re genuine. Certain types of crystal, including Icelandic feldspar, do have the capacity to amplify light in the way described in the series. There are references to them in late medieval Icelandic church records, and in a mid-14th century Icelandic saga, one is used to locate the sun. But what this proves is that sun-stones were known by the 14th century. It does not prove either that they were known to the Vikings half a millennium earlier, or that they were used as navigational aids. In 2013, the first evidence for the use of a sun-stone as a navigational tool was discovered on an English ship that sank in 1592. Is it possible that Ragnar Lothbrok could have used a sun-stone? Yes. Is there any actual reason to think that he or other Vikings did use such a thing? No. The series is relying not on actual facts here but on Internet wisdom.
In the series, Floki (Gustav Skarsgård) builds Ragnar a knorr, or longship, on his own, in secret. The ship and the various equipment all look reasonable to my non-Norse-naval-archaeologist eyes. In recent decades, our understanding of Norse ship-building techniques has grown enormously, thanks to the work of many experimental archaeologists. And the show seems to have paid attention to at least some of this information. But there are still problems.
Floki apparently lives almost alone, with just Helga for company. I’m not sure how the two of them would manage to cut and haul all the lumber needed for a longship, especially the 60-ft keel. A long ship required a substantial group of skilled craftsmen, including both carpenters and smiths. So Floki has managed the equivalent of assembling a BMW out of spare parts. (In the pilot, he declares that he will get two good planks out a particular tree, which is remarkably wasteful, since he could actually get about 20 planks out of a tree.).
Also, the idea that he could build this ship in secret is rather silly. It’s a ship—it has to be built down by the fjord it will be launched on. But the men of Kattegat live along that fjord—it’s their main street. So he’s somehow secretly assembling his longship in the driveway of his house without any of his neighbors noticing.
When the ship is finally launched, Floki is incredibly nervous, uncertain if it will sail or sink. That’s plausible, since ship-building was not an exact science. Rather Floki has to rely on his past experience, his sense of how strong the wood is and how far it can flex, and so on. So I could imagine a lot of shipwrights breathing a sigh of relief when they realized that the ship they’ve just spent a small fortune to build is not going to sink.
The series gets another small detail wrong. When they raid England, Ragnar ‘parks’ the ship away from the shore and the men are ferried to the beach in a small rowboat. That would have been unnecessary for a longship. Longships were quite wide in the beam, but shallow in the keel. Because they were not very deep, they could easily be beached in shallow surf and then pushed into deeper water (they were quite light for their size). That was one reason why they were ideally suited to raiding; they can land and sail away very quickly.
So once again, what we’re seeing in the series is a modest amount of attention paid to technical issues, such as the ship, while mixing in a lot of inaccurate ‘common knowledge’ and some total fabrication for dramatic tension.
Want to Know More?
There aren’t a lot of accessible books on Norse longboats, although James Graham-Campbell’s The Viking World has a good brief section on them. Five Viking Ships from Roskilde Fjordis a nice look at one of the most important archaeological finds, five Viking Age ships that were sunk in Roskilde Fjord in the later 11th century to create an artificial reef. Known today as the Skuldelev Ships, they were a cross-section of ships in use at the time, and thus an excellent window into Norse ship-building.