Voices of the Past narrates this retelling of Ohthere’s voyage to the White Sea, which he retold to his lord King Alfred. In the late Ninth Century a Norseman arrived at King Alfred of Wessex’s court. The stories he told the king were recorded for posterity by a court scribe. This is a retelling of that Ninth Century document recording the exploits of a Ninth Century resident of Norway’s northernmost province.

A map depicting Europe for King Alfred’s translation of Orosius.  Engraved by John Bayly.

The Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan conveys certain travels attributed to Ohthere, whose detailed travelogue was included in King Alfred’s translation from Latin of the Compendious History of the World by Paulus Orosius (d. 420 A.D.) Ohthere was a Norwegian explorer, hunter, and trader who told the tale of his voyages north and east past the Kola peninsula to the White Sea. Ohthere was received in the court of King Alfred of Wessex.

The Old English text comes from Charles T. Onions, ed. Sweet’s Anglo-Saxon Reader in Prose and Verse, 14th Ed. (Oxford, England: Clarendon, 1959), lines 63-67, and was republished by Jonathan Slocum of the University of Texas at Austin Linguistics Research Center:

Hē sǣde ðæt Norðmanna land wǣre swȳþe lang and swȳðe smæl. Eal þæt his man āþer oððe ettan oððe erian mæg, þæt līð wið ðā sǣ; and þæt is þēah on sumum stōwum swȳðe clūdig; and licgað wilde mōras wið ēastan and wið uppon emnlange þǣm bȳnum lande. On þǣm mōrum eardiað Finnas. And þæt bȳne land is ēasteweard brādost, and symle swā norðor swā smælre. Ēastewerd hit mæg bīon syxtig mīla brād, oþþe hwēne brādre; and middeweard þrītig oððe brādre; and norðeweard hē cwæð, þǣr hit smalost wǣre, þæt hit mihte bēon þrēora mīla brād tō þǣm mōre; and se mōr syðþan, on sumum stōwum, swā brād swā man mæg on twām wucum oferfēran; and on sumum stōwum swā brād swā man mæg on syx dagum oferfēran. Ðonne is tōemnes þǣm lande sūðeweardum, on ōðre healfe þæs mōres, Swēoland, oþ þæt land norðeweard; and tōemnes þǣm lande norðeweardum, Cwēna land. Þā Cwēnas hergiað hwīlum on ðā Norðmen ofer ðone mōr, hwīlum þā Norðmen on hȳ. And þǣr sint swīðe micle meras fersce geond þā mōras; and berað þā Cwēnas hyra scypu ofer land on ðā meras, and þanon hergiað on þā Norðmen; hȳ habbað swȳðe lȳtle scypa and swȳðe lēohte. Ōhthere sǣde þæt sīo scīr hātte Hālgoland þe hē on būde. Hē cwæð þæt nān man ne būde be norðan him. Þonne is ān port on sūðeweardum þǣm lande, þone man hǣt Scīringes hēal. Þyder hē cwæð þæt man ne mihte geseglian on ānum mōnðe, gyf man on niht wīcode, and ǣlce dæge hæfde ambyrne wind; and ealle ðā hwīle hē sceal seglian be lande. And on þæt stēorbord him bið ǣrest Īraland, and þonne ðā īgland þe synd betux Īralande and þissum lande. Þonne is þis land oð hē cymð tō Scīrincges hēale, and ealne weg on þæt bæcbord Norðweg. Wið sūðan þone Scīringes hēal fylð swȳðe mycel sǣ ūp in on ðæt lond; sēo is brādre þonne ǣnig man ofer sēon mæge. And is Gotland on ōðre healfe ongēan, and siððan Sillende. Sēo sǣ līð mænig hund mīla ūp in on þæt land.


He said that the land of the Norwegians was very long and very narrow. All that a man can either graze or plough extends alongside the sea; but it is however in certain places very rocky; and wild moors lie to the east and above, beside the inhabited land. On the moors live Finns. The inhabited land is broadest to the east, and ever narrower further north. To the east it may be sixty miles wide, or somewhat more; and towards the middle, thirty or more. To the north, he said, there it was narrowest, so that it might be three miles wide towards the moor; the moor afterwards, in some places, (is) as wide as one might cross in two weeks; and in some places as wide as one might cross in six days.

Then alongside that land on the south, on the other side of the moors, is Sweden, as far as that land to the north; and alongside that land on the north, the land of the Cwena people. The Cwenas sometimes conduct raids against the Norwegians across the moor, sometimes the Norwegians against them. There are very large fresh-water lakes throughout the moors; the Cwenas carry their ships over the land onto the lakes, and from there raid the Norwegians; they have very small and very light ships.

Ohthere said that the district is called Helgeland, which he lived in. He said that no one lived north of him. There is a port in the south of that land, which one calls Skiringssal. He said that one could not sail there in a month, if one anchored at night, and each day had a favorable wind; and all the while he shall sail near land. To the starboard of him is first Ireland, and then the islands that are between Ireland and this land. Then this land continues until one comes to Skiringssal, and all the way on the port side (is) Norway. To the south of the Skiringssal a very large sea flows up into that land; it is wider than any man is able to see across. Jutland is on the other side, opposite, and thereafter Zealand. The sea extends many hundreds of miles up into that land.

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