Book of Discovery - M. B. Synge
A more interesting force than the pilgrim travellers now claims our attention, and we turn to the frozen north, to the wild region at the back of the north wind, for new activity and discovery. Out of this land of fable and myth, legend and poetry, the fierce inhabitants of Scandinavia begin to take shape. Tacitus speaks of them as "mighty in fame," Ptolemy as "savage and clothed in the skins of wild beasts."
From time to time we have glimpses of these folk sailing about in the Baltic Sea. They were known to the Finns of the north as "sea-rovers." "The sea is their school of war and the storm their friend; they are sea-wolves that live on the pillage of the world," sang an old Roman long years ago. The daring spirit of their race had already attracted the attention of Britons across the seas. The careless glee with which they seized either sword or oar and waged war with the stormy seas for a scanty livelihood, raiding all the neighbouring coasts, had earned them the name of Vikings or creek men. Their black-sailed ships stood high out of the water, prow and stern ending in the head and tail of some strange animal, while their long beards, their loose shirts, and battleaxe made them conspicuous. "From the fury of the Northmen save us, Lord," prayed those who had come in contact with these Vikings.
In the ninth century they spring into fame as explorers by the discovery of Iceland. It was in this wise. The chief of a band of pirates, one Naddod, during a voyage to the Faroe Islands was driven by a storm upon the eastern coast of an unknown land. Not a soul was to be seen. He climbed a high mountain covered with snow and took a look round, but though he could see far and wide, not a human being could he detect. So he named it Snow-land and sailed home to relate his adventures.
A few years later another Viking, Gardar, bound for the west coast of Scotland, was likewise blown by a storm on to the coast of Snow-land. He sailed right round and found it to be an island. Considering that it was unsafe to navigate the icy northern seas in winter; he built himself a hut on the island, lived there till the spring, and returned home. His account of the island fired the enthusiasm of an old Viking called Floki, who sailed away, meaning to take possession of the newly discovered country. At the Faroe Islands he let fly three ravens. The first returned, the second came back to the ship, the third guided the navigator to the island which he sought. He met a quantity of drift ice about the northern part of the island and called it Ice-land, the name it has borne ever since. But amid the Arctic ice he spent a desolate winter; the island seemed full of lofty mountains covered with eternal snow. His companions, however, were delighted with the climate and the soil.
"Milk drops from every plant and butter from every twig," they said; "this was a land where men might live free from the tyranny of kings." Free, indeed, for the island was totally uninhabited.
Iceland soon became a refuge for pirates and other lawless characters. Among these was a young Viking called Erik the Red. He was too lawless even for Iceland, and, being banished for three years, he sailed away in 985 in search of new lands. At the end of his three years he returned and reported that he had discovered land with rich meadows, fine woods, and good fishing, which he had named Green-land. So glowing was his description that soon a party of men and women, with household goods and cattle, started forth in twenty-five ships to colonise the new land. Still the passion for discovery continued, and Erik's son Lief fitted out a vessel to carry thirty-five men in quest of land already sighted to the west.
A VIKING SHIP.
It was in the year 1000 that they reached the coast of North America. It was a barren and rocky shore to which Lief gave the name of Rock-land. Sailing farther, they found a low coast wooded to its edge, to which they gave the simple name of Woody-land. Two days later an island appeared, and on the mainland they discovered a river up which they sailed. On low bushes by the banks of the river they found sweet berries or wild grapes from which a sort of wine was made, so Lief called the land Vin-land. It is now supposed that Vinland and Woodyland are really Newfoundland and Labrador on the shores of North America. After this, shipload followed shipload from Iceland to colonise Vinland. But without success.
So the Viking discoveries in these cold and inhospitable regions were but transitory. The clouds lifted but for a moment to settle down again over America, till it was rediscovered some five hundred years later.
Before leaving these northern explorers let us remind ourselves of the old saga so graphic in its description of their ocean lives
"Down the fiord sweep wind and rain;
Our sails and tackle sway and strain;
Wet to the skin
We'd sound within.
Our sea-steed through the foam goes prancing,
While shields and spears and helms are glancing
From fiord to sea,
Our ships ride free,
And down the wind with swelling sail
We scud before the gathering gale."
Now, while these fierce old Vikings were navigating unknown seas, Alfred the Great was reigning over England. Among his many and varied interests he was deeply thrilled in the geography of the world. He was always ready to listen to those who had been on voyages of discovery, and in his account of the geography of Europe he tells us of a famous old sea captain called Othere, who had navigated the unknown seas to the north of Europe.
"Othere told his lord, King Alfred, that he dwelt northmost of all Northmen, on the land by the western sea. He said that the land is very long thence to the north; but it is all waste save that in a few places here and there Finns reside. He said that he wished to find out how far the land lay right north, or whether any man dwelt to the north of the waste. Then he went right north near the land, and he left all the way the waste land on the right and the wide sea on the left for three days. There was he as far north as the whale-hunters ever go. He then went yet right north, as far as he could sail in the next three days. After sailing for another nine days he came to a great river; they turned up into the river, but they durst not sail beyond it on account of hostility, for the land was all inhabited on the other side. He had not before met with any inhabited land since he came from his own home, for the land was uninhabited all the way on his right save by fishermen, hunters, and fowlers, and they were all Finns, and there was always a wide sea on his left."
And as a trophy of distant lands and a proof of his having reached farthest north, Othere presented the King with a "snow-white walrus tooth."
But King Alfred wanted his subjects to know more of the world around them, and even in the midst of his busy life he managed to write a book in Anglo-Saxon, which sums up for us the world's knowledge some nine hundred years after Ptolemy—nine hundred barren years as far as much geographical progress was concerned. Alfred does not even allude to Iceland, Greenland, or Vinland. The news of these discoveries had evidently not reached him. He repeats the old legend of Thule to the north-west of Ireland, "which is known to few, on account of its very great distance."
So ends the brief but thrilling discoveries of the Northmen, who knew not fear, and we turn again to landsmen and the east.