Saturday 26 March 2011

Irish Influence on Medieval Welsh Literature

A new book by Patrick Sims-Williams

Patrick Sims-Williams has recently completed a new book, published by Oxford University Press, March 2011, on Irish influence on medieval Welsh literature which will be of interest not only to medievalists but to all those concerned with the problem of how to recognize and evaluate literary influence.

Professor Sims-Williams has authored several books on Celtic and Anglo-Saxon topics, including Ancient Celtic Place-Names in Europe and Asia Minor (Wiley-Blackwell, 2006), Ptolemy: Towards a Linguistic Atlas of the Earliest Celtic Place-names of Europe (CMCS Publications, 2000), The Celtic Inscriptions of Britain: Phonology and Chronology, C.400-1200 (Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), and Religion and Literature in Western England, 600-800 (Cambridge University Press, 2005).

He has also contributed to major works such as 'The Early Welsh Arthurian Poems' (pp.33-72) to The Arthur of the Welsh: Arthurian Legend in Mediaeval Welsh Literature, edited by Rachel Bromwich, AOH Jarman and Brinley Roberts (University of Wales Press, 1991) and 'Gildas and vernacular poetry' (pp. 169-190) in Gildas: New Approaches (1984), edited by Michael Lapidge and David Dumville. He has edited the journal Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies (CMCS) since 1981.

In this new book, Irish Influence on Medieval Welsh Literature, Patrick Sims-Williams examines the extensive and now famous literature of Ireland's Middle Ages which was unknown outside the Gaelic-speaking world of Ireland, Scotland, and the Isle of Man - with Wales an important exception. With the settlement of Irish emigrants in Wales from the 5th century onwards, Irish scholars worked in Wales in the 9th century, and throughout the Middle Ages there were ecclesiastical, mercantile, and military contacts across the Irish Sea. From this standpoint, it is not surprising that the names of Irish heroes such as Cu Roi, Cu Chulainn, Finn, and Deirdre became known to Welsh poets, and that Irish narratives influenced the authors of the Welsh Mabinogion .

Yet the Welsh and Irish languages were not mutually comprehensible, the degree to which the two countries still shared a common Celtic inheritance is contested, and Latin provided a convenient lingua franca. This work discusses if some of the similarities between the Irish and Welsh literatures could be due to independent influences or even to coincidence? Patrick Sims-Williams provides a new approach to these controversial questions, situating them in the context of the rest of medieval literature and international folklore. The result is the first comprehensive estimation of the extent to which Irish literature influenced medieval Welsh literature.

Analytical Table of Contents

List of maps

1. Introduction
The introduction discusses estimates of Irish vernacular influence on Welsh literature. Assumptions about ‘Celtic’ literature deriving from Renan and Arnold are considered in the light of ‘Celtoscepticism’. Problems include the divergence of Irish and Welsh, loss of manuscripts, uncertain dating of texts, independent folkloric influence, the widespread ‘Heroic Biography’ and ‘Heroic Age’, and the limitations of the philological Stammbaum model. Cognate names e.g. Finn/Gwynn, Nuadu/Nudd, Suibhne Geilt/Myrddin Wyllt (Merlin) versus borrowed names such as Mannanán/Manawydan are analysed, as is the character Brân. Historical contacts include Hywel ab Owain Gwynedd's and Cadwgan of Whitland's Irish parentage, the use of Welsh at Tracton, Co. Cork, and the alleged influence of Gruffudd ap Cynan on Welsh music and poetry. Latin intermediaries are include the Vita of Maedóc of Ferns. Some Irish material in Welsh reflects observation of reality (e.g. Irish dress) rather than texts.

2. Irish Vernacular Influence on the Earliest Welsh Literature
This chapter contends that solid evidence of Irish influence on Welsh literature starts with the ninth-century ‘brain drain’ of Irish scholars. The discussion covers the Cambridge Juvencus manuscript, Dubthach and Merfyn Frych, the Historia Brittonum, Cormac's Glossary, glosses and marginalia, the Pangur Bán poem, Cædmon's Hymn, the Twrch Trwyth and Ychen Bannog legends, and the May Day poem in the Black Book of Carmarthen and the Elegy on Cú Roí in the Book of Taliesin.

3. Kaer Sidi and other Celtic Otherworld Terms
In chapter three the author argues that modern terms the Otherworld and l'Autre Monde are problematic and that there was no common Celtic term. Locations overseas and in tumuli are discussed. Terms discussed include síd, Annwfn, Andoounnabo, gorsedd, forad, Ynys Wair, Kaer Sidi, Caer Siddi, tíre béo and terra viventium. Reference is made to Preiddeu Annwn, Historia Brittonum, De Abbatibus, Elis Gruffudd, Hanes Taliesin, and William Owen-Pughe.

4. Narrative Techniques in Irish and Welsh, I: The 'Slavic Antithesis'
Looks at narrative technique, the so-called Slavic Antithesis', found in Irish and Welsh, but also elsewhere which casts doubt on there being a connection between the Celtic examples. Illustrations are given not only from Togail Bruidne Da Derga, Mesca Ulad, Táin Bó Cúailnge, the Cynddylan englynion, and Taliesin, but also the Finnsburg fragment and Eiríksmál, ballads from Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, Finland, Ossetia, and even from Superman.

5. Narrative Techniques in Irish and Welsh, II: The Riddling 'Watchman Device'
With particular reference to Togail Bruidne Da Derga and Branwen this chapter discusses the narrative technique called the ‘Watchman Device’. It is illustrated from Homer, Statius, Valerius Flaccus, the Shahnama, the Mahabharata, Laxdœla saga, Thithreks saga, the Bórama, Táin Bó Cúailnge, Serbian and Scottish Gaelic ballads, and even Kenneth Grahame. The Irish and Welsh examples have undergone the influence, perhaps independently, of the ‘Slavic Antithesis’ of Chapter 4 and of international landscape riddles. Riddles from around the world are compared and the relationship beween riddle, metaphor, kenning, and myth is discussed.

6. The Irish Elements in Culhwch and Olwen
Chapter six examines the Irish personal names and place-names in Culhwch and Olwen and what they meant to the author in terms of Irish literature, e.g. Esgair Oerfel, Seisgeann Uairbheóil, the ‘five fifths of Ireland’, Diwrnach, Cai, Llenlleawg, Caledfwlch, Conchobar mac Nesa, Cú Roí mac Dáiri, Fergus mac Róich, Lóegaire Búadach, Conall Cernach, Maelwys mab Baedan, Scilti scawntroet, Gilla goeshydd, Garselit gwyddel, Brys fab bryssethach. Use of Annals, floating lists, and sheer invention is suggested. Some comparison is made with narrative themes in the areithiau, Cathcharpat Serda, Fled Bricrend, Widsith, Cath Maige Tuired and Rigomer.

7. The Irish Geography of Branwen
Allusions to Irish geography in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen; the former rivers between Britain and Ireland called Lli and the Archan and the submerged kingdoms; the river Liffey and Dublin; and the origin story of the ‘five fifths of Ireland’ are discussed in the seventh chapter. The last is compared with Lebor Gabála Érenn and Giraldus Cambrensis, with the Lot story in Genesis 19, with the stories of Cairbre Cattchenn and Túathal Techtmar, and with the ‘Treachery at Scone’.

8. The Submission of Irish Kings in Fact and Fiction
This chapter looks at possible allusions in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen, to Irish customs relating to hospitality and submission to an overlord, with particular reference to Brian Bórama, Athelstan, Henry II, ‘Easter houses’, and the use of halls and tents. Texts discussed include Gesta Regis Henrici Secundi, Annals of Inisfallen, Annals of Ulster, Annals of Tigernach, Mac Carthaigh's Book, Expugnatio Hibernica, Thady Dowling, Vita Sanctae Monennae, Chaucer's House of Fame, Tromdám Guaire, Scéla Cano meic Gartnáin, Scéla Mucce Meic Dathó, Fled Bricrenn, Orgain Denna Ríg, and Vitae of St Gwynllyw and St Gwenfrewy.

9. Llasar and the Lake of the Cauldron
Here the author offers an explanation of the story in Branwen about the giant Llasar bringing the cauldron of rebirth from a lake. Comparison is made with the folklore of Llyn Cwm-llwch and Llyn y Fan Fach, and in particular with that of Devenish on Lough Erne, as in Tochmarc Emire, Tochmarc Ferbae and Cóir Anmann. Llasar's story is compared with stereotyped hostile migration-legends, e.g. the Flemish in Pembrokeshire or Ingimund near Chester. Llasar's name derived from llasar ‘azure’ but got equated with Irish lasair ‘flame’ and Latin Lazarus, giving rise to the story that he was shunned, was burned in the Iron House and survived with the cauldron of resurrection. Welsh knowledge of the Lives Irish saints called Lasair, Mo Laise, or similar is likely; connections between Wales and the cult of St Maedóc at Ferns, Co. Wexford, and Drumlane, Co. Cavan provide a link.

10. The Iron House, the Men in Bags, and the Severed Head
Continuing from Chapter 9, this chapter begins with the Iron House story in Branwen. Arson in medieval life and literature is discussed, with special reference to Norse material and the Irish sagas Orgain Denna Ríg and Mesca Ulad, but also the Grimms' ‘Six Go Through the World’ and Vercelli Homily IX. It is argued that the Bórama, first attested in the Book of Leinster, is the best Irish parallel to Branwen and that a version of it, probably from St Maedóc's monastery at Ferns, Co. Wexford, influenced the Welsh author here and in his ‘Men in the Bags’ episode. A Leinster sequel, The Battle of Allen, may have influenced his story of Brân's severed head. The Welsh king Brân and Irish king Brandub seem to have been equated.

11. Cu Chulainn in Late Medieval Wales
This chapter discusses a legendary Irish musical council at Glendalough and then a reference to Cú Chulainn in a sixteenth-century Welsh tune-name. Allusions to this hero by the poets Lewys Glyn Cothi and Gwilym ab Ieuan Hen may refer to this tune or to the Elegy on Cú Roí mac Dáiri in the Book of Taliesin, available in Radnorshire. The name Cú Chulainn also seems to have been used as a nickname for Irish immigrants at Ystumgwern in the Extent of Merioneth of 1420 and in Llyn in a subsidy roll for 1292–3, The status of other Irish immigrants such as the Twrllachied of Anglesey and Osbwrn Wyddel of Llanaber are discussed. In Appendix I it is argued that Cuhelyn is an unrelated name and that allusions to ‘Cuhelyn's shield’ are more likely to refer to the Welsh Cuhelyn Fardd than to the Irish story about the shield of Cú Chulainn. In Appendix II it is argued that allusions to ‘nyf’ by Casnodyn, Dafydd ap Gwilym, Gruffudd ap Maredudd and other Welsh poets are not to an Irish heroine Niamh, but to the Welsh word nyf meaning ‘snow’.

12. Fionn, Deirdre, and Lebarcham in Late Medieval Wales
Chapter 12 considers allusions to Fionn, Deirdre, and Lebarcham by late medieval Welsh poets, in particular Gruffudd ap Maredudd, Dafydd y Coed, Dafydd ap Gwilym, Casnodyn, Trahaearn, Lewys Glyn Cothi, Ieuan Du'r Bilwg, Dafydd Nanmor and Wiliam Llyn. A reference to ‘Ffin vab Koel’ in the satire Araith Iolo Goch is also discussed. The Deirdre allusions are to the late medieval Oided mac nUisnig (or Oidheadh Chloinne hUisneach) rather than the Old Irish Longes mac nUislenn. The descriptions of Lebarcham recall Talland Étair and Tochmarc Luaine ocus Aided Athairne.

13. Irish Influence on Medieval Welsh Literary Criticism?
Discusses a possible instance of medieval Irish literary criticism influencing Welsh literacy criticism, in connection with comments on shifts between second and third person address in panegyric. Reference is made to the Irish Grammatical Tracts and Bardic Syntactical Tracts, the Trefhocul tract, Preface to Amra Coluim Cille, Taliesin, the Gogynfeirdd, the Cywyddwyr, Einion Offeiriad and the Welsh Bardic Grammar. Comparison is made with Priscian and Petrus Hispanus, and evocatio in Latin rhetoric. A possible Latin formula praesens et absens is hypothesized.

14. Conclusion
In summary, the final chapter discusses the book's findings and the changing views on Irish influence of scholars such as John Rhys, Kuno Meyer, Ludwig Stern, John Morris-Jones, T. Gwynn Jones, J. Lloyd-Jones, Ifor Williams, Saunders Lewis, C. H. Slover, Cecile O'Rahilly, and Proinsias Mac Cana.

Abbreviations and References


Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies
Patrick Sims-Williams has been Professor of Celtic Studies at Aberystwyth University since 1994 and was previously Reader in Celtic and Anglo-Saxon an the University of Cambridge. Currently President of the International Congress of Celtic Studies, he was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1996 and directs the Academy’s research project on the Development of the Welsh Language (Datblygiad yr Iaith Gymraeg).

In 1981 he founded the academic journal Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies (formerly Cambridge Medieval Celtic Studies to 1992) and has remained the journal's editor to this day. CMCS is a bi-annual journal of Celtic studies, appearing in summer and winter, covering Medieval Celtic language, literature, history, and archaeology of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany from A.D. 400 to 1500.

More recently, CMCS Publications has widened its publishing output to monographs, such as Helen McKee's The Cambridge Juvencus manuscript glossed in Latin, Old Welsh, and Old Irish: Text and Commentary (2000) and Marged Haycock's Legendary Poems from the Book of Taliesin (2007).

Patrick Sims-Williams is a regular contributor with articles such as:
Gildas and the Anglo-Saxons - CMCS 6 (1983), pp. 1-30.
The submission of Irish kings in fact and fiction: Henry II Bendigeidfran, and dating of The Four Branches of the Mabinogi - CMCS 22 (1991), pp. 31-61
The provenance of the Llywarch Hen poems: a case for Llan-gors, Brycheiniog - CMCS 26 (1993), pp. 27-63
The death of Urien - CMCS 32 (1996) , pp. 25-56
Celtomania and Celtoscepticism - CMCS 36 (1998), pp. 1-36

CMCS is available from the Department of Welsh, Old College, King Street, Aberystwyth. SY23 2AX. Wales. Annual subscription (since 2002) is £22 to institutions; £10 to individuals for 2 numbers, inclusive of packing and postage.

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Tuesday 15 March 2011

Early Welsh Saga Poetry

“I carry a head in the grasp of my hand
of a generous lord – he used to lead a country.

The chief support of Britain has been carried off

I carry a head which cared for me.

I know it is not for my good.

Alas, my hand, it performed harshly.

I carry a head from the side of the hill

and on his lips is a fine foam

of blood. Woe to Rheged because of this day.

It has wrenched my arm, it has crushed my ribs,

it has broken my heart

I carry a head which cared for me.”

Welsh saga poetry is said to have its roots in Dark Age Northern Britain, 400 – 700 AD. The 9th century Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) records the bards of the time Taliesin and Aneirin amongst others who's work has not survived:

“Then Dutgirn at that time fought bravely against the nation of the Angles. At that time, Talhaiarn Cataguen was famed for poetry, and Neirin, and Taliesin and Bluchbard, and Cian, who is called Guenith Guaut, were all famous at the same time in British poetry.”

This era is known as the period of Y Cynfeirdd (literally "The earliest poets"), their poetry celebrating their patrons and praising their valiant efforts in battle. We know of Taliesin's works from the 6th century praise poems to Urien of Rheged and Aneirin's Y Gododdin, the moving poem recounting the disastrous British attack on Catraeth, the most archaic version of the poem John Koch has dated to the 6th century.

This style, personified by Aneirin and Taliesin, was continued by a number of anonymous poets all writing in the same tradition; from the 9th century we find the saga poetry of Llywarch Hen which laments those who have fought and fallen in battle. 'Llywarch Hen' (Llywarch the Old) was a 6th century prince, and cousin to Urien, from the ruling family in the 'Hen Ogledd' (Old North) of the northern British kingdom of Rheged, comprising of territory from parts of modern southern Scotland. In his later years Llywarch, now an old man, has also been transferred from his northern British background to Wales in the context of the incessant border skirmishes with the English. The early Welsh poems attributed to Llywarch Hen have come to be known as saga englynion.

Welsh Saga Poetry

Early Welsh saga "Englynion", are lyric poems long presumed to be the poetic remains of lost stories, told in a mixture of prose and verse.

Englynion (singular: englyn) are the oldest recorded Welsh metrical form, short form poems that consist of three or four lines stanzas, dating from as early as the 9th century. Each englyn has a complex structure, for example involving rhymes or half rhymes, and a certain number of syllables per line and other variants.

The englyn is the only early stanzaic metre in Welsh. The origins of the metre have defied attempts to be traced but is thought to have been in existence since at least the 8th century. The main period of floruit for the three-line types is the 9th and 10th centuries; by the 11th century the higher classes of poets, the bards, had adopted four-line variants of the earlier types, and the three-line types were used only by the lesser, more popular poets. The englyn is used for a wide range of subjects in the early period: religious verse, gnomic poetry, prophecy and antiquarian works. The main bardic genre, praise poetry, is not attested for the early period.

But by far the most extensive and important body of englynion poetry are the lyric poems in character termed “englynion chedlonol” or “saga englynion”.

Saga poems are long narratives, recalling an heroic adventure or events, typically battles in early Welsh poetry, often featuring generations of the same family. The term is said to originate from Old Norse or Icelandic prose tales depicting Norwegian and Icelandic history, battles and legends.

The Songs of Llywarch the Old

The collective early Welsh saga englynion known as Canu Llywarch Hen, Canu Heledd and Canu Urien are considered to be part of a cycle concerning the figures whose stories they tell. Their subject is mainly the characters and events of the 6th and 7th centuries, during the long years of warfare with the Anglo-Saxon invaders. These three main cycles, or groups of poems, refer to material concerning Llywarch Hen, Heledd and those dealing with the death of Urien Rheged.

In the poems concerning Llywarch Hen, (Canu Llywarch Hen) his life was the subject of a presumed lost saga of which only a series of englynion, survives. Llywarch flees to Powys, his new homeland often associated with Llanfor, near Llyn Tegid in Gwynedd. Canu Llywarch Hen recalls the loss of all twenty-four sons of Llywarch Hen, in battle against the English.

The Canu Heledd recalls the fall of the kings of the Pengwern region (modern Shrewsbury, Shropshire) and the elegy Geraint son of Erbin, concerning the Battle of Llongborth, are also associated indirectly with Llywarch. The "Heledd Cycle" laments the death of Cynddylan, prince of Powys in the 7th century, his lands devastated by the English of Mercia. Scholars argue that the 9th century poems do not deal with historical events, indeed there is no account of Cynddylan outside of Welsh poetry, but reflect the background of the border conflict. Heledd, sister of Cynddylan, is the lone survivor in this cycle, in which she laments the loss of Cynddylan's great hall, formerly filled with life, but now ruined and empty.

Included here is the "The Death-song of Cynddylan" (Marwnad Cynddylan), which is thought to be older than the 10th century Canu Heledd, likely composed in East Powys not long after Cynddylan's death in 655 AD.

“The Death of Urien”, the third in the cycle, is the most obscure of the three, composed sometime after the assassination of the 6th century British leader of Rheged. Llywarch, here in his native north Britain, appears as the narrator, where in one poem he returns to Rheged with the British leader's severed head; whether Llywarch murdered Urien himself or retrieved his head to prevent the enemy obtaining it as a trophy has been the subject of considerable debate. The Historia Brittonum recalls how Urien was killed by one of his own people:

“Hussa reigned seven years. Against him fought four kings, Urien, and Ryderthen, and Guallauc, and Morcant. Theodoric fought bravely, together with his sons, against that Urien. But at that time sometimes the enemy and sometimes our countrymen were defeated, and he shut them up three days and three nights in the island of Metcaut; and whilst he was on an expedition he was murdered, at the instance of Morcant, out of envy, because he possessed so much superiority over all the kings in military science.”

Welsh Scholarship

Most of the saga englynion were first published in 1792 by William Owen. At the time Llywarch was considered to be the composer of the englynion, not a character in some of the verse. The early works were considered unsound due to the infancy of Welsh scholarship. The texts from the Red Book of Hergest englynion and Black Book of Carmarthen poems in The Myvyrian Archaeology of Wales (1801-7) were considered little better. Skene's The Four Ancient Books of Wales (1868) were translations commissioned from Welsh clergymen of the time who had no training in the older language and considered unreliable at best. In the 1900's J Gwenogvryn Evans produced diplomatic editions of The Black Book of Carmarthen (1906) and The Poetry in the Book of Hergest (1911) which are invaluable for the modern scholar of Welsh Literature.

Modern Welsh scholarship begins with the works of Sir John Rhys and Sir John Morris-Jones. However, it was their pupil Sir Ifor Williams who produced editions and elucidations of the early poetry of Wales. Williams presented an outline of his theories in his British Academy Lecture of 1932 `The Poems of Llywarch Hen' which demonstrated that this cycle of poems dated from the 9th century based primarily on historical grounds.

Soon after, Williams produced 'Canu Llywarch Hen' (University of Wales Press, 1935), containing poems relating to the figures of Llywarch Hen, Heledd and Urien Rheged, their background being the wars between the Cymry and the English in the 6th and 7th centuries, in Powys and on the Shropshire border; but also including memories of warfare in the `Old North', which covered much of southern Scotland, and northern England. Williams showed that, contrary to earlier assumption, Llywarch Hen is not the name of the anonymous poet who composed these dramatic poems, but rather that of a leading actor in them, an ancient warrior, relocated in Powys, portrayed as a senile figure, goading his sons to go out and fight in defence of their borderland, as he himself is no longer able to do so, then lamenting their loss.

Patrick Ford produced the first work to present an entire cycle to an English audience in 'The Poetry of Llywarch Hen' (1974). Ford's work is not an edition and denies any sort of narrative framework for the poems.

Jenny Rowland produced the first full edition of the saga englynion since Sir Ifor Williams's Canu Llywarch Hen appeared in Welsh. Rowland's work was first submitted as a PhD thesis to the University of Wales in 1982. Rowland's work, based primarily on the Red Book texts, was published by as Early Welsh Saga Poetry: A Study & Edition of the Englynion (D S Brewer, 1990) containing full English translations, narrative and notes making the work accessible to a wider English audience. Long out of print, and virtually impossible to obtain a copy second-hand, Rowland's opus is now available again as a “print-on-demand” service directly from the publisher's website.

Rowland's critical discussion of the saga "englynion" seeks to restore the lost narrative background by careful reading of internal indications and by comparative study. The growth, nature and artistry of each cycle is fully explored, as well as how each relates to the larger corpus. Relevant early Welsh traditions and history are also cited and the broader questions of what was the nature of the original prose setting, the metrical principles and practice, and their relationship to the Old English elegies are also covered.


Early Welsh Saga Poetry
A Study & Edition of the Englynion
Edited by Jenny Rowland

Published1990, D S Brewer
ISBN: 9780859912754
Hardback, 698 pages

Table of Contents
Part 1: The Llywarch Hen poems; the Urien Rheged poems; Canu Heledd - the historical background - the poems; "Claf Abercuawg" and penitential lyrics; miscellaneous saga poems and the performance of the saga "Englynion"; other genres using the three-line "Englyn" metres; metrics, authorship, language, dating.
Part 2: Edition and translations of the texts: the manuscripts of the saga "Englynion"; editorial note; Canu Llywarch; Canu Urien; Canu Heledd; "Claf Abercuawg" and "Kyntaw Geir"; miscellaneous saga poems. Appendices: Early Welsh genealogical tracts - edition and text of "Marwnad Cynddylan".

This major “print on demand” programme ensures specialist, rare and difficult to find books such as Gildas: New Approaches edited by David Dumville and Michael Lapidge, and Saint Germanus of Auxerre and the End of Roman Britain by E A Thompson, are available once more. Essential reading for students of Medieval Welsh literature and Dark Age Britain.

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Sunday 6 March 2011

The Viking Art of Navigation

The Vikings were renown as seaborne raiders of north west Europe and a dominant force for 300 years between AD 750 and AD 1200. The Vikings were known to have travelled vast distances navigating by the sun using a special sundial or ‘sundisc’. However, how the Vikings navigated in cloudy or foggy situations, when the 'sundisc' was unusable, was not fully understood until recently.

The word 'Viking' is a modern revival, the term is not known from Middle English, but by the 19th century it had come to mean a Scandinavian pirate. The term 'Vikingr' was used only in Denmark and the West Norse area as attested in the Norse prose histories known as the Sagas of the Icelanders and found on several Scandinavian rune stones, usually explained as meaning "one who came from the fjords," from 'vik' meaning "creek, inlet, small bay".

The Modern English term Viking is thought to have derived from Old English 'wicing' and Old Frisian 'wizing' which are almost 300 years older than the Sagas of the Icelanders and thought to derive from 'wic' as in "village, or camp", related to the Latin 'vicus' meaning "village, habitation", referring to their temporary camps, an important feature of the Viking raids which commenced in Britain in 793 AD with the attack on Lindisfarne. The later Norse raiding armies who settled in England were generally referred to as 'Danes'.

In the Sagas the word 'Viking' refers to a seaborne warrior taking part in an oversea expedition, such as their famed longship journeys as far afield as the Russian Volga and across the northern Atlantic to Newfoundland in the New World. According to 'Eirik the Red's Saga' Norsemen first settled Greenland in the 980's AD and started to explore lands westward only a few years after the Greenland settlements were established.

The Sagas tell that Leif Erikson landed on the shores of a beautiful place with references to wild grapes, hardwoods, butternuts, that he named Vinland (Vine land). The length of day recorded in the sagas has led to speculation that Leif’s Vinland was somewhere between New England and Newfoundland.

Tales claiming the Vikings reached the New World 500 years before Columbus did not become widely known until the 19th century, and since then scholars have debated their veracity claiming the content of the sagas cannot be relied upon as primary evidence and arguing that seaborne Norsemen could not have successfully navigated across the Atlantic solely by the sundial or ‘sundisc’ alone which would be ineffective in cloudy weather. The magnetic compass was not then known in Europe and in the short summer nights of northerly latitudes they would also have had limited views of the stars to guide their way across the ocean. It has long been suspected that the Vikings must had some other navigational aid.

In 1960 evidence of Vikings in North America came to light at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. Several Norse artifacts and clear Icelandic- style house foundations were uncovered providing proof that Vikings had indeed landed, and briefly settled, in North America before Columbus. More recent archaeological work has revealed over 300 years of intermittent contact between the Greenlandic Norsemen and Native American peoples, primarily with the Inuit people in the Canadian Arctic. While the Norse colony in Greenland lasted for almost 500 years, the continental North American settlements were small and do not appear to have developed into permanent colonies.

How did the Vikings navigate across the northern Atlantic to the New World?

The Sagas tells of a glowing 'sólarsteinn' or ‘sunstone,’ that, when held up to the sky, revealed the position of the Sun even on a cloudy day. References to these mysterious sunstones are found in the Saga known as the Sigurd legend. The story of Sigurd is told in the Völsunga Saga, a late 13th century Icelandic prose rendition of the origin and decline of the Völsung clan, although the origins of the material are thought to be considerably older.

The Saga tells that:
"The weather was very cloudy. It was snowing. Holy Olaf the king sent out somebody to look around, but there was no clear point in the sky. Then he asked Sigurd to tell him where the sun was. After Sigurd complied, he grabbed a sunstone, looked at the sky and saw from where the light came, from which he guessed the position of the invisible sun. It turned out that Sigurd was right."

Past research has shown that some insects, including honeybees, use polarisation for navigation when the sun is obscured by clouds. This led to a hypothesis being developed in the1960's which suggested that under foggy or cloudy conditions, Vikings may have been able to determine the azimuth direction of the Sun with the help of skylight polarisation, as with the insects.

According to this theory, the Vikings could have determined the direction of the skylight polarisation with the help of a birefringent (double-refracting) crystal. Danish archaeologist Thorkild Ramskou suggested in 1967 that the enigmatic sólarsteinn (sunstone) could have been a piece of Icelandic spar, which is calcite in the form of a transparent, polarising crystal, common in Iceland. Other candidates for the sunstone include cordierite or tourmaline, both of which are common in Scandinavia and also function as polarising filters.

Iceland spar calcite crystal

Recently a new study, published in the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, March 2011, reported how researchers tested these crystals in the high Arctic, Finland, Hungary and Tunisia when the sun was hidden. Scientists Gábor Horváth from the Eötvös University in Budapest and Susanne Ĺkesson from Lund University, have been investigating Ramskou’s hypothesis which had until now never been tested.

A polarising crystal allows only light polarized in one direction to pass through, and it appears dark or light depending on its orientation to the polarised light. Sunlight becomes polarised through the scattering of air molecules in the atmosphere, with the line of polarisation at a tangent to concentric circles with the sun at their centre. Ramskou postulated that by rotating a polarizing crystal the Vikings could determine the direction of polarisation and therefore the position of the sun when it was hidden by fog or was just beneath the horizon.

In 2005, Horváth and Ĺkesson crossed the Arctic Ocean and measured the polarisation patterns of the sky under a wide range of weather conditions in totally overcast skies. They were surprised to learn that these patterns were very similar on clear and cloudy days and even when the ground was covered over by snow and ice, although the polarisation was weaker in overcast conditions. They concluded that these polarising crystals function in much the same way as the mythical sunstone of the Vikings, suggesting the Norsemen could have used this information to determine the position of the sun even when obscured by cloud or fog and navigate across the northern Atlantic in high Arctic zones.

Viking 'sunstone' more than a myth

Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 12 March 2011, Vol. 366, No. 1565, pp.772-782:
On the trail of Vikings with polarized skylight: experimental study of the atmospheric optical prerequisites allowing polarimetric navigation by Viking seafarers - Gábor Horváth, András Barta, István Pomozi, Bence Suhai, Ramón Hegedüs, Susanne Åkesson, Benno Meyer-Rochow and Rüdiger Wehner.

Proceedings of the Royal Society A, 8 March 2012, Vol. 468 no. 2139, pp.671-684
A depolarizer as a possible precise sunstone for Viking navigation by polarized skylight - Guy Ropars, Gabriel Gorre, Albert Le Floch, Jay Enoch and Vasudevan Lakshminarayanan.


Further research in 2011 on a crystal recovered from a 16th century shipwreck indicated that such sunstones could indeed have been used by the Vikings to successfully navigate across the North Atlantic to the New World.

Writing in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A, a team led by Guy Ropars at the University of Rennes in Brittany, describe tests on a a piece of Icelandic spar found aboard a sunken Elizabethan military ship discovered off Alderney in the Channel Islands in the 1970s. The study team came to the conclusion that using the Icelandic spar as a depolarizer, the Vikings could have performed precise navigation under different conditions.

The study suggests that the sunstone may still have been in use on board ships more than four centuries after the Vikings, proving invaluable in avoiding navigational errors as just one of the cannons aboard the ship would have disturbed a magnetic compass by as much as 90 degrees.

In March 2013 researcher's declared that a crystal found in the wreck of a 16th-century English warship dispatched to France in 1592 by Queen Elizabeth I that foundered off the island of Alderney, in the Channel, is indeed a sunstone, the near-mythical navigational aid said to have been used by Viking mariners.

The theory first aired 45 years ago claimed that a sunstone, a device that fractures the light, could enable seafarers to locate the Sun even when it is behind clouds or has dropped below the horizon. Sunstones, could have helped the great Norse mariners to navigate their way to Iceland and even perhaps as far as North America during the Viking heyday of 900-1200 AD, way before the magnetic compass was introduced in Europe in the 13th century.
Shipwreck find could be Legendary Sunstone

In a paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical & Engineering Sciences a team of researchers working in Hungary has proposed that a sun compass artifact found in a convent in 1948 might have been used in conjunction with crystals to allow Vikings to guide their boats even at night.

Credit: Soren Thirslund
Since the discovery of the sun compass fragment, researchers have theorized that Viking sailors used them to plot their course, at least when the sun was shining. They didn't have magnetic compasses, however, which suggest they must have had some other means for steering in the evening or the later hours. In this latest effort, the researchers describe a scenario where the Vikings might have used a sunstone to help them use light from the sun below the horizon with a sun compass fragment operating in similar fashion to a sundial.

Researchers suggest Vikings used crystals with sun compass to steer at night
Vikings' sunstones a navigation light

Viking navigators analysed the skylight polarization with sunstones in cloudy/foggy weather. Combining these sunstones with their sun-dial, they could determine the position of the occluded sun, from which the geographical northern direction could be guessed. However, the theory is still unproven, Now Laboratory experiments have studied the accuracy of the first step of this sky-polarimetric Viking navigation.
Royal Society Open Science January 2016

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