In many ways we can say that the Vikings were some of the original magpies of this world- they loved shiny and pretty things! They were the OG’s (original gangsters) of rock collecting.
Everyone, be they academic or historical fiction lover, will have a different opinion about most things related to Vikings. In popular culture we have a very romanticized view that has been pieced together based on novels, TV shows, and legends. No matter how you may envision them in your mind, we do know that Vikings loved their rocks. They traded amber beads across the world, wore bands of gold and silver on their arms, and often traded precious stones as currency. Hacksilver, or essentially chopped up silver was also a common form of currency for them. Hoards can be found on any continent that their ships were beached upon. Their craftsmanship of dress pins and brooches still stand as some of the most beautiful work I have ever seen.
However, their love for rocks was not limited to cultural aesthetics and monetary values, they also are believed to have utilized what have been called ‘Sunstones’ in the sagas to assist in navigation. It is thought that Vikings were able to look through a crystal, and use its light polarizing property to be able to locate the position of the sun on a cloudy day. This was important, as without night stars or the sun, they would not have been able to chart a course at sea, regardless of the visibility conditions. If you are interesting in reading more about the geological findings and exact way that the Icelandic Spar works, click here to be taken to an article that I wrote for my Lapidary and Mineral Club on Icelandic Spar, or Calcite.
I became interested in the legend of the ‘sunstone’ during an exhibition I worked on during my Master’s degree. Our exhibition was about the art and science of light, and we decided to include three specimens of Icelandic Spar in our exhibition. If you have worked on a museum exhibition you know how it goes… including the spars ticked all the right boxes: we were incorporating objects from the natural history collection, they were small, they came in an appealing grouping of three, they balanced out a case filled with scientific instruments, they were shiny, the list goes on! You can see them in the picture here to the right. I was excited to include them, because I have had an interest in Viking Age literature and archaeology that began during my undergraduate degree.
In my research for writing this blog, I came across several articles that claimed that the Vikings using the ‘Sunstone’ aka Icelandic Spar was a fact, using that typical academic lingo ‘researchers have proved without a doubt’ nonsense. I must dispute this strongly. While I would be thrilled if we could without a doubt say that Vikings used Icelandic spars to make their way across the notoriously overcast and foggy sea to the Americas, I cannot say that- the evidence is simply to limited. While historians, archaeologists, and geologists believe that this ‘sunstone’ is Icelandic Spar, what evidence are they really basing their opinion on?
13-14th century Icelandic texts from Iceland describe this ‘sunstone’, and how it was used to find the sun on a cloudy day. The first text Rauðúlfs þáttr is an ecclesiastical text about Saint Olav. It is an allegorical text that has been found in several manuscripts, and it details a visit that Olav made to King Raudulfs, who then demonstrated how to use the sunstone to navigate on a cloudy day. I reread the text briefly before writing this post, and I still find it to be an amusing story, that is worth a read is you are interesting in Norse texts.
In regards to this text as with any from this time period, we have the typical problems with credibility. Religious documents were usually biased and had a particular agenda in their corner. As far as I am aware, there is no way to really prove or disprove the truth of these events. Having said that, it does not mean that the part about the ‘sunstone’ was false or crafted by the author- in fact, I would be more inclined to say that it is likely to have been something that was used by individuals during the period. In addition, several 14-15th century churches and one monastery also list ‘sunstones’ in their inventories.
The second text called Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar is about an Icelandic chieftain in the West Fjord who was murdered by an enemy. It took me a while to find where the ‘Sunstone’ was mentioned, but essentially it was listed as a stolen item along with a tunic in a robbery from the story. So no association with navigation, but a mention nonetheless. Some sagas are considered credible sources, and some are not. I do not feel that I know enough about this particular saga to capitulate about its credibility as a source.
Archaeologically speaking, one of these stones was found in 2013 off the coast of Alderney in the wreck of a British 16th century warship. This leads archaeologists to believe that there was some kind of association with navigation, why else would they be carrying one of these around on a warship, after all? However, Icelandic spar has never been found in any Norse excavations. To me, the proof should be in the pudding so to speak. Why have we not found these stones in the context of Viking settlements, ever? I of course believe this possible, and I would support and argue the theory that Icelandic Spar is the ‘sunstone’ that we have read about, and theorized about. They had access to it in their homelands, and likely discovered its merits early on. But we cannot throw around phrases such as ‘proven without a doubt’ when there is till this much room for error.
Once again, these pesky Vikings have left us lacking in evidence to prove our theories about them- how typical! What do you think? Are we missing a part of the story here? It is just as likely as it is not! Thanks for reading.
Peace and long life.