Nansen wove the exploration of the North together with its remarkable legacy of myths into his writing of In Northern Mists. Startlingly, he begins with the very first written records of northern exploration, which describe the first tentative steps taken by the early Mediterranean civilisations. The climax extends to the discovery of America through the sagas telling of the Viking discovery. Nansen covers such gems as the Irish ‘O’Brasil’ and finally Christopher Columbus, John Cabot and their near contemporaries. We come to recognise that many of the great acts of exploration and discovery happened by accident, often the discoverers themselves did not perceive the new lands as what they were. Myth and wild speculation fuelled the more premeditated and calculated quests, together with a stuttering desire for knowledge, and a never ending greed for material wealth.
However, during almost every historical period wherever the ‘civilized’ explorers went [i.e. those who bequeathed a written record] they came across natives who were, even under the most hostile conditions, naturally adapted to their environment. Their ancestors had trekked across the continents or sailed the oceans hundreds or thousands of years before, urged on by their nomadic lifestyle and the expanding populations left in their wake - “...the necessity of discovering new countries for the many restless beings that could find no room...”
In Northern Mists was a mammoth task which took five years to complete. Finding that previous accounts of the subject were unreliable, Nansen went back to the original sources - to the earliest Arab writings, through the works of Latin scholars in the Middle Ages and to the old Norse sagas - having translations made specially for him where necessary. Nevertheless, it is perhaps surprising that despite advances in the years since Nansen wrote the book, little more has been discovered to challenge his general conclusions.
The following excerpts all come from Chapter Four of the book and they deal with the southerly explorers’ first contact with the Lapps and other inhabitants of Scandinavia. As Nansen explains, these exotic beings were given various outlandish names.
Because of his subject matter, the style of the book is a little difficult to understand at first. However, Nansen is just telling us of the scraps of knowledge which were recorded by the ancient historians. These learned men recorded this material indiscriminately as they generally had no means of checking out what they were told. A fascinating mix of myth and half-truth results…
Antiquity, before Pytheas
According to a comparatively late Greek conception there was in the far North a happy people called the Hyperboreans. They dwelt ‘under the shining way’ (the clear north sky) north of the roaring Boreas [the North Wind], so far that this cold north wind could not reach them, and therefore enjoyed a splendid climate. They did not live in houses, but in woods and groves. With them injustice and war were unknown, they were untouched by age or sickness; at joyous sacrificial feasts, with golden laurel-wreaths in their hair, and amid song and the sound of the cithara and the dancing of maidens, they led a careless existence in undisturbed gladness, and reached an immense age. When they were tired of life they threw themselves, after having eaten and drunk, joyfully and with wreaths in their hair, into the sea from a particular cliff (according to Mela and Pliny, following Hecatæus of Abdera). Among other qualities they had the power of flying, and one of them, Abaris, flew round the world on an arrow... some geographers, especially the Ionians, placed them in the northern regions, beyond the Rhipæan Mountains...
Theopompus (Philip of Macedon’s time) has given us, if we may trust Ælian’s account (about 200 A.D.), a remarkable variation of the Hyperborean legend in combination with others:
‘Europe, Asia and Africa were islands surrounded by Oceanus; only that land which lay outside this world was a continent; its size was immense. The animals there were huge, the men were not only double our size, but lived twice as long as we. Among many great towns there were two in particular greater than the rest, and with no resemblance to one another; they were called Machimos (the warlike) and Eusebes (the pious). (The description of the latter’s peaceful inhabitants has most features in common with the Hyperborean legend.) The warlike inhabitants of Machimos, on the other hand, are born armed, wage war continually, and oppress their neighbours, so that this one city rules over many peoples, but its inhabitants are no less than two millions. It is true that they sometimes die of disease, but that happens seldom, since it is for the most part they are killed in war, by stones, or wood (that is, clubs), for they are invulnerable to iron. They have such a superfluity of gold and silver that with them gold is of less value than iron is with us. Once indeed they made an expedition to our island (that is, Europe), came over the Ocean ten millions strong and arrived at the land of the Hyperboreans. But when they learned that these were the happy ones of our earth, and found their mode of life bad, poverty-stricken and despicable, they did not think it worth while to proceed further...’
There can be no doubt that the regions which we hear of in this story, with the Hyperboreans, the enormous quantities of gold... and so on, were imagined as situated beyond the sea in the North; and in the description of the warlike people of Machimos who came in great hordes southward over the sea, one might almost be tempted to think of warlike northerners, who were slain with stones and clubs, but not with iron, perhaps because they had not yet discovered the use of iron...
The legend of the happy Hyperboreans in the North has arisen from an error of popular etymology [the history of words], and it has here been treated at some length as an example of how geographical myths may originate and develop. The name in its original form was certainly the designation of those who brought offerings to the shrine of Apollo at Delphi [Greece]. They were designated as ‘perpheroi’ or ‘hyperpheroi,’ (bringers over), which again in certain northern Greek dialects took the forms of ‘hyper-phoroi’ or ‘hyperboroi;’ this, by an error, became connected in later times with ‘Boreas,’ [the North Wind] and their home was consequently transferred to the North, many customs of the worship of Apollo being transferred with it. This gives at the same time a natural explanation of their many peculiarities, their sanctity, their power of flight and the arrow (Apollo’s arrow), their ceremonial feasts, and their throwing themselves from a certain cliff, and so on, all of which is derived from worship of Apollo... This idea can be traced back to Delphi, where anyone who had incurred the god’s displeasure was thrown from a cliff. Something similar happened at the annual festivals of Apollo at Leucas... all sorts of feathers and birds were fastened to the victims to act as a parachute, and after their fall they were rescued by boats and taken beyond the frontier, as bearers of a curse.
When, after the conquests of Alexander, the Greeks became acquainted with the mythical world of India, they naturally connected the Indians’ legendary country, ‘Uttara Kuru,’ beyond the Himalayas, with the country of the Hyperboreans. ‘This land is not too cold, not too warm, free from disease; care and sorrow are unknown there; the earth is without dust and sweetly perfumed; the rivers run in beds of gold, and instead of pebbles they roll down pearls and precious stones.’
The mythical singer Aristeas of Proconnesus (sixth century?) - to whom was attributed the poem ‘Arimaspeia’ - is said (according to Herodotus) to have penetrated into the country of the Scythians as far as the northernmost people, the Issedonians. The latter told him of the one-eyed, long-haired Arimaspians, who lived still farther north, at the uttermost end of the world, before the cave from which Boreas [the North Wind] rushes forth. On their northern border dwelt the Griffins, lion-like monsters with the wings and beaks of eagles; they were the guardians of the gold which the earth sends forth of itself...
But the learned Herodotus (about 450 BC) doubted that the Hyperboreans dwelt to the north of Boreas; for, said he, if there are people north of the north wind, then there must also be people south of the south wind. Neither did he credit the Scythians’ tales about goat-footed people and Sleepers far in the North. Just as little did this sceptic believe that the air of Scythia was full of feathers which prevented all seeing and moving; it was, he thought, continuous snowfall that the Scythians described thus. On the other hand, he certainly believed in the Amazons [a tribe of warrior women], though whether they dwelt in the North, as later authors considered, he does not say.
The idea of Sleepers, who slept for six months may very probably be due to legendary tales of the long northern winter-night, the length of which was fixed at six months by theoretical speculations, these tales being confused with reports that the people of Scythia slept a great part of the winter, as even today the peasants are said to do in certain parts of Russia, where they almost hibernate. Nor must the possibility be overlooked of stories about the winter’s sleep of animals, bears, for example, being transferred to men...
Even so long as 500 years after Herodotus, Pliny declared the Hyperboreans to be a historical people, whose existence could not be doubted; and on the maps of the Middle Ages we always find them in the most northern inhabited regions, together with the Amazons; we even find Hyperborean Mountains in Northern Europe and the Hyperborean Sea to the north of them. Adam of Bremen (eleventh century) thought that the Scandinavians were the Hyperboreans.
The Early Middle Ages.
Northern tribal names
The Gothic monk (or priest) Jordanes lived in the sixth century, and wrote about 551 or 552 a book on ‘The Origin and Deeds of the Goths,’ which for the most part is certainly a poor repetition of the substance of Cassiodorus’s great work on the same subject; and in fact he tells us this himself, with the modest addition that ‘his breath is too weak to fill the trumpet of such a man’s mighty speech.’...
Jordanes counts about twenty-seven names of tribes or peoples in Sweden and Norway; a number of them are easily recognised, while others must be much corrupted and are difficult to interpret. He mentions first the people of Sweden, then those of Norway. ‘Suehans’ is certainly Svear [Swedish].
They, ‘like the Thuringians, have excellent horses. It is also they who through their commercial intercourse with innumerable other peoples send for the use of the Romans sappherine skins, which skins are celebrated for their blackness. While they live poorly they have the richest clothes.’
We see then that at this time the fur trade with the North was well developed, as the amber trade was at a much earlier date. Adam of Bremen tells us of the ‘proud horses’ of the Svear as though they were an article of export together with furs. In the Ynglinga Saga it is related that Adils, King of the Svear at Upsalir,
‘was very fond of good horses, he had the best horses of that time.’ He sent a stallion ‘to Hålogaland to Godgest the king; Godgest the king rode it, and could not hold it, so he fell off and got his death; this was in Omd (Amd) in Hålogaland.’
The original authority for the statement in Jordanes was probably King Rodulf, who perhaps came from the northern half of Norway, and it looks as though the Norwegians even at that time were acquainted with Swedish horses.
Jordanes further mentions five tribes who ‘dwell in a flat, fertile land (i.e. South Sweden), for which reason also they have to protect themselves against the attacks of other tribes.’ Among the tribes in Sweden are mentioned also the ‘Finnaithæ’ ...whose name must be due to an aboriginal people called Finns - further, the ‘Gautigoth,’ generally taken for the West Göter, who were a specially ‘brave and warlike people,’ the ‘Ostrogothæ’ (East Göter) and many more.
Then he crosses the Norwegian frontier and mentions
‘The ‘Raumarici’ and ‘Ragnaricii’, the very mild (peaceful) ‘Finns’, who are milder than all the other inhabitants of Scandza; Further their equals the ‘Vinoviloth’; the ‘Suetidi’ are known among this people as towering above the rest in bodily height, and yet the ‘Danes,’ who are descended from this very race (i.e. the Scandinavians?) drove out the ‘Heruli’ from their own home, who claimed the greatest fame among the peoples of Scandia for very great bodily size. Yet of the same height as these are also the ‘Granii’... the ‘Augandzi’... ‘Eunix’... ‘Ætelrugi’... ‘Arochi’... and ‘Ranii’ over whom not many years ago Rodulf was king, who, despising his own kingdom, hastened to the arms of Theodoric king of the Goths, and found what he had hankered after. These people fight with the savageness of beasts, more mighty than the Germans in body and soul.’
The small (?), ‘very mild’ Finns must, from the order in which they are named, have lived in the forest districts... on the Swedish border... We shall return later to these ‘Finns’ in Scandinavia...
The mention of the Norwegian warriors has a certain interest in that it is due to the Roman statesman Cassiodorus, who glorified the Goths and had no special reason for praising the Northmen. It shows that even at that time our northern ancestors were famed for courage and bodily size, and that too above all other Germanic peoples, who were highly esteemed by the Romans. It is not clear whether Rodulf was King of the ‘Ranii’ alone... It may be supposed that he was a Norwegian chief who migrated south through Europe at the head of a band of warriors... and that finally on the Danube, hard pressed by other warlike people, he sought alliance and support from the mighty king of the Goths, Theodoric or Tjodrik. This may have been just before 489, when the latter made his expedition to Italy. [Theodoric remained King of Italy from 493-526. He ruled a country where Romans were banned from arming themselves and yet lived side by side with Goths. He attempted to maintain the rule of law, insisting that the civilised Romans provided the wealth which supported his Goths - Editor]. Many circumstances combine to make such a hypothesis probable…
Procopius, circa 552 AD
The Byzantine historian Procopius… became in 527 legal assistant to the general Belisarius, and accompanied him on his campaigns against the Goths in Italy. In his work on the war against the Goths (‘De bello Gothico,’), written about 552, he gives information about the North which is of great interest. He tells us of the warlike Germanic people, the Eruli, (probably they came from the north) who were said to have lived on the north bank of the Danube, and who, with no better reason than that they had lived in peace for three whole years and were tired of it, attacked their neighbours the Langobards, but suffered a decisive defeat, and their king, Rodulf, fell in the battle (about 493).
‘They then hastily left their dwelling-places, and set out with their women and children to wander through the whole country (Hungary) which lies north of the Danube. When they came to the district where the Rogians had formerly dwelt, who had joined the army of the Goths and gone into Italy, they settled there; but as they were oppressed by famine in that district, which had been laid waste, they soon afterwards departed from it, and came near to the country of the Gepidæ (Siebenbürgen [Transylvania in Romania]). The Gepidæ allowed them to establish themselves and to become their neighbours, but began thereupon, without the slightest cause, to commit the most revolting acts against them, ravishing their women, robbing them of cattle and other goods, and omitting no kind of injustice, and finally began an unjust war against them.’
The Eruli then crossed the Danube to Illyria and settled somewhere about what is now Servia under the eastern emperor Anastasius (491 - 518). Some of the Eruli would not
‘cross the Danube, but decided to establish themselves in the uttermost ends of the inhabited world.’ (This means that they had come from thence, and that rather than be subject to the Eastern Empire they would return home to Scandinavia.) Many chieftains of royal blood now undertaking their leadership, they passed through all the tribes of the Slavs one after another, went thence through a wide, uninhabited country, and came to the so-called Varn. Beyond them they passed by the tribes of the Danes (in Jutland), without the barbarians there using violence towards them. When they thence came to the ocean (about the year 512) they took ship, and landed on the island of Thule (i.e. Scandinavia) and remained there. But Thule is beyond comparison the largest of all islands; for it is more than ten times as large as Britain. But it lies very far there from northwards. On this island the land is for the most part uninhabited. But in the inhabited regions there are thirteen populous tribes, each with a king. Every year an extraordinary thing takes place; for the sun, about the time of the summer solstice, does not set at all for forty days, but for the whole of this time remains uninterruptedly visible above the earth…
Among the barbarians inhabiting Thule, one people, who are called Skridfinns, live after the manner of beasts. They do not wear clothes (i.e. of cloth) nor, when they walk, do they fasten anything under their feet, (i.e. they do not wear shoes)... but the men as well as the women occupy themselves solely and continually in hunting; for the extraordinarily great forests and mountains which rise in their country give them vast quantities of game and other beasts. They always eat the flesh of the animals they hunt and wear their skins, and they have no linen or anything else that they can sew with. But they fasten the skins together with the sinews of beasts, and thus cover their whole bodies. The children even are not brought up among them as with other peoples; for the Skridfinns’ children do not take women’s milk, nor do they touch their mothers’ breasts, but they are nourished solely with the marrow of slain beasts. As soon therefore as a woman has given birth, she winds the child in a skin, hangs it up on a tree, puts marrow into its mouth, and goes off hunting; for they follow this occupation in common with the men...
Nearly all of the remaining inhabitants of Thule do not, however, differ much from other peoples. They worship a number of gods and higher powers in the heavens, the air, the earth and the sea, also certain other higher beings which are thought to dwell in the waters of springs and rivers. But they always slay all kinds of sacrifice and offer dead sacrifices. And to them the best of all sacrifices is the man they have taken prisoner by their arms. Him they sacrifice to the god of war, because they consider him to be the greatest. But they do not sacrifice him merely by using fire at the sacrifice; they also hang him up in a tree, or throw him among thorns, and slay him by other cruel modes of death. Such is the life of the inhabitants of Thule...’
Erulian sources of Procopius
This description by Procopius of Thule (Scandinavia) and its people bears the stamp of a certain trustworthiness. If we ask whence he has derived his information, our thoughts are led at once to the Eruli, referred to by him in such detail, who in part were still the allies of the Eastern Empire, and of whom the emperor at Byzantium had a bodyguard in the sixth century. There were many of them in the army under the eunuch Narses, which came to Italy to join Belisarius. Procopius thus had ample opportunity for obtaining first-hand information from these northern warriors, and his account of them shows that the Eruli south of the Danube kept up communication with their kinsmen in Scandinavia, for when they had killed their king ‘Ochon’ without cause, since they wished to try being without a king, and had repented the experiment, they sent some of their foremost men to Thule [Scandinavia] to find a new king of the royal blood. They chose one and returned with him; but he died on the way when they had almost reached home, and they therefore turned again and went once more to Thule. This time they found another, ‘by name ‘Datios’. He was accompanied by his brother ‘Aordos’ and two hundred young men of the Eruli in Thule.’ Meanwhile, as they were so long absent, the Eruli of Singidunum (the modern Belgrade) had sent an embassy to the emperor Justinianus at Byzantium [Constantinople or Istanbul] asking him to give them a chief. He sent, therefore, the Erulian ‘Svartuas’ (= Svartugle, i.e. black owl?), who had been living with him for a long time. But when Datios from Thule approached, all the Eruli went over to him by night, and Svartuas had to flee quite alone, and returned to Byzantium. The emperor now exerted all his power to reinstate him; ‘but the Eruli, who feared the power of the Romans, decided to migrate to the Gepidæ [in Transylvania].’ This happened in Procopius’s own time, and may therefore be regarded as trustworthy; it shows how easy communication must have been at that time between Scandinavia and the south, and also with Byzantium...
The Eruli are Norsemen
Procopius’s description of the Eruli is of great interest. It is a remarkable feature in the history of the world that at certain intervals, even from the earliest times, roving warrior peoples appear in Europe, coming from the unknown North, who for a time fill the world with dread, and then disappear again. One of these northern peoples was perhaps, as already mentioned, the ‘Cimmerians,’ who in the eighth century BC made an inroad into Asia Minor. Six hundred years later, in the second century BC, bands of Cimbri and Teutones came down from northern Europe and were pressing towards Rome, till they were defeated by Marius and gradually disappeared. Five hundred years later still, in the third to the fifth centuries A.D., the Eruli come on the scene, and after they have disappeared come the Saxons and Danes, and then the Normans. We may perhaps suppose, to a certain extent at all events, that the races which formed these restless and adventurous bands were in part the same, and it is the names that have changed. The Eruli... must have been the most migratory people of their time; we find them roaming over the whole of Europe, from Scandinavia on the north to Byzantium on the south, from the Black Sea on the east to Spain on the west; from the third to the fifth century we find Eruli from Scandinavia as pirates on the coasts of western Europe, and even in the Mediterranean itself, where in 455 they reached Lucca in Italy...
The name [Eruli] also appears in its primitive Norse form, ‘erilaR,’ in Northern runic inscriptions. The name appears in the runic inscriptions to be often a designation of the author of the inscription. Sophus Bugge thought that the Eruli had obtained their knowledge of runes from the Goths, and that they kept them a secret (this reappears in the word ‘rune’ itself, which means secret), especially in the leading families, who turned them to account. During their centuries of roving life they carried the knowledge of runes with them to various parts of Denmark, Sweden and Norway. In this way the uniformity of language in the inscriptions from widely separated places may also be explained.
Since ‘erilaR’ (in Norwegian ‘jarl,’ in English ‘earl’) means leader in war, and is not known in Scandinavia as the original name of a tribe which has given its name to any district in the North, we must suppose that it was more probably an appellative in use in the more southern parts of Europe for bands of northern warriors of one or more Scandinavian tribes. They may have called themselves so; it was, in fact, characteristic of the Scandinavian warrior that he was not disposed to acknowledge any superior; they were all free men and chiefs in contradistinction to thralls.
Gradually these bands in foreign countries may have coalesced into one nation. But as expeditions of Eruli are spoken of in such widely different parts of Europe, the name must, up to the end of the fifth century, have often been used for Norsemen in general, to distinguish them from the nations of Germany, like the designation Normans, and sometimes also Danes, in later times...
Paulus Warnefridi, 720 - 790 …seems to have obtained some new information about the North… It looks as though at that time a northern origin was held in high esteem...
Paulus… relates that on the coast ‘north-west towards the uttermost boundaries of Germany’ there lie seven men asleep in a cave, for how long is uncertain. They resemble the Romans in appearance, and both they and their clothes are unharmed, and they are regarded by the inhabitants as holy. The legend of the Seven Sleepers is already found in Gregory of Tours, who has it in Asia Minor, where it arose in the third century and was located at Ephesus. The legend was very common in Germania, and we find it again later in tales of shipwreck on the coast of Greenland. It is difficult to understand how Paulus has managed to transfer the legend to the North. It might be thought that the idea, which already appears in Herodotus, that the people of the North sleep for the six winter months is connected with it. Plutarch relates that in the ocean beyond Britain there was according to the statement of Demetrius an island ‘where Cronos was imprisoned and guarded, while he slept, by Briareus. For sleep had been used as a bond, and there were many spirits about him as companions and servants.’... It is possible that this myth of the sleeping Cronos has also helped to locate the legend of the Seven Sleepers on the north-west coast of Europe. Viktor Rydberg thought that the legend and its localisation in the North might be connected with Mimer’s seven sons, who in the Volospo’s description of Ragnarok were to spring up at the sound of the horn Gjallar, after having lain asleep for long ages. But this interpretation... is improbable.
‘Near to this place (i.e. the cave with the seven men) dwell the ‘Scritobini’; thus is this people called; they have snow even in summer time, and they eat nothing but raw flesh of wild beasts, as they do not differ from the beasts themselves in intelligence, and they also make themselves clothes of their skins with the hair on. Their name is explained from the word ‘to leap’ in the foreign tongue (i.e. Germanic), for by leaping with a certain art they overtake the wild beasts with a piece of wood bent like a bow. Among them is an animal which is not much unlike a stag, and I have seen a dress made of the hide of this animal, just as if it was bristling with hairs, and it was made like a tunic and reached to the knees, as the above-mentioned Scritobini wear it, as I have been told...’
Paul Warnefridi evidently had a very erroneous idea of ski-running, which he made into a leaping instead of a gliding motion. He may have imagined that they jumped about on pieces of wood bent like bows…
The ‘Scrithifini’ of Procopius (and Jordanes’ corrupted form, ‘Screrefennæ’ or ‘Scretefennæ’) are undoubtedly a people of the same kind as Tacitus’s ‘Fenni’; but they have here acquired the descriptive prefix ‘scrithi-,’ which is generally understood as the Norse ‘skriða’ (= to slide, e.g., on the ice, to glide; cf. Swedish ‘skridsko,’ skate). The Norsemen must have characterised their Finnish (i.e. Lappish) neighbours on the north as sliding (walking) on ski (‘skriða á skiðum’), to distinguish them from other peoples in the outlying districts whom they also called Finns. If this is so, it is the first time that a reference to ski-running is found in literature…
Lapps are now generally known as ‘Sami’ or ‘Same’ [pronounced ‘Sar-mi’]. They are the same people who were named in the remote past ‘Finns’, [the “small (?) very mild Finns...” of Jordanes] or Procopius’s Scrithifini]. Nansen remarks that “Lapps are called ‘Finns,’ both in Old Norse and modern Norwegian...” It has been suggested that the Lapps may be unique among the present-day Arctic peoples in that they have remained in the same place in the Arctic since just after the last ice age. Their home has been the northern regions of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the Kola Peninsula of Russia for a period of about eight thousand years.
The modern people known as Finns, inhabitants of Finland, are quite different. They are descended from a collection of tribes speaking similar languages of the ‘Finno-Ugric’ family - the same language which they passed to the Lapps and which is now spoken by them. This succession of land-hungry tribes probably arrived in the area of the eastern Baltic, Finland and Karelia around 100 B.C. to 100 A.D. and included the Estonians and Karelians. These peoples came from central Russia, and brought with them the ability to cultivate cereals. Those migrating to what is now Finland would have displaced small numbers of resident nomadic Lapps [Sami], who withdrew to the north. [‘Finnic Peoples’, Encyclopædia Britannica, Britannica (R) CD 99 Multimedia Edition (C) 1994-1999 Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
The Lapps were connected with magic:
Expeditions of the Norwegians to the White Sea…
…As a people of strange race of whom they knew little, the Norwegians regarded the Lapps as skilled in magic; but it was natural that the still less known and distant Bjarmas gradually acquired an even greater reputation for magic, and in these regions stories of trolls and giants were located. The Polar Sea was early called 'Hafsbotn,' later 'Trollebotten,' and the White Sea was given the name of 'Gandvik,' to which a similar meaning is attributed, since it is supposed to be connected with 'gand' (the magic of the Lapps); but the name evidently originated in a popular etymological corruption of a Karelian name, Kanð anlaksi…