Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ohthere

OHTHERE (fl. 880), maritime explorer, was a Norseman by birth, who entered the service of Ælfred the Great probably soon after the peace of Wedmore (878), or the frith of 886. He was rich, he tells us, when he came to seek King Alfred, in what was the chief wealth of the Northmen. For he had six hundred reindeer, all tamed by himself, a score of sheep, and one of swine; he even did a little tillage; 'and what he ploughed, he ploughed with horses.' He may possibly have been connected with the house of Ottar (Ohthere) Heimscé, mentioned in the 'Icelandic Land-nama-bok,' or Settler's Register. What we know of him for certain comes entirely from the account of himself and his Toyages that he gave 'his lord King Alfred.' This account appeared in the West-Saxon king's version of the universal history of Paulus Orosius, completed between 878 and 901, the year of Æfred's death. In it reference appears to be made to two distinct journeys made by Ohthere at the bidding of King Ælfred — one to the north, the other to the south. Both were probably undertaken between 880 and 900.

On his first journey, which he undertook for the objects of discovery and trade, Ohthere .started from his native district of Halogaland, the furthest of the Norse settlements towards Lapland, 'by the West Sea.' He wished to 'find out how far the country went on to the north, and whether any one lived north of the waste' that lay beyond Halogaland; he also went to find the walrus or 'horse whale,' because of the 'good bone in its teeth' and the usefulness of its hide for ship ropes.

To begin with, he sailed due north for three days, ' as far as the whale hunters «ver go,' and then beyond this for three days more, round the North Cape of Europe. Now the land began to turn eastward, and he stayed a little, waiting for a western wind, with the help of which he went eastward, Along the north coast of Lapland, for four days; and then, as the land began to run south, 'quite to the inland sea,' he sailed five days more before the north wind. Crossing what we now call the White Sea, he entered the mouth of the Dwina, close to the spot where Archangel was built in 1583, and where even then he found the country inhabited. Beween Halogaland and this point all was waste, except for a few hunters and fishers. Ohthere traded, as no English sailors and few Norsemen had done, with these 'Biarmians of the Dwina — Russians of 'Permia,' a district in the north-east of Russia — and they told him many stories about the country, which he leaves as doubtful, 'because he could not see the things they spoke of with his own eyes.' But he thought the language of these people was the same as that of the Finns. Beyond the White Sea he does not seem to have gone.

On his second voyage he started from Halogaland, north of Trondhjem, and reached a port on the south of Norway, called Sciringesheal, apparently in the fiord of Christiania, and thence sailed on to Haddeby, near Sleswick, 'where the English dwelt before they came into this country ' (Britain). The chief interest of the second journey is in relation to Ælfred's 'Description of Europe; 'for it helped the king to fix with remarkable accuracy, for the time, the localities of the people and countries of the European 'Northland.'

[Ælfred's Anglo-Saxon version of Orosius's Universal History; Dr. Bosworth's edition of Voyages of Ohthere and Wulfstan, &c.; Pauli's Life of Alfred the Great; Corpus Poetarum Boreale.]

C. R. B.