The Norse cosmology, from The Norse Myths by Kevin Crossley-Holland, 1988.

Were the Vikings Flat Earthers?

This week in my blog about Thor and the pre-Christian Germanic religion, I will discuss a Twitter-based hip-hop feud. Life is awesome.

So you might have heard that the celebrity astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson has been in a Twitter war with the rapper B.o.B., because the younger gentleman has recently been a vocal proponent of flat earth theory, which is exactly what it sounds like. Tyson, who is above all things an educator, pointed out the flaws in any attempts to claim that Earth is anything other than a sphere(ical object), and in the end, worked with his nephew to produce a rap diss track to shut down the flat earthers’ failed arguments once and for all. There was an appearance on The Nightly Show. It’s been good times. 

At this point, most of us are aware that the idea that Christopher Columbus proved the Earth was a sphere is a myth because everybody already knew that, or at least all the people who spent time thinking about that sort of thing. Experiments showing the Earth’s true shape had taken place well over a millennium before he was born.

But as we’ve discussed in this space before, Columbus’s other claim to fame, discovering North America, was also accomplished by someone else.

Let’s dwell on those Vikings who “discovered” North America for a few minutes: did they believe the world was flat? After all, those famous thinkers who proved the world was a sphere were doing their work far south of the lands of the pre-Christian Germanic peoples. While these peoples came into contact from time to time, it wasn’t frequent, and it wasn’t the kind of contact where people sat down and talked about the shape of the planet. Rather than treating the Vikings, a “people” who lived around the North Sea from around 700-1066 CE, as part of broader Europe and a European culture, let’s look to the practices of these people as an independent culture (to the extent they constitute a unified homogeneous culture, and of course they’re neither unified nor homogeneous) and look at that question on its own.

So: did the Vikings believe the world was flat?

First, a consideration of mythology.

sandman 53 p18 zulli giordano vozzo gaiman
An unexpected visitor says hello to some travelers in the depths of the ocean, Sandman #53, written by Neil Gaiman, art by Michael Zulli, Dick Giordano, and Daniel Vozzo

Midgard, or Earth, as we call it, is generally understood to be a land surrounded by an ocean inhabited by Jorumungand the Midgard Serpent, who circles all of Midgard and bites his own tail. This reference is found in the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, as a kenning in skaldic poetry, and is consistent with other Indo-European serpent myths, so it’s pretty easy to accept that Jormungand, the encircling sea, and all of that, was part of the Viking worldview.

As I’ve discussed at length in a number of posts, and in the post on Jormungand in particular, Jormungand is here representing the barrier between the innangard (order) and utangard (chaos), and is itself part of something understood, a serpent, and wild and beyond our ken, a giant, mystical monster. As Rudolf Simek points out in his Dictionary of Northern Mythology, the term “Midgard” is sometimes used as part of a description of the barrier around humanity’s realm. That outer ocean, and Jormungand, are simply the place where things stop being part of the ordered, understood parts of life, and start becoming wild and chaotic. If you go too far out into the ocean, you’ll die, not because the world is a disc, but because it’s dangerous.

Because Midgard isn’t the name for everything the Vikings understood about the universe. Midgard was one realm of nine, all of which were connected to Yggdrasil, the world tree, from which Odin hanged himself nine days as a sacrifice to gain secret, mystical knowledge. Midgard is connected to the tree. The other realms are both connected to Midgard and the tree, but not two-dimensionally: Asgard and Vanaheim, the homes of the gods, are in the sky, other realms are adjacent to Midgard, some are beneath. Notably, only Midgard is visible to humans (you may have noticed this in your daily life), and the other realms, in their invisibility, have complicated relationships with the realms of the dead, personified forces of nature like giants (Jotunheim), fire (Muspelheim), and ice (Nifelheim), and so on.

The fact is, the pre-Christian Germanic, Viking worldview, was complex and sophisticated. Metaphors abounded.

But even taking the cosmology literally, we see indications that there were no simple flat discs: Muspellheim was located south of Midgard and Nifelheim as north of Midgard; Thor traveled through Alfheim on his way to Jotunheim, the whole thing turns out to be pretty complicated.

From written sources, then, we cannot conclude that the Vikings were flat Earthers. The story and iconography of the Midgard Serpent do not in fact imply a flat disc-world. If there were lands beyond Midgard, then they could have been lands that went on as part of a spherical conception, or something more like artistic conceptions that show Midgard as part of a multi-tiered structure attached to a literal tree (something like the image at the top of the page).

More likely, the mythological conception we read about wasn’t interpreted literally at all. Jormungand was a scary monster to keep people from taking their ships out too far, and people needed to remember to keep their ships within sight of land as much as possible, so the sea monster to end all sea monsters was a tall tale to help reinforce that. It is not evidence in support of a Viking flat Earth theory. The Eddas themselves only show that Midgard was made of the corpse of Ymir the primordial giant. Corpses can be molded into multiple shapes.

And as I noted in my post on Ymir and Norse cosmology, the fact that Grimnismal mentions Ymir’s skull as the substance from which the sky is made indicates that spheres were part of the Germanic conception of the universe.

So if the literary evidence is inconclusive toward the round Earth theory, but definitely not in support of a flat Earth theory, what about historical evidence?

We can do a bit more here.

There are some self-evident historical facts that add up to quite a bit of circumstantial evidence in favor of the Vikings having been aware of a round Earth. First, we know from the historical record that peoples we associate with the Vikings called the Rus encountered Ibn Fadlan in Southwest Russia, more accurately called the Middle Volga. We’ve learned a great deal from his description of the encounter. Vikings were an elite group of the Byzantine Army from the 10th century. They raided the Mediterranean in longboats all the way to Italy, visiting France, Spain, and Africa as well during those voyages. They weren’t a cohesive people, but in what we call Norway and Sweden and Denmark, ships commanded territory around the Baltic well into Russia and across the North Sea to England. They were known in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

And they sailed to Iceland. And Greenland. And North America.

Viking expeditions (blue line): depicting the immense breadth of their voyages through most of Europe, the Mediterranean Sea, Northern Africa, Asia Minor, the Arctic and North America. (Wikimedia)
Viking expeditions (blue line): depicting the immense breadth of their voyages through most of Europe, the Mediterranean Sea, Northern Africa, Asia Minor, the Arctic and North America. (Wikimedia)

This all happened during the Viking Age, and it’s called that because the word “viking” refers to the raiders who went overseas. It was an age because these peoples weren’t always doing that. And even during the Viking Age itself, not all of the population was focused on overseas trade, violent or otherwise. Many remained farmers, tradespeople, and textile workers.

But the Viking Age became a thing because traveling by boat over long distances became technologically feasible. Ships that took better advantage of sails instead of rowing were built, and this was possible in part because the ships were being built of stronger wood with designs more consistent with sail rigging. Entire communities worked on building the boats, from lumber to building to weapons to raising the sheep and weaving the wool for the sails. It was a big deal.

Navigation involved following landmarks while traveling along the coast, but we have firm evidence that at least some astronomical guides were well-known. Once the ships were capable of long voyages, with rigging that could be used both with and against the wind, they could sail all day and all night, and did.

And so the Viking Age, which began around 793 CE, continued on to 1000 CE, when Leif the Lucky visited Canada. While he had converted to Christianity, he was part of that Viking tradition, a sailor born and bred.

Leif was part of a long line of Vikings who, once the technology was available, had chosen to go on past the lands they had always known. They drove past the boundaries of the innangard and went on to utangard lands, and I can imagine nothing more foreign to a Norseman than landing on the shores of Tunisia or Libya and being told of a vast desert completely empty of water or snow or ice. They had found Muspellheim.

An illustration by Carl Rasmussen of Erik the Red on a Viking longboat as he and his men from Norway first land on what became Greenland in 982AD

And when Leif, and his father before him, sailed west of Iceland to lands no Norseman had been to before, they certainly weren’t afraid they were going to fall off a flat disc. The Saga of the Greenlanders certainly doesn’t report anything like that. Neither does the Saga of Erik the Red. These men didn’t go west, over a vast ocean, afraid of falling off anything, or even of being eaten by a mythological monster. They accepted the myths for what they were: metaphors of the dangers they now had the technology to overcome. The utangard, the open sea, had become the innangard, part of their ordered universe, because they understood it and had tools like sails and astronomy to manage long voyages. The trips to England, to the Faroe Islands, to Ireland and Iceland and beyond are all evidence that the Vikings mastered the sea, that they did not believe they had anything left to fear in Njord’s domain.

Of course, this still isn’t a definitive answer to the question: did the Vikings believe the Earth was round? Flat? Something else? They didn’t write down an answer to this question anywhere. It wasn’t important to them.

But I think we can at least take a few things away from this analysis that are definitive.

First, any attempts to claim that the Vikings and their predecessors believed in a flat Earth because of their cosmological conception are problematic because they misunderstand the Viking worldview: the myths aren’t literal, an encircling ocean with a giant snake in it is a metaphor for a line between order and chaos, and the whole cosmology is part of a series of stories that explain life, death, morality, and more: these shouldn’t be interpreted as the handed-down scientific understanding of a people.

Second, even if we do try to make a claim about that cosmology, it’s rooted in an overlapping view of multiple realms that are all attached to a massive tree that complicates the whole story, and that tree might actually be our galaxy (see my post on Ymir and Norse Cosmology). It’s weird.

Third, the Vikings were vikings in the first place because of technology, and once that technology was available, they went everywhere. As far as any society to date had, though of course most of those societies accomplished their travels over land rather than by sea.

Fourth, there is no recorded evidence that anyone who went on any Viking raid or who traveled to North America believed the Earth was flat, was literally afraid of Jormungand, or was afraid of falling off the edge of a disc.

I could add on a fifth about how interaction with other cultures likely included adoption of astronomical knowledge and cultural understanding of things like the proofs that the Earth is, in fact, a beautiful blue sphere. But like I said at the top, we don’t really have to do that.

From the evidence we have about who the Vikings were and how they conceived of the world, we can say with some confidence that they were not flat Earthers. They may not have been round Earthers either, but they did not leave behind any evidence that they actually feared being consumed by a sea monster or falling off the edge of a disc. Quite the opposite: they are among the greatest explorers and travelers in human history.

Why humans today might be flat Earthers is another question I’ll leave to wiser minds.


One comment on “Were the Vikings Flat Earthers?

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