Sunstones - Guiding the Vikings Through Mists and Myths
Iceland spar, perhaps the medieval sunstone – ArniEin, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In the annals of maritime history, the Vikings are celebrated as fearless seafarers, explorers who navigated the treacherous waters of the North Atlantic with sunstones long before the compass was widely used in Europe. Their journeys took them from the shores of Scandinavia to far-flung lands like Greenland and Newfoundland. But how did they navigate over such vast distances with such precision, especially under cloudy skies or during the long twilights of the northern latitudes? The answer might lie in a nearly mystical tool: the sunstone.

Sunstones, or solarsteinn in Old Norse, were not the products of myth or magic but rather a very real and practical navigational aid. These were special crystals believed to have been used by Viking navigators to locate the sun’s position even when it was obscured by clouds or fog. The most likely candidate for these sunstones is a type of mineral called Iceland spar, a clear, calcite crystal known for its property of double refraction and its ability to polarize light.

The theory of sunstones in Viking navigation was initially met with skepticism. It wasn’t until researchers started experimenting with Iceland spar and other similar crystals that the true potential of these stones began to emerge. When rotated against the sky, these crystals can reveal the sun’s position by polarizing the scattered light in the atmosphere. Even when the sun is below the horizon, the pattern of light in the sky provides clues to its location.

The use of sunstones would have complemented other navigational methods used by the Vikings, such as watching the movements of the sun and stars, monitoring the color of the ocean and the behavior of sea birds, and reading the direction of the wind and waves. With a sunstone, a Viking navigator could confirm his course, ensuring that he was headed in the right direction, a critical advantage during long voyages across the open ocean.

But why has no archaeological evidence of these sunstones been found in Viking ships or settlements? Some suggest that the stones might have been considered personal items, carried by the navigators themselves and not left behind as part of the ship’s gear. Others propose that because the stones were made of calcite, they could have deteriorated over the centuries, leaving little trace for modern archaeologists to discover.

Despite the lack of physical evidence, the legend of the sunstones is supported by historical texts. An Icelandic saga from the 13th century describes a cloudy, snowy day when the sun’s position was determined with a sunstone. And a church decree from the same period warns against the use of “magic crystals,” suggesting that the use of sunstones was widespread and well-known.

Today, the sunstone is more than a historical curiosity; it’s a symbol of human ingenuity and the relentless pursuit of knowledge. It represents the Vikings’ deep understanding of their environment and their ability to use every available tool to conquer new horizons. It’s a testament to their reputation as not just warriors, but as skilled navigators and explorers.

The sunstones of the Vikings remind us that the line between legend and reality is often more blurred than we might think. They invite us to look at the past not just as a series of dates and events, but as a tapestry woven from the stories, discoveries, and mysteries of human experience. As we continue to explore our world and beyond, we carry with us the legacy of the sunstone, a legacy of exploration, innovation, and the eternal quest to understand the forces that guide us.

Don Leith

By Don Leith

Retired from the real world. A love of research left over from my days on the debate team in college long ago led me to work on this website. Granted, not all these stories are "fun" or even "trivial" But they all are either weird, unusual or even extraordinary. Working on this website is "fun" in any case. Hope you enjoy it!