What Did The Vikings Use To Navigate?

Over the centuries, Vikings were invincible on the Atlantic. With great courage, they sailed thousands of kilometers across the open ocean, established colonies in Iceland and Greenland. Yet curiously, they never used compasses. How did they make it to be smooth in their voyages? That is also what scientists felt confused about. As you know, the region where the Vikings dominated was always full of thick clouds and dense fog.

Viking compass
Viking compass

Now with computer simulations and the “mysterious crystal”, some research group has found the answer.In recent decades, researchers have proposed, the “sunstone” mentioned in tales like “The Saga of King Olaf” was the key to unravel the mysteryt that Vikings could sail under bad weather. It is said that “suntone” can identify the location of the sun even if it is obscured by clouds. However, no such stones were discovered in few wrecks of Viking ships. “That is absolutely a speculation. ” Said the biochemist Stephen Harding from Nottingham University. He did not participate in the research, but he indicated that the “sunstone” might exist. His evidence included a rough and whitish crystal which was found near other navigation equipments in the wreck of a 16th-century marine perils in Britain. And he added: “This is not unreasonable, because centuries ago the Vikings have crossed the British waters and raided the Britain isles. British sailors might have learned this navigation skill from the Vikings.

Navigating with crystal is not some kind of new-era fantasy. Several types of minerals——especially the ultrapure crystals like calcite and cordierite and tourmaline, can split the sunlight into two beams, the polarized light and the main beam. Their directions are a slightly different. Observing the sky with such a crystal, and turn it to make the two beams look equally bright, then we may find the polarized halo around the sun. It works even in cloudy weather. Identifying the location of sun provides a certain reference point to sailors in long voyages.

But, is it really feasible? Dr Gábor Horváth, a biophysicist from Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary, has already made some research, and the answer is affirmative. Based on these research, recently he and his colleague Dénes Száz conducted the computer simulation on the aeronautical data of Viking voyages between Bergen in Norway and the Viking settlements in South Greenland. Under the normal speed of a Norse pirate ship, which was approximately 11 kilometers per hour, such voyages all the way west took about three weeks.

Having assumed the best period for sailing in open waters was between the Spring Equinox and Summer Solstice, the research group simulated 3600 voyages. Regardless of time, there were only three variables in the data simulations: the amount of cloudiness, the type of crystal used as “sunstone”, and the frequency of using of “sunstone”. Every time the “sunstone” was used, the course of simulated ship would be altered as needed.

According to the report in the Royal Society Open Science on April 3rd, the researchers claimed, when observing the “sunstone”, if the navigator read the data every four hours, the chance of arrival in Greenland was 32%~59%; if every 5~6 hours, the chance of arrival would significantly decline. And if data of “sunstone” was read at an interval of 3 hours or shorter, the chance of arrival would be 92%~100%. The researchers also said, except the frequency of readings, the key of successful arrival also lied in reading in the morning the same number of times as in the afternoon (the readings in the morning made the course diverted to North while those in the afternoon made it diverted to South, even sometimes missed the Greenland).

Three types of crystals the research group researched——calcite, which is made up of calcium carbonate; cordierite, a kind of silicate which contains iron and magnesium; and tourmaline, a kind of silicate which contains boron——they are all good in function within three hours or shorter. The voyage was excellent when using cordierite. But when the interval of reading was around 5~6 hours, the mineral properties of calcite, the well-known “Iceland spar”, was slightly worse than the other two.

Even so, tools like “sunstones” were of great value in the dangerous North Atlantic Ocean. The biochemist Stephen Harding said:“The Vikings were experts in shipbuilding, but if they got lost, they were done for too. ” Ironically, some researchers believed that those Viking explorers who eventually crossed South Greenland had found the America much earlier than Columbus.

Vikings used various tools for navigation, including the sunstone, sun compass, polarized light, stars, and compass. The sunstone was an auxiliary tool for navigation, possessing a unique crystal structure. By observing the image formed when the sun passed through the sunstone, Vikings determined their direction. Additionally, they utilized polarized light for navigation, judging their position and direction by observing the polarization direction of light in the sky. When navigating, Vikings also observed the stars, using constellations and star positions to determine their direction. Moreover, the compass was used for navigation, but its effectiveness was limited due to Vikings living in high-latitude regions.


What is a Sunstone?


A Viking Sunstone, also known as a sun-charged crystal, is a birefringent crystal that is usually transparent or semi-transparent and exhibits distinct reddish-golden flashes. This stone was considered a symbol of the sun and served as an important tool for navigation during Viking voyages.


When exposed to sunlight, the Viking Sunstone produces a unique polarized light phenomenon. This polarized light helps the Vikings determine the direction of the sun, thereby establishing their course. In overcast or nighttime conditions, the Viking Sunstone emits a faint glow, aiding navigation when there is insufficient light.


The Viking Sunstone holds a significant place in Viking culture, seen as a protector and guide for the Vikings and a crucial tool for navigation during their voyages. In modern times, the Viking Sunstone has also garnered widespread attention and admiration due to its distinctive beauty and symbolic significance.


How to Use a Sunstone?


The Viking Sunstone is a birefringent crystal with distinct reddish-golden flashes, regarded as an essential navigation tool. Here are the basic steps to use the Viking Sunstone for navigation:


Find a transparent or semi-transparent Viking Sunstone.

Place the stone under sunlight, allowing the sunlight to shine upon it.

Observe the polarized light produced by the stone. If it is a genuine Viking Sunstone, it will exhibit apparent polarized light, which helps determine the direction of the sun.

After identifying the direction of the sun, one can establish their own direction based on the position of the sun. For example, if the sun is directly overhead, the direction would be due south or due north.

During overcast or nighttime conditions, the Viking Sunstone emits a faint glow. Observing this glow can help determine the direction even in low-light situations.


The Viking Sunstone holds a crucial role in Viking culture, not only as a protector and guide but also as one of the most important tools for navigation during their voyages. While the use of the Viking Sunstone is relatively straightforward, it should be noted that it is not an all-purpose navigation tool, and its effectiveness may be limited by factors such as weather and time. Vikings typically combined multiple navigation tools, such as stars and compasses, to ensure accurate and reliable navigation during their voyages. Additionally, in their seafaring, Vikings also relied on other navigation aids, such as landmarks, geographical features, and routes, to ensure accurate navigation.


Apart from being a navigation tool, the Viking Sunstone was believed to possess mystical powers. In Viking culture, the Sunstone was considered to protect seafarers from malevolent forces at sea and to predict future weather and destiny. Some Viking legends and stories involve the use of the Sunstone and its mystical powers, reflecting not only the beliefs and traditions of Viking culture but also showcasing the courage and wisdom of Vikings during their voyages.


In conclusion, the Viking Sunstone was a highly significant item in Viking culture, serving not only as a crucial navigation tool during their seafaring but also being associated with mystical powers. Through the use of the Viking Sunstone, we can gain a deeper understanding of Viking culture, wisdom, and courage, as well as explore the history and civilization of human seafaring.


sun compass viking


The Vikings were a group of Norse seafarers and pirates who lived between the 9th and 11th centuries. They were known for their bravery, daring, and plundering activities. Navigation played a crucial role in the lives of the Vikings. They sailed longships across the North Sea and the North Atlantic, reaching places such as France, England, Germany, and Russia. During their voyages, the Vikings had to navigate accurately to reach their destinations. To aid them in this endeavor, they invented a navigation tool called the “sun compass.”


The sun compass is an ancient navigation tool that could be used without the presence of modern technologies like GPS. It consists of a flat surface with a vertical pointer. On the surface, there is a line indicating the point where the shadow of a local time indicator falls. By observing the position of the sun in the sky, the Vikings could determine the location of the shadow on the sun compass, thereby identifying their direction.


The Vikings heavily relied on the sun compass because it could be used in various weather conditions, including overcast skies, rainy days, and even at night. On sunny days, the sun compass provided accurate direction indicators. In cloudy weather, while the position of the sun might not be as precise, they could still estimate their direction. At night, the sun compass could be used to find the north.


However, despite the importance of the sun compass in Viking navigation, it had some limitations. For example, its accuracy was greatly affected in regions close to the poles, as it could not accurately indicate the direction. Additionally, during foggy or hazy conditions, the sun compass might be rendered unusable.


In conclusion, the sun compass was an indispensable tool for the Vikings during their voyages. It helped them find the correct direction and successfully complete many journeys. Although the sun compass had some limitations, it was considered a highly accurate and reliable tool for the Vikings of that time.


polarized light

The claim that Vikings used polarized light for navigation has not been widely accepted by the academic community and remains controversial. While there are some historical texts and legends that describe Vikings using polarized light for navigation, there is currently insufficient scientific evidence to support the authenticity and reliability of these stories.


Polarized light refers to light in which the electric field vibrates along a fixed direction. In nature, polarized light can be generated by certain natural phenomena such as the aurora and solar eclipses. However, there is no evidence to suggest that Vikings were able to utilize polarized light for navigation.


The primary navigation tools used by Vikings were the sun compass and star navigation, both of which played crucial roles in their seafaring journeys. The sun compass is a tool that determines direction based on the position of the sun, while star navigation involves using the positions and directions of different constellations to determine one’s location and direction. The use of these tools required a certain level of astronomical and geographical knowledge, which Vikings acquired through extensive maritime experience.


Although some legends and historical texts describe Vikings using polarized light for navigation, there is currently insufficient scientific evidence to support these claims. As a result, it cannot be conclusively determined whether Vikings indeed used polarized light for navigation.





The Vikings used a navigation method known as “star navigation,” which involved observing the positions and directions of different constellations to determine their location and direction during their seafaring journeys. This ability to navigate using the stars required a certain level of astronomical and geographical knowledge, which was accumulated and passed down through the Vikings’ maritime practices.


During the night, the Vikings would observe the stars in the sky, especially prominent ones like the North Star and the Big Dipper, to establish their direction. They also paid attention to the positions and shapes of various constellations, such as Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, and Cassiopeia, to determine their location and orientation. The navigators among the Vikings would pass on this knowledge to other crew members to enable them to navigate on their own during the voyage.


The Vikings’ star navigation was a method that relied on astronomical and geographical knowledge, and it was known as “star navigation.” Specifically, the Vikings would observe bright stars like the North Star and the Big Dipper, as well as the positions and shapes of constellations like Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, and Cassiopeia, to determine their direction and location. They also used some simple tools such as a cross-staff and wooden staff to aid in observing and calculating the positions and directions of stars. This knowledge was widely applied in the Vikings’ maritime practices and helped them maintain the correct direction and find their destinations during their long sea voyages.


In summary, the Vikings’ ability to navigate using the stars was a navigation method based on astronomical and geographical knowledge that developed and was passed down through their long-term seafaring practices. While this method may not be as precise as modern navigation technology, for its time, it was considered a reliable and effective means of navigation.



The Vikings made significant contributions to the study and application of magnets and compasses. In their voyages, they utilized a method known as “magnetic compass navigation,” which involved using a magnetic stone to indicate direction. The magnetic stone had one end marked as north and the other as south. When placed on a floating object, the magnetic stone would automatically align itself with the north direction. Through this method, the Vikings could determine their direction without relying on modern technologies such as GPS.


In addition to magnetic compass navigation, the Vikings likely employed other types of artificial compasses, such as water-floating compasses and dry-floating compasses. These compasses also used magnetic iron pieces or magnets to indicate direction and could be used both on ships and on land. Water-floating compasses were suitable for maritime navigation, with the floating needle pointing towards the desired direction on a floating buoy. Dry-floating compasses, on the other hand, could be used on land by suspending the compass needle.


The Vikings’ research and application of magnets and compasses were instrumental in maintaining accurate navigation during their sea voyages. Their brave exploration across the North Sea and North Atlantic to reach places like France, England, Germany, and Russia allowed them to explore new territories and trade opportunities. Magnetic compass navigation and other compass types became integral to the Vikings’ navigational expertise, enabling them to successfully navigate under various weather and geographical conditions.


The Vikings’ maritime technology and navigational wisdom left a valuable legacy for future generations. Their voyages and expeditions contributed to the advancement of geographical knowledge and played a significant role in the evolution of European history. The Vikings’ research and application of magnets and compasses opened new chapters in the field of navigation and became important milestones in the history of human sea travel. Their fearless spirit and ingenuity left a profound impact on oceans and lands worldwide.



In addition, the Vikings utilized several other navigation methods during their voyages. For example, they observed the behavior of seabirds, determining their position and direction based on the birds’ flight direction and altitude. They also observed the color and transparency of seawater to gauge their location and the distance to the coastline.


Overall, the Vikings’ navigation tools and methods were highly diverse and flexible. In addition to using fundamental tools like the sun compass and star navigation, they adapted various other methods based on practical circumstances to find the correct direction and reach their destinations. While the assertion of using polarized light for navigation remains controversial, the courage and daring of the Vikings in their maritime practices continue to be worthy of admiration.


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