Both of these short extracts are simple travel narratives. They do not pretend to be epic meditations on the human condition nor do they recount epic legends; rather, they are but the record of two gentlemen—the former a Norwegian, the latter perhaps another Norwegian or maybe an Englishman— who traveled abroad in order to discover the world.
Ohthere’s story involves Walrus hunting. Indeed, his tale is wholly concerned with walrus hunting in relation to ethnogeography. As Ohthere hunts walruses, he also tells of his sea travels and who, if anyone, he meets. With an eye for who lives where and how these people interact, the idea of this narrative is much like a hunting log intermixed with a business ledger on top of a traveler’s communique. Though subtle in how it disseminates its information, specifically on how Ohthere talks of the people he encounters, it is a surprisingly engaging story for whose subject matter is unsurprisingly boring.
Wulfstan’s visit to Estonia follows the same recipe, though as far as I am concerned, it is more thought-provoking. Or at the very least less boring.
So, as you may have guessed, Wulfstan visits Estonia. He recounts how there is many kings who fight one another, how the commoners drink mead, and, most interestingly of all, how when the city kings die, they are put on display in their homes, sometimes for months on end, while their relatives party. Only after this great party is the body cremated; even here, though, Wulfstan recounts how the body may be either cremated or embalmed—on ice!
I am not sure of the specifics of ‘ice embalming’ but it sounds fantastic, like an appropriately ‘metal’ way to be preserved (as the kids would say). Wulfstan lingers on details like these and it is what bestows this narrative with some more adventurous oomph than the previous travel log. In short, it feels like that Wulfstan is wondrously stupefied by the place he is visiting, as opposed to describing it in passing as an intrepid observer. (Plus, there are fewer details on walrus hunting, so that is a plus, though perhaps not if you’re a walrus hunting historian.)
What I have taken away from these stories, as ephemeral as they were, was how modern they felt. Since each account was written, you know, over a thousand years ago, I feel that this is a well-earned accomplishment. I also suppose it testifies to the continued love of the human mind for adventure, that whether you are discovering something for the first time, ever, or just re-discovering something that someone else beat you to discovering, it does not ever get less amazing to explore the world and grasp it through your own hands.