Scandza junipers and stuff

I had an occasion to visit this monument recently, so I thought “Hey, we desperately need yet another crazy idea about its significance!”, so here we go…

It is Ales Stenar 鈥 the Stones of Ale, a stone ship near K氓seberga in Southeastern Scania. K氓s- means haven/harbour in Scanian, or pier/jetty. In this case probably a natural haven as the piers were constructed in ca 1882 and the name of the village is attested from at least year 1545.

K氓seberga would be the most natural place on the Scandinavian peninsula to stock up before leaving for continental Europe. When navigating the seas before GIS (GPS, Glonas, Baidu, et c) a basic tactic is to follow a coast whenever possible. As soon as you are on open sea with no land in sight you will have to rely on the stars to keep the course straight and that is more difficult and less exact. So you would want to cross a sea, such as in this case the Baltic Sea, where there is as much land as possible to guide you.

As it happens, outside K氓seberga the island Bornholm guides the sailor halfway to Poland and provides a convenient crossing. After passing through open sea, you would also want a wide stretch of coast to catch you so you cannot miss it. In order to reach the river Vistula, the green route can be sailed; and in order to reach the mouth of Oder, the violet route in this map*:

If you place yourself with the back against that large stone in the first picture, and use the smaller stone for sighting, the direction you get is the violet line in the map.

How about the green line?

Jordanes Getica

In chapter 3 we read (and I quote Charles Christopher Mierow’s English translation along the Latin text):

Ad Scandzi忙 insul忙 situm, quod superius reliquimus, redeamus.
Let us now return to the site of the island of Scandza, which we left above.

De hac etenim in secundo sui operis libro Claudius Ptolomeus, orbis terr忙 discriptor egregius, meminit dicens:
Claudius Ptolem忙us, an excellent describer of the world, has made mention of it in the second book of his work, saying:

Est in Oceani Arctoi salo posita insula magna, nomine Scandza, in modum folii cetri, lateribus pandis, per longum ducta concludens se.
“There is a great island situated in the surge of the northern Ocean, Scandza by name, in the shape of a juniper leaf with bulging sides which taper to a point at a long end.”

This is a bit weird. For if we look in book 2 of Ptolemaios’ Geographike Hypegesis, he does mention, not Scandza but Scandia, and nothing about juniper leaves. Ptolemaios has coordinates for the western, northern, eastern and southern edges of Scandia, but claims to know next to nothing about the shape of this supposed island, which satellites reveal is actually a peninsula. Jordanes continues:

[…] Haec a fronte posita est Vistul忙 Fluminis, qui Sarmaticis montibus ortus in conspectu Scandz忙 septentrionali Oceano trisculus inlabitur, Germaniam Scythiamque disterminans.
[…] This island lies in front of the river Vistula, which rises in the Sarmatian mountains and flows through its triple mouth into the northern Ocean in sight of Scandza, separating Germany and Scythia.

Ptolemaios’ Geography

Here is Ptolemaios (my own sloppy translation, and without the special characters for coordinates in Greek):

峒埾鈥 峒谓伪蟿慰位峥段 未峤 蟿峥喯 螝喂渭尾蟻喂魏峥喯 围蔚蟻蟽慰谓萎蟽慰蠀 蟿苇蟽蟽伪蟻蔚蟼 谓峥喯兾课 伪峒 魏伪位慰蠉渭蔚谓伪喂 危魏伪谓未委伪喂, 蟿蟻蔚峥栂 渭苇谓 渭喂魏蟻伪峤, 峤 峒 渭苇蟽畏 峒愊苇蠂蔚喂 渭慰委蟻伪蟼: …
East from the Cimbrian Peninsula, four islands called Scandie, three small [ones], of which the centre is located: 41掳 30′, 58掳.

渭委伪 未峤 渭蔚纬委蟽蟿畏 魏伪峤 峒谓伪蟿慰位喂魏蠅蟿维蟿畏 魏伪蟿峤 蟿峤跋 峒愇何参课会桨蟼 蟿慰峥 螣峤愇瓜兿勎肯嵨晃 螤慰蟿伪渭慰峥, 峒 蟿峤 渭峤参 未蠀蟿喂魏蠋蟿伪蟿慰谓 蟺苇蟻伪蟼 峒愊苇蠂蔚喂 渭慰委蟻伪蟼: …
and one largest and most eastern down/at/by the outlet of Vistula River, whose westernmost edge is located: 43掳, 58掳

蟿峤 未鈥 峒谓伪蟿慰位喂魏蠋蟿伪蟿慰谓
the east 46掳, 58掳

蟿峤 未鈥 峒蟻魏蟿喂魏蠋蟿伪蟿慰谓
the north 44掳 30′, 58掳 30′

蟿峤 未鈥 渭蔚蟽畏渭尾蟻喂谓蠈谓
the south 45掳, 57掳 40′

螝伪位蔚峥栂勎蔽 未峤 峒拔次壪 魏伪峤 伪峤愊勧酱 危魏伪谓未委伪, 魏伪峤 魏伪蟿苇蠂慰蠀蟽喂谓 伪峤愊勧繂蟼 蟿峤 渭峤参 未蠀蟿喂魏峤 围伪喂未蔚喂谓慰峤, 蟿峤 未鈥 峒谓伪蟿慰位喂魏峤 桅伪蠀蠈谓伪喂 魏伪峤 桅喂蟻伪峥栂兾课, 蟿峤 未峤 峒蟻魏蟿喂魏峤 桅委谓谓慰喂, 蟿峤 未峤 渭蔚蟽畏渭尾蟻喂谓峤 螕慰峥ο勎蔽 魏伪峤 螖伪蠀魏委蠅谓蔚蟼, 蟿峤 未峤 渭苇蟽伪 螞蔚蠀峥段轿课.
Individually it is itself called Skandia, and its western part is possesed by Hedini, the eastern by Fayoni and Firesi, the north by Finni, the south by Guti and Daycions, the midlands by Leyoni.

But …

In the preface to Getica, Jordanes explains that the book is based on a 12 volume history written by Senator [Cassiodorus]. Unfortunately, the books were not available to him, so he had to rely on his memory.

Since Getika is a detailed and mostly reliable historical account, he probably used other written sources besides his memory, yet there is an obvious possibility that he may have gotten some details wrong.

One such detail, obviously is the fact that Scandza/Scandia is not within sight from the outlet of Vistula (on modern maps often referred by its polish name Wis艂a). Yet Jordanes couldn’t possibly have invented that fact, so the work by Cassiodorus probably contained a statement to the effect that something was in sight of something else.

Another observation is that it is usually very hard to tell what shape an island has. For this reason, the statement that Scandza was the shape of a juniper leaf is confusing. How did they know and, if some very smart filosopher had found out, what use would that information be to a ship’s crew, just seing a coastline?

I can think of one special case when this info would be useful: if you stand on top of a hill or mountain, overlooking a sea with relatively small islands in it, planning where to go next. I suggest therefor that the instruction to look for an island in the shape of a juniper leaf, which is within sight, was directed to a traveller starting at K氓seberga, Scandza and going towards the Roman Empire.

Here is a comparison of Bornholm, sighted from Ales Stenar, with a juniper needle from the speices which is common in Scania.

Why is this a crazy idea? Because there is actually a juniper needle shaped island just 25 km outside the outlet of Vistula. It is named Hel, and if you sail along its north-eastern coast, then keep a straight course, you will eventually get to Scandza, albeit with a 250 km passage across open sea instead of just 100 km. Pray for good weather!

* Maps displayed on this site may not be used for navigation. Use real nautical charts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *