Sunstone (medieval)

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Iceland spar, possibly the medieval sunstone used to locate the Sun in the sky when clouds obstruct it from view

The sunstone (Icelandic: sólarsteinn) is a type of mineral attested in several 13th–14th-century written sources in Iceland, one of which describes its use to locate the Sun in a completely overcast sky. Sunstones are also mentioned in the inventories of several churches and one monastery in 14th–15th-century Iceland and Germany.

A theory exists that the sunstone had polarizing attributes and was used as a navigational instrument by seafarers in the Viking Age.[1] A stone found in 2002 off Alderney, in the wreck of a 16th-century warship, may lend evidence of the existence of sunstones as navigational devices.[2]


One medieval source in Iceland, Rauðúlfs þáttr,[3][4] mentions the sunstone as a mineral by means of which the sun could be located in an overcast and snowy sky by holding it up and noting where it emitted, reflected or transmitted light (hvar geislaði úr honum).[5] Sunstones are also mentioned in Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar [Wikidata] (13th century)[6] and in church and monastic inventories (14th–15th century) without discussing their attributes. The sunstone texts of Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar were copied to all four versions of the medieval hagiography Guðmundar saga góða.[7]

Thorsteinn Vilhjalmsson translates the Icelandic description in Rauðúlfs þáttr of the use of the sunstone as follows:

Allegorical nature of the medieval texts[edit]

Two of the original medieval texts on the sunstone are allegorical. Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar contains a burst of purely allegorical material associated with Hrafn’s slaying. This involves a celestial vision with three highly cosmological knights, recalling the horsemen of the Apocalypse.[6] It has been suggested[10] that the horsemen of Hrafns saga contain allegorical allusions to the winter solstice and the four elements as an omen of Hrafn’s death, where the sunstone also appears.

"Rauðúlfs þáttr", a tale of Saint Olav, and the only medieval source mentioning how the sunstone was used, is a thoroughly allegorical work.[11] A round and rotating house visited by Olav has been interpreted as a model of the cosmos and the human soul,[12] as well as a prefiguration of the Church.[13] The intention of the author was to achieve an apotheosis of St. Olav, through placing him in the symbolic seat of Christ.[11] The house belongs to the genre of "abodes of the sun," which seemed widespread in medieval literature.[4] St. Olav used the sunstone to confirm the time reckoning skill of his host right after leaving this allegorical house. He held the sunstone up against the snowy and completely overcast sky and noted where light was emitted from it (the Icelandic words used do not make it clear whether the light was reflected by the stone, emitted by it or transmitted through it). It has been suggested[10][14] that in "Rauðúlfs þáttr" the sunstone was used as a symbol of the Virgin, following a widespread tradition in which the virgin birth of Christ is compared with glass letting a ray of the sun through.[15]

The allegories of the above-mentioned texts exploit the symbolic value of the sunstone, but the church and monastic inventories, however, show that something called sunstones did exist as physical objects in Iceland.[16] The presence of the sunstone in "Rauðúlfs þáttr" may be entirely symbolic[17] but its use is described in sufficient detail to show that the idea of using a stone to find the sun's position in overcast conditions was commonplace.[10]

Possibility of sunstones for orientation and navigation[edit]

Danish archaeologist Thorkild Ramskou posited that the "sunstone" could have been one of the minerals (cordierite or Iceland spar) that polarize light and by which the azimuth of the sun can be determined in a partly overcast sky or when the sun is just below the horizon.[1][18] The principle is used by many animals;[19] and polar flights applied the idea before more advanced techniques became available.[20][21] Ramskou further conjectured that Iceland spar could have aided navigation in the open sea in the Viking period. This idea has become very popular,[22] and research as to how a "sunstone" could be used in nautical navigation continues,[23] often in the context of the Uunartoq disc.

Research in 2011 by Ropars et al.,[24] confirms that one can identify the direction of the sun to within a few degrees in both cloudy and twilight conditions using Iceland spar and the naked eye. The process involves moving the stone across the visual field to reveal a yellow entoptic pattern on the fovea of the eye. Alternatively, a dot can be placed on top of the crystal so that when you look at it from below, two dots appear, because the light is “depolarised” and fractured along different axes. The crystal can then be rotated until the two points have the same luminosity. The angle of the top face now gives the direction of the sun. Attempts to replicate this work in both Scotland and off the coast of Turkey by science journalist Matt Kaplan and mineralogists at the British Geological Survey in 2014 failed. Kaplan communicated with Ropars, and neither could understand why the samples of Iceland spar that were being used during the trials did not reveal the sun's direction, with the author hypothesizing that the stones require some experience to be handled effectively.[25]

The recovery of a piece of Iceland spar from an Elizabethan ship that sank near Alderney in 1592 suggests the possibility that this navigational technology may have persisted after the invention of the magnetic compass.[26] Although the stone was found near a navigational instrument, its use remains uncertain.[27]

Beyond nautical navigation, a polarizing crystal would have been useful as a sundial, especially at high latitudes with extended hours of twilight, in mountainous areas, or in partly overcast conditions. This would have required the polarizing crystal to be used in conjunction with known landmarks. Churches and monasteries would have valued such an object as an aid to keep track of the canonical hours.[10]

A Hungarian team proposed that a sun compass artifact with crystals might also have allowed Vikings to guide their boats at night. A type of crystal they called sunstone can use scattered sunlight from below the horizon as a guide. What they suggest is that Iceland spar crystals were used in combination with Haidinger's brush. If so, Vikings could have used them in the northern latitudes where it never becomes completely dark in summer.[28] In areas of confused magnetic deviation (such as the Labrador coast), a sunstone could have been a more reliable guide than a magnetic compass.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Ramskou, Thorkild (1967). "Solstenen". Skalk (in Danish). 2: 16–17.
  2. ^ Satter, Raphael (March 8, 2013). "Researchers: We may have found a fabled sunstone". Yahoo! News. Associated Press.
  3. ^ Turville-Petre, Joan E. (Trans.) (1947). "The story of Rauð and his sons. Payne Memorial Series II. Viking Society for Northern Research. ISBN 0-404-60014-X.
  4. ^ a b Faulkes, Anthony. 1966. "Rauðúlfs þáttr: A study". Studia Islandica 25. Heimspekideild Háskóla Íslands og Bókaútgáfa Menningarsjóðs. Reykjavík. ISSN 0258-3828. 92 pp.
  5. ^ Sample, Ian."Crystals may have aided Viking sailors". Guardian (Manchester, UK) p. 8. 7 February 2007. Retrieved December 27, 2010. "Tests aboard a research vessel in the Arctic ocean found that certain crystals can be used to reveal the position of the sun, a trick that would have allowed early explorers to ascertain their position and navigate, even if the sky was obscured by cloud or fog."
  6. ^ a b Helgadóttir, Guðrún P (ed.). 1987. Hrafns Saga Sveinbjarnarsonar. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-811162-2. 267 pp.
  7. ^ Karlsson, Stefán (ed.).1983. Guðmundar sögur biskups I: Ævi Guðmundar biskups, Guðmundar saga A. Editiones Arnamagnæanæ, Series B (6). København: C.A. Reitzels Forlag. ISBN 87-7421-387-3. 262 pp.
  8. ^ Johnsen, Oscar Albert and Jón Helgason (eds.). 1941. Saga Óláfs konungs hins helga. Den store saga om Olav den hellige. Efter pergamenthandskrift i Kungliga Biblioteket i Stockholm nr. 2 4to med varianter fra andre handskrifter. ("Saga of King Olaf the Holy. The great saga of Olav the Holy. After the parchment manuscript no. 2 4to in the Royal Library in Stockholm with variants from other manuscripts.") Oslo: Norsk Historisk Kjeldeskrifts-Institutt, Vol. II. pp. 670–1
  9. ^ Vilhjalmsson, Thorsteinn. 1997. "Time and Travel in Old Norse Society". Disputatio, (II): 89–114.
  10. ^ a b c d Einarsson, Árni. 2010. Sólarsteinninn: tæki eða tákn. (Summary in English: Sunstone: fact or fiction). Gripla 21 (1) 281–97 Árni Magnússon Institute. ISSN 1018-5011.
  11. ^ a b Einarsson, Árni. 1997. "Saint Olaf’s dream house. A medieval cosmological allegory". Skáldskaparmál 4: 179–209, Reykjavík: Stafaholt. ISSN 1026-213X
  12. ^ Einarsson, Árni. 2001. The symbolic imagery of Hildegard of Bingen as a key to the allegorical Raudulfs thattr in Iceland. Erudiri Sapientia, Studien zum Mittelalter und zu seiner Rezeptionsgeschichte (Studies on the Middle Ages and their reception history); II: 377–400. ISSN 1615-441X
  13. ^ Loescher, G. 1981. "Rauðúlfs þáttr". Zeitschrift für deutsches Altertum und deutsche Literatur (ZfDA) 110: 253-266. ISSN 0044-2518
  14. ^ Bragason, Úlfar 1988. "The structure and meaning of Hrafns saga Sveinbjarnarsonar". Scandinavian Studies 60: 267–292. ISSN 0036-5637
  15. ^ Breeze, Andrew. 1999. "The Blessed Virgin and the Sunbeam Through Glass". Celtica 23: 19–29. ISSN 0069-1399
  16. ^ Foote, Peter G. 1956. "Icelandic sólarsteinn and the Medieval Background". Arv. Nordic Yearbook of Folklore. 12: 26-40.
  17. ^ Schnall, Uwe. 1975. Navigation der Wikinger. Nautische Probleme der Wikingerzeit im Spiegel der schriftlichen Quellen. Schr. Deutsch. Schiffahrtsmus. ("Navigation of the Vikings: Nautical Problems of the Viking Age in the Light of the Written Sources. Writings of the German Maritime Museum"). Band 6. Oldenburg and Hamburg: Stalling, p. 196. ISBN 3-7979-1871-2.
  18. ^ Ramskou, Thorkild. 1969. Solstenen – Primitiv Navigation i Norden för Kompasset. Köbenhavn: Rhodos. 95 pp.
  19. ^ Gábor Horváth; Dezsö Varjú (12 January 2004). Polarized Light in Animal Vision: Polarization Patterns in Nature. Springer. p. 447. ISBN 978-3-540-40457-6.
  20. ^ Moody, Alton B. 1950. "The Pfund Sky Compass"; (via page archive at WebCite (archived December 28, 2010)). Navigation. 2 (7): 234–239. ISSN 0028-1522.
  21. ^ Rogers, Francis M. 1971. "Precision Astrolabe Portuguese Navigators and Transoceanic Navigation - Kollsmann Sky Compass". Academia Internacional da Cultura Portugeusa (Lisbon, Portugal) pp. 288-291. Retrieved December 29, 2010.
  22. ^ Hegedüs, Ramón, Åkesson, Susanne; Wehner, Rüdiger and Horváth, Gábor. 2007. "Could Vikings have navigated under foggy and cloudy conditions by skylight polarization? On the atmospheric optical prerequisites of polarimetric Viking navigation under foggy and cloudy skies". Proc. R. Soc. A 463 (2080): 1081–1095. doi:10.1098/rspa.2007.1811. ISSN 0962-8452.
  23. ^ Horvàth, G. et al. (2011). 'On the trail of Vikings with polarized skylight: experimental study of the atmospheric optical prerequisites allowing polarimetric navigation by Viking seafarers' Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B (2011) 366, 772–782 doi:10.1098/rstb.2010.0194
  24. ^ Ropars, G. et al., 2011. A depolarizer as a possible precise sunstone for Viking navigation by polarized skylight. Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Science. Available at: Accessed December 5, 2011.doi:10.1098/rspa.2011.0369
  25. ^ Kaplan, Matt (2015-10-27). Science of the magical : from the Holy Grail to love potions to superpowers (First Scribner hardcover ed.). New York. ISBN 9781476777108. OCLC 904813040.
  26. ^ "Shipwreck may contain near-mythical Viking navigation aid". The Raw Story. Agence France-Presse. March 5, 2013.
  27. ^ "Researchers may have found a Viking sunstone". CBS News. March 8, 2013.
  28. ^ Bernáth, Balázs; Farkas, Alexandra; Száz, Dénes; Blahó, Miklós; Egri, Ádám; Barta, András; Åkesson, Susanne; Horváth, Gábor (26 March 2014). "How could the Viking Sun compass be used with sunstones before and after sunset? Twilight board as a new interpretation of the Uunartoq artefact fragment". Proceedings of the Royal Society A. 470 (2166 20130787): 20130787. Bibcode:2014RSPSA.47030787B. doi:10.1098/rspa.2013.0787. PMC 4042717. PMID 24910520.

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