The sagas are ancient stories about the sea voyages that the Vikings took around the year 1000 CE. Most modern scholars believe the accounts are predominately fictional, but they contain enough factual details to give insight into the Viking way of life. One particularly interesting story concerns King Olav II, a famous warrior king who was so well thought of that he was canonized Saint Olav, the patron saint of Norway.
In the Saga of Saint Olav, Olav asks an Icelandic Viking named Sigurd to tell him the location of the sun during a foggy, cloudy day. Sigurd does so, and to check Sigurd’s answer, the saga says that Olav “grabbed a sunstone, looked at the sky and saw from where the light came, from which he knew the position of the invisible sun.”
That’s quite a trick. And, if it were possible to have a device that could find the exact position of the sun on a cloudy day, it would explain a lot about how Viking voyagers were able to sail to far-off places such as Greenland, Iceland, and even North America. Historians and archeologists have found no evidence that the Vikings had magnetic compasses, and the North Star was of little use to Viking navigators because of the perpetual daylight of the arctic summer when most voyaging took place.
So, the Vikings had to use the sun to navigate on their long-distance journeys, but in the world’s often-cloudy polar regions, days go by without the sun appearing. A solarsteinn (sunstone) that showed the sun’s position on overcast days would be a great advantage.
There is no agreement among historians that sunstones actually existed, but there are tantalizing possibilities. First, sunstones are mentioned several times in different sagas. Secondly, the Vikings did know of naturally occurring rock crystals such as calcite and cordierite, and these minerals have the ability to polarize light passing through them under the right conditions.
How a Sunstone Could Have Worked
As any honeybee or mouse-eared bat will tell you, the sky is polarized. Regular light vibrates in more than one plane and is referred to as unpolarized. Polarized light vibrates in a single plane. With the possible exception of the Vikings, people did not know this until 1812 when the great French scientist Francois Arago invented the first polarizing filter. Thanks to Arago and the scientists that followed him, we now know that the sky’s polarization is due to “scattering,” meaning that light waves are bounced around by particles in the atmosphere.
The interesting thing about the sky’s polarization is that it’s not a random phenomenon but one that always occurs in the same way. If you could see polarized light like a honeybee does, you would notice a particular bright spot in the sky, and that spot is always in the same place: a point on the celestial arc that is exactly 90° opposite the sun (Figure A). If you can see that “spot” you can figure out where the sun is — even when it is occluded by clouds.
Building a Sunstone
Only wealthy people like Olav could afford a sunstone made of rock crystal, but crafting your own sunstone with polarizing film is inexpensive and easy. The materials cost less than $15 and the project will take a couple of hours.