The Vikings in Greenland and America, Part I (of 4)
If American school children know one Viking by name, it is Leif Erikson, who was the first known European to set foot on North American soil. Leif's fantastic voyage was almost 500 years before Columbus and the Age of Exploration. But Leif was just one part of a whole family of intrepid adventurers. His story starts with his father, Erik the Red, who started the first permanent Norse settlement on Greenland. Leif's brothers and sister also played a part in Norse America's history. These stories come to us primarily from two sources – The Saga of Erik the Red (Eiríks Saga Rauða), and the Greenlander’s Saga (Grœnlendinga). These works have some confusing and contradictory passages, but they present an astonishing account of life at the very edge of the known world. They also offer the oldest surviving written reports of Native Americans.
Erik the Red
Most assume that Erik was called "the Red" for his hair or for his ruddy complexion (the sagas do not explicitly say). He may have been more aptly called "the Red" for his charisma, his fiery temper, or his bad habit of killing people. Erik was from Norway but had been exiled from that land along with his father for violent feuding. He settled in Iceland and tried to live in peace, but before long he was embroiled in a series of rapidly-escalating feuds.
The Icelanders had soon had enough, and at the next Thing (the local democratic assembly) Erik the Red was made an outlaw and banished from all of Iceland for three years.
Perhaps Erik, too, thought that he should get further away from neighbors, or that he needed to find a place where the laws were more lenient towards men of passion such as himself. He had heard of land amid the cold northern seas – a barren and forbidding place called Gunnbjarnarsker (Gunnbjarn’s Rock). Only one settlement had ever been made there, but it had fallen away into calamity and violence, and only two men returned home. Erik the Red thought he may be able to find the land, though, and so his dragon ship set out across the frothing North Atlantic waves.
Erik's luck and sea craft held, and after a week at sea, he saw stark, barren hills rising from the ocean.
The land Erik came to is the biggest island in the world – more massive than all of Scandinavia put together – and yet, very little of it was habitable. Most of the land was covered in glaciers, and only the southernmost fjords offered enough shelter from the winds to even attempt the pastoral, agrarian lifestyle the Norse knew. Even there, the first frost would fall in August, and the fjords themselves would freeze in October. There were almost no trees, and most necessities would have to be imported from Iceland or elsewhere. Yet, aside from the freedom which Eric craved, this place was full of valuable commodities for trade. There were animal pelts and fox furs, polar bears (both for hides or even to bestow as live gifts to Viking lords), white hunting falcons, and one of the most sought-after commodities in the Norse world: ivory.
The ivory the Vikings traded came from walrus tusks, as well as the "horn" or tusk of the narwhal. These objects were valued as they were, or fashioned into works of art. An excellent example of Norse ivory art is the famous Isle of Lewis chess set.
Erik realized that his new land would not only allow him to rise above trouble, but it would also make him very rich. All he had to do was find more people who would leave Iceland to follow him into this bold new venture. To help with this, he called his new home Greenland because "more men will want to go there if the land has a good name."
His banishment ended, Erik the Red returned to Iceland and told everyone he could of the opportunities of Greenland. He was not disappointed. That summer 35 ships left Iceland for Greenland. Yet only 14 arrived. The rest turned back or were lost. Greenland was not to be a land that welcomed all in – even to reach it was a real test of courage.
Erik the Red finally had his small realm, where his followers could live in peace while growing wealthy on trade. From what we can tell, these first Greenlanders – especially Erik – took to their new life and met the arduous demands of their new home with resolve and ingenuity.
Erik and his wife, Thodhild, raised three sons, Thorstein, Thorvald, and Leif. But it was Erik’s daughter, Freydis, who inherited much of his charisma, vindictiveness, and fiery character. Thorstein was close to his father, and not many in Greenland were so well thought of as he. Leif, we are told, "was a great and strong man, grave and well-favored, therewith sensible and moderate in all things.”
Greenland appears to have been set up like Iceland, in that it was democratically-governed, and so Erik was a leader but not a king. Nonetheless, as firstborn, Thorstein would inherit the lion's share of his father's wealth. This left his younger brother Leif to seek his fortune elsewhere. So, as the 10th century closed, Leif sailed back to Norway and gave his oath to King Olaf Tryggvassan.
He could not have possibly imagined where that adventure might ultimately lead him. Part 2 (Leif Erikson) is available here.
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- The Isle of Lewis Chessmen. The Kenilworthian Chess Club. http://kenilworthian.blogspot.com/2009/11/lewis-chessmen-dispute-back-in-news.html
- Erik the Red statue. Wikimedia Commons
David Gray Rodgers is a college lecturer, and author of several books, including Usurper: A Novel of the Fall of Rome. He is co-author of Sons of Vikings: History, Legend, and Impact of the Viking Age.