Find­ing Vin­land

Hun­dreds of years be­fore Colum­bus, the Norse were the first Euro­peans in the New World

All About History - - CONTENTS - Writ­ten by Ben Gazur

Dis­cover how Vik­ing ex­plor­ers were the first Euro­peans to reach Amer­ica and why their colonies didn’t last

The famed long­ships of the Norse were per­fectly de­signed to skim the rough seas of the North At­lantic. On board could be a band of war­riors bent on con­quest or a com­mu­nity ready to set­tle some newly dis­cov­ered land. Hav­ing colonised Ice­land in the 9th cen­tury it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore the Norse ships strayed even fur­ther west­ward. In the Groen­lendinga saga, we have the Norse ac­count of ex­pe­di­tions into North Amer­ica.

Erik the Red and Green­land

When charges of man­slaugh­ter were brought against Erik the Red and his fa­ther, Thor­vald, the pair fled their home in Nor­way. Cross­ing the sea, they joined those Norse who had al­ready set­tled in the aptly, if un­invit­ingly, named Ice­land. Here Thor­vald died, while Erik the Red mar­ried Thjod­hildr, and raised their sons, Leif, Thor­vald and Thorstein, and his daugh­ter, Frey­dís, who would all play cru­cial roles in the Norse voy­ages into the West.

Erik’s vi­o­lent past was not left be­hind in Nor­way. Af­ter killing Ey­i­ulf the Foul and the famed du­eller Hrafn, Erik and his fam­ily had to move on again. A change of scenery did not end the quar­rels. A fight over a loaned set of wooden beams erupted be­tween Erik and a man named Thorgest. Oth­ers took sides in the dis­pute and bat­tles and blood­shed re­sulted. A meet­ing of the peo­ple in the area de­clared Erik an out­law. Clearly, Erik needed a new home again.

Word had reached Erik of a land be­yond the western sea so he equipped a ship for a voy­age and gath­ered a crew for this chancy trip. To his friends he promised that he would re­turn if he suc­ceeded in dis­cov­er­ing this land be­low the hori­zon. He left it un­spo­ken as to what fate would be­fall his crew on the ocean if he failed to lo­cate it.

From Ice­land, Erik struck land quickly and he named the spot Mid­iokul. A vast wilder­ness of rock and tow­er­ing moun­tains of ice seemed to loom over this new coun­try. Glaciers spilled down into the churn­ing ocean. In the sum­mers Erik led his crew on ex­pe­di­tions to lo­cate sites for set­tle­ments. In the win­ters, they dug in to sur­vive the bit­ing cold. Af­ter three years, Erik sailed once more for Ice­land to tell peo­ple of his dis­cov­er­ies. When he told the tales of his voy­age he named his new­found land of ice and stone Green­land – say­ing that a coun­try with a good name would be more at­trac­tive. The next sum­mer Erik re­turned to his Green­land,

trailed by an­other 25 ships. Only 14 made it

safely to their new home. While his fa­ther Erik was colonis­ing Green­land, Leif sailed back to Nor­way. He vis­ited King Olaf and this Chris­tian monarch preached the new faith to Leif. Leif was taken with Chris­tian­ity and, along with his crew, was bap­tised be­fore re­turn­ing west in search of his fa­ther.

Bjarni’s voy­age west

While still a young man, Bjarni, a rel­a­tive of one of the first set­tlers in Ice­land, was filled with a de­sire to travel. Bjarni grew rich by ply­ing his trad­ing ves­sel be­tween Norse set­tle­ments. Ev­ery other year he would set his sails for home, how­ever, and spend a win­ter with his fa­ther, Her­jólf. One win­ter, Her­jólf de­cided to fol­low Erik to Green­land and the old man sold his farm. Among his crew was a Chris­tian from the Hebrides who had com­posed a fa­mous song about the dan­gers of the stormy sea and rolling waves that would face them. His song called on the Chris­tian God to watch over the ship. Per­haps his song was heeded by the new god for de­spite the dan­gers of the voy­age, the ship reached Green­land safely, and Her­jólf set­tled there.

Af­ter a trad­ing voy­age that win­ter, Bjarni re­turned to Ice­land to hear the news that his fa­ther had left Nor­way for Green­land. Per­plexed, he de­cided to keep to his cus­tom of spend­ing the sea­son with his fa­ther and turned his ship to­wards the west. Bjarni asked if his crew would fol­low him and not a man left his ser­vice de­spite Bjarni warn­ing, “Our voy­age must be re­garded as fool­hardy, see­ing that not one of us has ever been in the Green­land Sea.”

They soon dis­cov­ered how fool­hardy they had been when all of the dan­gers listed in the Chris­tian’s song were vis­ited on them.

For three days they sailed un­til the land they had left be­hind was hid­den by the wa­ter. The good wind that had eased them across the waves fell and a ter­ri­ble north wind started to blow. A fog de­scended that hid the sky from them. For many days and nights they had no no­tion of where they were go­ing. When the Sun once again showed its face, they could nav­i­gate and hoisted their sails. On the first sight of land, they sailed straight for it.

“Is this Green­land?” the crew asked Bjarni. He did not be­lieve so, so they sailed on. The next land they found was green and pleas­ant with hills and woods. “Is this Green­land?” No, replied Bjarni again for there were no great and ice-bound moun­tains. The third land they dis­cov­ered was cov­ered with trees in a flat ex­panse. Once again Bjarni did not think it was Green­land and de­nied his crew the chance to land there to take on food and sup­plies. At this his ship­mates grum­bled but they sailed on any­way.

The next land was a mass of rock and ice, which raised the crew’s hopes of an end of their voy­ages but proved to be only an is­land in the great sea. Through gales, Bjarni com­manded his ship on­wards. Fi­nally they found a land that seemed to match the de­scrip­tions of Green­land that had come to them. The ship made for land. On the spit of land above their land­ing spot they dis­cov­ered the home of Bjarni’s fa­ther. Bjarni de­cided to give up voy­ag­ing and lived there with his fa­ther for the rest of the old man’s days.

Leif sets forth

Word of Bjarni’s hap­haz­ard voy­ages into the fur­ther west spread. Hear­ing of the lack of spirit Bjarni had shown in not ex­plor­ing these new lands, peo­ple mocked him, but oth­ers took up the chal­lenge of fol­low­ing his course through. Leif, son of Erik the Red, trav­elled to visit Bjarni to hear of his trav­els, and bought a ship from him.

Leif tried to per­suade his fa­ther to join him on this new great ex­plo­ration. At first Erik re­fused, feel­ing him­self too old for the rigours of the long voy­age. Salt spray and foam­ing ocean swells were thought more suit­able for the young. Leif told him they could use his good luck on such a dar­ing mis­sion and suc­ceeded in lur­ing his fa­ther to the ship with praise of his skills. On the way, the horse Erik was rid­ing stum­bled and threw the old man. Erik took this for a divine sign that he had gone too far. No more lands were to be his for the tak­ing and Erik re­turned to his home. Leif set sail for the lands be­yond the west with­out him.

First the ship came to the is­land Bjarni had dis­cov­ered that was noth­ing but a flat and rocky out­crop dom­i­nated by moun­tains of ice. No grass grew and all the ne­ces­si­ties of life seemed ab­sent. Leif called this Hel­lu­land, for it seemed to be noth­ing but flat rocks (‘Hella’ in Old Norse). They could not set­tle here and so Leif set out on his ship again.

The next land they found was flat and wooded, with broad and safe beaches of sand. Leif de­clared this land too would have a fit­ting name and called it Mark­land (‘For­est Land’). They set out from this more promis­ing land in hopes of greater dis­cov­er­ies.

For two days and nights they trav­elled with a north­east­erly wind in their sails. They landed on an is­land a short dis­tance from a greater land. In the

“The eight that they had seized they killed on the spot, but the ninth es­caped”

fine weather they ex­plored the is­land. See­ing the dew on the lush grass, they tasted it and found it the sweet­est wa­ter in all the world. Tak­ing their ship to the land across the nar­row gulf, the tide fell and the ship was grounded on a sand­bank. De­spite the dan­gers, they aban­doned the ship in a small boat and crossed to the main­land. They dis­cov­ered rich rivers and lakes in an abun­dant land. As the tide lifted the ship again, they rowed out and took the ves­sel up one of the rivers into a lake for safety.

The vines of Vin­land

Once ashore, the crew de­cided to build a long house there. The nearby rivers teemed with the largest salmon any of them had seen and as win­ter drew in, the grass barely with­ered. There would be no need to sup­ply cat­tle with fod­der. Even in the depth of win­ter, the nights were nowhere near as long as those in Green­land or Ice­land. The longer days shone on a land that had no frost.

Leif split the com­pany in half. One group would stay and guard the house while the other would ex­plore the land they had dis­cov­ered. On no ac­count were the ex­plor­ers to stay away overnight.

One night it was found that Tyrker the Ger­man had not re­turned with the for­agers. This Tyrker was a loyal friend of Leif and Erik the Red, and Leif was an­gry with Tyrker’s com­pan­ions for los­ing him in this strange land. With 12 men he set out to re­cover his friend. Only a short dis­tance from the set­tle­ment they dis­cov­ered Tyrker in a state of be­wil­dered ex­cite­ment. He bab­bled to the men in Ger­man and could not be un­der­stood. Rolling his eyes and grin­ning madly, Tyrker be­gan to ex­plain his dis­cov­er­ies in the Old Norse tongue. Hav­ing gone only a lit­tle fur­ther than the oth­ers, he stum­bled on some­thing new. “I have found vines and grapes,” he told them. Tyrker swore that his home­land was famed for its grapes and that he knew what he was talk­ing about. De­spite grapes not be­ing na­tive to North Amer­ica, there was pre­sum­ably some de­li­cious berry there that pro­duced a suf­fi­ciently in­tox­i­cat­ing drink when fer­mented.

It was from this dis­cov­ery of vines that it is said that Leif named the new land Vin­land. Leif now set his crew to cut­ting tim­ber and col­lect­ing fruit. The cargo was loaded on the ship in the spring and they set out into the ris­ing sun for home.

Leif the Lucky

With fair winds and a calm sea, the ship made its way swiftly back to Green­land. Within the sight of the ice moun­tains and val­leys of their des­ti­na­tion the crew called to their cap­tain,` “Why are you steer­ing so much into the wind?” Leif had been turn­ing the ship for some time. He asked if any­one could see any­thing out on the waves. None of the crew could, but then none of the crew could match Leif’s hawk­like vi­sion. “I see a ship or raft,” Leif told them and pointed. Now they saw it too and the ship steered ever closer. “If they need help we will give it, and if they seek a fight we will be bet­ter pre­pared.” On the ship they dis­cov­ered a party in need of help.

When Thori, leader of those in the ship, heard

Leif’s name, he asked whether he was son of the fa­mous Erik the Red. Leif said that he was and in­vited them onto his ships, with as many of their pos­ses­sions as it could hold.

For this res­cue of those lost in the midst of the sea he be­came known as Leif the Lucky. Leif took Thori and his wife Gu­drid into his own home. That win­ter ill­ness struck the set­tlers and Thori died, as did Erik the Red. While Leif had no plans to re­turn to Vin­land his brother, Thor­vald, felt there was more ex­plor­ing to do. He bor­rowed his brother’s ship and set out.

Thor­vald’s voy­age

Fol­low­ing Leif’s ad­vice, Thor­vald made for the place his brother had pre­vi­ously set­tled. Over win­ter, Thor­vald and his 30 men took in pro­vi­sions from the rich lands around them. When spring ar­rived, Thor­vald loaded a smaller boat to ex­plore the western coast dur­ing the sum­mer.

The land they found was wooded and wel­com­ing. The forests came down close to the sea and the beaches were of soft and pale sand. The is­lands and rivers of­fered many places to ex­plore. De­spite their searches, they found no an­i­mal lairs or signs of hu­man habi­ta­tion un­til they came to one of the western is­lands. There they found a wooden struc­ture clearly set up to hold grain and keep it safe. Find­ing noth­ing else, Thor­vald re­turned to the Norse set­tle­ment in the au­tumn.

The next sum­mer they ex­plored the east­ern coast. As they crossed the sea, a high wind pushed them onto the rocks and dam­aged the keel of the ship. Putting ashore, they re­paired the keel and Thor­vald named the place Keel­ness. Sail­ing on af­ter the mend­ing, they came to a place of safe an­chor­age.

The land there about was fair and fine. Thor­vald looked at it and de­clared that this was where he would make his home.

Re­turn­ing to the ship, the men stopped. There on the sand they saw three small mounds that had not been there be­fore. Ap­proach­ing, they could make out three ca­noes made of skin, each con­ceal­ing three indige­nous men, whom the Norse named Skrael­ings, un­der­neath. The party di­vided into three to ap­proach them. All but one of the hid­ing men were cap­tured.

The eight that they had seized they killed on the spot, but the ninth es­caped into the woods. Re­turn­ing to the head­land, they looked about and in the dis­tance dis­cerned vil­lages.

Then, as if placed un­der a pow­er­ful charm, the Norse­men were over­come by a sud­den need to sleep. Only a voice boom­ing out of the sky was able to

call them back. “Awake, Thor­vald, thou and all thy com­pany, if thou wouldst save thy life; and board thy ship with all thy men, and sail with all speed from the land!” This the Norse­men did but even as they made it to their ship, in­nu­mer­able ca­noes filled the sea. Thor­vald called for the ship to put up its war-boards, shields to pro­tect his men from ar­rows. Putting his faith in his ship’s de­fences Thor­vald of­fered no at­tack but let the ar­rows of the Skrael­ings clat­ter harm­lessly against them. The Skrael­ings gave up the bat­tle and re­treated.

Thor­vald called to his men to see if any had been wounded. None had taken so much as a scratch but the cap­tain had not been so lucky him­self. He showed his crew the shaft of an ar­row, which had glanced through the war-boards and taken him un­der the arm.

Know­ing that his end would come soon, Thor­vald or­dered his men to flee as quickly as pos­si­ble back to their own set­tle­ment.

He only asked them to bury him at the point that he had thought would make a good home for his old age. “Bury me there,” he told them, “and place a cross at my head, and an­other at my feet, and call it Cross­ness for the rest of time.”

At the set­tle­ment, they gath­ered wood and grapes be­fore sail­ing back to Green­land, bring­ing with them the tale of Thor­vald’s dis­cov­er­ies and of his death.

The death of Thorstein

On Green­land, while Thor­vald had been ex­plor­ing, his brother Thorstein Eriks­son had mar­ried Gu­drid, one of those Leif the Lucky had res­cued at sea. When Thorstein heard of his brother’s death, he wanted to sail to Vin­land and re­cover his body.

He crewed Thor­vald’s own ship with 25 sturdy men and set out to the west. His wife Gu­drid ac­com­pa­nied him.

For a whole sum­mer it is said that their ship was buf­feted by the sea and gales, so that they never knew where they were. By win­ter, they had reached the western set­tle­ment of Green­land and shel­tered there. Homes were found for of all the crew ex­cept for Thorstein and Gu­drid, who in­stead had to shel­ter on their ship. Shiv­er­ing on the wooden deck, they were vis­ited by a grim look­ing man. “I am called Thorstein the Swarthy,” he an­nounced to Gu­drid and Thorstein Eriks­son. The swarthy man of­fered them a house to live in and Thorstein Eriks­son and Gu­drid gladly ac­cepted the of­fer.

But death came among the set­tlers in that sea­son. Many of Thorstein Eriks­son’s band sick­ened and died. Thorstein had coffins made for the dead and car­ried them back to his ship so that the bod­ies could be re­turned to their fam­ily. Then the disease en­tered Thorstein the Swarthy’s home, car­ry­ing off his wife. As Thorstein the Swarthy’s wife Grimhild lay dead on her bed, she seemed to move. The house moaned as if all the tim­bers of the build­ing shifted and groaned against each other. Thorstein Eriks­son sick­ened af­ter this strange sign. Gu­drid did all she could to com­fort her hus­band, yet he died. As she grieved over her hus­band’s body, Thor­vald the Swarthy sought to ease her suf­fer­ing. He promised to ac­com­pany Gu­drid home and carry with them all the bod­ies of the dead.

Then the dead man sat up and spoke loudly. “Where is Gu­drid?” he asked three times. Shocked, Gu­drid did not know whether to an­swer the corpse so Thorstein the Swarthy asked, “What do you want?”

“I wish to tell Gu­drid of the fate which is in store for her, so that my death may not sad­den her too harshly, for I am at peace in a glo­ri­ous place. I must tell you, Gu­drid, that you will marry a man of Ice­land, that many years of happy mar­riage shall be yours, and from you shall spring a large and fa­mous prog­eny full of noble virtues. You shall travel the world – from Ice­land to the far south be­fore re­turn­ing to take the veil in a church.” Hav­ing proph­e­sied the fu­ture with his dead tongue, Thorstein Erik­son re­turned to his bed. Thorstein sold up his farm and pos­ses­sions. He at­tended to Gu­drid on her re­turn to her home and re­turned the bod­ies of the dead to their fam­i­lies.

Karlsefni’s trav­els

The same sum­mer that had seen Gu­drid re­turn saw a ship ar­rive in Green­land from Nor­way, cap­tained by Thorfinn Karlsefni. This wealthy cap­tain was wel­comed into Leif the Lucky’s home and passed the win­ter there. Karlsefni soon found him­self in love with the widow Gu­drid and could not re­sist propos­ing mar­riage be­tween them. At the time there was much talk of an­other voy­age to Vin­land. Peo­ple clam­oured for Kar­selfni to lead the ex­pe­di­tion and he ac­cepted. With 60 men and five women who were all promised an equal share of the prof­its of the jour­ney, Karlsefni and Gu­drid set out. Since it was their in­ten­tion to found a per­ma­nent set­tle­ment in Vin­land, they loaded many cat­tle onto their ships too. Leif loaned them the use of the long house he had con­structed in Vin­land for the du­ra­tion of their trip, though he would not give it over to them for­ever.

The ships soon found the site of Leif’s ex­pe­di­tion. A huge whale was driven onto the sand where they cap­tured it and stripped it of its flesh so that they

“There on the sand they saw three small mounds that had not been there be­fore”

would not go hun­gry that sea­son. The cat­tle they set to wan­der freely over the land, though the bulls turned wild and vi­cious in their free­dom. Soon the set­tle­ment was full of tim­ber from the ex­pan­sive forests, and their larders stocked with fish from the rivers and game hunted in the woods. Win­ter was not hard for the set­tlers. It looked like life in this new western land was promis­ing.

The Skrael­ings came in the first sum­mer. Many emerged from the for­est but when they ap­proached the set­tlers’ cat­tle, the anger of the bull and its bel­low­ing scared the Skrael­ings into re­treat. Flee­ing from the bull, the Skrael­ings stum­bled to­wards Karlsefni’s home and at­tempted to get in­side. Karlsefni barred the doors. Since none could speak the lan­guage of the other, un­der­stand­ing was slow to be reached. The Skrael­ings then set out furs and other goods to trade. Karlsefni saw that the na­tives were eager to get some of the Norse weapons but he for­bade any of his men to swap their sharp blades for goods. In place of weapons, he of­fered milk from the herd and a deal was struck.

De­spite the peace­able out­come, Karlsefni had the set­tle­ment sur­rounded by a strong wooden pal­isade. In this safe place, Gu­drid was de­liv­ered of a baby boy – the first Euro­pean to be born in North Amer­ica. They called him Snorri.

When the Skrael­ings next came, they ar­rived in greater num­bers but still with packs of goods to trade. Karlsefni com­manded the women to take out milk, which had been so sought af­ter last time. When the Skrael­ings saw the milk they were so eager to trade that they hurled their goods over the wall and into the en­camp­ment. All seemed well.

But then one of the Skrael­ings at­tempted to seize a weapon from the Norse­men. He was slain on the spot. Im­me­di­ately the Skrael­ings fled, aban­don­ing all of their items to es­cape. Karlsefni called his band to­gether and told them they must pre­pare for an at­tack by the Skrael­ings. When the na­tives did re­turn, Karlsefni had his war­riors drive their bull in front of them since it had so ter­ri­fied their op­po­nents be­fore. The bat­tle went poorly for the Skrael­ings – one of them did man­age to wrest an iron axe from a Norse­man, only to kill one of his own com­pan­ions as he waved it about. The Skrael­ing chief, a huge man of fear­some power, picked up the axe and ex­am­ined it. He flung it with all his might into the sea and his men re­treated into the woods, never to meet the Norse­men there again.

The Norse passed the win­ter in peace but Karlsefni had made up his mind to re­turn to Green­land. The ships were loaded with the tim­ber of the land, the furs the Skrael­ings had traded to them, and the bounty of the vines.

By now, Vin­land was thought of as a place where men might make their for­tunes. It chanced to hap­pen that just as Karlsefni re­turned from the North Amer­i­can set­tle­ment, a ship car­ry­ing broth­ers from Nor­way ar­rived in Green­land. These sib­lings, Helgi and Finnbogi, were re­ceived by the daugh­ter of Erik the Red, a haughty woman called Frey­dís. She asked the pair to join her in a voy­age to Vin­land, with the broth­ers to re­ceive half of the spoils they won. Helgi and Finnbogi hastily agreed. Each promised to take an equal num­ber of men, but Frey­dís im­me­di­ately broke her word and car­ried an ex­tra five men on her ves­sel. She tried to con­vince her brother Leif to give his home in Vin­land to her, but once again he would only lend the house for as long as she was there.

It was only on ar­rival in Vin­land that Helgi and Finnbogi dis­cov­ered Frey­dís’ treach­ery. It had been agreed that the ships would stay to­gether but it hap­pened that the broth­ers’ ship landed first near the set­tle­ment. Find­ing Leif’s empty house, they moved their goods into it. Frey­dís was out­raged at their bold move and stormed at the broth­ers that they must re­move them­selves from the home lent to her by her brother. With ill grace, the two left and set up a house be­side the sea.

The wrath of Frey­dís

The set­tle­ment set to the task of gath­er­ing goods that could be prof­itably re­turned to Green­land, with Frey­dís felling valu­able wood for tim­ber. As win­ter drew in, the broth­ers sug­gested that all of the set­tle­ment could come to­gether in the play­ing of games. For a time there was peace be­tween the fac­tions but soon the games led to ar­gu­ments, and ar­gu­ments led to open hos­til­ity. Now no one passed from Frey­dís’s house to the broth­ers’ and it was as if there were two camps drawn up for bat­tle.

In the depth of that win­ter, Frey­dís crept from her bed and, cloaked in her hus­band’s furs, crossed to the broth­ers’ house. Bare­foot, she passed over the dewy grass. Push­ing open the door, she woke Finnbogi from his sleep. “What do you want?” he asked brusquely. Frey­dís queried whether he was happy in this new land. Finnbogi replied that the land was plen­ti­ful and that there was no cause for the breach be­tween the two groups of set­tlers, and so Frey­dís of­fered a so­lu­tion.

She and her fol­low­ers would leave Vin­land if Finnbogi gave them his ship since it was the larger of the ves­sels that had car­ried them there. To be rid of her, Finnbogi agreed. On re­turn­ing to her bed, Frey­dís’ cold, wet feet woke her hus­band. “Where have you been?” he asked her.

She flared up. “I have been to see Helgi and Finnbogi! I wished to buy their ship but they re­ceived me so cru­elly that they struck me and sent me from their door. Will you have your wife un­avenged? I will leave you if you do not rid both me and your­self of this shame!”

At this, Frey­dís’ hus­band rose from his bed and gath­ered his men. They took their weapons and broke into the broth­ers’ house as ev­ery­one in­side was still in their slum­ber. Ev­ery per­son in­side was bound and led out. All of the men they killed at once but none of Frey­dís’ fol­low­ers could be in­duced to kill the five women that were there that fate­ful night.

Frey­dís called for an axe and dis­patched all five of the women her­self. Now she swore her men to se­crecy. Any man who spoke of the day’s deeds would be killed by Frey­dís. They would claim the broth­ers’ group had set sail, never to be seen again.

Back in Green­land, Frey­dís show­ered those who had sailed with her with the booty of their voy­age, hop­ing to buy their si­lence. But it didn’t work – news of her crimes soon spread. Leif came to hear of his sis­ter’s wrong­do­ings and even tor­tured some of her fol­low­ers for their crimes, but, alas, he could not bring him­self to pun­ish his own sis­ter. From that day on­wards, how­ever, Frey­dís and her hus­band were shunned by all who met them. Mean­while, noth­ing but good was spo­ken of Thorfinn and Gu­drid. Of their line sprung many noble and blessed prog­eny.

In search of Vin­land

The ear­li­est writ­ten ac­count of the dis­cov­ery of Vin­land comes from around 1075 in the writ­ings of Adam of Bre­men, who doc­u­mented the jour­neys into the west.

“It is called Vin­land be­cause vines pro­duc­ing ex­cel­lent wine grow wild there. That un­sown crops also abound on that is­land we have as­cer­tained not from fab­u­lous re­ports but from the trust­wor­thy re­la­tion of the Danes.”

How­ever, the fail­ure of the Norse to es­tab­lish last­ing colonies on the North Amer­i­can con­ti­nent led to their dis­cov­er­ies be­ing mostly for­got­ten about in Europe. While Norse set­tle­ments have been dis­cov­ered in North Amer­ica by ar­chae­ol­o­gists, such as at L’anse aux Mead­ows in New­found­land, the ex­act lo­ca­tions de­scribed in the saga are still de­bated. At one point in the saga we are told that on the short­est day of the year, the Sun was vis­i­ble be­tween ‘dag­málas­taður’ and ‘eyk­tarstaður’. If we knew what ex­act times of day were meant by these terms, we would be able to iden­tify the lat­i­tude of the Norse set­tle­ments. We might also be able to iden­tify the un­for­tu­nate na­tives who were dubbed ‘Skrael­ings’.

It says much about Norse cul­ture that the first meet­ing with the Skrael­ings was a mas­sacre for which no cause is given. Inuit folk tales tell of killing a for­eigner, us­ing the term for Euro­pean, and know­ing that they would re­turn to seek re­venge.

The mys­tery of the vines of Vin­land also per­sists. Tyrker might have been sure they were grapes, but we still do not know what berries the Norse ac­tu­ally dis­cov­ered in North Amer­ica – they pos­si­bly could have been cran­ber­ries or bunch­ber­ries. What­ever they were, the wine that was pro­duced from them was cer­tainly po­tent enough to tempt oth­ers to fol­low in search of them.

“When the Skrael­ings next came, they ar­rived in greater num­bers”

This is an ex­clu­sive ex­cerpt from Vik­ing Sagas Avail­able now from My­

Leif Eriks­son dis­cov­er­ing Amer­ica: his story was re­counted in the Groen­lendinga saga

The north At­lantic was a haz­ardous route. The Groen­lendinga saga tells of many ships lost in the cross­ing that never re­turned home

The Norse colonies in Vin­land were soon aban­doned, pos­si­bly due to the dif­fi­culty of the cross­ing and the lack of profit from trade Erik the Red, founder of the first Norse set­tle­ment in Green­land. Erik was ex­iled from Nor­way and Ice­land asa re­sult of his com­bat­ive na­ture. He is also in Eiríks saga rauða, which deals with his set­tling of Green­land

The Vin­land Map is al­legedly a 15th cen­tury copy of a 13th cen­tury orig­i­nal, but its his­toric­ity is ques­tioned Leif Eriks­son is cred­ited with be­ing the first Euro­pean to land in North Amer­ica. He named the land he dis­cov­ered Vin­land

A re­con­struc­tion of a Norse long house at L’anse aux Mead­ows in New­found­land, where ar­chae­ol­o­gists dis­cov­ered ev­i­dence of Norse set­tle­ment in the New World

Erik the Red led many colonists across the sea to Green­land. Many be­lieved they were head­ing to a green and fruit­ful land

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