The Saga of Erik the Red:
America Before America
By Matt McKeown
In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue, but he was beaten to the punch by several centuries.
One of the greater oddities of western history is the European discovery of the Americas. The fact that they were discovered is not in itself odd; nothing was more natural than that a seafaring people should alight upon an unfamiliar coast. For that matter, if an accurate globe had been sent backward through time to the Early Middle Ages, a route that either mostly hugged the coasts (as the Norse route via Iceland did) or made the fairly short voyage from West Africa to Brazil would have made far more sense than that of Columbus. What was strange was that Europeans should discover the Americas, colonize them, and indeed make them enough of a center of population and culture to call for their own bishop—and then the world in general seems to have forgotten about them for several hundred years.
For most of us, “the Viking Age” is a vague period full of northern barbarians in horned helmets, pillaging the countryside of somewhere or other and writing in runes about Thor and Odin, until eventually Christian missionaries reached Scandinavia and persuaded them to knock it off on both counts. This is not all that far from how the real history of the ninth and tenth centuries fell out, except that “the Vikings,” while quite real, were in truth a minority of the Norse. Most inhabitants of modern-day Norway, Sweden, and Denmark were farmers and fishers, as in most of the rest of Europe; these occupations were somewhat easier around this time and a little later, owing to the Medieval Warm Period, a phase of above-average temperatures that affected the shores of the North Atlantic. This allowed for more extensive farming and animal herding than would otherwise have been possible in largely icebound places like the Scandinavian peninsula and Iceland—and a couple of other spots as well.
During this period, a hot-tempered Norwegian named Erik Thorvaldsson (nicknamed “the Red,” probably for the color of his hair) was banished from Iceland for manslaughter. Rather than return to his ancestral home of Norway or head south to the British Isles, Erik decided to sail further west. He thus discovered a gigantic island: its interior was covered in glaciers, but its outlying fjords included long, secluded valleys that allowed the kinds of settlements the Norse were accustomed to. He named the place Greenland—less, it is said, because it was accurate than because he thought that giving it a good name would help his pitch to his fellow Icelanders to come and live there. He was correct. In or around the year 985, the first European settlements in the New World were established on the southern tip of the island. These lasted for several centuries, supporting themselves on a mixture of agriculture, hunting seals and caribou, and exporting goods such as walrus ivory (then a coveted luxury item, often used in making religious objects like crucifixes and reliquaries).
His son, Leif Eriksson or “Leif the Lucky,” was also an accomplished mariner (and not so restricted in his movements, thanks to being less prone to murder than his father). He was particularly concerned to spread Christianity among his people, and enjoyed some success; despite the limited population of Greenland, the proportion of Christians among them was high enough that by 1126, the territory was assigned its own bishop. Following a strange report from a friend who had been blown off course during a journey, Leif sailed even further west than his father had. At first he found only a few islands that seemed to be little more than bare rock; turning south, however, he encountered the forested coast of modern Quebec. It was a vital resource for the villages in timber-poor Greenland. Further south still, he found a fertile region full of maple trees and wheat, and one of his companions stumbled upon some berries (of uncertain identity) that had apparently fermented and turned alcoholic. Leif therefore named the place Winland: we know it as Newfoundland. By the early eleventh century there was at least one Norse settlement there, which has been reconstructed under the name L’Anse aux Meadows.
In both Greenland and Vinland, the Norse encountered an unfamiliar people, whom they called Skrælingar, the ancestors of the modern Inuit people of Greenland, northern Canada, and Alaska. The Norse people’s relationship to the “Skrælings” was a bit touch and go—early interactions were friendly, followed by an outbreak of hostilities for disputed reasons. Some accounts say they were frightened by a bull the Norse accidentally set loose; others, that the “Skrælings,” who had no tradition of eating dairy, were given large quantities of stuff like butter and cheese by the Norse in trade, had horrible reactions to it on account of being lactose intolerant, and quite naturally believed that the Norse had tried to poison them. However, this souring of relations was not permanent: conditions appear to have see-sawed between bad and good throughout the time of the Norse colonization of Vinland and Greenland.
While the population of Iceland was cut in half by the Black Death, Greenland is thought to have escaped the disease entirely. When the Norse settlements did decline in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it seems primarily to have been caused by sinking temperatures and the decline of the ivory trade, which made the Norse way of life in Greenland impossible. The last record from the settlements is a marriage in 1408; after that, the people there either went extinct or abandoned the region for a more stable life further east.
The Saga of Erik the Red was written during the height of the Norse trans-Atlantic age, perhaps some time around the 1250s. (Amusingly enough, the bulk of the story has very little to do with Erik the Red! It concentrates more on his son Leif, and, more than either of them, on their friend Thorfinn Karlsefni, whose son Snorri was the first European born on American shores.) It is not certain whether Columbus had heard about the Norse voyages; of course, his estimate of the size of world was wrong by many thousands of miles, so even if he had it might not have done him much good. However, as late as the eighteenth century (and indeed to this day), Denmark, thanks to a historical union with Norway, still maintained a claim to Greenland—an expedition was even launched in 1721 out of concern that any remaining settlers would still be Catholics, in order to convert them to Protestantism! Yet it was not until the nineteenth century that scholars began to realize that this saga and others like it were not mere fantasies, but actual accounts of voyages and discoveries far older than those of the Spanish. Though it is little known outside the Nordic countries themselves, October 9 is observed as Leif Eriksson Day.
Matt McKeown is a proud uncle to seven nephews and an editor and staff writer for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.
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Published on 13th June, 2022. Page image of the Septentrionalium Regionum Descriptio (“Map of the Northern Regions”) of Abraham Ortelius, created ca. 1570.