Today it is common knowledge that the Vikings reached the shores of North America hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus even set out. For decades, this reality was not well known outside some academic circles, but recent archaeological developments and media attention have helped shape this story. So what do we know about this remarkable feat of maritime and exploration history?
Indications that Vikings settled in North America first emerged from the Icelandic sagas, a genre of medieval literature that usually focused on stories associated with specific families and their heroic genealogies. Most Icelandic sagas were first written down in the 13th and 14th centuries, but the stories they record often relate to events that took place in the eighth to eleventh centuries.
The extent to which these sagas are realistic stories of the people they concern or are merely a form of historical fiction is debatable, but they nevertheless provide valuable insights into the world of medieval Norse peoples.
Through them we learn not only about important individuals and their lives, but also about the things they held dear, such as honor and ideas about revenge and justice. We also learn about their great adventures and even their journeys to far-flung places, including an unusual place they called “Vinland,” far west of Greenland.
The accounts of Vinland (Vineland, or Winland, meaning the ‘land of the wild vines’) are contained in two separate sagas, the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red. Although both stories are short and contradictory, they nevertheless describe the same route taken by travelers who were initially thrown off course.
The route goes as follows: Two days west of Greenland lies a land of flat stones called Helluland (presumably Baffin Island). From here the route heads south past Markland, a stretch of beach covered in coastal forest that might be modern-day Labrador. From here the journey continues to Vinland, probably Newfoundland.
Exactly who was the first person to set foot on the Vinland soil is unclear from these accounts. In the Saga of the Greenlander, the more credible of the two sources, we see a complex story of discovery and subsequent revisitation. According to this version, the Viking hero Leif Eriksson is the first to come ashore. Eriksson then founds a settlement called Leifsbuðir, which serves as a base for future travelers.
In the Saga of Erik the RedThere is only one trip to Vinland and Eriksson is just looking at the country. It is the trader Thorfinn Karlsefni and his wife Gudríd who are trying to establish themselves together with 160 others.
Taken as a whole, and setting aside the contradictions, we get a picture of multiple trips to Vinland of recurring names. It also seems that the travelers probably set up several places, with temporary settlements and way stations.
But was this really “undiscovered” territory? National Geographic has provided a valuable reminder that this story of Viking exploration should not overshadow the fact that Vinland was already inhabited. The sagas mention people called ‘Skraelingar’, a derogatory word for ‘savages’ who already live there.
In both sagas, interactions between the Viking settlers and local First Nations communities are tense and ultimately violent. In fact, the Norwegian settlers are eventually forced to flee due to resistance to their presence.
Ultimately, however it went, the journey west was only a temporary affair lasting a few years at most. Over time, it completely faded from memory and became just another feature of the sagas. Today, our knowledge of this expedition continues to grow, as does our understanding of Viking culture in general.
[H/T: National Geographic]