Updated: Oct 31
The voyages to Vinland from Greenland are described in Eiríks saga rauða (The Saga of Erik the Red) and Grænlendinga saga (The Saga of the Greenlanders) and are said to have taken place between 970 and 1030 AD in North America. These "Vinland sagas" were important narratives to early Western Icelanders because they justified their presence in the West and provided continuity to their story as Icelandic people after moving far away from Iceland (Wolf, 2001).
The Vinland sagas are more remarkable for their potential historical significance than for their literary quality. They document European contact with Native Americans five centuries before Columbus sailed to the West Indies.
In this blog post, we review some of the highlights of the two sagas to help make sense of their common components that may reflect historical events. We also present some photographs courtesy of Icelandic Roots volunteer Kent Larus Björnsson who traveled to L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada where a Viking settlement has been excavated. Finally, we try to piece together what might have really occurred historically by providing a "probable series of events". For those of you who are All-access Icelandic Roots members, we have included the Icelandic Roots person identifiers (IR numbers) of key characters in the sagas so you can check your relationship to them.
Geography of the Vinland Sagas
According to the Vinland sagas, Erik the Red sailed from Norway to Iceland and from there went on to establish a colony in Greenland at Brattahlið along the southern coast. His son Leif, Þorfinn Karlsefni, Guðriður, and others then on various voyages, sailed along the coast of Greenland in a northerly direction crossing the Straight of Davis. Once in North America, they hugged the coast along Baffin Island, Labrador, and Newfoundland, heading south toward Vinland. Based on their description of flora and fauna, their exploration may have extended as far south as New England or it might have ended in New Brunswick, Canada. In the 1960s, physical evidence of their presence in North America was discovered by two Norwegian archeologists, Anne Stine and Helge Ingstad, at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland.
The Saga of Erik the Red
The first half of the Saga of Erik the Red discusses the story of Aud the Deep-minded (IR# I136855) and then moves on to describe how Erik the Red's (IR# I137642) violent acts in Norway forced him to move to Iceland, where his son Leif Eriksson (IR# I137643) was born. Finally, Erik moves to Greenland where he founds a colony.
The second half of the Saga of Erik the Red describes how Vinland was discovered as well as the adventures there. We learn first that Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir (IR # I133852) arrives in Greenland with a group of 30 people. All have left Iceland. Roughly 15 persons in this group fall sick and die. Guðriður meets a prophetess who encourages her to join her in reciting a Pagan chant named Varðlokur. Guðriður is reluctant because she is a Christian woman but ultimately joins in singing it beautifully. In exchange, the prophetess tells Guðriður that her fortune lies in Iceland. Guðriður seeks shelter and support from Erik "The Red".
Later, Leif is instructed by the King of Norway to convert Greenland to Christianity. On a sailing journey, he is blown off course and finds land west of Greenland. Presumably, this is North America because he describes it as having wild wheat, grapes, and maple trees. He rescues a shipwrecked crew while in North America and is given the name Leif "The Lucky".
A journey to Vinland is then attempted by Erik´s other son Þorsteinn (IR# I133854). Erik was to go on this trip but he fell off his horse on the way to the boat and decided to stay in Greenland. Þorsteinn and his crew get blown around the Atlantic all summer long and never find Vinland.
Þorfinn Karlseffni, a well-liked Icelandic merchant, who marries Guðriður, then undertakes one extended voyage to Vinland with a second ship captained by Bjarni Grimolfsson and Þorhall Gamlason. Each ship had 40 persons aboard. Also in the group are Erik's daughter Freydis (IR# I137646) and her husband Þorvarður (IR# I453389). Þorfinn´s group heads south to a place called Hóp where they trade with the natives (referred to in the saga as "Skrælings") and Þorfinn refuses to let his men trade weapons. A large bull they have with them breaks loose and scares the natives. This leads to trouble and some fights between the Norsemen and women and the Native Americans. In these skirmishes, Freydis is depicted as brave. She bares her breasts and beats her chest with a sword so as to scare the natives off. This in fact works and the natives retreat to their boats and paddle away. Back at their home camp, the group stays for three winters, and on the third winter, Þorfinn and Guðriður have a child Snorri (IR# I133853) who is the first child of European parents born in North America. After these three winters, Þorfinn and Guðriður move back to Iceland, settling in Reynines in Skagafjörður.
The Saga of the Greenlanders
The Saga of the Greenlanders follows many of the same plot points as the Saga of Erik the Red, but there are notable differences. It is a man named Bjarni Herjolfsson who is blown off course who first sees a forested land west of Greenland, but he does not go ashore. Leif purchases Bjarni's ship. While Erik stays back, Leif attempts to find this land. He finds lands called Helluland (Baffin Island), Markland (Labrador), and Vinland (Newfoundland). The rescue of a shipwrecked crew, described in the saga of Erik the Red, earns Leif the name "The Lucky" as in Erik the Red's saga. In the Saga of the Greenlanders, Thorvald, Leif's brother, decides to explore the region around Leif's camp and dies after being struck by an arrow, whereas in Erik the Red's saga this happens on an exploration led by Þorfinn Karlsfeni.
Most notably, the Saga of the Greenlanders describes a horrific event that does not appear in Erik the Red's saga. Freydis is depicted as an evil killer. She leads a voyage with her husband, Þorvard. Members of the expedition end up fighting among themselves believed to be incited by Freydis. She has several people in the opposing camp killed, but her men refuse to kill women and children. So, Freydis kills these innocents herself. Her group tries to conceal what transpired. Yet, word that Freydis is a cold-blooded killer leaks out and her brother Leif is furious when he learns of these events.
A Probable Sequence of Events
The consistencies between the two stories and the progression of events unique to each may shed light on a probable sequence of events that may have occurred. First, it is likely that Bjarni Herjolfsson was the first to see North America but never set foot on it. Second, Leif Eiriksson was likely the first European to set foot on North American soil. Third, Þorvald, another of Erik the Red's sons, led his own expedition to North America. Fourth, Þorsteinn, also a son of Erik, tried and failed to find Vinland. Fifth, Þorfinn Karlsefni and Guðriður lead the first voyage to settle in Vinland, during which they have the first European child born in North America, Snorri (IR# I133853). Sixth, Freydis, Daughter of Eirik, led a horrifying and murderous expedition. Finally, Karlsefni, Guðriður, and Snorri return to Iceland settling in Skagafjörður. Many Icelanders and Western Icelanders descend from Snorri.
There is much more to these stories than is explained here. There are, for example, detailed descriptions of a Pagan ritual, well-described interactions with Native Americans, and sections that contrast the harsh life the Norse people faced in Greenland to the abundant life provided by the bountiful lands of North America. We encourage you to read these sagas for yourself and relive the excitement and wonder experienced by these first explorers.
1. Wolf, K. (2001). Emigration and mythmaking: The case of the Icelanders in Canada. Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal, 33(2), 1-15.