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Icelanders discover Greenland & Vínland (North America) (the s.c.nordic FAQ)
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Icelanders discover Greenland & Vínland (North America)

 

5.3.2 Greenland

Greenland is said to have been discovered by a man called Gunnbjörn whose ship had gone off course. It was, however, Eiríkr Þorvaldsson (a.k.a Eric the Red) who explored and named the island, and ruled the first colony of settlers. He was born in Norway in the mid-10th century, but went to Iceland as a child after his father was banished from Norway. A violent man as he was, Eiríkr himself was banished from Iceland, and set forth on an expedition westward from Iceland. In 982 he got to Greenland (a name he gave to encourage settlers to go there), and spent the next three years exploring it. After that he returned to Iceland and led an expedition of 25 ships to settle (circa 986) in southwestern Greenland. This settlement survived until the late 15th century. Eiríkr himself settled at Brattahlið (Tunigdliarfik) in Greenland, where he died sometime after the year 1000.

The most important written sources recounting the discovery and settlement of Greenland are Ari Þorgilsson's Íslendingabók and Landámabók. There are also two colorful sagas, Grænlendinga Saga (The Saga of the Greenlanders) and Eiríks saga rauða (The Saga of Eric the Red), but these were composed only in the early 13th century and are often fanciful and contradict each other in places.

Greenland's attraction was that it had better pasture for sheep, goats and cows than Iceland, where the soil had already become poor after about a century of heavy exploitation. Farmers had never lived there, the climate was probably a bit milder than today, and some of the fertile lowlands which now have have disappeared under sea were above surface at that time. There was probably also quite a lot of driftwood in Greenland at that time. Catch was plenty in the sea, and there were reindeer, bears, and birds to hunt on land. Pelts of polar bears and arctic foxes, whalebone, and walrus tusks were used to pay for the essential imports, such as metal, timber, and grain, as well as luxury goods. But the colony was vulnerable if there were epidemics among animals or people, or even minute climate changes, and it died out sometime in the 15th century: The exact reason isn't known. In 1712, centuries after the links between Greenland and the rest of the world had been broken, the king of Denmark-Norway sent an expedition to Greenland with pastor Hans Egede to nurture the Christian faith among the Viking descendants, but none had survived. The Eskimos had long since penetrated to the southernmost point of the country, and these were the Greenlanders Egede met.

 

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5.3.3 Vínland; L'Anse aux Meadows

According to the sagas, Vínland was discovered when ships went off course during one of the long journeys from Iceland or Norway to Greenland. The Saga of the Greenlanders attributes the first sighting of America to Bjarni Herjólfsson who had emigrated with Eiríkr the Red to Greenland, although Bjarni didn't actually set foot on Vínland; the Saga of Eiríkr the Red, on the other hand, says that the discovery was made by Leifr the Lucky, Eiríkr's son. Leifur grew up in Greenland but in circa 999 he visited Norway, where he was converted to Christianity. According to one saga, he was then commissioned by King Olaf I to convert the Greenlanders to Christianity, but he was blown off course, missed Greenland, and reached North America (this story, however, is now known to be fiction, made by up by an Icelandic priest called Gunnlaugr in the 13th century). The other, more probable version of the story describes Leifur sailing on a planned voyage to lands to the west of Greenland that had been sighted 15 years earlier by Bjarni. He landed at places called Helluland and Markland and wintered at Vínland, and returned back to Greenland.

Geir Odden writes:

In 986 Eiríkr sail away from Iceland bound for Greenland together with many families willing to settle on Greenland. Together with him is Bjarni Herjólfsson's father.

When Bjarni Herjólfsson arrives Iceland later this summer he is told his father has left Iceland bound for Greenland. He decides to go to him on Greenland.

Stormy weather and fog takes him away off the course and he drifts to the American east coast. Here he finds three diferent lands, but he never went ashore and never named them.

Approximately 1000: Leifr Eiriksson buys Bjarni's ship and decide to search for the lands Bjarni saw. He travels the opposite direction and lands first in the land Bjarni saw last. He names it Helluland, because it is a land fuilt with flat stones and not fertile. In the second land he finds lot of threes and big forests and name it Markland for its forests. The second land is very rich and fertile with corn and wild grapes. He name it Vinland after the grapes or because of it's good meadows. He wintered at Vínland, and returned back to Greenland the next summer.


Frederick N. Brown writes:

I believe the sagas are explicit in the naming from the presence of grapes. The passage describing is pretty clear and definitive. It does not seem clear that Leif himself named it - it just says that they called it Vinland from the presence of grapes there. There are two other references to grapes in Vinland by parties in the Karlseffni expedition. The doubts of the naming seem to stem mostlyfrom efforts of the LAM researchers to connect (weakly, in my opinion) that site as Leifsbudir.

The grain generally is translated as "self-sown wheat" and in archaic times, in English, "corn" was a measure of size of a grain and corn itself seems thought to be an American plant unknown in Europe.

However, some transations of Thorvald's explorations west of Leifsbudir say that he landed an island which had no signs of men except for a "corn" crib or barn.

After Leifr's journey an expedition led by Þorfinnr Karlsefni, a wealthy Icelandic trader, returned to settle Vínland in circa 1010 and wintered there. The Scandinavians, both men and women, first traded but then fought with the native Skrælings. The descriptions of Skræling culture in the sagas are consistent with American Indian life. Because of Skræling attacks, the settlement was abandoned after three winters.

There is some disagreement on where exactly the places visited by Leifr were. Vínland (Land of wine) was presumably Newfoundland, Markland (Wood Land) Labrador, and Helluland (Flat Rock Land) Baffin Island. The only firm evidence of a Scandinavian presence in North America has been found in Newfoundland at L'Anse aux Meadows, where excavations begun in 1961 have revealed the remains of eight turf-walled houses (one of which was a longhouse 22 meters by 15 meters [ 72 foot by 50 foot ] containing five rooms including a "great hall") and a smithy, where bog iron was melted. Several of the houses had stone ember pits identical with those found in Norse houses in Greenland. Among the artifacts unearthed was a soapstone spindle whorl similar to those discovered in Norse ruins in Greenland, Iceland, and Scandinavia. This find suggests that women as well as men were present at the site, which is also consistent with the sagas. Other artifacts point to a brief, much earlier occupation of the site by Maritime Archaic Indians and a later occupation by Dorset Eskimo. L'Anse aux Meadows may have been the place of Þorfinnr's settlement. The site was a good one for a pioneer community; the soil was fertile, there was plenty of fish and game, the climate was mild, and there was iron ore available. However, the area wasn't previously uninhabited; the local Indians seem to have made long-lasting settlements impossible.

Geir Odden writes:

Later known expeditions:

The journeys to Vínland continued into the Middle Ages, but apparently only to obtain raw materials for the Greenland colony. Some scholars have suggested that L'Anse aux Meadows was a transit station to journeys further south, but apart from a Norwegian coin from King Olaf Kyrre's reign (1066-80) found on an Indian settlement in the American State of Maine, there are no traces early Scandinavian presence further south. The various rune stones, such as the Kensington Stone, and other similar Víking objects "found" in North America are all faked. Similarly, the New World portions of Yale University's Vínland map, a world map supposedly made about 1440 which includes Vínland and Greenland, was in 1974 revealed as a modern forgery.

Links to related web-sites:



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