Jan 27, 2016

Years Before Columbus: Leif Erikson, His Life and His Voyage of Adventure to the New World


‘Leif Eriksson Discovers America’ by Christian Krohg (1893).

Many people still believe that the person who “discovered” America was Christopher Columbus, forgetting the fact that there were already indigenous people living there. An additional fact that is often overlooked is that the new world was visited, and temporarily colonized, about 492 years before Columbus by another European - a man known as Leif Erikson.

A Family History of Banishment and Adventure-Seeking

Leif Erikson was born circa 970 AD in Iceland. He was a son of Erik the Red and his wife Thjodhild. Leif had a sister Freydis and two brothers: Thorsteinn and Thorvald. Together, they were the children of the man who colonized Greenland.

According to the Sagas of Icelanders , Leif was the first European who landed in the territory of modern-day Canada. But before that, Leif grew up in Greenland, where the family of Erik the Red moved after they colonized the land. Leif’s wife was Thorgunna who gave him at least two sons: Thorgils and Thorkell. Leif Erikson is remembered as a considerate, strong, and wise man.

The history of exploration in Leif's family started from the day when Thorvald Asvaldsson (his grandfather) was banished from Norway for manslaughter. Asvaldsson began the family’s first adventure in the company of his son Erik (the Red). The family lived in Iceland until Erik was banished from his new home and started traveling west, landing at the place now called Greenland. He arrived there in 986 AD.



Leif Erikson memorial statue at Shilshole Bay Marina (Port of Seattle) ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

That was not the end to the family’s travels however, and Leif left Greenland seeking an adventurous life. It should be noted that unlike his father and grandfather, he wasn't banished from his homeland. Leif died around 1020 AD in Greenland, but during his lifetime, he was a legend.

Adventures to a New Land

Leif left Greenland for the first time at age 24, when he went to deliver gifts from his father to King Olaf of Norway. This trip may have sparked his interest in exploring another land, one far away from Norway and Greenland.

When Leif returned home, he reflected on his grandfather’s and father’s explorations, and decided he too wanted to experience adventure. Thus, he bought a boat and started preparations for the greatest journey of his life. Sources say that he sailed west for 600 miles (965.6 km) and saw a land with rocks and high glaciers which he called Helluland, meaning “The Slab Land”.

Nowadays, researchers believe that this place was Baffin Island. Leif and his crew did not stop their voyage there however, and decided to sail on south, where they saw a land with a beach and trees that they called Markland (The Woodland). This was perhaps the eastern coast of Canada.


Baffin Island, thought to be “Helluland” to Leif Erikson. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

When they found the right place, they decided to build houses to live in for the winter. After preparation for the coldest period of a year, Leif sent out an exploration group to learn more about the land they had arrived upon. When they came back, they were very excited about finding grapes in the area. This discovery led Leif to call the land Vinland, meaning “Wineland”. The grapes were one of the greatest treasures he brought back to Greenland.



Northeast coast of Baffin Island, north of Community of Clyde River, Nunavut, Canada. ( CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Differing Beliefs of Father and Son

Leif and his wife had left the faith of the ancestors and became Christians. He had been baptized by King Olaf Tryggvason and became sort of an ''evangelist of Vikings'' on Greenland. Leif also served on the court of Tryggvason in Norway. After returning to his homeland, he tried to convert all of Greenland into Christianity. Leif and Thorgunna even built the first church in Greenland. At the same time, Erik stayed a follower of Norse paganism and truly disliked Christianity.

While Leif was away in modern North America, perhaps a part of Newfoundland, Erik was worshiping his old gods. Before he left, Leif hoped that his father would follow him and join in on his trip. Nevertheless, Erik wasn't interested in leaving Greenland anymore.

According to legend, Erik did give this opportunity one chance, and rode a horse to go to his son’s ship. However, getting closer to the harbor he fell off his horse, which he took as a bad sign. Thus, Erik decided his son would take the voyage without his company. The prophecy of the bad sign may have been true, because they never saw each other again. Erik died during the winter, before Leif came back home.



Graphical description of the different sailing routes to Greenland, Vinland (Newfoundland), Helluland (Baffin Island) and Markland (Labrador) travelled by different characters in the Icelandic Sagas, mainly the Saga of Erik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders. Modern English versions of the Norse names. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Excavations Confirming Legends

A Viking village from the 11th century was discovered in 1960, in L'Anse aux Meadow, on the northernmost top of the island of Newfoundland. Archaeologists unearthed eight houses and food remains. They also found the remains of hunted animals, such as caribou, wolf, fox, bear, lynx, marten, walrus, seal, whale, and all types of birds and fish. For many, the results of these excavations confirmed the expedition of Leif to North America. L'Anse aux Meadow was declared Leif's Vinland.



Modern recreation of the Viking site at L'Anse aux Meadows. (CC BY 2.0 )

Greenland became a part of Denmark in 1814. In 1932, a group of archaeologists from Denmark excavated the farm of Erik the Red called Brattahlid, meaning “Steep Slope”. Their work brought to light the remains of a church, which was surrounded by a wall to keep farm animals out. Very close to the church, they also found a hall where people could cook their meals in a fire and spend their free time playing board games.

In 1961, another discovery was made at this site. A small horseshoe-shaped chapel dedicated to the memory of Erik's wife Thjodhild was found. This chapel provides a glimpse into the faith of the woman who followed her son and converted to Christianity. The church had a room that would hold 20 to 30 worshipers.

While excavating the chapel in 1960, archaeologists discovered 144 skeletons as well. Most of them were once tall and strong people, very similar to modern Scandinavians. Amongst the skeletons, there was one group of males that were buried in a mass tomb. Evidence suggests that they probably died in a battle. One of them was even found with a large knife between his ribs.

The most intriguing of the remains found, were three skeletons that were interred close to the church wall. Medieval accounts reported that people buried closest to the church were the first in line for Judgment Day. Researchers believe that these three skeletons must be Erik the Red, his wife Thjodhild, and their famous son, Leif Erikson. Nowadays, their bones rest on laboratory shelves in Copenhagen.

Featured image: ‘Leif Eriksson Discovers America’ by Christian Krohg (1893). Source: Public Domain

By Natalia Klimczak

References

  • Jane Smiley, The Sagas of the Icelanders, 2000.
  • Malcolm C Jensen, Leif Erikson the Lucky,1979.
  • Angus Somerville, Andrew R. McDonald, The Viking Age: A Reader, 2010.
  • William R. Short, Icelanders in the Viking age: the people of the sagas, 2010.
  • http://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/greenland/
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