Published July 9, 2012
Surely Eiríkur Rauði, Eric the Red, must be one of the more Viking of the Vikings. Banished from Norway for manslaughter in 960, he decided to start over in Iceland, where he lived semi-peacefully for over a decade until suffering a relapse. In the early 980s, the Þing assembly at Þórsnes found him guilty of several killings and exiled him. Having run out of known places in the North Atlantic to move to, there was naught to do but discover new ones.
Eiríkur heard of a place farther west called Gunnbjarnarsker, named after Gunnbjörn who claimed to have seen it. Like many sociopaths, Eiríkur Rauði had a gift for marketing as well as acquisition. He claimed the country but, with little viable farmland, found it hard to convince people to move there. Nothing a little rebranding couldn’t fix.Gunnbjarnarsker was renamed Greenland, and a fleet of 25 longships set sail. Many ships were caught in a storm, got lost or turned back, and only fourteen made it to this latest earthly paradise. Others would follow, and at its peak around 3,000 people of Nordic descent lived in Greenland, divided among roughly 300 farms in two different settlement areas.
Eric the Red loses his religion
Less homicidal than his father, Eiríkur’s son, Leifur, nevertheless had the same knack for exploring. He found his own land still further west, but how could he outdo the old man when it came to branding? What could possibly be better than evoking the lushness of the colour green in order to get people over? Well, wine, of course, and so he decided to call his country Vínland.
Leifur later brought Christianity to Greenland on behalf of the Norwegian king Ólafur Tryggvason, making an early convert of his mother. Old Eiríkur would have none of this “love thy neighbour” business and stubbornly stuck to his ways. His wife prayed for his soul, and, more drastically, refused to go to bed with a pagan, but all for naught. Leifur also asked Eiríkur to come with him westwards, but when Eiríkur fell off his horse on the way to the ship, Leifur took this as a bad omen and stayed at home. It would take another 500 years before people arrived who combined the missionary zeal of Leifur with the homicidal-ness of Eiríkur, and could claim the new continent as their own.
Are Greenlanders green, then?
The Vikings may only have stayed in North America for a couple of winters, but the settlements in Greenland spanned some 500 years. Unlike what the Viking Age equivalent of brochures may have said, the climate was too cold for growing corn, but the south was adequate for grazing cattle and sheep. They also seem to have occasionally sailed to what is now Canada for timber, something that was always in short supply.
The main accounts of Medieval Greenland come from ‘Eiríks saga Rauða’ (“The Saga Of Eric The Red”) and ‘Grænlendinga saga’ (“The Saga Of The Greenlanders”), both of which deal with the founding and settling of the country. The following centuries are less well documented, but around a century later, in 1076, Adam of Bremen says that the people there live much like the Icelanders do, except they are more hostile and known for plundering ships in the area. Were these the genes of Eiríkur Rauði kicking in, or perhaps just economic necessity? Then again, Adam says that the people there have green-coloured skin due to the salt water, and so his account should be taken with a grain of, well, salt.
Later stories tell of adventurers going to Greenland to procure polar bears, which made an excellent present to the medieval Norwegian monarch who had everything. The last reliable account of the Greenland colony comes from the accounts of the crew of a Norwegian ship en route to Iceland, which was blown off course. This was in 1406, and after that the Norse in Greenland slipped out of history and into myth.
Whatever Happened to the Greenlanders?
Almost in the vein of mythological places such as Atlantis, the disappearance of the Norse colony in Greenland has led to all manner of possible explanations. Some of the most popular are:
1. It was climate change, of course
In this day and age, with melting glaciers and lonely polar bears set adrift on ice floes, it is tempting to blame climate change for previous calamities in Greenland as well. In fact, it may have been rising temperatures in the century between the settlement of Iceland and that of Greenland, which is the reason for the discrepancy in names. Iceland may indeed have been icy when people came there, but a 100 years later, things had warmed enough for Greenland to be called green. By 1200, the average temperature was declining, and even if it went slightly up again by the year 1500, this may have been too little, too late, to save the Greenlanders.
2. Blame it on the King.
Greenland came under the Norwegian king in 1261, a year before Iceland did, and the Iceland-Greenland sailing route ceased to exist. Norway itself went into decline in the 14th century, due to competition from the Hansa and the destructiveness of the Black Plague. The Icelanders had been promised six ships a year bringing supplies, but the Greenlanders had to make do with one. When the ship sank in 1369, no new ship was commissioned and Greenland was, for all intents and purposes, cut off from the outside world.
3. The Mongols did it.
Some have suggested that the main reason people ventured this far north to begin with was an effect of the Arab conquest of the Middle East. When Europe was cut off from oriental ivory, a market opened up for walrus tusks from the far north and even narwhal horns, which are probably the inspiration behind all that unicorn imagery. When the Mongols took over much of Asia in the 13th century, making Asian trade safe again, those who had banked on northern tusks went out of business.
4. Because they were fashion victims. Literally.
An excavation in Ikigait in 1921 showed that as late as the 15th century, people in Greenland kept abreast of the latest Parisian fashions, rather than adapt to the climate. No one who has seen Icelandic girls in mini-skirts in the middle of winter will be surprised to learn that people sometimes choose haute couture over comfort. This may also have applied to people preferring European style timber houses over, say, Inuit igloos. Attempts to maintain a life standard not sustainable in the far north may well have spelled their doom. Again, modern day parallels are glaring.
5.It’s the bloody English, again.
English ships were so frequent in Icelandic waters in the 15th century that historians have often dubbed it the “English Century.” Most came to trade, but some to raid. In her historical novel ‘Hrafninn,’ Vilborg Davíðsdóttir suggests that the remaining settlers, already in decline, were carried off by English pirates. No accounts of this exist, but then again, nor do accounts of anything else, so why not?
6. They were killed by Inuit.
Not very politically correct to say these days, it is nonetheless possible that the settlers were massacred by the Inuit. In fact, the Inuit first arrived in Greenland in ca. 1300, having made their way from Alaska. They displaced the earlier Dorset culture and are the forefathers of today’s Greenlanders. Unlike the Dorset, the Inuit had bows and arrows and might have been better placed to attack the declining Norse settlements. Some archaeological evidence of conflict has been found, and Inuit folklore speaks of their ancestors driving away the giants who previously occupied the land, but whether this refers to the Norse or the Dorset is impossible to say.
7. They became gods.
Some have chosen to interpret finds of Norse artefacts among Inuit as evidence that they interbred, and that the Norse may even have disappeared into the Inuit tribes. Others have searched farther west, suggesting that they moved to Canada. The quest for a blond Inuit tribe has so far not yielded results, but the prospect remains tempting to those who want to make as much out of the Nordic presence in North America as possible.
The most fun theory in this category is no doubt that some members made it as far down south as present day Mexico, where one of them became worshipped as the white, bearded god Quetzalcoatl. For this to make any sense, it would have to have taken place close to the settlement period, as he seems to have been worshipped there from around 900. The Mormons claim old Quetzal to have been Jesus Christ himself, but perhaps he was a Viking after all.
Ironically, the worship of the god made the job of plundering the Aztec Empire that much easier for the Spanish. When Cortez arrived, beard and all, he was mistaken for the deity and welcomed by the unsuspecting population.
8. They drowned on the way back home.
Less sexy than being worshipped by lost empires, but perhaps more likely, is that sometime in the century after ships stopped arriving, the inhabitants may have tried to get back to Iceland through perilous, ice infested waters in boats that in no way were intended for ocean sailing. It wouldn’t even take a Titanic style iceberg to ruin such a venture. In any case, not much evidence exits, and Leonardo DiCaprio is unlikely to star in a hit movie about it. Sadly.