24 January 2010

Historical Perspective of the Greenland Vikings

In response to requests for in-depth background information on the medieval Norse settlers of Greenland to support my contentions about their disappearance from history, I am serializing the Historical Perspective of The Settlers, the first book of the Axe of Iron series. Segments will follow weekly over a three week period. Here is the first installment.
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1 - Axe of Iron: The Settlers, the first book of the Axe of Iron series, is a tale of the Northmen, or Vikings, who journeyed across the North Atlantic Ocean from Iceland during the latter half of the tenth century to explore and settle portions of Greenland and North America. I have followed history insofar as is known; however, the extent of the Northmen’s exploration of North America, a land they referred to as Vinland, is unknown.


It happened so long ago scholars cannot agree on what the word Vinland means. Nor do they agree on where it is, but more on that later.

The Northmen did not leave their home country because of wanderlust, although a quest for land probably played a part. It may also have been a result of the still common practice of deeding settled farmland to the firstborn son, leaving younger sons no option but to settle elsewhere.

In order to understand these Northmen and the indigenous peoples they contacted in their quest for a new homeland, I offer the following to give perspective to the reader of a time, more than one thousand years ago; in this land we now call North America.

We know that Northmen not only reached North America between 997 and 1003, they regularly sailed back and forth from Greenland to North America, Iceland, Norway, and perhaps other northern European destinations for about five hundred years.

The term Norse, or Norsk, is used to describe all peoples of Scandinavian origin, e.g. Swedish, Danish (including Greenland and the Faeroe Islands), Norwegian, Icelandic, and the Orkney and Shetland islanders. Norse is also a reference to their common language—for in those days they all spoke the same language—and to differentiate them from other Germanic peoples.

For the purpose of this story, reference will be made to both Northmen and Norsemen in a general and interchangeable sense. They were no longer Vikings, and I will not refer to them as such. When they sailed across the Atlantic, they became something else entirely.

The Medieval Warm Period, between the ninth and fourteenth centuries, made these voyages possible. Benevolent weather allowed them first to settle Greenland and later to reach and explore unknown portions of North America. The weather was considerably warmer during this period than it is today in North America and Greenland.

The Northmen, under Eirik Thorvaldsson (Eirik the Red) colonized Greenland. Their sheep, goats, cattle, and horses grazed the lush green pastures while they traded in walrus hides and ivory with their European homeland. However, the fragile environment soon became overgrazed and could not support their domestic animals in viable numbers, forcing a gradual shift from an agrarian to a hunter-gatherer society, as the contents of their middens indicate. Wild game was plentiful during the early years, but after a time, the hunting moved farther and farther afield as yak and caribou herds were depleted. Finally no game remained except a few ring seals.

It is particularly important for the reader to be aware that not a single document originating in Greenland exists. The Norse Greenlanders may have been illiterate for the most part. Everything about their personal history is conjecture because none of it comes to us from the source, they themselves. The runic alphabet they employed did not lend itself to lengthy dissertation.

Everything about the five-hundred-year history of the two main Greenland settlements comes to us from sources with no vested interest in telling the true story of these hardy people. In all cases, the information was compiled as long as two hundred years after the fact by saga writers who had never been to Greenland.

The man responsible for centuries of misconceptions, Adam of Bremen, a German cleric of the eleventh century, wrote a four-volume treatise on the Vikings. Volume IV deals specifically with Greenland and Vinland. It is his reference to “the profusion of grapes and self-sown wheat” found in Vinland that has perpetuated the myth of grapes and grain to the present day. In fact, grapes have never grown north of the forty-fifth parallel—Nova Scotia and Maine—at any time in history, and the wet weather of the Canadian Maritimes will not support the growth of wheat.

The Norse Greenlanders were not wine drinkers so grapes would have been of little importance to them. Their preferred alcoholic beverages were beer, when barley and hops were available, and mead, made from honey and water.

The Norse word vin, the root of Vinland, is incorrectly associated with grapes. It means pasture or meadow in Old Norse, hence literally Pastureland. Norway and Sweden have many place names where the word vin is used as either a root syllable or as a suffix, e.g., Vinje, Vinnan, Granvin, etc. Invariably the meaning is associated with pasture or meadow, not wine, as was the case with Vinland when Leif Eiriksson named it more than one thousand years ago.

The Greenland saga, the real one, began sometime between 982 and 984. In reality it bore little resemblance to the Groenlendinga Saga written long afterwards. Eirik the Red, exiled from Iceland because of continuing trouble, and his eldest son, Leif, explored the western coastline of Greenland sometime between 982 and 984.

They remained for at least one winter—presumably hauling their ship from the water before freeze up and constructing winter quarters—before continuing their exploration during the following spring and summer. They finally chose two suitable fjords on the southwestern coast, some four hundred miles apart. These sites were to become the Eastern and Western Settlements.

They set sail for Iceland during the summer of 985, planning to gather settlers, ships, livestock, and equipment. Eirik called the new empty land Greenland, making no reference to the vast ice sheet covering most of the island, to induce people to come back with them.

The strategy worked, and in the spring of 986, a fleet of twenty five ships sailed for Greenland. Fourteen of the ships made it to Eiriksfjord, the southernmost of the two settlement sites selected. Of the remaining eleven ships, a few made it back to Iceland; the fate of the others is unknown.

Later that same summer, Bjarni Herjulfsson of Iceland, while sailing to the newly established settlement in Greenland to visit his father who recently arrived with the rest of the settlers, was storm-driven far off course and sighted unknown land to the west. His sightings were probably Labrador and Baffin Island; however, he did not land, continuing instead to Greenland, a decision decried by his crew and the Greenland settlers.

The Norse knew about North America for at least fourteen years before exploration began, or that is what the sagas tell us. The sagas also tell us that Leif Eiriksson purchased Herjulfsson’s ship and, with a crew of thirty five men, set sail for North America sometime between 997 and 1002. Many do not believe that avid explorers such as the Northmen were content to wait fourteen years before someone checked into Herjulfsson’s discovery.

With life spans averaging forty odd years, fourteen years would make the difference between a young man and an old man. And exploration was definitely for the young. I doubt they waited.

I believe these people mounted other expeditions almost immediately after Herjulfsson told them what lay to the west. They were famous for being impulsive, and they were inveterate explorers. Curiosity alone would guarantee they did not linger fourteen years before setting off into the unknown.

The sagas tell us Leif Eiriksson landed on both Baffin Island and Labrador before finding what he sought, a land of bountiful timber and pasture for livestock near the northeastern tip of Newfoundland Island. Nobody knows what Leif called Newfoundland Island. Nor is it known whether he called the new land Vinland.

To be continued...

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