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Viking - 18: "Go West Young Man!" Norse Exploration of Greenland and North American Shores
"Better weight than wisdom a man cannot carry. The poor man's strong grip on new lands is worth more than wealth".
"Steer west for Greenland!" Exploration borne of hope and need - in Eirik's case to steer clear of a blood-feud after slaying a neighbour
Thorvald and his son Eirik left their fjord home in Jaederen.
A number of killings had been laid at Eirik's door because of his fearsome temper, and threats he had made to those who had been slain. Whether or not he was guilty did not matter. He was fair game for those who sought retribution. The law of the feud stated that Eirik could be slain without fear of the king's laws for murder being brought down on the heads of those who slew him.
Eirik and his kin had to leave their property and their homeland, taking only what they could stow aboard ship. They sailed westward for days across the broad, iron-grey fastness. Their keel rode close over Njord's rising and falling ridges, sail and beitass hard on the wind's edge.
Iceland beckoned, and when their ship neared land Eirik's father Thorvald heaved over his high seat pillars into the waves and followed them in onto the strand at Drangar in Hornstrands. (A man claimed the land where his high seat pillars were rolled onto the shore by the waves). Thorvald died not long after they made landfall. Grief had chewed out his heart at leaving his beloved homeland, even though he knew a new beginning awaited them in Iceland. Eirik was deeply saddened at the loss of his father, but life had to go on and a woman took his eye. Her name was Thjodhild, her rosy cheeks and winning smile allowed him to forget his loss, and they wed soon after, moving on to a new home at Eirikstead near Vatnshorn. Luck visited the couple when Thjodhild bore a son for Eirik, but their luck was shortlived when he was banished from Haukadale for killing Eyjolf Saur and Hrafn 'the Dueller'. Breidafjord to the west became home, where they settled on Oxen Island - another Eirikstead was built for the young family.
A friendship was struck up with Thorgest of Breidabolstead, and Eirik loaned his new friend his bench-boards but when he asked for them to be returned they were not forthcoming. A quarrel followed, and fighting. Eirik, with his temper was in danger of having to leave again. He was supported in his cause by Styr Thorgrimsson, Eyjolf of Svin Island, Thorbjorn Vifilsson and the sons of Thorbrand of Alptafjord. They may have had their own reasons for supporting Eirik, and - already knowing him - seen Thorgest as an unreliable and surly neighbour. Thorgest had on his side Thorgeir of Hitardale and the sons of Thord Gellir.
Despite his protests, Eirik was outlawed at the Thorsness Thing and he readied his ship in the bay for a long, arduous sea crossing. On achieving readiness, Styr and the others went out with him beyond the islands. As the ship crept out between the islands to the open sea Eirik told his friends he meant to search for the land Gunnbjorn Ulfsson had sighted. The fellow had been blown westward off-course and found his way past the skerries named after him. Eirik told his friends that, should he find this land, he would return to visit them.
Snaefells Glacier vanished into the sea-mists as Eirik guided his ship out from the channels. He was out into the open ocean now, beyond turning back lest anyone take him to task for outstaying his welcome in Iceland and kill him without fear of the law. Darkness cloaked them as their stern lamp vanished into the distance and their friends set off homeward.
A new glacier greeted them, Blaserk - 'Blue Coat' - as it is known now, its ice-white peak glistening blindingly in the late morning light. They sailed south along the eastern coast of this great island to see if there was anywhere to settle. The first winter was spent on Eirik's Island, near the heart of the later Eastern Settlement. Come the fore-year he left for Eiriksfjord where he thought they should settle down and during the summer he took off into the wilderness in the west, above the coastal strip. Names were given to landmarks and he spent a second winter on Eiriksholms by Hvarfs Peak and the following summer was spent sailing north to Snaefell and into Hrafnsfjord where he thought he must be further west than at the head of Eiriksfjord. He turned back from there in the after-year and spent the following winter with his family and crew on Eiriks Island within the mouth of the fjord.
Having named this new land Greenland, Eirik put out to sea east to Iceland next summer, putting in at Breidafjord. His thoughts were that the name would be a draw with such a friendly-sounding name. The winter was spent in Iceland, lying low with friends lest anyone claim his head, and in the summer set out west again to settle his new land, Greenland as he called it. One-score and five ships sailed from Breidafjord and Borgarfjord, but only fourteen reached the new shores. Some lost their way and were driven back by hostile winds, some lost on the ocean. With Eirik went Herjolf Bardarson, who took land at Herjolfsfjord and set up home on Herjolfsness. Ketil took Ketilsfjord, Hrafn put down roots at Hrafnsfjord, Solvi in Solvadale. Others with Eirik, Helgi Thorbrandsson, Thorbjorn Glora, Einar, Hafgrim and Arnlaug found what they wanted in and around the Eastern Settlement. Others sailed west around the bluff to expand the Western Settlement.
Bjarni finds land in the west...
Herjolf Bardarson had dwelt with his wife Thorgerd and son Bjarni for a while at Drepstokk. Bjarni had promise and from being young he had shown willingness to explore, earning himself a good name and wealth.
He would alternately spend his winters overseas and at home with his father in Iceland. A merchant ship of his own was bought. During the last winter Bjarni spent in Norway with his father, Herjolf sold up and moved west to Greenland with Eirik 'the Red'. Aboard Herjolf's ship was a Hebridean Christian, the skald who made up the Hafgerdinga Lay with its refrain,
"I pray the master of monks to steer my travels; May the Lord of the high heavens hold his strong hand over me..."
A tall, big-framed fellow, Herjolf made his home at Herjolfsness. Eirik 'the Red' lived at Brattahlid, where he was well respected. Aside from his three sons, Leif, Thorvald and Thorstein, Eirik had a daughter Freydis. Married for his wealth to a downtrodden fellow, Thorvald, Freydis was haughty and overbearing.
Bjarni reached Eyrar in Iceland in the summer and learned that his father had already left for Greenland. He was taken aback at the news and would not allow his ship to be unloaded, deciding instead to follow his father west to Greenland to enjoy the usual winter's hospitality,
'...So if you are willing to come with me -' Bjarni tested them, and to a man they answered that they would do what he thought best, to which he added, 'This crossing may be thought foolhardy in the light of our not knowing the way. None of us has sailed the Greenland Sea'.
Nevetheless they put to sea as soon as they were ready. For three days they sailed until land was lost to sight below the sea-line astern. The following wind failed them and came round from the north, bringing fog-banks. For days they had no inkling of their whereabouts until one day they saw the sun and took their bearings. Sail was hoisted and they passed on west until land was sighted.
'What land is this?' some asked. Bjarni did not think it could be Greenland from the time they had been at sea. 'Shall we put in', was answered by Bjarni to the effect that they should follow the land closely. The land was certainly not Greenland, being mostly flat, heavily wooded with low hills in the distance.
'I am told there are great glaciers on Greenland', Bjarni told them, when they saw land again after two days. This was also heavily wooded, flat land. The wind failed again and the crew counselled landing for water and firewood. To Bjarni this was nonsense and he told them to hoist sail again, 'There is no shortage of either, as I see it'.
The prow turned back out to sea once more before a south-westerly wind and soon land was seen again. This land was high and mountainous, topped by a glacier. Once more Bjarni was asked if they would land, to which he answered that, 'No, this land seems to be worthless'.
Sail was not lowered but they followed the coastline far enough to know it, too, was an island. Once more land was left astern and they put out to sea before the same fair wind. A gale began to blow and Bjarni told his men to shorten sail, and not to go harder than the ship and rigging would allow. They were buffeted by this gale until land was sighted for the fourth time. Again the crew asked whether Bjarni thought it might be Greenland.
'By what I've been told, this looks most likely to be Greenland. We shall go in to land', Bjarni agreed. They made land at dusk at a ness where a boat had been hauled ashore. This was where Herjolf lived, and was named Herjolfsness.
Bjarni no longer wished to go trading and stayed with Herjolf, taking to farming the land after his father died.
Greenland settlement remembered
Greenland, named to draw settlers; Iceland, named to deter new settlers ('Sorry, full up!')
Penguin Classics, The Vinland Sagas
'The Vinland Sagas' includes an episode on the settlement of Greenland, and in particular the parts Eirik 'the Red' and his son Leif played in that settlement.
There's an interesting section about Bjarni Herjolfsson, that he sailed along the coasts of Vinland and Markland without making landfall before returning to Norway to tell Earl Eirik of his sailings. The earl asked him what he had seen there but Bjarni was unable to add anything. Earl Eirik thought little of him for failing to look around, thus enabling him to make a full report, and told him he had failed as an explorer.
Leif sails on to Vinland
Bjarni sailed from Greenland some years later to visit Jarl Eirik. He was well-received and Bajarni told the jarl of his sailing, and the lands he had seen. He was ticked off for showing a lack of curiosity, as he could tell them nothing about the lands he passed without setting foot on them. Nevertheless Bjarni was made a retainer at the jarl's court and sailed back to Greenland the summer after.
There was now much talk of finding new lands. Leif Eiriksson went to see Bjarni and bought his ship from him. A crew of thirty-five was hired and Leif asked his father if he wished to lead the expedition. Eirik told him that as he was much older the hardships of a long crossing would be too much for him. Leif's answer to this was that Eirik's luck would surely prevail, more thsan that of any other of his kin. Eirik yielded and when the ship was ready rode to the ship. The horse stumbled and he was thrown, injuring a leg.
'I am not to find any more lands than this we stand on', Eirik told Leif. 'This is as far as we go together, I think'. Eirik went back to Brattahlid and Leif to the ship. One of his crew was a southerner known as Tyrkir. The ship was made ready and they put out to sea. Landfall was made on the land Bjarni saw last. They came up to shore and drew the ship up onto the strand. No grass was to be seen, and the land behind was covered with great glaciers. Between glacier and shore the land was like a great slab of rock. It was indeed worthless, as Bjarni had said. Leif gave the island the name Helluland ['slab-land', known now as Baffin Island].
They put out to sea again and soon saw land. Again they put ashore. The land was flat and thickly wooded, flat with broad sandy strands wherever they roamed, and the land sloped lightly to the shore. Markland ['Forested land, now Labrador] was named by Leif after its natural resources.
Sailing north-east from Markland they came to the next land-fall. Looking about, they saw the weather was fine, the grass was dew-laden and the water they tasted was the sweetest they had ever tasted. They returned to the ship and sailed into the sound between the island and the nearby headland that jutted northward to the sea. A westerly course was followed around the headland where there were broad shallows. At low tide the ship was left high and dry, the sea almost beyond sight. Being impatient to make landfall they ran ashore through the shallows to where a river ran out from a lake. When the tide raised the ship again they rowed upriver into the lake, where they made anchor, carried their hammocks ashore and set up booths. A decision was made to over-winter there and large houses were built.
Salmon ran aplenty in the rivers, bigger than seen before. The land seemed kind enough to them so as not to warrant the setting-by of animal fodder for winter. Frost did not bother them, nor did the grass wither with the onset of winter.Night and day seemed more of even length than in their world and then sun itself did not set until later.
Dwellings built, Leif told his men he would split the party into two. Half would stay with the dwellings whilst the rest looked inland, but no so far as not to be able to rejoin the others by day's end, nor should they solit further once out of sight of the colony. Leif's words were heeded for a time. Leif himself went out with the explorers from time to time. He was tall and strong, by sight a man to be reckoned, astute and ever with measured in his manner.
Leif heads back to Greenland
'Tyrkir the southerner is missing!' one man told Leif. He set his jaw at this news, angered that one of his men had ignored his orders. Tyrkir had been with Leif for some time, almost a member of the family;
'Did any of you see where he went, and why did you let him wander off?' Leif scolded the men and took a dozen with him to search for Tyrkir. However, they were not far from the colony before Tyrkir was seen, grinning, coming towards them, stocky and thickset. Although he was short - most of the company were in awe of Leif, but not Tyrkir - he was clever with his hands.
'Why so late, foster-father?' Leif asked but Tyrkir only babbled in his own tongue. He rolled his eyes and made faces - no-one knew what was being said; not long afterward Tyrkir told them in their own West Norse tongue,
'I did not go much further than you yourself, Leif, but what I did find were wild vines laden with sweet grapes'.
'Is that true, foster-father?' Leif seemed to disbelieve Tyrkir, so he had to try to convince him,
'Where I come from, in the Rhinelands, we grow many vines and harvest the grapes to make wine!'
Next morning, after a night's rest they went with Tyrkir and Leif, who told them,
'We have two tasks ahead of us now. Each other day we must gather these grapes and cut vines, and chop down trees as cargo for the ship to take back to Greenland'.
The task was complete, a towing boat was laden with grapes and a full load of timber was taken on board and in the spring they sailed eastward. Leif named the land they found Vinland after their grape harvest. Good following winds bore them home across gentle seas. When they were closer in to land pne of the crew spoke up,
'How come you are steering so close on the wind?'
'Fear not, friend. I am watching my steering, but do you not see something not qiuite right?'
The others stared but aw nothing out of the ordinary.
'Look, towards the shore. It could be the skerries, but I will warrant it is a wrecked ship'.
The others saw it and tolld him it was skerries, but Leif saw people on the rocks,
'I shall steer close to the wind so I can reach these folk. Should they need help, we should give it. If they are hostile then the wind will be on our side'.
They neared the skeeries with the sail lowered, anchored and put out in another rowing boat. Tyrkir asked who was their leader.
'I am Thorir, from the Vestfold. Who are you?'
Leif spoke out at this point, telling Thorir his name.
'Are you the son of the man at Brattahlid they call Eirik 'the Red'?'
'I am the same', Leif answered. 'Will you come onto my ship with as many of your belongings as my ship will take?
Thorir took the offer on behalf of his fellows and sailed with Leif's crew into Eiriksfjord, unloading the new passengers and cargoes at Brattahlid. Thorir, his wife and three crewmembers were asked to stay with Leif. Altogether fifteen were saved from the skerries and Leif was nicknamed 'the Lucky', gaining in wealth and standing.
However a serious ailment struck Thorir's crew that winter, Thorir himself and several of his men dying. Eirik 'the Red' also died that winter. Much time was taken talking over Leif's Vinland exploits and Thorvald put forward that from what was said of it he thought the land had not been looked over enough.
'You can have my ship if you like, but first I need to bring back the timber we had to leave on the skerries in order to provide room for Thorir's party and their things', Leif told his brother.
West Beyond Greenland - America!
Thorvald sets out for Vinland
Leif's brother Thorvald put together an expedition under guidance from Leif, taking on a crew of thirty. No records of the voyage were made until they made landfall near Leif's dwellings. The ship was laid up and they settled in for the winter, catching fish to accompany root vegetables they found nearby.
The following fore-year* Thorvald told the crew to make ready, a small party meanwhile took the ship's boat along the coast to explore the area during the summer. The land around appealed to them, with woodland stretching almost to the shore and white sandy strands. There were a lot of islands, wide-reaching shallows but no sign of anyone else - or animals - who might live on the land, except on a westerly isle where only a wooden stack-cover was found to show anyone might be around. In the after-year they made their way back to the settlement for the winter.
In the summer again Thorvald sailed east and north along the coast. A fierce gale blew them onto the shore, the keel was cracked and they had to put in until the ship was righted.
'I wish to set up the old keel here on the headland', Thorvald told his crew, 'and call the headland Kjalarness'.
They set off eastward again and found themselves at the twin mouths of two fjords. They sailed up to the heavily-wooded headland between the inlets. The ship was moored alongside and Thorvald went ashore with his men over the wooden gangway.
'This site is beautiful. I should like to build a settlement here', Thorvald mused. Going back to the ship they came across three humps on the strand and realised these were skin boats with three native men under each. Apart from one, who fled with one of the boats, the other natives were caught and killed. Thorvald took in the land around whilst theymade their way back to the headland. Other, bigger humps were seen further up the fjord which he took to be dwellings in a settlement. A feeling of drowsiness overcame them and they fell asleep, only to be awakened suddenly by a shout,
'Wake up, Thorvald and your men, if you want to stay alive! Get back to your ship and sail away as fast as you might!'
A swarm of skin boats headed for them through the fjord waters.
'Set up breastworks on the ship's walls and fight them off without killing any', Thorvald told them.
The Skraelings (Norse for 'wretches', the natives,as they seemed under-sized and thin compared with the well-fed and muscular Norse seamen) let fly their arrows and fled as fast as they had come. Thorvald asked if any of his men were wounded, and on hearing that they were unhurt told them that he was wounded in one arm-pit,
'The arrow must have come in between the breastwork and my shield. I fear it will lead to my death. Were I you, I would head back as soon as you could after first burying me on the headland I said I would like to settle. Put crosses around and call the site Krossarness'
[Greenland had been converted to Christianity by that time, but Eirik 'the Red' refused anything to do with the new faith].
When Thorvald died of his wound his men did as they were asked. They sailed back to join the others, sharing their news. They spent the next winter at the settlement, gathering grapes and vines as cargo and sailed back to Eiriksfjord where they had much to tell.
*The Norsemen saw the year divided mainly as summer and winter - with the early or fore-year we call spring, and the late season - or autumn/fall - as the after-year. The seasons are still referred to in this manner in modern Scandinavian eyes, (Dan. 'foraar' and 'efteraar' - the last three letters pronounced as 'or' with a long 'o'. In modern Danish the 'a' has a smaller 'o' above it)
The rest of the 'Graenlendinga Saga' covers Thorstein Eiriksson's death, Thorfinn 'Karlsefni' visiting Vinland, Freydis Eiriks-dottir in Vinland, Karlsefni's Offspring. There is also 'Eirik's Saga' which includes Gudrid's Forefathers, Eirik Explores Greenland, Gudrid goes to Greenland, Gudrid is told her Future, Leif discovers Vinland, Thorstein Eiriksson Dies, Karlsefni in Greenland, Karlsefni Goes to Vinland, Thorhall Breaks Away, Karlsefni Goes South, The Skraelings Attack, Thorvald Eiriksson Dies, Bjarni Grimolfsson's Death, Karlsefni's Offspring.
There are notes, a list of personal and place names, glossary, maps and a 43-page introduction from the translators, Magnus Magnusson (of Icelandic descent) and Icelander Hermann Palsson, first published in paperback by Penguin Books 1965, ISBN 0-14-044154-9. See the Amazon link above