WOLVES FROM THE SEA
Until recently Norsemen, Vikings, were reckoned to be about as civilised as football hooligans. They came, they raped, they plundered and pillaged their way across Europe and Russia. Modern archaeology has made a concerted effort to reposition these wolves from the sea as home loving farmers and craftsmen. While that may be true, it is also true that this was a warrior culture, dominated by forceful men who wielded that force as brute force. Archeological image often has as much to do with popular modern ideology as it has to do with hard fact. Yes it all has to be supported by fact, but the available written record paints the Norsemen as aggressive and hostile, while digging up potholes in long abandoned villages put them in an altogether more domestic context. Vikings probably discovered North America long before Christopher Columbus as documented in Icelandic Sagas, folk tales.
Adam of Bremen a Catholic priest translated them into latin a mere century after the events, so the versions were still relatively fresh. The only hard evidence that the migration across the North Atlantic got as far as North America are Norse-like piles of stones assembled in the formation of Norse-like houses, a common household implement, a piece of deteriorated metal that looks something like a pin and some bog iron slag around a Norse-like anvil. Carbon dating puts in the correct period, but all in all, not a lot upon which to base an entirely convincing story therefore we must look to Bremenís translations for the story.
They claim the Norsemen reached North America in the early part of the 10th Century resulting in an encounter between a metal based and stone based culture. Not entirely unique in history but fascinating nonetheless. The persecution of the pagans in Scandinavia reached its height under the rule of the kings, Tryggvasson and Haraldsson, who with a religious zeal matched only by the Crusaders, forced all to embrace Christianity or face a gruesome death. Any Viking who kept to the traditional view that man and the earth were one and the same and inseparable had to flee or die.
As all the lands to the south were already Christian, there were only three directions to take. North where the prospect of living life on the ice packs was of limited appeal. East, where the Swedes, or Rus, ancient enemies of the Norwegians had already established themselves. Or West, where prevailing winds and some prospect of refuge could be hoped for. Crushing poverty, continual starvation and religious persecution, inspired the unbelievers to flee across the dark and icy waters of the North Atlantic. Their implements of navigation were the stars on clear nights and during the day a crude wooden navigational aid which was about as accurate and effective as holding up your thumb and taking a sighting from the direction of the shadow it cast. Primarily they simply cast off and pointed their prow West.
Apparently one convenient method of getting rid of your neighbour was to provoke him into murdering one of your family. He would thereby be banished and you could occupy his land. Good business if you dinít mind losing a relative or two.
One such banished murderer was Ingolf Aanarsson who took his family and went looking for an island that the fishermen claimed lay hidden in the ocean's mist to the West. He set sail with his clan and found Iceland. Unfortunately a group of Irish zealot hermits found it first. They did not stay around to contest the territory when Aanarsson turned up.
Another murderer, Erik the Red, became an Icelander as a result of his father's exile from Norway. Iceland was well settled by the time the family arrived and there was a lot of pushing and shoving for a place. Nobody pushed harder than the quarrelsome Erik. It wasn't long before there was a particularly spectacular slaughter of his neighbours Eyjolf Saur and Hrafn the Dueller. By all accounts it was a heinous crime but not serious enough to merit a total explusion from Iceland. Erik and his family were simply asked to move to another neighbourhood.
But Erik simply couldn't stay out of trouble. He got into another argument, this time with a friend over something borrowed and not returned. The ensuing fights created mayhem and Erik ended up being sentenced to outlawry for his crimes. He didn't stick around to challenge the verdict but instead went looking instead for somewhere else to cause trouble.
Once again there was only one direction to go. West. Land had been sighted out there by Guunbjorn, the son of Ulf Crow. Erik went looking for it and returned to Iceland three years later with wild stories of the easy life and a rich land called 'Greenland' and convinced boatloads of gullible farmers and relatives to follow him there.
One of them was Bjarni Herjolfsson. Bjarni set out on his own, lost his way and found himself wallowing about in a thick fog. When it cleared, he sighted land. But it didnít fit the descriptions of Greenland that he heard in Iceland. Bjarni did not even put in to shore. He simply turned north and found his family in what is now Greenland.
Bjarni's sighting was an inspiration to one of Erik's sons Lief. Lief was eager to find new land for himself. He bought Bjarni Herjolfsson's ship and convinced his father to take him on a new expedition West. Erik reluctantly agreed, but as history is written and rewritten by accident, on his way to board the ship, Erik was injured by a stumbling horse, and thus Leif the Lucky was probably the first European to set foot on North America. He came back to Greenland with all sorts of tales of rich meadows, of plenty of game and of grapes for wine.
The Eastern seaboard of North America in any period of recorded history bears little resemblence to any description that Leif is supposed to have given of his mythical 'Vinland'. The sagas take pains to point out that Leif was called Leif the Lucky not because he discovered Vinland, but because he rescued a host of people from a shipwreck on his way back.
Leif's retired in Greenland but his brother Thorvald took off in Leif's footsteps. Thorvald was killed in Vinland by a Skraeling (the Norse word for the native Americans they encountered) arrow in the armpit. Thorvaldís brother Thorstein went to Vinland to fetch Thorvald's body but became hopelessly lost. When he was blown back onto Greenland's shores it was not at Brattahld, the family farm, but further North at the Western Settlement where not long after he became ill and died.
Sometime later Thorfinn Karlsefni turned up at the Brattahild settlement. He was a wealthy man. Leif generously offered to lend Thorfinn the houses that he had built in Vinland and Thorfinn eagerly went off to enjoy the priviledge.
Karlsefni and his followers might have made a permanent go of it in Vinland. They set up some basic agriculture and started trading with the Skraeling, but the Vikings couldn't keep their basic bad temper in check and committed a foolish murder of one of Skraeling. From that moment on, the settlement lived under constant seige and attack, and eventually there was no choice but to return to Greenland, impoverished and defeated. Thorfinn eventually packed his ship and left, finally settling in Iceland.
On paper, Fredyis, Leifís sister was an unpleasant woman, married off to a wealthy neighbour to bring some money into the family. A scheming woman, she convinced her husband to take her to Vinland because Leif, as was his habit, offered her the use of his houses.
The expedition was joined by two Norwegian brothers who collected a great wealth of wood and skins. At an opportune moment Fredyis accused the two brothers of molesting her and taunted her husband into murdering them in an orgy of axework. She herself executed the other women in the party with great relish and thereafter returned to Greenland a rich woman. The story of the murders leaked, and while Leif was reluctant to punish his own sister, she was treated as something of a leper for the rest of her days.
And that was the end of the Viking adventures in Vinland, at least according to the sagas but until archaeology turns up new finds in North America weíll have to leave it at that.