I want to dedicate this post to Leif Erikson and his voyage to North America. While the Vikings lived and thrived about half a millennium before my usual topics, they nonetheless embodied all the characteristics of later European colonial powers – sailing prowess, strong military forces, and the desire to conquer and colonize. Indeed, if popular portrayals of the Vikings are at all accurate, the desire for gold and plunder drove them to explore much of the European world – just as the desire for gold drove Spain, Portugal, France and England to colonize and explore the American continents.
Though Leif lived about a century-and-a-half after the characters portrayed in popular shows, like Ragnar Lothbrok in Vikings, he is perhaps the most well-known Viking explorer. Alive from c. 970 – c. 1020, Leif Erikson was the son of Erik the Red, who by all accounts, was one mean sumbitch.1 After being kicked out of both Norway and Iceland for killing a man, Erik founded the first Viking settlement in Greenland.2 Born in this settlement, Leif returned to his father’s homeland to pay homage to King Olaf I, where the king converted him to Christianity.3 Imagine it, Leif Erikson, sitting in Olaf’s great hall, slipping on a cross over his woolen clothes and leather armor. Such acts in the Middle Ages were not taken lightly, and but whether Leif’s conversion was heart-felt religiosity or the desire to gain the favor of King Olaf is impossible to know. Either way, after converting, Leif set sail for his native Greenland to spread the Word.
According to one of the Nordic sagas, the Eiriks saga, a storm blew Leif off course, and he stumbled upon North America by accident (which kind of smacks of Columbus doesn’t it?). Apparently finding grapes in abundance in the land he spent the winter exploring, Erikson dubbed the place vinland.4 Another saga, the Groenlendinga saga or Saga of the Greenlanders, however, tells us that a Nordic merchant, Bjarni Herjólfsson, was the one blown off course, and came within sight of a strange land, but did not make landfall before returning to Iceland. Hearing of this, so the second saga goes, Leif set to sail to this new land with a crew of 35 men, 14 years after Bjarni nearly landed there.5
But however he found it, Leif Erikson and his crew did indeed stumble upon North America, as archaeological excavations in places like l’Anse-aux-Meadows have shown beyond the shadow of a doubt. Though Leif did not, as far as we can tell, ransack and plunder the native inhabitants, if he indeed contacted any, like his successors in the form of Columbus, Champlain, and John Smith, he did winter in what is now Canada, and became the first European to have a sleep over across the Atlantic Ocean. And despite his discovery, Erikson never returned to Vinland, taking over his father’s kingdom in Greenland after Erik the Red’s death around 1003.6
Though Erikson’s life was a far cry from the bloody exploits of the real Ragnar Lothbrok and his brood, and the bad-ass adventures of the fictional Ragnar, he nonetheless has become a modern day representation of Nordic pride both in Scandinavia and North America. Statues of the famous explorer stand from Reykjavik to Seattle, and petitions to have Leif Erikson Day replace Columbus Day in the United States have been echoing through the halls of legislatures since the first decades of the twentieth-century.
So, here’s to you Mr. Erikson.