9 October, it’s Leif Ericson Day

And who was that, by the way?

Leif EricksonIf you need to ask, or think it was the guy who played John Cannon, in High Chaparral, then you have no business here – begone!

So, yes today in the USA, the 9th of October, it is/has been, Leif Erikson Day. And yes, it does celebrate the man who possibly led the Viking seamen who became the first Europeans to set foot in the Americas. Why the 9th of October? Well, it’s called after the day when the immigrant sloop ‘Restauration’ sailing from Stavanger, Norway, arrived in New York harbour in 1825. The first ship of Norwegian settlers to arrive in the USA.

By the way, you can’t really say ‘discovered’, as I’m sure the Native American people who were already there, didn’t realise they needed discovering.

His actual name was Leif, Leifr, or Leifur and he is thought to have been born on Iceland, around A.D. 970. His surname, was, given it is an Icelandic name, based on his father’s first name. So his father was Eric. Eric the Red, in full.

Leif EricsonWhat we have in the way of evidence for Vikings in America, is in the Icelandic Sagas and at L’Anse aux Meadows in Canada. The Viking trips to America are mentioned in several sagas.

As with a lot of these sort of ‘firsts’, Leif gave his name to the achievement, but may well not have actually been the very first European to set foot on dry American land. As the Wikipedia page for Leif says:

According to a literal interpretation of Einar Haugen‘s translation of the two sagas in the book Voyages To Vinland, Leif was not the first European to discover America, nor the first to make landfall there: he had heard the story of merchant Bjarni Herjólfsson who claimed to have sighted land to the west of Greenland after having been blown off course. Bjarni reportedly never made landfall there, however. Later, when travelling from Norway to Greenland, Leif was also blown off course, to a land that he did not expect to see, where he found “self-sown wheat fields and grapevines”. He next rescued two men who were shipwrecked in this country, and went back to Greenland… Consequently, if this is to be trusted, Bjarni Herjólfsson was the first European to see America beyond Greenland, and the two unnamed shipwrecked men were the first people known to Europeans to have made landfall there.

What I learned first, was that it wasn’t such a long journey. They were probably of Norwegian descent, these Vikings, but if you look at a globe, you can see how they could do it in fairly bite-sized trips. From Norway, to The Shetland Isles, to the Faroes (still a Danish protectorate), to Iceland, to Greenland (possibly named by one of the Eriksons to try and entice people to go live there), then to the very north east coast of what is now Canada. I’m sure I read somewhere, that it is possible, if you stand on a hill high enough, close enough to the coastline and on a clear day, to see your next landfall, from the previous land, all the way over to Canada. I’ve never tried it (unfortunately), so I can’t say if it’s true or not. But instead of thinking what a long way it must have been to sail all the way from Norway to Canada in a trading boat from the Viking era, think more of a series of short island hops. Nearly.

So, where did they set foot in America?

The lands the sagas say they discovered, they named Helluland, which the Old Norse-speakers amongst you will of course recognise as meaning ‘Flat-Rock Land’ and possibly a reference to Baffin Island. So that would be where you’d find the first European footprints on American soil. They also landed, the sagas say, at a place they called Markland, which may refer to the coast of Labrador. People always say Markland meant forest land and it quite probably does. Having lived in and spoken Danish, for up to 10 years now, I can only say that a ‘mark‘, to a Dane, would be a ‘field‘. I live at Havremarksvej, for example. Which means Oats Field’s Road. I’m just saying. Then they got on to the place you all know and love, Vinland. Always referred to as meaning the land of grapes, or wine. This is still disputed. As I remember partly because grapes don’t/didn’t grow as far north as the areas traditionally associated with being Vinland. They might have been just berries. And another theory is based around how you spell ‘Vin‘. I think it’s if you have the ´accent over the í, like that, as it may have been written in the sagas, it actually can mean ‘good‘, as in good land for farming.  As Graeme Davis (see below) says; “In Old Norse vin means good, fertile land – land which may be cultivated meaning emphasised by the element, land, which again means farmland.” The modern Danish for good or fine, is ‘fin‘, land is usually used to mean country, or countryside.

Vinland it would seem, may be what the Vikings called the whole of the rest of the land they discovered. The whole of north America. They were looking for good farmland and they found plenty of it.

Why write about this on a book blog?

Well, firstly, I find the whole concept of Vikings in America fascinating. Secondly, I’m using this day’s connection to point you in the direction of two books I have read, which detail pretty much what is known about the Viking voyages to the New World.

The first book you really owe it to yourself to check out if you want to gen up on Vikings and America, is the cunningly titled Vikings In America, by Graeme Davis. I have reviewed and mentioned it before, but it really is good enough to be mentioned again here. And here’s what the blurb on the back says:

When Columbus claimed to have discovered America in 1492, and the Borgia Pope claimed it as a New World for Catholic Spain, the Vatican started a 500 hundred year conspiracy to conceal the true story of Viking America. In this groundbreaking new work by the author of The Early English Settlement of Orkney and Shetland, the true extent of the Viking discovery and colonisation of the eastern seaboard of America is fully examined, taking into account the new archaeological, linguistic and DNA evidence which supplements the historic account. For four centuries or more, from their first visits around AD 1000 to the eve of the Columbus voyages, the Vikings explored and settled thousands of miles of the coasts and rivers of North America. From New York’s Long Island to the Canadian High Arctic the New World was a playground for Viking adventurers. And the name the Vikings gave to this New World – America.

The Vikings In America - Erik WahlgrenThe other, is a bit more straight-laced shall we say, than Graeme Davis’ book, it’s The Vikings and America, Ancient Peoples and Places, by Erik Wahlgren. He doesn’t stand for no messing about with ‘evidence’ of Vikings’ travels further inland, like the Kensington runestone and this is perhaps more of a thorough investigation of the evidence so far. Or, as it was when it was published. As things have moved on a little, with more evidence emerging of further possible sites for Viking landings further south of L’Anse Aux Meadows and even of hints they might have travelled/explored further inland.

Here’s what Amazon says about this one:

Excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows in northern Newfoundland have revealed the presence of the Vikings around AD 1000. But was this the mysterious Vinland (“land of grapevines”) which, according to the Icelandic sagas, Leif Eriksson discovered almost one thousand years ago? In his account Wahlgren argues for a location farther south and also suggests Viking exploration far to the North. He also answers the question: “Why did the Vikings eventually leave the New World?” with his theory that a worsening climate and attacks by native Eskimos and Indians put paid to the first European presence in North America.

L'Anse aux MeadowsAnd what is L’Anse aux Meadows? Well, it’s the only – so far – verified place we know the Vikings were in North America. At L’Anse aux Meadows we can say, with certainty, the Vikings landed on American soil. It was discovered in 1960 by Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad. You can see it on Google Maps (the ‘A’). You can read and see more on the Parks Canada website. The photo I’ve used here, is of one of the reconstructed Viking dwellings they have there, is from their website and doesn’t say who it was taken by.

That’s it. Go read more about the Vikings and America. Go celebrate Leif Ericson Day (maybe next year for those of you in Europe, or east thereof). But definitely go say “Columbus? Who?!”

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