Vinland Saga:Legend of a Viking sailor

Vinland Saga:Legend of a Viking sailor

The moon was fading out in the grey sky; the sun was turning gold in the horizon. A fresh morning breeze washed over the drowsy face of Rodrigo de triana. He was on the lookout at the deck of his ship Pinta that had been sailing in the Atlantic from last many weeks. Out of the blue, he spotted a line of white cliffs. It was an island. Land after all, he sighed and marched hastily to report this to his captain. The captain took his flagship’s longboat and rowed to the shores of that island. He then fell on his knees, kissed the ground, wept and prayed. This man was Christopher Columbus.

In the year 1492, Columbus discovered the New World. Of course he did not know that. He thought that it was the Indies, the land of spices and countless gold. Instead, he met a huge barrier on the west of Atlantic, a continent, later named as America by the Freiburg mapmakers in eastern France.

But, is there anything more to history then most of the people know or even want to know? Was Columbus the first European to set foot on the American soil?

A few hundred miles to the west of Britain, there is a small and prosperous island nation, Iceland. A story goes in this country about a person named Eric the Red. He was a Viking. Vikings as we know were Norsemen who lived in Scandinavian lands between the 8th and 11th century AD.

This is how the story goes.

Eric the Red or Leif Ericsson accidentally discovered a new land while he was sailing to west in the Atlantic towards Greenland. He called it, Vinland – the land of grape vines. When he returned back to his people, he brought grapes, wheat and timber with him. Next spring his brother Thorstein led an expedition to locate Vinland. He failed. On his voyage back, he married a beautiful girl named Gudrid. This communion did not last long and one harsh winter, Thorstein fell sick and died. Holding the hands of his wife on his death bed, the fateful husband made a prophecy. He said that Gudrid would spread Christianity far and wide to the new land that his brother Leif had accidentally found. The prophecy came out to be true.

Gudrid assembled a horde of brave and adventurous men with herself. There was Snorri Thorbrandsson, her business partner, Bjarni Grimolfsson and Thorhall Gamlason, and Leif’s brother and sister Thorvald and Freydis, with her husband Thorvard. After braving the rough seas for a few days, they passed Helluland, the land of flat stones and Markland, the land of forests. Finally, they found a land westwards where they built huts and settled. The winters were harsh and food was in short supply but as the explorers prayed to their Christian God, weather soon improved. The next task was to find the land where grape wines grew in abundance, the Vinland.  Thorhall wanted to sail northwards while Thorfinn wanted to go south. The northern winds took a toll on Thorhall’s expedition and killed him and his crew. Thorfinn on the other hand was astute and he sailed down the east coast and established a camp at a seaside lake. This land was rich with grapes, wheat and fresh water- a Garden of Eden, so to say.  We do not know if he found Vinland or not, but the stories say that he did.  

One might discredit this story, as just a ‘’story’’. There is no Vinland, some may say. It is said that this story is taken from the real expeditions of Norsemen, somewhere during 900 AD. The saga has been preserved through the oral tradition of storytelling, though it has been mixed with a lot of myths and probably concocted Christian tales.

In the libraries of Scandinavia, there lies a very important piece of document. It is an old map, dated 1669 and shows

Skalholt map

Skalholt map

various positions along North Atlantic regions where Nordic explorers and traders had landed. The map itself is a copy of an original, known as the Skalholt map. Drawn in 1570 by a school teacher named Sigurd Stefansson, this map mixes real, fictional and rumoured geography. It also shows the positions of Iceland, Britain, Ireland and all the other places that we assume the cartographers knew at that time. But strange as it may seem, the map also depicts an island, Helleland and Markland on the west and jutting out from the south west, a peninsula – marked simply as Promonterium Vinlandiae, the peninsula of Vinland.

The Americans and Canadians who believed in the Icelandic sagas have always been trying their luck to find the place where the Vikings originally landed. But, it was to be a Norwegian scholar who was to find the truth in the myths of his forefathers. Helge Ingstad, a Viking historian was sure after his studies of Skalholt Map that Vinland was located in the island province of Newfoundland in Canada. Armed with his knowledge, he travelled wide and far, interviewing thousands of people to determine the location of Vinland. One day in 1960, he travelled with his daughter Benedicte to the northernmost tip of Newfoundland, to a small settlement called L’Anse Aux Meadows. There, a local fisherman named George Decker told Ingstad about some old ruins that had been in that place since he could recall. This was most probably the site where Vikings had originally settled after their Atlantic adventure – some 500 years before Christopher Columbus. Ingstad gathered a group of men excavation on that site. History unfolded before the eyes of that lonesome historian as he kept on studying those ruins. He was right. It was indeed an ancient Nordic settlement.

National Geographic finally made a public announcement about the veracity of this discovery in its November, 1964 issue. Cooking pots, bathhouses, iron nails, cattle enclosures, spindles etc. have been excavated from the site. Specialists working at University of Toronto’s main subatomic particle accelerator brought the latest technologies to bear on the various samples – mainly charcoal from the furnace found among the ruins. They have now come into agreement that in fact L’Anse aux Meadows is an original Viking settlement and was built between 975 and 1020 AD.

America has always attached a big part of its identity with the maritime courage and adventure of Christopher Columbus. Italians have felt proud of their heritage. So, naturally, there was a huge resistance when stories about Nordic expeditions started to trickle in the newspapers. “Twenty million Americans will resent this great insult”, said the then President of Italian American Historical Society. Sadly, history doesn’t give two cents for the pride of a community. It was not an Italian imperialist who first landed on the shores of America. It was a Viking, a Christian who ventured out in the dark ocean and tasted the fruits of the new world.


Author: Sourabh Tiwary

I am an atheist, freethinker and humanist, though some of my friends just call me a ”geek”. I like to read a lot and write on eclectic topics ranging from science to education. I like to travel and communicate with new people. I hope that with education and scientific progress, world will certainly become a better place to live. You can find me on Google+