The Saga of Eirik the Red

Two short sagas deal with the legendary discovery of America by Vikings – the Saga of the Greenlanders (Grœnlendinga saga) and the Saga of Eirik the Red (Eiríks saga rauða). Eirik’s saga is slightly longer (13 chapters versus 8) and is thought to be the later of the two, though both only reached their final form during the 13th century which saw the great flowering of anonymous Icelandic prose narratives we call the sagas.

The fine detail of who landed where and what they called it is admirably covered in this new and very thorough Penguin edition which contains maps and detailed notes as well as appendices on subjects like Norse boat design, the nature of outlawry and so on.

The overall message of the two sagas to the non-scholar is a) the astonishing adventurousness of the Old Norse/Viking peoples, their willingness to explore further and further afield from their Scandinavian base until their destinations stretched from the  Black Sea in the east to American in the west; b) but that these specific expeditions marked the limit of that urge: Vinland (the name they gave to the fertile land they sighted and settled for a year or two, probably Newfoundland, maybe further south along the northeast coast of America) was settled for a short while, but then abandoned, too far beyond the usual lines of communication, the natives too dangerous and threatening.

Detailed synopsis

1 – Oleif the White raids round Ireland and conquers Dublin. He marries Aud the Deep-Minded, daughter of Ketil Flat-Nose (both of whom feature at the start of the Laxærdal Saga). Their son is Thorstein. When Oleif is killed in battle Aud and Thorstein decamp to the Hebrides. Thorstein rises to become a king of Cithness etc but is then killed by the Scots. Aud makes her getaway to the Orkneys. She marries off her daughter royally before proceeding to Iceland and claiming all the land around Hvamm. One of her crew is Vifil, high born but made a slave in Britain. Aud frees him and gives him land.
2 – Introducing Thorvald who has a son Eirik the Red. They’re involved in killings in Norway and so flee to Iceland. Thorvald dies. Eirik marries and builds a farm at Eiriksstadir (whose ruins can still be seen today). But feuds: his slaves cause a landslide which kills some servant; Filth-Eyjolf kills the slaves; Eirik kills Filth-Eyjolf and more besides. He flees to an offshore island. He is outlawed at the Thorsnes Assembly. He tells his followers he intends to find th eland spotted by Gunnbjorn when blown off course. He sails west to Greenland (985). He names places, staying in Eiriksey Island. The next spring travels round to Eiriksfjord where he settles. All told three years of exploring and building camps. Eirik returns to Iceland and publicises the new place he has christened Greenland.
3 – Vifil (from chapter 1) had two sons. One of them was Thorbjorn who marries and has a daughter, Gudrid. She is fostered by Orm. Einar is a succesful merchant son of a freed slave. He visits Orm with mechandise and sees Gudrid and is smitten. He asks Orm to ask Thorbjorn for Gudrid’s hand. Thorbjorn is predictably cross at receiving a humiliating proposal from a slave’s son. At that year’s autumn feast he surprises his friends by announcing he will sail to the land his friend Eirik told him about. He sells his goods and farm and sets off in a ship with thirty crew. they are storm-beaten and then illness strikes. Unlucky Orm and his wife die. Finally they arrive at the southern tip of Greenland, named Herjolfsnes, and a farmer named Thorkel gives them shelter for the winter.
4 – Thorbjorg the Seeress An unusually long and detailed account of the clothes and rituals practiced by Thorbjorg the Seeress who the locals ask Thorkel to host and ask the future. Afte ra day of preparation she prophecies for everyone, most notably for Gudrid, saying she will marry well, return to Iceland and have many noble descendants (and we know this is written with the hindsight that at least three Icelandic bishops are descended from her). In the spring Thorbjorn sails with his daughter round the coast to Brattahlid where he is greeted by Eirik and given land.
5 – Leif Eiriksson Eirik has two sons including Leif (saga of Greenlanders tells us he has four sons and the psychopath daughter, Freydis). (999) Leif sails to Norway where he serves a while with King Olaf Tryggvasson. He is driven off course by winds and makes land on the Hebrides. He falls in love with a woman, Thorgunna, whom he makes pregnant. Leif is reluctant to abduct her against the wishes of her powerful kin, and so abandons her. Later she follows him to Greenland with her son Thorgils. But for now Leif sails to Norway and becomes a retainer of King Olaf Trygvasson (995-1000). Olaf asks Leif to convert Greenland to Christianity which he’s reluctant to do but sets sail. (1000) Leif lands somewhere rich with wheat and vines. Then encounters a ship wrecked on skerries and takes off all the passengers, then makes land on Greenland, and is known thereafter as Leif the Lucky. He goes to his home farm of Brattahlid and is welcomed by his father Eirik. He preaches the gospel and the new way. His father is reluctant but his mother Thjodhild enthusiastically converts and builds a church (which archaeologists have found and reconstructed). People say they should go explore the land Leif had brielfy seen. Eirik’s other son Thorstein becomes th eleader. He urges Eirik to come with and, although riding down to the ship Eirik has a fall, he goes nonetheless (opposite of Greenland Saga). (1001) But it is an ill-fated expedition, they are washed around by the waves, sight Iceland, see Irish birds, everything except Vinland and end up washed back ashore on Greenland.
6 – The plague This Thorstein whose expedition failed now marries Gudrid. Confusingly, they go to stay with another man named Thorstein and his wife Sigrid and disease strikes. The farmer’s wife Sigrid dies, but not before she’s had a vision of the dead lined up outside. And Thorstein Eiriksson dies. Then sits up and asks to speak to his wife, and delivers a Christian homily, saying Greenlanders must stop pagan burial practices and bury bodies in a churchyard – you can hear the true sermony voice of medieval Christianity. All the bodies are buried in the church in Eiriksfjord. Then Gudrid’s father Thorbjorn dies too, leaving her all his money.
7 – Thorfin Karlsefni comes from good family ultimately going back to Aud. With two ships they sail from Iceland to Greenland making land at Brattahlid, and Eirik generously offers to put them up. After a spell Karlsefni asks for Gudrid’s hand in marriage. The Yule feast becomes a wedding feast.
8 – (1005) Snorri and Karlsefni, Bjarni and Thorhall, Thorvald and Thorhall set sail for Vinland in three ships with 140 men. A detailed description of the  lands they see and name until they moor in a fjord (Straumsfjord) for the winter. But, fascinatingly, they nearly all starve, unprepared and unable to live off the land. Thorhall goes mad and is found after three days talking to himself. They find a beached whale and cook it and are all sick and throw themselves on God’s mercy and the weather improves and in the pring there is game, fish and birds eggs.
9 – They disagree how to proceed. Thorhall takes nine men and sails north, after reciting some pagan poems. They are washed off-course as far as Ireland where they are caught and enslaved.
10 – The rest head south to a tidal pool which is teeming with fish, the land with game and self-seeded wheat. It is paradise. After a while nine coracles approach, the short threatening natives get out and observe them, then go their way.
11 – A fleet of natives returns and the Icelanders trade with them until a bull bellowing scares them off. They return a few weeks later in warlike mood and there is a fight. Karlsefni and his men turn and run but Freydis, an illegitimate daughter of Eirik, picks up the sword of one of the dead and turns on the natives and, extracting a breast from her shift, beats it with the flat of the sword. This frightens the natives so much that they turn and flee (!) but Karlsefni and Snorri realise the natives make the land uninhabitable. They pack up and sail back north, past a headland packed with deer where the main party camp and Karlsefni sails north and wet, vainly searching for Thorhall.
12 – A one-legged creature emerges from the woods and fires an arrow which hits Thorvald and kills him. They pursue him north catching sight of the Land of the One-Legged (! presumably a longstanding fantasy land). They spend their third winter in Straumsfjord, and Karlsefni’s son Snorri is born. They sail back north past Markland where they capture some natives and convert them to Christianity, before arriving back in Greenland with Eirik.
13 – The sea of worms Bjarni Grimolfsson and his crew are borne past the Greenland Straits and into the Sea of Worms. Worms infest the ship’s timbers and everyone behaves as if that’s it for the ship. They draw lots to see who will survive in the ship’s boat. Bjarni is goaded by a young sailor until he gives up his place for him. ‘People say that Bjrani died there in the Sea of Worms, aboard the ship.’
14 – The next summer Karsefni sails for Iceland with his wife Gudrid. The last sentences in the saga describe how three of Karlsefni and Gudrid’s great grandchildren are notable Icelandic bishops. Do these sagas exist solely because the Christian bishops, or their descendants, commissioned these stories about their ancestors to be written down?

A one-legged creature? A sea of worms? These sound like later, medieval accretions to the basic story.

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Other sagas

The Saga of the Greenlanders

Two short sagas deal with the legendary discovery of America by Vikings – the Saga of the Greenlanders (Grœnlendinga saga) and the Saga of Eirik the Red (Eiríks saga rauða).

To be honest, neither of them seem to me to have much literary merit and to be mainly of historical interest (which is considerable). The revelation for me is that there wasn’t one big voyage but quite a few trips stretched over a number of years and by a cast of people each discovering different parts and having different adventures. Thus there isn’t the continuity of characterisation you get in even the fairly short Þattrs.

Scholars take this patchiness to prove them closer to the original oral tradition, with less literary ‘shaping’ of the narrative than we see in most other sagas. That said, the anecdotes in Grœnlendinga saga are threaded together by being associated with successive children of Eirik the Red; and an over-pattern of sorts emerges in the contrast between Freydis the psychopath and Gudrun the saint, though only really in the last chapter.

Synopsis

1 – A man named Bjarni Herjolfsson arrives one summer in Iceland to find his father has emigrated to Greenland along with Eirik the Red, so he sets off to follow him. Three days from Iceland they lose their way. Over the weeks he and his crew spot three distinct lands but, since none of them tally with the description of Greenland he doesn’t go ashore. Eventually the wind does blow them back to Greenland where they land and find his father’s farm, settling there. People hear of his travels and criticise him for lack of curiosity in not landing anywhere.
2 – Leif the son of the outlaw Eirik the Red, is interested in Bjarni’s discoveries, buys a ship from him, hires a crew and tries to get Eirik to lead the expedition but Eirik says he is too old. They discover the same lands as Bjarni but in reverse order and name them: Helluland (meaning Stone-slab land), Markland (meaning Wood land) and a much more fertile place they decide to stay for the winter: cattle could graze here all year round, the sun doesn’t disappear in winter, the salmon are huge etc. They build a base and explore.
3 – Leif’s foster-father Tyrkir goes a bit further and finds grapes and grapevines. (Much ink has been spilt speculating whether these really were grapes (unlikely) or a word the Norse applied to some other kind of fruit (gooseberries?). Leif names the place Vinland meaning Wineland and the name was widely enough known to be recorded by the 11th century historian Adam of Bremen.) In the spring Leif sails back to Greenland laden with timber and grapes (?). As he rounds the Greenland coast he comes across a shipwrecked boat and saves the entire crew and stock, from which he is nicknamed Leif the Lucky. (Ironically the captain and most of the rescued crew then die of illness.)
4 – Thorvald Eiriksson, Leif’s brother, thinks that Vinland was not explored enough. He takes Leif’s ship, sails across the sea, finds Leif’s camp and stays the winter surviving on fish. In the spring the explore further west, finding one grain cover but nothing else human. Next summer Thorvald explores to the east and north, discovering some boats made of skin and people hiding under them, who they proceed to murder (!) The natives, called Skraelings by the Norsemen, return and attack en masse. The Vikings sail off in a defended boat but Thorvald is fatally wounded, dies and is buried in Vinland. His crew return to Greenland.
5 – Thorstein Eriksson goes to Vinland to recover the body of his brother, in the same well-travelled ship, taking his wife Gudrid. The expedition never reaches Vinland, after sailing all summer ends up back at the coast of Greenland, where Thorstein falls ill and dies. Supernatural events occur: The wife of their host Thorstein the Black dies but sits up and talks. Then dead Thorstein speaks out of his dead body and tells the fortune of his wife Gudrid, predicting a long and prosperous life for her back in Iceland, and a pilgrimage to Rome.
6 – A ship arrives in Greenland from Norway commanded by Thorfinn Karlsefni, a rich man. He falls in love with Gudrid and they marry (her third marriage) and he’s encouraged to lead an expedition to Vinland. The expedition arrives in Leif’s and Thorvald’s old camp and stays there for the winter. Next summer a group of natives or Skraelings come visiting, carrying skins for trade. Karlsefni forbids his men to trade weapons, instead selling them dairy products. —Gudrid gives birth to a boy, Snorri, the first European born in North America.— The second winter the Skraelings come again to trade but this time one of Karlsefni’s men kills a Skraeling as he reaches for Norse weapons. Supernatural events occur: As she waited, Gudrid had seen a strange woman approach with enormous eyes who said she was Gudrid; as the Skraeling was killed the spirit woman disappeared!— The Skraelings return to attack and the Norsemen manage to fight them off. Karlsefni stays the rest of the winter and returns to Greenland in the spring.
7 – Two brothers arrive from Iceland, Helgi and Finnbogi. Freydis Eiriksdottir, the daughter of Eirik, suggests they all travel to Vinland and share the profits fifty-fifty. They agree to have only 30 men on each ship but Freydis double crosses her partners immediately by taking along 5 extra men. The brothers arrive slightly earlier in Vinland and move into Leif’s house but when she arrives, Freydis orders them to leave. Games which are mean to unify the little colony just lead to further disputes. One morning Freydis wakes Finnbogi to talk to him. Returning to her bed she tells her husband, Thorvard, the brothers abused and beat her and says she’ll divorce him unless he avenges her. Thorvard leads his men in tying up all the men from the other camp while they are still sleeping. Freydis has each man killed on the spot until only the five women remain who her crew are reluctant to kill. She asks for an axe and kills them all. She is greatest psychopath in all the sagas I’ve read. Freydis threatens her crew with death if anyone tells these deeds. They load the ships with goods and sail back to Greenland, telling everyone the brothers chose to stay in Vinland.
8 – Eventually Leif learns the truth and is horrified but doesn’t take it upon himself to punish her crimes. Meanwhile the saga returns to Gudrid and Karlsefni who make land in Norway, trade, then return to settle in north Iceland. When Karlsefni dies their son Snorri takes over running the farm while Gudrid goes on pilgrimage to Rome and returns to become a nun and anchoress. Their descendants include notable bishops of Iceland.

The murderess balances the holy woman – but both are treated with that same flat affect so characteristic of the sagas, so heartless and yet compelling. There is no false sentiment. There is no sentiment at all.

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Norse sailors spotting land

Norse sailors spotting land

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