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Vinland Sagas

Viking Colonization of North America according to the Vinland Sagas

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Gunnhild Gormsdóttir Incites Her Sons in Erik the Red's Saga

Gunnhild Gormsdóttir Incites Her Sons in Erik Bloodaxe's Saga

Woodcut in Snorre Sturlassons Heimskringla (1235) Image uploaded by Christian Krogh

The Vinland Sagas are four medieval Viking manuscripts that report (among other things) the stories of the Norse colonization of Iceland, Greenland and North America. These stories speak of Thorvald Arvaldson, credited with the Norse discovery of Iceland; Thorvald's son Eirik the Red for Greenland, and Eirik's son Leif (the Lucky) Eiriksson for Baffin Island and North America.

But Are the Sagas Accurate?

Like any historical document, even those known to be authentic, the sagas are not necessarily factual. Some of them were written hundreds of years after the events; some of the stories were woven together into legends; some of the stories were written for political uses of the day or to highlight heroic events and downplay (or omit) not-so-heroic events.

For example, the sagas describe the end of the colony on Greenland as having been the result of European piracy and ongoing battles between the Vikings and the Inuit occupants, called by the Vikings Skraelings. Archaeological evidence indicates that the Greenlanders also faced starvation and deteriorating climate, which is not reported in the sagas.

For a long time, scholars dismissed the sagas as literary fabrications. But others such as Gisli Sigurdsson, have revisited the manuscripts to find a historical core that can be tied to Viking explorations of the 10th and 11th centuries. The written-down version of the stories are the result of centuries of oral traditions, during which the story may have been conflated with other heroic legends. But, there is, after all, accumulated archaeological evidence for Norse occupations in Greenland, Iceland, and the North American continent.

Vinland Saga Discrepancies

There are also discrepancies between the various manuscripts. Two major documents—the Greenlanders' Saga and Eirik the Red's Saga—give differing roles to Leif and the merchant Thorfinn Karlsefni. In the Greenlander's Saga, lands southwest of Greenland are said to have been discovered accidentally by Bjarni Herjolfsson. Leif Eriksson was the chieftain of the Norse on Greenland, and Leif is given credit for exploring the lands of Helluland (probably Baffin Island), Markland ("Treeland", likely the heavily wooded Labrador coast) and Vinland (probably what is southeasternern Canada); Thorfinn has a minor role.

In Eirik the Red's Saga, Leif's role is downplayed. He is dismissed as the accidental discoverer of Vinland; and the explorer/leadership role is given to Thorfinn. Eirik the Red's Saga was written in the 13th century when one of Thorfinn's descendants was being canonized; it may be, say some historians, propaganda by this man's supporters to inflate his ancestor's role in the momentous discoveries. Historians have a fine time decoding such documents.

Viking Sagas about Vinland

Arnold, Martin. 2006. Atlantic Explorations and Settlements, pp. 192-214 in The Vikings, Culture and Conquest. Hambledon Continuum, London.

Wallace, Birgitta L. 2003. L’Anse aux Meadows and Vinland: An Abandoned Experiment. Pp. 207-238 in Contact, Continuity, and Collapse: The Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic, edited by James H. Barrett. Brepols Publishers: Trunhout, Belgium.

Sources and Further information

The woodcut on this page is not from the Vinland sagas, but from another Viking saga, Erik Bloodaxe's Saga. It shows Erik Bloodaxe's widow Gunnhild Gormsdóttir inciting her sons to take possession of Norway; and it was published in Snorre Sturlassons's Heimskringla in 1235.

Arnold, Martin. 2006. Atlantic Explorations and Settlements, pp. 192-214 in The Vikings, Culture and Conquest. Hambledon Continuum, London.

Wallace, Birgitta L. 2003. L’Anse aux Meadows and Vinland: An Abandoned Experiment. Pp. 207-238 in Contact, Continuity, and Collapse: The Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic, edited by James H. Barrett. Brepols Publishers: Trunhout, Belgium.

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