Re-Post: The Vinland Voyages in Context

[Note: This article originally appeared at The Brussels Journal under the title “The Vinland Voyages, the Market, and Morality.”]

Scholarship places the composition of the two Vinland Sagas in the Twelfth Century, in the case of The Greenlanders’ Saga, and in the Fourteenth Century in the case of Eirik’s Saga. But like most of the saga-literature the two narratives reflect a non-mythic oral tradition, linked with the settlement and early chronology of Iceland and Greenland, the general (if not the minutely detailed) trustworthiness of which much research both literary and archeological over the last century has attested. Quite apart from scholarly and technical arguments, even the ordinary reader must take the wealth of circumstantial detail and the laconic matter-of-factness of the storytelling as signs of an essential veracity. The two Vinland Sagas reflect the Nordic people at a particular epoch: The transformational moment, namely, at the end of the Tenth Century, when the old warrior-ethos began yielding to the new Gospel ethos and when success in the market began replacing notches on a sword haft as the paramount sign of masculine status. Both The Greenlanders’ Saga and Eirik’s Saga represent this change in the generational differences that distinguish Eirik the Red on the one hand from his male children, especially his son Leif, on the other.

Vinland Map Hi-Res

I. Eirik the Red brashly and loudly elbowed his way into the Icelandic literary consciousness. A testy and abrasive man, Eirik came to Iceland with his father Thorvald from Jaedaren, in Norway. The relocation became necessary “because of some killings,” as both The Greenlanders’ Saga and Eirik’s Saga put it. Thorvald settled at a place called Drangar in Hornstrands, on the northern shore of the northwest peninsula of Iceland. When Thorvald died, Eirik took for his wife Thjodhild, bringing her to live at the place that he designated by the personal possessive, “Eirik’s Stead,” in Vatnhorn. (There would be several “Eirik’s Steads” over the years.) Thjodhild bore Eirik a son, whom the parents called Leif. Eirik’s ancestral disposition continued to assert itself, however: He picked fights with two neighbors, Eyjolf Saur and Hrafn the Dueler, killing them both. The local Thing or assembly met to outlaw Eirik, forcing him to relocate again, this time to Breidafjord, where he settled anew on Oxen Island. Peace remained elusive for Eirik: In the words of Eirik’s Saga, the master of the farmstead “lent his bench-boards to Thorgest of Breidabolstead”; when Thorgest failed to return Eirik’s equipment, Eirik raised a posse against him. Soon the whole district had split itself into warring camps.

Feuds of this kind afflicted Icelandic society perpetually, entailing much bloodshed and waste. The institution of the Thing functioned less as a standing parliament than as an ad hoc committee responding spontaneously to a crisis – typically to a feud – that, in the opinion of the people, had exceeded the limit of toleration. The members of the assembly would act to banish one or both parties to the conflict. Being declared outlaw meant that the proscribed person had either to leave the territory or endure the risk of being a marked man, whose death no one would raise his hand to stop and which no one would be permitted to avenge. The Thorsness assembly, meeting to address the argument over the bench-boards, indeed branded Eirik an outlaw, to which condemnation Eirik responded by making ready his ship. In the words of The Greenlanders’ Saga, “He was going in search for the land that Gunnbjorn… had sighted when he was driven westwards off course and discovered the Gunnbjarnar skerries.” In need of elbowroom, Eirik, in company with his followers, found it at last in Greenland, habitable in those days before the Little Ice Age, and whose promising name Eirik coined.

Erik the Red

Eirik resembles many another Icelandic goði or chieftain (the word actually means “priest”). Consider the case of Hrafnkel Hallfreðrsson, the protagonist of Hrafnkels Saga Freysgoði. Like Eirik, but two hundred years before him, Hrafnkel came from Norway with his father to stake a claim on hitherto untenanted acreage in Iceland. He lived with his father until his late teens, but he then struck out on his own. He established his household, Adalbol, in a remote valley. Hrafnkel parceled out his claim to other settlers who were willing to swear fealty to him; or rather, accepting Hrafnkel’s offer implied the oath, just as it implied some future reciprocation for the gift. The saga describes Hrafnkel as physically robust, strong willed, and quick to follow up his anger with a blow. Again he is much like Eirik. Hrafnkel in his anger killed many men, but at the same time he prospered; the saga leaves no doubt that he was an excellent estate manager. Hrafnkel made sure that his tenants prospered with him, thereby winning their increased and quite adamant loyalty. The case of Hrafnkel exemplifies the degree-zero of the feudal principle, and the type of the goði.

Nevertheless, the survivors of Hrafnkel’s hot-tempered outbursts grew more numerous. In their mass they became a living force, which, under the leadership of the law-expert Sam, at last burst its long simmering wrath against the offender. A cycle of violence erupted that, after consuming many innocent lives, finally saw Sam’s faction humiliatingly defeated with Hrafnkel sitting on top once again. The last to die, a victim of Hrafnkel’s counter-violence, was a brother of Sam who had been away from Iceland during the entire episode – a merchant, not incidentally, who had returned rich from a sojourn in Constantinople bringing with him a shipload of goods for sale. The anonymous saga-author presents this final death as an extravagance that reveals the excessiveness of feud. During the course of the action, when Hrafnkel experiences the lowest ebb of his fortune, he forswears his cult-god Frey, saying that worship of the Aesir has come to seem to him latterly like so much useless gesticulation. The exhaustion of feud as an organizing principle coincides with the exhaustion of the old religion. While Irish and English missionaries played a role in the Christianization of the North, so did those of Viking stock who went to serve for a time in the Byzantine Caesar’s “Varangian” guard. Sam’s brother was such a man.

The market theme, while impinging only obliquely on the story of Hrafnkel’s Saga, informs the two Vinland Sagas directly; the Vinland Sagas, treating as they do events at the end of the Tenth Century and the beginning of the Eleventh, also make a theme of the Viking religious conversion. The advent of the market and the advent of the new religion coincide. Thus Eirik, even more than Hrafnkel, has grown skeptical of the old gods, just as he has grown tired of the violence that his character had hitherto called forth wherever he exercised his irascible presence. Greenland becomes the asylum where, laying claim to new land like Hrafnkel, Eirik can exercise his leadership without bumping elbows with neighbor-competitors. Eirik’s first trip to Greenland has something of the flavor of a scientific survey; his Greenland proposition to his prospective followers has something of the flavor of a mercantile exchange. By a coincidence, the Norse word for profit, góði, differs from the word for a chieftain, or goði, only in the quality of its vowel, and then not by much. Eirik’s mellowing shift in character forecasts the shift in Norse arctic society from warrior-chief values to merchant- or profit-values.

Eiriksfjord with Ruins

The Greenlanders’ Saga attests with geographic punctiliousness how Eirik “found the country he was seeking and made land near the glacier he named Mid Glacier.” Later: “He sailed down the south coast to find out if the country were habitable.” Eirik’s Saga says that Eirik “gave names to many landmarks there.” Altogether Eirik spent three winters and three summers in Greenland reconnoitering the place before crossing back to Iceland. Cleverly, like a real estate agent, “He named the country he had discovered Greenland, for he said that people would be much more tempted to go there if it had an attractive name.”

The scale of Eirik’s enterprise is impressive. According to The Greenlanders’ Saga: “In the summer in which Eirik the Red set off to colonize Greenland, twenty-five ships sailed from Breidafjord and Borgarfjord, but only fourteen reached there; some were driven back, and some were lost at sea.” Some of Eirik’s followers did not take up the invitation at once, but later saw in Greenland welcome relief from low fortune. One of these was Thorbjorn Vifilsson, who, according to Eirik’s Saga, counted as “a man of considerable stature… a chieftain [who] ran a large farm.” Eirik’s Saga gives a thumbnail sketch of Thorbjorn – the father of Gudrid, who would marry in succession Eirik’s son Thorstein and Thorfinn Karlsefni, two resourceful explorer-merchants – that emphasizes Thorbjorn’s wisdom and generosity. Thorbjorn fulfilled his feudal obligations by serving feasts to his neighbors and endowing them with gifts; neither saga links him to violence. When Thorbjorn fell on hard times, he told his friends: “I would now rather abandon my farm than forfeit my dignity, rather leave the country than disgrace my kinsmen. I have decided to take up the offer that my friend Eirik the Red made to me when we took leave of one another in Breidafjord; I intend to go to Greenland this summer, if I can have my way.”

Thorbjorn auctioned his farmstead and used the proceeds to purchase a ship. Eirik’s Saga says that, “thirty people decided to go with him to Greenland.” The Greenlanders’ Saga reminds its readers that these events happened “fifteen years before Christianity was adopted by law in Iceland.” Thorbjorn, however, had already converted to the new faith, in whose morality he and his wife brought up their daughter Gudrid.


II. The Greenlanders’ Saga and Eirik’s Saga depict Eirik the Red as a fighter, a most irascible man, but not as a raider; he is an Icelander, not a Viking in the earlier, warlike meaning of the term. Eirik’s Saga even links Eirik’s diligence and industry to his troubles. Eirik incurred the wrath of Eyjolf Saur when his slaves, as the saga says, “Started a landslide that destroyed the farm of a man called Valthjof,” in retaliation for which, “Eyjolf Saur, one of Valthjof’s kinsmen, killed the slaves.” For this, “Eirik killed Eyjolf Saur.” The slaves were presumably working to improve Eirik’s farmland, perhaps by constructing terraces on a hillside. Even the feud with Thorgest of Breidabolstead began as a clear-cut property dispute, in which the valid claim seems to have belonged to Eirik. When Eirik, who had made a loan of his boating tackle to Thorgest, “asked for his bench-boards back… they were not returned; so Eirik went to Breidabolstead and seized them.” Both The Greenlanders’ Saga and Eirik’s Saga are replete with the imagery of wealth and wealth-creation. In Eirik’s Saga, for example, readers learn how, when Gudrid was living at Arnarstapi with her foster father Orm, a man named Einar sued for her hand in marriage. Einar, a “courteous man with a taste for the ornate… was a successful sea-going trader,” who “used to spend his winters alternately in Iceland and Norway.” One day Einar came to Arnastapi. “He opened his bales and showed them to Orm and his household. He invited Orm to have anything from them he wished.”

The opening of the bales is a positively ostentatious gesture, a display of Einar’s prosperity, and therefore of his eligibility. The bales themselves signify the order implicit in commerce; they are the portable version of the well-kept shop, whose owner knows the place of every item and whose arrangement is not only inviting, but also helpful, to the customer. Einar’s generosity to Orm itself has business overtones. Gift giving is a precursor institution of the actual market. Gift giving, as anthropologist Marcel Mauss points out in his Essai sur le don [The Gift] (1924), creates a relation of delayed reciprocity between the donor and the recipient. Until the gift is answered somehow, the donor in a manner owns the recipient. The recipient must return the donor-gesture, but never immediately: He may only return the gesture after a decent, but unspecified, interval of time. Should the recipient give back more than he received, then the roles shift. The former recipient now, in a manner, owns the former donor. The rules of gift-giving reciprocity may vary with the situation. Sometimes the donor leaves the decision how to reciprocate entirely to the recipient; but sometimes the donor offers a hint, thereby bringing the occasion closer to an actual market-type transaction.


Einar lets on plainly that he would like Orm to speak to Gudrid on his behalf, making known to her the marriage proposal. Orm fulfills the bargain, but sadly for Einar, Gudrid’s preference lies elsewhere and she rejects his suit. The marriage proposal belongs, as a species, to the generic domain of exchange and contracts. But it is closer to the familiar modern free-market transaction than to archaic gift giving. Gudrid’s refusal reminds us that modern exchange, in contrast to gift giving, requires the free participation of the negotiators and the right to say “no.”

Gudrid sailed with Orm and his wife Halldis to Greenland, as part of the expedition organized by Thorbjorn. Orm and Halldis took ill during the voyage and died, along with many others of the crew. Gudrid survived, as did Thorbjorn, and when they landed at Herjolfsness, a settler named Thorkel invited the beleaguered voyagers to stay the winter with him. Eirik’s Saga, which might legitimately be called Gudrid’s Saga, narrates another complicated exchange that took place during the winter spent with Thorkel. This exchange involves a non-tangible, but culturally essential commodity, one much in demand in the bleak homesteads during the Greenland winter. In Iceland and Greenland, the itinerant seeress offered a much-prized diversion from the misery of the cold months. The seeress would sing songs, tell fortunes, and perform household rituals for a price. Such woman presented herself at Thorkel’s farm in full shamanistic regalia, with “a blue mantle fastened with straps and adorned with stones all the way down to the hem,” and carrying “a staff with a brass-bound knob studded with stones” along with other specialized accoutrements. Thorkel feeds her well, with “a main dish of hearts from the various kinds of animals that were available there.” In other words: Expensive protein in a time of gripping dearth.

Seeress 01

As Eirik’s Saga tells it, the witch requiring assistance to perform her rituals and Gudrid although Christian by faith nevertheless knowing the old songs, Thorkel prevails on her to take the role. Gudrid hesitates but then assents. Gudrid at first sees an insurmountable contradiction between her Christian belief and the heathenish character of the ritual. Why then does she change her mind? The answer must be that the morality of exchange transcends the religious difference, at least in some circumstances; or that it is congruent with the Christian notion of moral reciprocity as summed up in the Golden Rule. The winter is hard, disease has reduced the community, and people are demoralized; the witch-prophecies, understood more or less as entertainment, promise relief to all. The apparent contradiction vanishes. For Gudrid to participate in the exchange means for her to reciprocate the generosity of the host and to aid in a performance that she can construe as charitable to all.

The witch is grateful. She takes care to prophesy fully for Gudrid. The witch says to Gudrid, “I shall reward you at once for all the help you have given us, for I can see your whole destiny with great clarity now.” She tells Gudrid, among other things, that, “You will start a great and eminent family line, and over your progeny there shall shine a bright light.”

In spring, Thorbjorn sailed for Brattahlid, his original destination and Eirik’s main settlement. According to Eirik’s Saga, “Eirik gave Thorbjorn land at Stokkaness; Thorbjorn built a good house there, and lived there from then on.” Land, of course, is itself wealth. Eirik has claimed much land under his title and has presumably been giving it away in parcels, as he does for Thorbjorn. What does Eirik get in return? Like the feudal king in his function as “ring giver,” but less formally, Eirik puts his beneficiaries under the delayed obligation of his gift giving; he buys their long-term loyalty by incurring their gratitude through deeds of extravagant generosity. Eirik is the classical “big man,” as known to anthropology. The big man, as Eric L. Gans argues in The End of Culture (1985), is “from the standpoint of the modern observer… the least free member of his community” because “he works the hardest for the least material satisfaction.”

Gans End of Culture

How to explain this non-materially motivated striving that increases its strength by giving away its chattels? The big man’s liberty, Gans writes, “lies in the realization of his desire for significance, which coincides with the production of an economic surplus at specified times.” The big man produces his own significance not passively from the mere fact of possessing “a simple quantity of wealth” but rather “from the act of ritual distribution [that he] perform[s] upon it.” The big man responds to what Gans names “producer’s desire.”

According to Gans, the appearance of the big man coincides with the breakdown of primitive, egalitarian society and the emergence, in embryo, of the monarch. The insight is essentially valid, yet in applying the analysis to Icelandic society, difficulties immediately arise. Kingship had already established itself in Norway, from which the largest number of settlers to Iceland came, many with the motive of escaping the involuntary obligations of being a mere crown subject. Independence from mainland kings indeed belongs thematically to the Icelandic consciousness. However that might be, Gans also sees the big man as replacing the purely totemic center of a naively religious society at the moment when the totemic center, under the image of divinity, begins to fail. (We recall Hrafnkel’s repudiation of Frey.) When Eirik’s Saga says that Eirik “was reluctant to abandon his old religion,” it implies that his intention to keep faith with that creed fell below the level of hearty conviction. Indeed, the final image that Eirik’s Saga gives of its namesake’s wealth has as its context a Christmas Eve feast at Brattahlid. Eirik acknowledges Christianity willy-nilly.


III. The mercantile ethos of the post-Eirik generation in Iceland and Greenland corresponds with the Christian ethos that takes hold with the same generation. Eirik’s exclusion from the Vinland expeditions belongs symbolically with his confessional ambiguity, not much of a heathen anymore but not ready for Christianity either. Eirik’s son Leif – known as Leif the Lucky – wants his father to sail with him. Eirik’s Saga provides a fascinating detail. It says that Eirik wanted to go with Leif but that on the day of departure, “he took a chest full of silver and gold and hid it.” The Greenlanders’ Saga adds that, as Eirik rode to board Leif’s ship, “he was thrown from his horse, breaking some ribs and injuring his shoulder.” The same saga quotes Eirik as saying, “I am not meant to discover more countries than this one [Greenland] we now live in.”

Now it happens that Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson, in a footnote to their Penguin translation of The Vinland Sagas, remark that “the burying of money was illegal in Christian Iceland,” but not apparently in heathen Iceland. One thinks immediately, in light of the scholarly note, of the Parable of the Talents in Matthew (25: 14-30) and Luke (19: 12-28). The burying of wealth is a hoarding gesture; something like a sacrificial gesture, in which the devotional party consecrates some item of conspicuous value to the idol of his god, thereby reducing the commonwealth. Hoarding has a positive valor in heathen religion that it conspicuously does not have in Christian ethics. Thus in the Gospel parable, the good master rewards the servant who multiplies the talents; he rebukes the servant who merely buried the talent in the ground. Thus the “producer’s desire” to build a surplus – to “grow wealth,” as people said in the 1990s – corresponds to a positive sanction. Not incidentally the anecdote about Eirik indicates that the beginnings of a money economy must have existed in Iceland and Greenland at the time.

Leif the Lucky, the son of Eirik the Red, organized the first expedition to those lands to the west that earlier wayward sailors had sighted but which they had not bothered to explore. Leif had spent a winter in Norway at the court of King Olaf Tryggvason, who famously or infamously, depending on the interpreter, imposed Christianity by fiat on his people. Eirik’s Saga tells how King Olaf charged Eirik with spreading the Gospel when he went abroad in spring. Olaf said, “You are to go [to Greenland] with a mission from me, to preach Christianity… Your luck will see you through.” Once in Greenland, Leif advocated the Good Word effectively, converting, among others, his father’s wife, Thjodhild. Eirik’s Saga remarks how Thjodhild “had a church built not too close to the farmstead” and how she “refused to live with Eirik after she was converted, and this annoyed him greatly.”

Leif’s expedition is the best remembered of the Viking forays to the New World five hundred years before Columbus. It used to belong to common knowledge. I learned about it, for example, in grade school in the Los Angeles public schools in the early 1960s. A casual poll of my freshmen at SUNY Oswego indicates, however, that Viking-North-American lore no longer figures in the education of the young. The Greenlanders’ Saga gives additional details of Leif’s voyage, which used a single ship, beyond what Eirik’s Saga divulges. According to The Greenlanders’ Saga, the voyage went smoothly. After an unspecified time at sea Leif sighted the last of the lands previously sighted by Bjarni Herjolfsson when winds blew him off course on his way to Greenland. Disdaining Bjarni’s caution, Leif “lowered a boat and landed.” In the description, “there was no grass to be seen, and the hinterland was covered with great glaciers.” This coast Leif named Helluland (“Slab Land”), whose inhospitable character urged him onward in search of better prospects.

Next Leif went ashore in Markland, or “Land of the Soil,” as he dubbed it, a place “flat and wooded, with white sandy beaches wherever they went.” Neither did they linger there, however, but pushing on again, came to a third place, Vinland. Landing, “they carried their hammocks ashore and put up booths.” The “booths” (sod houses) have since been excavated at L’anse aux meadows on the northern tip of Newfoundland.

 More Houses

Geographical exploration and economic exploitation go hand in hand. Leif sent out surveying parties. The Greenlanders’ Saga reports “no lack of salmon in the river or lake, bigger salmon than they had ever seen.” Leif’s men would have begun immediately to catch and preserve salmon. Leif’s Frisian companion, Tyrkir, who returns from a solitary reconnaissance quite drunk, discovered the namesake vines. (Grapes can ferment while still hanging in bunches.) Leif issued the order, “On alternate days we must gather grapes and cut vines, and then fell trees, to make a cargo for my ship.” On the return trip, nearing Greenland, Leif sighted a ship stranded on a reef. He spoke her skipper, Thorir, offering rescue. Here again, the ethics of exchange come into play. The Greenlanders’ Saga says that, “Leif rescued fifteen people in all” and “gained greatly in wealth and reputation.” Later, Leif went “to fetch the timber that Thorir left on the reef,” the right of salvage being implied by the rescue. As Leif settled down with his wealth, the torch of exploration passed to his younger brother Thorvald, who would make the second expedition to Vinland, using Leif’s ship.

It was during Thorvald’s expedition that the Norsemen first encountered the people whom they called Skraelings, or “wretches,” and fell afoul of them. The Skraelings attacked the Norsemen. Before the defenders drove off the attackers, a hostile arrow struck Thorvald in the armpit, fatally wounding him. Thorvald’s men buried their chief, as he had instructed them, with crosses for grave markers at his head and feet. Without their leader, Thorvald’s crewmen nevertheless productively “spent the winter [in Vinland] and gathered grapes and vines as cargo for the ship,” after which, in spring, they returned to Greenland. Thorstein Eiriksson wanted to return to Vinland to retrieve his brother’s body, but bad weather at sea meant that he had to winter in Greenland, where he took ill and died. Gudrid, now Thorstein’s widow, went to live with her brother-in-law Leif; a short while later Gudrid married Thorfinn Karlsefni, “a man of considerable wealth.”

Gudrid now becomes prominent in the Vinland project. She “kept urging Karlsefni to make the voyage,” in which she intended to participate. “In the end he decided to sail and gathered a company of sixty men and five women.” A detail of participation merits attention: Karlsefni “made an agreement with his crew that everyone would share equally in whatever profits the expedition might yield.” It was something like a joint-stock company. Karlsefni asked Leif whether he could have Leif’s houses, but Leif only agreed, “to lend them.” Karlsefni much less resembles a classical big man than does Eirik or even Leif, representing himself as equal, in theory, with his collaborators. Another provocative detail of Karlsefni’s expedition is that it “took livestock of all kinds, for [the company] intended to make a permanent settlement there if possible.”

Of the four recorded Vinland forays, the two sagas, but especially Eirik’s Saga, devote the most plentiful description to Karlsefni’s. Once again, but with even greater emphasis than in the earlier forays, the interest for the storytellers lies in the richness of Vinland’s resources and the commercial profit to be extracted from them by the industrious entrepreneurs. The Skraelings make another appearance.


IV. After Karlsefni’s Vinland expedition (1007 – 1011) there occurred one more recorded expedition to that destination, the foray undertaken by Eirik’s daughter Freydis in cooperation with two brothers, Helgi and Finnbogi. Both The Greenlanders’ Saga and Eirik’s Saga contrast the two expeditions – that of Karlsefni and that of Freydis – from a specifically moral perspective that communicates with the mercantile ethos that the two Vinland Sagas celebrate. The matter-of-fact report of the voyage signifies that the sailors had begun to address the sea-route as something confidently known: “They put to sea and arrived safe at Leif’s Houses and carried their hammocks ashore,” as The Greenlanders’ Saga says. The settlers – that word seems appropriate in context – freed their livestock to graze. When the saga remarks that, “the male beasts became very frisky,” the phrase implies the forthcoming multiplication of the herd, an augury of material gain. Like Thorvald, Karlsefni has a keen eye for exploitable resource. He “ordered timber to be felled and cut into lengths for a cargo for the ship, and it was left out on a rock to season.” The Skraelings show up, carrying bundles of “furs, sables, and pelts of all kinds,” but the unfamiliar bellowing of the bulls at first frightens them off.

Karlsefni’s interactions with the Skraelings signify his intuitive sense for cultural difference and his astuteness concerning the safety of his people. In The Greenlanders’ Saga, the two sides tensely arrange for barter even though, as the text attests, “neither side could understand the other side’s language.” An inability to exchange words hobbles in advance an attempt to exchange goods. In a gesture reminiscent of Einar’s opening of his bales, the indigenes “put down their packs and opened them up and offered their contents, preferably in exchange for weapons,” but wisely, “Karlsefni forbade his men to sell arms.” Why, one wonders, did the indigenes strive to make known their high interest in metal weapons? The answer must be that they were the same tribe that had encountered the previous Norse visit (when Thorvald died) and that they knew that foreign knives and swords were more durable and more deadly than their own flint blades.

Karlsefni now conceives to offer, in exchange for the skins and pelts, a renewable, edible delicacy ordinary for the Norsemen but exotic for the indigenes. As The Greenlanders’ Saga puts it, he “hit on the idea of telling the women to carry milk out to the Skraelings, and when the Skraelings saw the milk they wanted nothing else.” In the sequel, “the Skraelings carried their purchases away in their bellies,” while the Norse took the exchangeable goods in return. On the next occasion, The Norsemen offered the indigenes strips of brightly colored cloth, which the indigenes again prized.

One can imagine the standard liberal-multicultural critique of these transactions. The crafty Europeans are tricking and bilking the poor naïve indigenes. But there are two points against that critique. One is that if any party were under threat or coercion, it would be the Norsemen, who were immensely outnumbered by people whom they knew from first-hand reports to be warlike. The other is that the indigenes themselves initiate the exchanges, which are freely negotiated. Indeed when the indigenes return for a third visit, they come with violent intention, the aim being not trade, but plunder. An alert Norseman catches a Skraeling trying to steal weapons and kills him. Eirik’s Saga describes “a fierce battle,” with the Norsemen initially on the defensive before they drive off the assault. After two winters, Karlsefni and his followers “made ready for the voyage and took with them much valuable produce, vines and grapes and pelts.” During the two-year stay, Gudrid gave birth to Karlsefni’s son. They named him Snorri, the first European born on the North American continent.

Freydis, daughter of Eirik and sister of Leif and Thorvald, had accompanied Karlsefni’s expedition. Eirik-like, she played a role in fighting off the Skraelings when, pregnant, she ran towards the attackers beating her own breasts and shouting. She differs, however, from such as Leif, Thorvald, and Karlsefni, not to mention Gudrid; one might say that she more resembles the Skraelings than her countrymen and kinsmen, as she aims to plunder, as being easier in the undertaking than to produce. The Greenlanders’ Saga tells how Freydis’ expedition set out in two boats, one under her leadership and the other under the leadership of Helgi and Finnbogi; the agreement, which Freydis had no intention of honoring, was that the two crews would work for equal shares in the profit. The plan called for two parties to be equal in number, but Freydis secretly shipped additional men, so that her party outnumbered that of the brothers.

In Vinland, where Freydis makes use of Leif’s houses, the expedition follows the usual routine, fishing, hunting, felling timber and setting it out to cure. They amassed considerable goods and prepared the houses for winter. (The brothers built their own houses when Freydis refused to share Leif’s with them.) One night, Freydis told her husband Thorvard that Finnbogi has assaulted her; she taunted Thorvard with being too cowardly to avenge the insult. When Thorvard “could bear her taunts no longer,” as the saga-writer puts it, he “told his men to get up at once and take their weapons.” They broke in while Helgi, Finnbogi, and their followers slept, slaughtering the men straight away. When Freydis insisted that they slaughter the women too, the men balked. “Give me an axe,” Freydis said; “this was done, and she herself killed the women, all five of them.”

Later, as rumor of the killings circulated, Leif himself “seized three of Freydis’ men and tortured them into revealing everything that had happened.” Leif could not bring himself to punish his sister, but he disowned her and the community shunned her.

Gudrids Church

By contrast, at the time when Freydis returned, “Karlsefni had prepared his ship and sailed away”; he arrived in Norway, where he sold his cargo, after which he and Gudrid “were made much of by the noblest in the country.” The couple with their son settled in Iceland, where they built up a prosperous farm, Glaumby. After Karlsefni’s death, Gudrid made a pilgrimage to Rome; on her return, she found that her son Snorri had built a church on his land, whereupon she “became a nun and stayed there as an anchoress for the rest of her life.”

The morality of The Vinland Sagas is stark, but difficult to argue away and tantalizingly applicable to our own condition. There are two types of people: Producers and plunderers. Producers recognize their ethical kinship with other people whose cooperation they seek through offers of generous collaboration, as in Karlsefni’s joint-stock company; and these collaborations increase wealth generally while seeing to its just distribution. Plunderers recognize no such ties, disdain work, and see themselves as entitled to the productivity of others. Plunder is the wage of a zero-sum game. It leads to nothing but extinction.

Did the Vinland project end with Freydis’ “horrible deed,” as Leif characterizes it in The Greenlanders’ Saga? John Haywood, writing in The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings, avers that, “Voyages from treeless Greenland to collect timber in Markland [Labrador] continued as late as 1347.” Researchers Richard Nielsen and Scott F. Wolter have recently dated the notorious Kensington Rune Stone, found in Minnesota in 1898, to the Fourteenth Century; and they have therefore positively reconsidered its authenticity, long doubted. If this reconsideration were valid and the date true, then the Western voyages would not only have continued after A.D. 1012; but they must have penetrated up the St. Lawrence to the Great Lakes, not only Lake Ontario, but by way of portage at Niagara Falls, as far west as Lake Superior.

6 thoughts on “Re-Post: The Vinland Voyages in Context

  1. Pingback: Lightning Round – 2014/04/02 | Free Northerner

  2. Great article! The Icelanders are surely among our worthiest predecessors as Western (Faustian) pioneers. After readers have read the Vinland sagas, I hope they will go on to Njal’s Saga, one of the great works of world literature. The account of the Christianization of Iceland is impressive and uniquely Icelandic. The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki is also very interesting. (Which may also be enjoyed in Poul Anderson’s novel, Hrolf Kraki’s Saga.)

    Readers may also enjoy Jim Kalb’s essay on the Icelandic social order.

    Thanks for posting this.

    • Thank you, Bill. I spent the last week reading The Vinland Sagas with my Business in Literature students, all of them graduate accounting majors, who were especially impressed by Thorfinn Karselfni’s expedition.

  3. Recently, I read an article on Throne and Altar about diminished role of father in modern society. Bonald argued that transfering traditional roles of fathers (defender and provider) to modern state made fatherhood pointless.

    This post seems to describe first steps toward such arrangement – replacing warrior ethos with mercantile ethos. Trade needs safe environment to take place and modern state or *the system* (impersonal as opposed to former personal dependence) succeeded in providing such environment.

    Now, does the tendency to safety, to peaceful cooperation, to humanism and egalitarianism necessarily lead away from patriarchy? Is the warrior in necessary opposition to merchant? Perhaps it is so. Weaver noted that merchants were usually excluded from ruling because they were considered unreliable, always changing their mind according to whims of the market. Hellenic world despised commerce.

    On the other hand, nobody can deny that such shift has positive effects as Mr. Bertonneau pointed out – the process of civilization. Perhaps I am oversimplifying it but I wonder if the warrior can be successfully reconciled with the merchant, patriarchy with markets…

  4. Another fascinating article from our resident polymath. It made me think of the mystery of Great Lakes copper found in ancient Mediterranean shipwrecks. There was a lot more pre-Columbian contact between North America and Europe than our history books tell us. Part of the reason our history books are silent on the topic is the paucity of information, but the removal of Scandinavian (i.e., white European) expeditions across the North Atlantic is another example of the overall diminution of European achievement in favor of tales of “people of color.”

    Anecdotally, I will recount some of my own primary and secondary education. We learned nothing of Rome, and very little of Greece. We did, however, read about the Mayans, Incas, and Aztecs, as well as some others who had no meaningful effect on Western civilization, including some insignificant African tribes. I remember reading about Meso-American forehead flattening; it was done, allegedly, to make the head look like that of a leopard. To this day, I can still recall the elegiacal tone of the book when it lamented that with the coming of the white man, children would no longer have their heads reshaped.

  5. In his dialogue Timaeus (a cosmology), Plato inserts the famous “Atlantis” story. The “frame” of the story is in some ways more fascinating than the story itself. An Egyptian priest explains to Solon that every few thousand years there is a disaster that brings an end to civilization. One feature of these recurrent epochs is the disappearance of written records with a concomitant loss of literacy. The survivors must begin again at the degree-zero of culture. Plato was thinking about deluges and earthquakes, but there are other ways to effectuate collective amnesia — for example, expunging the history books. Stalin perfected the technique, but the functionaries of Western education (or what passes for it) have been giving him a run for his money.


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