The incredible story of Leif Eiriksson and his journey to North America

A statue honoring Leif Eiriksson outside Hallgrímskirkja, a Lutheran parish church in Reykjavík, Iceland. Photo: Simon & Vicki on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)
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Adventures, explorations, and a dose of luck are just a few of the things comprising the fascinating life of one of the most famous Norsemen, Leif Eiriksson.

We have many names for the things we love, which is probably why there are several variations of the infamous Norseman’s surname – he goes by Eiriksson, Erikson, and Eriksson in today’s world. In his time, it is thought that his Norse name was Leifr Eiríksson.

The explorer, nicknamed “Leif the Lucky” (or “Leif den hepne” in Norse), is most famous for sailing from Greenland to North America around the year 1000.

With this, Eiriksson and his crew were probably the first Europeans to set foot in America – yes, way before the infamous Christopher Columbus arrived in 1492. Take that, history!

Early life

Leif Eiriksson was born in Iceland around the year 973 AD to a Norwegian father and an Icelandic mother. 

His father, Eirik Raude (translating to Eirik the Red), was originally from Jæren in Norway. Eirik’s father, ​​Thorvald Asvaldsson, was convicted of murder in Norway, which ultimately resulted in the family fleeing to Iceland.

Eirik Raude was described as a lover of combat, and his young son Leif Eiriksson reportedly had to be placed with a foster father in Iceland named Tyrke. It wasn’t until the age of twelve that Leif was old enough to move back to his father’s farm.

Eirik Raude was then expelled from Iceland after committing manslaughter around the year 980, and thus became the first colonizer of Greenland. Despite being born elsewhere, both Eiriksson and his father called Greenland home for the rest of their lives.

Greenland today. Eirik Raude apparently chose to name the country Greenland in hope of attracting more people. Photo: Visit Greenland on Unsplash

Eiriksson’s journey to Norway

At the age of twenty, Leif Eiriksson was given his own ship and crew to sail to Norway.

According to myth, a storm forced Eiriksson to take cover at the Hebrides, an archipelago off the west coast of mainland Scotland. He ended up spending a whole summer here, supposedly due to meeting a woman who went by the name Torgunna.

The young couple quickly developed an intimate relationship. As Eiriksson was finally getting ready to set sail for Norway, Torgunna revealed a secret: She was with child.

The saga then reports that Eiriksson suspected her of being involved with witchcraft – something that seems, in hindsight, more like a ploy to leave her alone with the child without being looked down upon for his decision.

Torgunna then promised that his son would be sent after him to Greenland, where Eiriksson resided. According to the saga, his son did arrive eventually, carrying the name of Torgils. Torgunna, on the other hand, was never mentioned again.

In the autumn of 999 AD, Eiriksson finally reached Norway. Olaf Tryggvason was the current king, and due to his Christian belief, Eriksson agreed to be christened and underwent a baptism. 

Christianity spreads

Eiriksson stayed in Norway throughout the winter, but in the spring of the year 1000 AD, he was ready to return to Greenland. The Norwegian king, however, had a special mission bestowed upon the young man – he was to bring a priest with him and make sure that the people of Greenland were christened. 

The mission was successful, and most people agreed to adopt Christianity into their lives. An exception to the rule, however, was Eriksson’s father Eirik Raude, who was reportedly refused to consider converting to the newer religion.

Eiriksson’s mother, however, was successfully converted and went on to build the first church in Greenland, at Brattahild.

Rocky cliffs belonging to Baffin Island, Canada. Eiriksson is thought to have first reached Cape Aston, a part of Baffin Island. Photo: Photo by Jennifer Latuperisa-Andresen on Unsplash

Exploring beyond Greenland

There are two different works both outlining the supposed life of Leif Eiriksson: The Saga of Eirik Raude and The Saga of the Greenlanders. In some areas, the details differ slightly, such as how Eiriksson came to visit Newfoundland.

While Eirik Raude’s saga claims that Leif lost his course while sailing back from Norway and thus ended up stumbling upon the land, The Saga of the Greenlanders claims that Eiriksson intentionally traveled westbound because a man named Bjarne Herjolvsson had previously spotted land in that direction.

The Saga of the Greenlanders further claims that after having sailed North for 955 kilometers following the route of Bjarne Herjolvsson, Eiriksson reached a land covered in glaciers and flat boulders. He named the place “Helleland,” which roughly translates to “Land of Flat Rocks.” Today it is thought that this place is actually Cape Aston, located on Baffin Island in Canada.

The next land Eiriksson reportedly saw was flat and covered in forest, with white, sandy beaches but no pasture. He named the place “Markland,” translated to “Land of Forests,” and this place is most likely today’s Labrador in Eastern Canada.

An abandoned shed pictured in Newfoundland, Canada. Eiriksson and his crew eventually made their way to this part of the country. Photo: Julie Fader on Unsplash

The Land of Wine

Following this, Eiriksson and his crew sailed south for two days and again found new land. This place was apparently quite appealing, with trout swimming in the rivers and cod in the sea, allowing for sustainable meals. The climate was described as mild with grass that was green year-round, and subsequently, the travelers built simple houses and stayed the winter.

During their stay, they explored the land during the day. One day, Eiriksson’s foster father Tyrke had everyone worried when he did not return from his explorations upon the agreed time. However, Tyrke eventually showed up, and carried great news: He had found vines and grapes. The land was thus named “Vinland,” or “The Land of Wine.”

Later archeological finds confirm that the settlement was in the northern part of the Canadian province Newfoundland and Labrador, in a place today called L’Anse aux Meadows. 

A significant discrepancy in the story of Eiriksson and Vinland is the fact that no grapes actually grow there. It is therefore theorized that the Saga of the Greenlanders, which is the only saga to mention this course of events, added the explanation at a later point.

In fact, it is even theorized that Tyrke never actually existed and that he was added to the saga at a later point in order to give credibility to the story claiming that the travelers had found grapes.

Several experts including Helge Ingstad, the famous Norwegian explorer who first found archeological traces from Eiriksson and his crew in North America, believe that the vines and grapes are actually a reference to something else. They argue that the word “vin” is, in fact, not a reference to wine – instead, it refers to “natural, open grasslands.” 

Reconstruction of Viking structures in L’Anse aux Meadows. Photo: Richard Droker on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Leif the Lucky

Eiriksson famously went by the catchy nickname of “Leif the Lucky” (in Norse: “Leif den hepne”). While one might assume that the nickname derives from his successful trip to North America, The Saga of the Greenlanders has a different explanation.

In the saga, it is claimed that as Eiriksson and his crew traveled back to Greenland from Vinland, he saw something that the rest of the crew didn’t – a ship full of Norsemen that had capsized.

They reportedly saved 15 men in the dramatic incident, and after this event, people started referring to Eiriksson as “Leif the Lucky.”

The aftermath

After Eiriksson’s expedition to Vinland, he never returned to the shores of North America. When his father Eirik Raude died, Eiriksson took on the role of chief of the Greenland settlement.

Very few actually traveled the same route after Eiriksson’s voyage. His brother Torvald, together with a small group of people, reportedly attempted to settle down there – however, they clashed with the indigenous peoples and thus eventually headed back to Greenland.

Eiriksson’s other brother, Torstein, died in an attempt to reach Vinland. However, Torstein’s widow Gudrid eventually made her way there together with her second husband, Torfinn Karlsevne. She went on to become the first woman to give birth to a European child on the American continent.

The rest of Europe was thus unfamiliar with Eiriksson’s journey and only learned about this promising new land when Christopher Columbus arrived at the continent nearly 500 years later.

The statue reads: “Leifr Eirícsson, Son of Iceland, Discoverer of Vinland” Photo: mightymightymatze on Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Eiriksson reportedly died sometime around 1025, and his son Thorkel Leifsson took over as the chief of Eiriksfjord in Greenland. His other son Thorgils, who was conceived at the Hebrides on Eiriksson’s way to Norway and later moved to Greenland, stayed there as well but was, according to the sagas, rather unpopular.

The Norse settlement in Greenland did not last long and allegedly died out in the 1400s due to the climate worsening. 

Eiriksson’s legacy

In Boston, a statue was raised in 1887 to honor Eiriksson’s memory. Several statues projecting the Norseman have since been erected, among other places in Seattle, in Trondheim, and in Reykjavik.

In September 1964, then-US President Lyndon B. Johnson declared October 9 as “Leif Eiriksson Day.” As it was thought that the Norse explorer arrived in America sometime in the fall, the date when the first immigration boat from Norway arrived in America in 1825 was chosen for the occasion.

Source: #NorwayTodayTravel

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