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Vinland Voyages


 

It is difficult to imagine when one reads the accounts of the sagas detailing the Norse voyages to Greenland and to North America that they would be taken to be pure fiction.  Surely there was a lack of physical evidence, but the sagas themselves Grænlendinga Saga and Eirik’s Saga are too specific and more importantly too descriptive of the regions of North America across from Greenland to be mere fancy, despite the fact that the two offer contradictory accounts of the specific voyages undertaken.

      In ignoring rather than evaluating evidence that implied and described in journalistic detail that such contact took place, both the discovery of land and contact with the native people, in a saga format that was not itself designed to record and transmit what modern scholars classify as strict history.  Yet it proved sufficient to contain or reflect real historic events, even if they were treated by the manners of the storyteller.  The saga-writers are not reluctant to relate to the reader when there is nothing to tell from their story, certain details that were not related or retained.

Since, of course, physical evidence has come to light, not specifically sites relating to the saga site of Leif, but evidence of a Norse presence in North America.  There is the actual colony at L’anse-au-Meadow, which was discovered by recognizing the verisimilitude of the sagas, not because someone merely preferred to accept the conventional view based upon dominant assumptions.  Likewise right here on Sodus Bay, Lake Ontario, at Charles Point a Viking spear point was found in 1929 by Augustus Hoffman while repairing his boat, and properly identified from a study by the University of Toronto as being of Norse manufacture and dating to about 1000 AD, and now resides at the Wayne County Museum in Lyons, NY.  (While it must not be ignored that wishful thinking has produced a share of forgeries including the famed Vinland map and planted evidence including the Beardmore relics.)  The Vinland site itself proved they sailed further south, since butternuts were excavated there at the Norse level, with no indication they were trading with natives at this time; to attain these they would have to travel south at least as far as New Brunswick.  These thus imply Norse voyages beyond what appeared relevant to the saga writers, that further voyages, colonies and explorations were performed over a time by Greenlanders, although the frequency and extent of them will never be known.


spearpoint


The maps attempt to reveal the voyages within the sagas without attempting to reconcile them into a historical narrative, precisely because they contradict one another.  However, even so, given the lack of specific navigational bearings any map of the routes will be only illustrative and can never be precise enough to designate an actual ship’s path through the waters and identify their specific landing sites, so the precision of the lines are knowingly deceptive.

It is clear also that the surviving sagas are only redactions of much longer accounts of the Vinland voyages, which if they existed might have permitted more accurate tracing of the voyages.  Unlike the Columbus maps, those of Vinland should not be too different from the way the coastline looks today, however, the climate of the region was warmer 1,000 years ago in the North Atlantic than it is today.  Also, I have personally never ventured into these regions to see them first hand, although very much hope I will have the chance to at some point.


Graenlendinga Saga

 

Bjarni’s Voyage

 

The first voyage to North America in this saga is one that occurs accidentally in a crossing from Iceland to Greenland by Bjarni.  Initially sailing for three days until they no longer saw Iceland to the east.  In adverse conditions of fog and winds out from the northern quadrant they were unaware of where they were travelling for several days, then after the sun emerged they resumed and sailed for a day and sighted land.  This when they neared was described as “not mountainous, but was well wooded and with low hills” with this land left behind on the port quarter they continued for two days and sighted land again, this “flat and wooded”, then resumed against criticism and sailed “before a south-west wind” for three more days and then sighted a worthless land “high and mountainous, and topped by a glacier”, following the coast for a time discovered that it was an island (Baffin Island).  Then sailing eastward for four more days in a gale they finally reached Greenland at his father’s place at Herjolfsness.

      These directions are remarkably precise and also appear to be accurate, although the exact lands that were seen cannot be entirely defined, and the descriptions are vague enough, though quite accurate, to refer to any number of miles along a stretch of the coast, it is not difficult to identify the general areas that were under view during those days.

 

Bjarni_Leif

 

Leif’s Voyage

 

Now, according to this saga, Leif was the second to set out and himself headed across the Davis Strait to the third land Bjarni had seen, considered worthless, but nevertheless set foot on the land, giving it the name Helluland (slab-land, i.e. Baffin Island), then sailing again in an unspecified direction (but it is clearly southerly), again anchoring and going ashore, described as “flat and wooded, with white sandy beaches wherever they went; and the land sloped gently down to the sea”, which he named Markland (wood-land, i.e. Labrador), then under a north-east wind for two days sighted land again, first reaching an island to the north (Belle Isle) where they tasted the dew off the grass, after their brief stay they “sailed into the sound that lay between the island and the headland jutting out to the north” (Strait of Belle Isle).  They went west around the headland (Newfoundland) and found shallows there and ran ashore at a place “where a river flowed out of a lake” (along the west coast, likely north of St. Margaret Bay), so eager were they to make landfall.  Here is where they created the first settlement and constructed the first dwellings.  (L'anse-au-Meadow lies at the very tip of the headland and thus may not be Leif's settlement.)

This land, which he called Vinland (vine-land) is described neatly as having forests, vines and grapes, and large salmon in the river and lake.  During the winter there was never any frost, the grass hardly withered, and on the shortest day of the year the sun was up by 9 am and down after 3 pm.  This is surprisingly detailed and suggests a location around the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

 

Vinland

 

Thorvald’s Explorations

 

After Leif’s trip his brother Thorvald takes up a voyage and arrives at the houses Leif had built, then heads out on explorations of the surrounding regions.  These are much more difficult to track, but the saga describes one voyage off to the west during the first summer, returning in the autumn.  Nothing is said except that they found “numerous islands there, and extensive shallows”.  On one island in the west they found the first indications of other humans.  (Not enough detail is retained to track the voyage, especially the return, but he voyaged the entire summer season and could have explored extensively throughout the Gulf of St. Lawrence or gone down the coast of Labrador through the St. Lawrence and back.)

The following summer he headed east and then north, which would appear to take him back up the coast of Labrador to a headland (seems to be the one north of Groswater Bay) where they ran into a strong gale that caused the loss of their keel, so he called this place Kjalarness.  He then sailed east (which would appear to be back down the coast) to a promontory with two fiords he called Krossaness (difficult to locate with precision as it could be anywhere from English River to Fox Harbour, around where the coast resembles that of Norway).  An encounter here with the natives, who they term Skrælings, results in a fatal arrow wound to Thorvald, which ended his explorations.

 

Thorvald


Eirik's Saga

 

Leif’s Voyage

 

The first voyage to Vinland in this saga is performed by Leif himself, while going to Greenland on an assignment for the Norwegian king to spread the Christian faith there.  On the way he was diverted in a harsh sea and ended up in a new land with “fields of wild wheat growing there, and vines, and among the trees there were maples.”  Matching the story in Grænlendinga Saga, on the return trip he rescues some shipwrecked mariners and as a result is after called Leif the Lucky.

 

Karlsefni’s Voyage

 

The second voyage to Vinland within this saga contains details from both the Leif and Thorvald voyages from the prior saga.  The course taken was to travel from the Eastern Settlement up to the Western Settlement and then to the Bjarn Isles.  From here before a northerly wind for two days they saw land and came ashore, finding there large slabs of stone that are given as the length of two men or twelve ells (eighteen feet).  They also spotted foxes there.  This land they named Helluland.

 

From there they sailed for two days before a northerly wind and sighted land ahead; this was a heavily-wooded country abounding with animals.  There was an island to the south-east where they found bears, and so they named it Bjarn Isle, they named the wooded mainland itself Markland. (Magnusson 1965:94)

 

After two more days under sail they spotted a promontory of land and tacked with the land to their right (starboard).  The land here was “open and harbourless, with long beaches and extensive sands” that they named Furdustrands (wonder strands), and finding a keel upon this headland they named it Kjalarness  At the Furdustrands they sent ashore two Scot runners to explore inland and then sailed further south to meet them.  They found the next stretch of coast filled with bays and inlets and they sailed into one, and after waiting there three days the Scots met them carrying grapes and wild wheat.

      From here they continued on to a fjord and here at the mouth there was a strong current so they named the island at the entrance Straum Island (St. Belle Island), which was covered with birds and their eggs so that it was difficult to traverse the island without stepping on them.  They then went into the fjord, which they named Straumfjord, and made their first settlement there.  This region had mountains and tall grasses, but that during the first harsh winter they returned to the island to search for food.  They returned to Straumfjord in the spring and supplied themselves with wild game there, eggs from the island and fish from the sea.

      (The strong current must have been coming from a major river, so this must have originated from the St. Lawrence river, which is why the Strait of Belle Isle is the likely choice for Straumfjord.  The presence of the island only reinforces the identification.  Unlike Leif’s Vinland settlement, the description of Karlsefni’s route does not indicate they entered the Straumfjord, so their settlement could be equivalent to L’anse-au-Meadow.)

 

Karlsefni 

 

Thorhall’s and Karlsefni’s Explorations

 

After arriving at Straumfjord, they were still convinced that Vinland was still to be found, and two expeditions were planned.  Thorhall the Hunter thought to go north, believing Vinland lay beyond the Furustrands and Kjolarness.  Karlefni believed it must lie further south where the quality of the country would improve.  The saga says that Thorhall’s expedition went northward past the Furdustrands and then tried to beat west, but were driven by a strong headwind straight across the Atlantic to Ireland, where they were beaten and enslaved by the people there.

 

Thorhall

 

Karlsefni’s expedition sailed south along the coast for a long time to a river that flowed into a lake and then down into the sea (could be anywhere along Newfoundland’s west coast).  Just like Leif’s Vinland in the prior saga, the ships could only enter the river’s mouth during high tide, and sailing in they named the place Hope (tidal lake).  Likewise here they found wild wheat growing on the low land and grape vines on the high land, and all the rivers there were filled with fish.  They built their settlement and remained there for two weeks before coming into contact with the natives.  Here the snow was mild and there was no snow throughout the winter, and their animals fared well upon the year-round grasses.  (The same saga mentions that others say that Karlsefni had sailed south to Hope and was there only two months before returning.  This suggests that details and elements from different voyages have been confused or worked together within the saga.)

     After some unpleasant dealings with the natives, Karlsefni and the others realized that this would never be a peaceable settlement and so prepared to head back to the first settlement.  Sailing north along the coast to a headland upon which were many deer, before arriving at Straumfjord.

 

     Now heading out to search for Thorhall, Karlsefni went north past Kjalarness and then headed west “with the land on the port beam.”

 

It was a region of wild and desolate woodland; and when they had travelled a long way they came to a river which flowed from east to west into the sea.  They steered into the river mouth and lay to by its southern bank. (Magnusson 1965:101)

 

Here it is their encounter with a mythical Uniped that causes Thorvald’s death, and sailing further north to Uniped-Land they decided to not go further.  “They reckoned that the mountains they could see there roughly corresponded with those at Hope and were part of the same range, and they estimated that both regions were equidistant from Straumfjord.”

     Spending three years in this land they left under a southern wind to Markland, where they encountered a Skræling family and captured the two boys.

 

They said that there was a country across from their own land where the people went about in white clothing and uttered loud cries and carried poles with patches of cloth attached.  This is thought to have been Hvitramannaland [White Men’s Land] or Greater Ireland.  (Magnusson 1965:103)

 

(This latter land is an accurate description of the Medieval European manner of carrying flags into battle, suggesting that the natives of the Americas had also at one time travelled across the Atlantic to Northern Europe.  It is elsewhere a mythical place.)


Conclusion

 

The discovery of Vinland undoubtedly spread through Europe, although clearly no colonization attempt was undertaken.  Adam of Bremen in his 11th century history makes mention of it, but only insofar as it was known to the Norse.  Columbus himself appears to have used accounts of lands to the west to justify his belief that the land was truly the Asian continent.

     The discrepancy between the accounts appears to be due to the motivation of the saga writer, specifically which figure he chose to emphasize, but it also appears that the specifics of individual voyages were mixed together and the saga writers writing centuries later had no means to judge their reliability.  In general it appears that the earlier Grænlendinga Saga is more accurate concerning the voyages of Bjarni, Leif, and Thorvald, and that there was a later expedition led by Karlsefni, and that the Eirik’s Saga writer conflated this with the earlier voyages, even going so far as to embellish it with accounts of the Unipeds.

It is this latter expedition undertaken by Karlsefni that might have created the L’anse-au-Meadow site.  The details imply that Leif’s settlement and the Hope settlement are one and the same.  It is difficult to be specific without clues to go by, and saying that the journey to Hope took a “long time” gives no real idea as to where it might lie, only that it is unlikely it wasn’t in Newfoundland.

    All the navigational evidence implies that these locations are accurate, despite attempts to use the presence of wild grapes to suggest that the Vinland location was in New England.  This is not to say that there were not expeditions to New England, but it appears that the deemed unsuitability of the land for colonization prevented any widespread interest in the lands.  Here we must merely wait for archaeological evidence to emerge, as it has in the case of the Viking spear point.  Forgeries arising out of wishful thinking, however, do nothing to aid in this endeavor and only cast greater doubt on genuine artifacts whenever they are uncovered.


Sources

 

Magnusson, Magnus & Palsson, Hermann trans.  The Vinland Sagas: the Norse Discovery of America.  Penguin:1965