The Norwegian colonization of the North Atlantic area is maybe the most impressing and risky undertaking of the Viking adventure.
Over of the most dangerous sea in the world, through tempests and icebergs, the Vikings managed to reach the New World, four hundred years before Cristoforo Colombo.
The colonozation of the Faroe Islands
With all probabilities, some Norwegian groups established themselves in the Faroe Islands around the year 800 a.D. pushing away the few Celtic monks1
that the Irish geographer Dicuil talks about in his work2
written in the 825 a.D.
In his book he related his interviews with Irish priests, the papas, who claimed they had sailed north to Thule and lived there from February to August.
The Norwegian establishment in these territories does not assume relevant proportions before the great sea-battle of Hafrsfjord in the 827 between Harald Hårfager and his enemies. The latter decided to take the way of the sea after that they were hardly defeated by Haralds Hårfarger´s navy.
The Landanámabók, also called "the book of the occupation", which was written in the thirteenth century on the grounds of the information contained in Islendingabók that was, in turn, written by the priest Are Frode, is an incredibly detailed source of information about the history of those brave colonists.
The colonization of Iceland
The occupation of Iceland can be defined as the second step of the Viking conquest of the Atlantic sea. Two dates are of fundamental importance: 874 a.D. and 930 a.D.3
. Traditionally the Ladnam´s time´s start is told to be the year 874 a.D. when the Norwegian Ingólfur Arnarson exstablished himself in Iceland and built up Reykjavik. About fifty years later, in the year 930 a.D., the colonists, who did not only come from Norway, but also from the british islands, created a legislating and judging assembly called Althingi4
. The Althingi assembled for two weeks every summer and attracted a large proportion of the population.
It is told that about ten thousand persons moved to the "land of ice and fire" and if the latest colonists would have come there during the half of the tenth century, it is plausible to say that already in the year 900 a.D. the whole Icelandic coast had been colonized. The Christianity was officially adopted in Iceland by a decision of the Althingi in the year 1000 AD. The first bishopric was established at Skálholt in South Iceland in 1056 and a second at Hólar in the north in 11065
Greenland, Vinland and America
The biggest adventure had not even started either.
In the year 886 a colonist called Gunnbjörn met a powerful storm while he was sailing from Norway to Iceland. Gunnbjörn sailed for weeks and weeks without seeing any coast or island but one day, suddenly, Gunnbjörn´s crew saw a coast with higest mountains and glaciers. This adventure was kept in the memories of the Icelandic people for about one century when Erik the Red, precisely in the year 982, took the way of the sea after a judgment that condemned him to three years exile for murder. It was at that moment that Erik the Red thought to find again the glaciers´ coast that Gunnbjörn had only occasionally seen one hundred years before. Erik managed to reach that legendary land that he seemed to fall in love for and that he called Greenland. When he came back to Iceland, he started immediately to organize the expedition that should have brought to the colonization Greenland: in the year 985 a fleet of twenty five ships sailed to Greenland but only fifteen of them reached Tunugdliarfik. It was those colonists who built up Brattahild, Erik´s farm (in Swedish Eriks gård). The descendants of those groups lived in the south eastern Greenland for four hundred years fishing and hunting. In this period they moved from the first eastern settlement -Eystri Byggð- which Erik founded- to other parts of Greenland.
Very soon, a western settlement- Vesturbyggð- about 200 chilometers north of Erik´s farm, whose location corresponds to the present-day Nuuk6
- come to an existence in Greenland as a second centre of this new colony. Both settlements were located on the west coast of Greenland. This society developed incredibly during the centuries though the hard climate: in the year 1124 a bishop seat ( dioceses) was instituted in Gardar ( nowadays Igaliko) which was a powerful centre of commerce at the feet of a glacier. A monumental cathedral was built up together with other buildings and they would have only become more and more in the following century. Not only architecture and commerce developed in Greenland in this period, while also literature: Atlakviða7
,(= átakasaga sem segir frá raunum Guðrúnar Gjúkadóttur), is only one of the masterworks written in this age of the Viking history. This society come anyway to an end in a quite sudden and still nowadays discussed way. The Norwegian historics Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad8
sustains the thesis that the Greenlandic people, proved by the hard climate, migrated to America in the fourteenth century, setting the word end to the lively civility of the Greenland of the middle ages.
Vinland and America
Helge Ingstand´s thesis9
grounds, among the other things, on the found of a Viking - Norwegian site in Anse aux Meadows10
in the northern part of Newfoundland11
. This, and other elements such as an Indian pipe found I Greenland, would prove with sufficient probability that the Vikings reached America before Colombo.
In the year 986 Bjarni Herjulfson, in navigation between Iceland and Greenland, drove out of the course because of a sudden storm and he reached a coast completely covered by glaciers. Some years later, Leif Eriksson Heppni (the lucky12
) , son of Erik the Red, with the same ship that Bjarni Herjulfson led in that occasion, sealed from Greenland towards west and he found the coast with glaciers that Bjarni had seen13
. That coast was with all possibilities what we call today for Resolution Island. Some days later he reached another island that from the descriptions14
in the Greenlandics´ saga15
seems very probably to be Newfoundland16
. -----------------------Those thirty five men, so few they were, passed the winter in houses that they built up on this island with the threes that were unusually abundant there. In the saga is also said that a german man, called Turker, that was with them found out wine-plants and came back to the camp completely drunk. It was then that Leif named that land Vinland( land of wine). Leifsbuddir is another name that is used in the tale to name Vinland because of the houses that Leif and his men built up there during that winter. It was from this colony that Erik's son Leifur Heppni sailed in the year 1000 to discover North America17
, which he named Vínland the Good.
Torvald, Leif´s brother moved to Vinland and during the exploration of its coasts the Vikings of Torvald Eriksson engaged battles with the Indianscalled (Skrälings in ancient Icelandic) they met on their way and it was under these fights that Torvald died. In the year 1000 the biggest expedition of Vikings reached Vinland: three ships with almost two hundred men and women. After the literature of tye period and with the evidence provided by some Icelandic maps from the sixteen century that show too many and precise details for that age, it is possible to argue that there had been a current traffic of Viking ships between Greenland and Vinland in the fourteenth ann fifteenth century.
The Viking navigation technique in the literature of the sagas
Sagorna included skald dicts that can be dated back to the year 900 a.D. and many of the vicking saga can tell us much about the Viking adventures on the sea : Egil´s saga, Njál´s Saga Kormárk´s Saga , Sigvat Tordssons Austrfararvísur and Vikingavísur, Snorre Sturlasson´s Heimskringla18
just to name some of them. It is necessary to hold another masterwork as a element of comparison with these sagas to verify their informations: Gesta Danorum by Saxo Grammaticus.
It is almost unconceivable to believe that Vikings could find the way until Vinland and America and back to Greenland with the, for that time, limited cognitions of astronomy and geography. A reading of the Viking sagas can though provide some information about those incredible sailormen and their instruments of navigation.in two sagas is named the sunstone (fornisl.= sólarstein) which was used to measure the sun´s distance from the sea. On the other side, the leidarstein that is named in the Islendigasagas did not come before the thirteen century.The Vikings had declination schedules and Snorre Sturlasson names in one of his lines the a certain Stjärn-Oddi who wrote a work about this topic.
The Vikings divided the course in navigation in aettir, its time in daegir, the distance in tylft which was the twelfth part of a "vikur sjávar" ( between 100 and 120 chilometers19
In the Landnámabók20
there is a detailed description of the way from Stadr I norwy to Hvarf in Greenland containing many informations about these Viking units of measure.
The sagas are not the only source of information about the life and cognitions of the Vikings. The runic stones, in their simplicity, can sometimes constitute an incredible source for the confirmation of elements and circumstances mentioned in the sagas.
- Peter Hallberg "Den isländska sagan"(Verandis skriftserie n.6-Stockholm 1960)
- Holger Arbman "Vikingarna" Stockholm 1992
- Björn Landström "Skeppet" Stockholm 1961
- Kristinn Jóhannesson " Ísland þjóð og tunga" Göteborgs 1997
- Fergus Fleming "The viking invader" London 1998
- Dicuil "De mensura orbis terrae"
- Anne Stine and Helge Ingstad "The Norse Discovery of America" (1986):
- Volume 1: Excavations at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland 1961-1968. Oslo. Reissue: Anne Stine Ingstad's 1977 "The discovery of a Norse Settlement in America. Excavations at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland 1961-1968"
- Volume 2: The Historical Background and the Evidence of the Norse Settlement Discovered in Newfoundland. Oslo.
- Ingstad, Helge Westward to Vinland: The Discovery of Pre-Columbian Norse House-Sites in North America. London: (1966)
- The L'Anse aux Meadows Site." Appendix VII in The Norse Atlantic Saga, by Gwyn Jones Editor 1986
- Snorre Sturlusson Nordiska Kungasagor -Stockholm
- Vinland Sagas : Norse Discovery of America"(Magnus Magnusson)
1. Holger Arbman "Vikingarna" Stockholm 1992
2. Dicuil: "De mensura orbis terrae"
3. Fergus Fleming "The viking invader"-London 1998
4. Kristinn Jóhannesson " Ísland þjóð og tunga" Göteborgs 1997 s. 17
8. Anne Stine and Helge Ingstad The Norse Discovery of America. 2 volumes(1986) More specifically this thesis is described in the Volume 1: Excavations at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland 1961-1968. 430 pp., illus., Oslo: The Norwegian University Press (reissue of Anne Stine Ingstad's 1977 "The discovery of a Norse Settlement in America. Excavations at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland 1961-1968").
9. Anne Stine and Helge Ingstad The Norse Discovery of America. 2 volumes. More specifically: Volume 2: The Historical Background and the Evidence of the Norse Settlement Discovered in Newfoundland. Oslo.
11. Anne Stine and Helge Ingstad The Norse Discovery of America. 2 volumes. More specifically this part is described in the Volume 1: Excavations at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland 1961-1968. Oslo (reissue of Anne Stine Ingstad's 1977 "The discovery of a Norse Settlement in America. Excavations at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland 1961-1968") Further information can be found in Ingstad, Helge (1966) Westward to Vinland: The Discovery of Pre-Columbian Norse House-Sites in North America. London.
12. Leif is also named in Heimskringla, Olaf Tryggvarssons Saga n. 86 where it is told about his travel from Greenland to Norway. Snorre Sturluson Nordiska Kungasagor I -Fabel-Stockholm. Pages. 277.
13. Fergus Fleming "The viking invader" London 1998 page. 15
14. "The L'Anse aux Meadows Site." Appendix VII in The Norse Atlantic Saga, by Gwyn Jones ó editor, 1986.
15. Greenlandic sagas online http://www.lysator.liu.se/runeberg/grenlend/
16. Helge Ingstad "The Norse Discovery of America"- 2 volumes(1986). More on this point in the volume n. 1: "Excavations at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland" 1961-1968. Oslo: The Norwegian University Press (and in II edition - Anne Stine Ingstad 1977 "The discovery of a Norse Settlement in America. Excavations at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland 1961-1968)
18. A more complete though still short list of the main masterworks in the viking litteterature can be found in Kristinn Jóhannesson " Ísland þjóð og tunga" Göteborgs 1997 s. 23-27. And in Snorre Sturlusson "Nordiska Kungasagor" Fabel Förlag Sweden introduction pages
19. Björn Landström "Skeppet" Stockholm 1961
20. Vinland Sagas : Norse Discovery of America (Magnus Magnusson) page . 49 (note n.4 to chapter n. 1 Eiríkssögu) and pages 31-32
Tack till Giuseppe Privitera som inlämnade denna artikel till Ginnungagap.