Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Who Discovered America?

Happy Leif Eiriksson Day! If you know the name you know this Viking explorer discovered America 500 years before Columbus—which is why the official U.S. holiday, Leif Eiriksson Day (October 9), comes before the official Columbus Day (October 12).

But what happened next? Leif never went back. It was his sister-in-law who tried to settle the Vikings’ Vinland, or “Wine Land,” so today I’ll be celebrating Gudrid the Far-Traveler Day.

Gudrid knew the killing force of the sea, of weeks at the mercy of the winds, of fog that froze on the rigging, when “hands blue with cold” was not a metaphor. She knew how fragile a Viking ship was. Sailing from Iceland to Greenland as a girl, she was shipwrecked, plucked off a rock by Leif, who thereby earned his nickname “the Lucky.”

Knowing the risks, Gudrid and her husband, Leif’s brother Thorstein, sailed west off the edge of the known world. They were “tossed about at sea all summer and couldn’t tell where they were,” says one of the medieval Icelandic Sagas. Just before winter, they reached a Viking farm near Greenland’s modern capital, Nuuk, a distance they could have rowed in six days.

That winter, Gudrid’s husband and crew died. Come spring, Gudrid ferried their bones south to Leif’s farm and buried them by the church. She remarried, to a rich Icelandic merchant called Karlsefni, and here’s the kicker: She set sail again. “Making a voyage to Vinland was all anyone talked about that winter,” says the saga. “They all kept urging Karlselfni to go, Gudrid as much as the others.”

Leif Eiriksson in Reykjavik.
When I tell people I’ve written a book about Vikings, they expect a pageant of bloody berserks, like the Sega Viking game “Battle for Asgard” or the Viking movie, “Last Battle Dreamer.” Viking, you’d think, meant man with a big axe.

But for me, the classic Viking is Gudrid the Far-Traveler. Viking women could divorce if their husbands didn’t “satisfy” them. They could own farms, as Gudrid did, or ships. No Viking ship sailed without a woman’s help—for the women wove the sailcloth.

Gudrid and Karlsefni set off in three ships—one of which was hers. They landed, apparently, in Newfoundland; archaeologists have studied the Viking ruins at L’Anse aux Meadows for 40 years. The three longhouses can each sleep a ship’s crew. Jasper strike-a-lights found inside came from Greenland and Iceland. A spindle whorl, used for spinning yarn, proves a woman was there.

The most remarkable finds, however, are three butternuts and a piece of butternut wood worked with a metal tool.

Where was “Wine Land”? The sagas mention salmon and tall trees. They tell of strangers who had never seen an axe, were delighted to taste milk and traded furs for strips of red wool cloth; who fought with stone-tipped arrows and whose numbers were overwhelming.

Butternuts never grew in Newfoundland. But the pattern of Indian settlements and the ancient ranges of trees and fish suggest that Vinland stretched from Newfoundland south to the Miramichi River in New Brunswick. There the Vikings met the ancestors of the Beothuck Indians.

Gudrid the Far-Traveler.
The Icelandic sagas say little about Gudrid directly. She was beautiful, intelligent and had a lovely singing voice. Most important, she “knew how to get along with strangers.” One saga shows Gudrid in the New World, failing to communicate with a native woman. The implication is clear: If she couldn’t get along with these strangers, no one could. Perhaps Gudrid decided the Vikings should abandon their colony.

Perhaps the Vinland expedition itself was her idea. She packed up and set sail there twice—with two different husbands. Although the sagas disagree on the particulars, her hand in the preparations each time is clear.

Realizing this—that Gudrid was the explorer, not just her men—I knew that if I were to pick a Viking to name  today after, it would be Gudrid the Far-Traveler.

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  1. Happy Gudrid the Far-Traveler Day!

  2. Interesting. I'm reading your "Song of the Vikings" right now. "The Far Traveler" is next on my list. Have you read "Burial Rites?" Fascinating, fictionalized account of Iceland's last execution in 1830.