Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Leif Eiriksson Day

Today, October 9, is officially Leif Eiriksson Day, named for the Viking explorer who discovered North America 500 years before Columbus (whose day we celebrate a symbolic three days later). 

Last year, I suggested that today should better be named "Gudrid the Far-Traveler Day." Leif happened upon the land he named Vinland by chance in about 999, when he was blown off course traveling between Norway and Greenland. He never went back.

Gudrid, Leif's sister-in-law, packed up and set sail for Vinland twice--with two different husbands. Though the Vinland Sagas, the two medieval Icelandic sagas that tell her story, disagree on the particulars, Gudrid's hand in the preparations each time is clear. As is the fact that she stayed longer than Leif. With her husband Thorfinn Karlsefni, Gudrid explored the New World for three winters, giving birth there to her son Snorri. 

But where in North America did Leif--or Gudrid--go? 

Georgia. Or between Pennsylvania and the Carolinas. Or New York harbor. Boston, on the Charles River near Harvard University. Rhode Island or Martha’s Vineyard. Cape Cod or the coast of Maine. New Hampshire, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Labrador, the St. Lawrence Valley, or back in Greenland. 

All of these places have been suggested in a serious manner between 1757 and today. As the irrepressible BBC television host Magnus Magnusson said at a conference in Newfoundland in 2000, “Enthusiasts have twiddled the texts, selected from the texts, conflated the texts, and compromised the texts in endless attempts to create a coherent story that will ‘prove’ their particular hypothesis. But frankly, the sailing directions which dozens of eager researchers have tried to follow are not much more explicit than the old Icelandic adage for getting to North America: Sail south until the butter melts, and then turn right.” 

Though folklorist Gisli Sigurdsson believes the Vinland sagas hold a coherent “mental map” of Viking explorations along the coast of North America, he concedes that “perhaps the most striking feature of the attempts to locate Vinland is that each and every person to have made one has disagreed with everyone else.”

The sagas say that Vinland is southwest of Greenland. There's a prominent island thick with birds’ nests, a wide shallow bay, a sandy cape, an amazingly long beach somewhere to the north, a river with tidal flats, and a couple of lakes. 

The sagas sometimes tell how long it took to sail from one spot to another, but scholars argue viciously over how to translate “a day’s sail” into a distance. Is a “day” 24 hours? Twelve hours? The time when the sun is up? The Icelandic word (like the English one) is inexact.

A Viking ship can sail as fast as 11 to 13 knots per hour, we know from the voyages of replica ships. It can also lie becalmed and be storm-driven backward. Some scholars take the wind into account. Others note that a cautious captain in an unknown sea with no hope of rescue might care to take his time, while an explorer, by definition, should poke into every interesting cove and bay.

A note on the length of a winter day in The Saga of the Greenlanders has been similarly dissected. It has “proved” that Vinland lay at a latitude of 31 degrees North (as does Jekyll Island, Georgia)—and at 50 degrees North (nearer to L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland, where Viking artifacts have been found). The saga says simply: “The length of day and night was more equal than in Greenland or Iceland,” adding that the sun could be seen “during the short days” at eyktarstaður and at dagmalastaður. No one knows if those two terms apply to the places on the horizon where the sun rises and sets, or to times of day.

With the sailing directions and the day length both inscrutable, we are left with the Vikings’ list of Vinland’s riches. The land is called “Wine Land” so often, not only in the sagas but in other sources, that there must have been some berry from which wine could be made; the question of whether wine requires grapes has bedeviled generations of scholars. Although the words usually translated as “wine wood” and “wine berries” refer to grapevines and grapes in modern Icelandic, we can’t be sure they did so in Gudrid’s day. 

A related question is whether the Vin of Vinland has a long or short “i”: vín (long “i”) means wine; vin (short “i”) means meadow. Although most scholars are convinced by linguistic arguments that Vinland is Wine Land not Meadow Land, and that the “Meadow” in the name L’Anse aux Meadows is a corruption of a French word for jellyfish, the other side of the debate still arises. 

The sagas do mention pastures “so rich that it seemed to them the sheep would need no hay all winter. There was no frost in the winter, and the grass hardly withered.” There was also some kind of wild grain that resembled wheat. Eider ducks nested on the offshore islands, whales washed up on the beaches, and fish, including large salmon, could be easily caught. There were bears and foxes and plentiful game. Finally there were mosurr trees “big enough for house timbers.” (Twenty feet would have been tall enough). 

The Viking ruins at L’Anse aux Meadows, on the northwestern tip of Newfoundland, were discovered in the 1960s. Now, after 40 years of argument and analysis, the experts agree it was a base camp where the Vikings spent the winter after exploring further south. [I wrote about visiting L'Anse aux Meadows on this blog on July 25, 2012.]

Research published in 2013 by archaeologist Kevin Smith proves that the Vikings went from there at least as far as Notre Dame Bay, 143 miles south, where they picked up a piece of jaspar--and may have encountered the Beothuck Indians. As archaeological research has shown, Newfoundland's Notre Dame Bay was home to a dense settlement of Beothuck Indians a thousand years ago. [See my blog post of July 24, 2013.]

In my book The Far Traveler [and on this blog on May 23, 2012], I presented archaeologist Birgitta Wallace's theory--based on her discovery of butternuts in the Viking Age layers of the L'Anse aux Meadows did--that one of the places described in the Vinland Sagas was the mouth of the Miramichi River in New Brunswick. 

Recently I've heard from two new explorers trying to trace the Vikings' route through North America. 

First is the Fara Heim expedition [] organized by Icelandic-Canadians Johann Straumfjord Sigurdson and David Collette; their expedition's name comes from the Icelandic að fara heim, meaning "to go home." According to their website, Fara Heim will sail from Manitoba, Canada, across Hudson Bay, and through Arctic waters to Greenland and Iceland. Drawing from "historical data, verbal history, community knowledge, and analysis of modern data," they will visit "likely sites" and look for "signs of Norse presence." It's a bit like Helge Ingstad's protocol when he searched for--and found--the Viking ruins at L'Anse aux Meadows. I wish them well.

I've also heard from Donald Wiedman, who blogs at As he writes, "Though interested and intrigued by Denmark and Scandinavia, Donald was/is not on any particular mission to locate the lost Viking settlements in North America--but he’s positive he’s found them." Using Google Satellite and various old maps, he places Vinland in Laval, Quebec, which is in line with the speculations of many Old Norse scholars that any Vikings cruising the Gulf of St Lawrence would have sailed up the St Lawrence River toward what's now Quebec City. 

But, like the Fara Heim sailors, unless Wiedman finds an archeological site with demonstrably Viking artifacts (as at L'Anse aux Meadows), the debate about where the Vikings sailed will go on and on.

Which is why it excites me. Icelandic storytellers kept the knowledge of Vinland alive for 200 years before it was written down in the two Vinland Sagas, The Saga of the Greenlanders and The Saga of Eirik the Red. These sagas were copied and recopied and come down to us in three manuscripts. The Saga of the Greenlanders takes up two pages in Flateyjarbók, the Book of Flatey, a beautiful manuscript written between 1387 and 1394. The Saga of Eirik the Red appears in two very different versions in Hauksbók, the Book of Haukur (1299-1334), and Skálholtsbók, the Book of Skalholt (written around 1420). 

Six hundred years later, these Icelandic stories are still inspiring explorers and archaeologists. Their authors and editors and copyists should be proud. Today is their day too.

Join me again next week at for another adventure in Iceland or the medieval world.


  1. As a direct descendant of Karlsefni (for whatever that is worth), I really hope they find artifacts. Speculation and conjecture are fun, but nothing beats fact. I really enjoyed read about Gudrid in The Far Traveler.

  2. Nancy: Thanks eversomuch for the honourable mention!

    Jono: Yes, it may be a while before any 'Archeological' items are found, but we are getting closer. By my new interpretation of The Vinland Sagas, Karlsefni and his men left behind many, many 'Geological' facts - mooring stones (a plenty, quarried in Newfoundland).

    On the Karlsefni expedition, Freydis discovers Newfoundland's Tablelands, a natural landscape of unearthed 'mantle' on Newfoundland's mid-west coast. Karlsefni and his men (and their slaves no doubt) gathered mantle boulders (much lighter than regular stone) and dropped them strategically to mark the major Norse settlements up the St. Lawrence River from Rimouski (Kjalarness) to Laval (Crossaness), Quebec.

    Here's a few photos to illustrate:

    Photo: Tablelands (quarry), Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland:

    Photo: Karlsefni's mooring stone at St. Andre, Quebec (Site where the expedition trades red cloth with The Skraelings):

    Photo: Mooring Stones, Du Bic, Quebec (Site where Skraeling drops broken axe into the water):

    Photo: Mooring Stones, Rocky Harbour, Newfoundland (Site where Skraeling throws broken axe far out into the water):

    See?... We're getting there!

    Donald Wiedman, Toronto, Canada

    Much more at:

  3. The Leif Erikson International Foundation unveiled a statue of Leif at L'anse aux Meadows in July 2013. At the same festival, Benedicte Ingstad launched the English edition of her mother's (Anne Stine Ingstad) journal that she kept during the years she and her husband Helge Ingstad were excavating the site. The book, called "the New Land with the Green Meadows" is about the people and the relationships the Ingstads had with them at L'anse aux Meadows during the 1960's.

    1. Wonderful! I look forward to reading "The New Land with the Green Meadows" and learning Anne's version of the founding of the spindle whorl. I wrote about Birgitta Wallace's recollections of that day here: