Eiriksson, Leif


Eiriksson, Leif
(Leif Ericsson)
(ca. 975–ca. 1025)
   The Norse explorer Leif Eiriksson was the leader of the first recorded European expedition to the mainland of North America. His story is told in two 13th-century Icelandic SAGAS called Groenlendnga saga (The Greenlanders’ Saga) and Eiríks saga rau´?a (Eric the Red’s Saga), known collectively as the VINLAND SAGAS, after the name the Norsemen gave to the land they had discovered.
   Leif was the son of Eirik the Red, who, in about 985, led an expedition of 25 ships from Iceland to found a new colony in southwest Greenland. Only 14 ships arrived, but the Norse established a settlement that lasted for several centuries. Eirik became leader of the new colony, and had an estate at Brattahlid. Leif, Eirik’s oldest child, was probably born at his father’s farm in Iceland between 970 and 980, and sailed to Greenland with Eirik, where he grew up at Brattahlid.
   The sagas give two different versions of Leif ’s discovery of Vinland. The earlier Greenlanders’ Saga says that the Norse captain Bjarni Herjófsson went off course while trying to sail to Greenland to visit his father. Bjarni sighted lands to the west, but did not explore them.When he reached Greenland and told his story, he was criticized for his lack of curiosity. Leif set off with a ship and 35 men to explore the new lands. In the later and probably less reliable Eirik’s Saga, Leif sails from Greenland to Iceland and then to Norway in 999, and spends time with King Olaf Tryggvason, who converts him to Christianity and sends him back to Greenland to convert Eirik’s settlement. On his return trip to Greenland, Leif is blown off course and lands in Vinland.Most scholars doubt the accuracy of the second version.
   In either case Leif and his men discover three new lands: One is a barren island of level stone, which Leif names Helluland (“Flat Rock Land”). The second is a strand of evergreen forest that Leif calls Markland (“Forestland”). The third is a place where wheat fields and grape vines grow naturally, and where Leif ’s men make wine from the grapes. Leif names the place Vinland (“Wineland”). Leif and his men spend the winter in Vinland, where they build a large house and a shelter for their ship. They also cut down a number of trees to bring back a cargo of lumber to Greenland, where there are virtually no trees. Returning to Greenland, Leif rescues a group of 15 survivors from a shipwreck, an act that earns him the nickname “Leif the Lucky.” His cargo makes Leif the wealthiest man in Greenland upon his return.
   These are the events as related in the sagas. Both sagas also tell of members of Leif ’s family, most notably his sister-in-law Gudrid and her third husband, Thorfinn Karlsefni, who make their own subsequent voyages to Vinland. Leif himself never returned, at least not according to the sagas.His father Eirik died shortly after his return from Vinland, and Leif became leader of the Greenland settlement. Of Leif ’s later years, not much is known.He was the most renowned man in Greenland and lived at Brattahlid, presumably until he died. His son Thorkell is documented as head of the household at Brattahlid in 1025, so it seems likely that Leif was dead by that time. The Vinland Sagas were written some 250 years after Leif Eiriksson’s expedition to the North American continent, and they represent two distinct oral traditions into which a number of fantastic or romanticized elements have been introduced over the two centuries that had intervened. As a result, many assumed that the tales of Norse voyages across the Atlantic were mere fabrications, until Norwegian archeologist Helge Ingstad discovered a genuine Norse site in northern Newfoundland at a place called L’Anse aux Meadows. It is now an accepted fact that Norsemen did visit the Americas around the year 1000. Thus it seems reasonable to conclude that at least the basic facts of Leif ’s voyage to North America recorded in the sagas may be accurate.
   Bibliography
   ■ Ingstad,Helge.Westward to Vinland: The Discovery of Pre-Columbian Norse House-sites in North America. Translated by Erik J. Friis. London: Cape, 1969.
   ■ Jones, Gwyn, trans. Eirik the Red and other Icelandic Sagas. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.
   ■ ———.The Norse Atlantic Saga: Being the Norse Voyages of Discovery and Settlement to Iceland, Greenland, and North America. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.
   ■ Magnusson, Magnus, and Hermann Palsson. The Vinland Sagas. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1965.
   ■ The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection. Preface by Jane Smiley and introduction by Robert Kellogg. New York: Viking, 1997.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

Look at other dictionaries:

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