Vinland Sagas


Vinland Sagas
(13th century)
   Two 13th-century Icelandic family SAGAS that relate independent traditions concerning the Norse exploration of the North American continent around the year 1000 are known collectively as the Vinland Sagas, taking their title from the name the Icelanders gave to the area of North America they discovered—a name that means “Wineland,” referring to the vines that were found growing naturally. The two accounts, known as Groenlendnga saga (The Greenlanders’ Saga) and Eiríks saga rau´?a (Eirik the Red’s Saga), both detail several voyages from Norse Greenland to Vinland, though the two versions differ in many of the details regarding these voyages. In both sagas Leif Eiriksson, son of Eirik the Red, first settler of Greenland, is the driving force for the exploration of the new land, and his family members take a major role in the voyages. In particular the role of Leif ’s sister-in-law Gudrid and her husband Thorfinn Karlsefni is important in both texts. Both sagas describe the attraction of Vinland—its vines and abundant wheat growing wild, but both suggest that Norse attempts to settle in Vinland were abandoned because of fierce resistance from the native peoples of the land, called Skraelings in the sagas. Most scholars think that the Greenlanders’ Saga is the earlier of the two, dating from shortly after 1200. The saga survives only as interpolations in a saga concerning Norway’s King Olaf Tryggvason preserved in a 1388 manuscript called the Flateyarbók. The Greenlanders’ Saga is somewhat rough and episodic, but is likely to be closer to historical fact than Eirik’s Saga. Eirik’s Saga is extant in two manuscripts, one from the early 1300s and the other from about 1400. Scholars have determined that Eirik’s Sagamust have been written after 1264. Its literary style is more sophisticated, and the narrative more coherent, but scholars believe that a number of incongruous Christian elements, such as the suggestion that Leif Eiriksson was on a mission to Christianize Greenland, make Eirik’s Saga less reliable historically than the Greenlanders’ Saga.
   It was once thought that Eirik’s Saga was a later writer’s attempt to refine and polish the story of The Greenlanders’ Saga, but there is little evidence of that: The differences in the tales are simply too great. First, while in both sagas Eirik’s discovery and settlement of Greenland in 985 is a vital first step to Vinland, in the Greenlanders’ Saga it is Bjarni Herjolfsson who first sights land to the west, having been blown off course while trying to visit his father in Greenland. Leif Eiriksson, faulting Bjarni for his lack of curiosity, sets out deliberately to explore those lands, and names them Helluland (Flat-Rock Land), Markland (Forest Land), and Vinland (Wineland). In Eirik’s Saga it is Leif, after visiting Norway and receiving a charge from King Olaf Tryggvason to Christianize Greenland, who goes off course and accidentally discovers Vinland. Secondly, according to the Greenlanders’ Saga, Leif ’s brother Thorvald Eiriksson makes a separate voyage to Vinland, but is killed by a Skraeling’s arrow after provoking battle with the natives. In Eirik’s Saga Thorvald goes along on the expedition of Thorfinn Karlsefni, and is killed by an arrow from the bow of a Uniped, a fantastic one-footed creature.
   In both sagas Thorstein Eiriksson, another of Leif ’s brothers, makes an unsuccessful attempt to find Vinland. In the Greenlanders’ Saga he marries Gudrid before setting out. He brings her on the voyage, but they go off course and wind up stranded at Lyusfjord,where he dies. In Eirik’s Saga Thorstein marries Gudrid after returning from his fruitless voyage, and they settle in Lyusfjord. But in both stories his corpse sits up and prophesies that Gudrid will marry again and have an illustrious family.
   Further, Leif ’s half sister Freydis is portrayed differently in the two sagas. In the Greenlanders’ Saga, she takes her own expedition to Vinland, where she brutally murders her partners (killing the women with an axe), and is cursed by Leif when she arrives back in Greenland. In Eirik’s Saga she is a part of Karlsefni’s expedition, where the pregnant Freydis distinguishes herself for her ferocity by beating her naked breast with a sword to frighten off Skraeling attackers. A final difference in the sagas is the amount of space devoted to Thorfinn Karlsefni’s voyage in Eirik’s Saga, where it clearly dominates the story. Thorfinn, who has married Gudrid, Thorstein Eiriksson’s widow, takes a large expedition to Vinland in an attempt to trade with the natives and set up a permanent settlement. Here Gudrid gives birth to their son, Snorri, the first European born on the North American continent. Ultimately internal quarrels among the Norsemen and the antagonism of the Skraelings force them back to Iceland. In both sagas Thorfinn and Gudrid settle in the north of Iceland at Skagafjord, and Gudrid’s descendants include three prominent Icelandic bishops.
   The differences in the sagas and their inclusion of supernatural or marvelous incidents have made their historical value questionable and for some time raised doubts about whether such voyages actually took place. There is some independent corroboration of the tales, however: The German historian Adam of Bremen wrote, in ca. 1075, that he learned of Norse voyages to “Wineland” from the Swedish king Swen Estrithsson. Later historical references also suggest that, though the Greenlanders gave up trying to colonize Vinland, they still made occasional trips there to gather timber, even through the 14th century. The similarities of the sagas—their focus on Leif Eiriksson as well as on Karlsefni and Gudrid and the Skraelings—suggest that the details of an original oral account of the Vinland voyages, passed down through two and a half centuries to two separate authors, was distorted by oral tradition but retained some basic historical facts.
   Attempts to locate the actual site of Vinland on the east coast of North America were fruitless until 1961, when the Norwegian archaeologist Helge Ingstad discovered an unquestionably Norse site at the northern tip of Newfoundland, called L’Anse aux Meadows. Ingstad’s discovery proved that the accounts in the sagas were not simply romantic fabrications, but memories of real events. But there are no grapes in Newfoundland, and in all medieval accounts it is the naturally occurring grapevines that gave the place its Norse name. This suggests that Leif ’s Vinland must have been further south—but Ingstad’s site remains the only Norse site ever discovered in the Americas.
   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. Harmondworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1965.
   ■ The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection.With a preface by Jane Smiley and an introduction by Robert Kellogg. New York: Viking, 1997.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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