The Last Vikings?

In 985 AD, an Icelandic Viking, Erik Torvaldsson, lured Norse families into attempting the dangerous 750 mile, (1200 km), passage from Iceland to Greenland. The reason they left Iceland is disputed, but it seems to be related to the scarcity of land on the Island. Such good land as there was, had been claimed by often aggressive and intolerant family clans. Violence was common and although there were some laws to protect the inhabitants, these were often flouted in family feuds.

Erik himself was born in Norway, but after his father had been banished from the country for manslaughter, the ten-year-old boy emigrated with his family and settled on Iceland in a village called Haukadal, (Hawksdale).  The boy was given the name Erik the Red, on account of the colour of his hair. After his father’s death he took over the family farm. Around 980, his slaves had an accident which caused a landslide.  His neighbour, “Eyjiolf the Foul”, was enraged by the consequent damage to his house and killed Erik’s slaves.  A battle ensued in which Erik killed Eyjiolf and one of his henchmen.  For this Erik was banished from his village. He moved to the Icelandic island of Oxney.

An important feature of a Norse house at that time was special ornamented beams with mystical symbols on them.  When he moved to Oxney, Erik had entrusted the beams from his previous house to a neighbour, Thorgest. When he needed the beams for his new farmhouse, Erik asked for them to be returned to him. Thorgest refused and a fight ensued in which Erik killed several men including Thorgest’s two sons. For this, Erik was banished from Iceland for three years for committing manslaughter.

Greenland had been discovered about 100 years previously by another Icelander, Gunnbjorn Ulfsson, though at that time it did not have a name.  Erik had heard of this discovery and decided to find Greenland himself. He proved to be a very skillful navigator and found his way to the new land.  Enthused by the possibilities of the country, he returned to Iceland and persuaded more than 400 people to join him to found a colony. Erik made the extravagant claim that the land to which he would take those looking for a better life, was green and pleasant.  Hence the name, “Greenland”.  Twenty-five ships set sail with him.  Of these, fourteen reached Greenland, the remainder were either lost at sea or returned to Iceland.

The settlers adapted and established two centres of population, one in the south east and one five hundred kilometres further north on the east coast.

More families emigrated over the following years, braving the perils of the North Atlantic.  It is estimated that by the middle of the eleventh century there were up to 5000 Norse living in hundreds of farms in the two settlements. Well into the thirteenth century the Norwegian authorities were encouraging emigration to Greenland stating that, “The sun has sufficient strength where the ground is free of ice, to warm the soil so that the earth yields good and fragrant grass.”  In fact, in terms of climatology, the initial settlements had been started at a time when there was a warm period. Later a colder period known as “Little Ice Age” set in. However, the new inhabitants seem to have thrived well enough to establish a trading route back to Norway involving, in particular, the sale of walrus ivory.

It seems that right from the beginning of the establishment of the colony, the Norse came into contact with Eskimos, the Inuit.  The immigrants were very uncharitable about them. They were described variously as “short and ugly”, “poor traders”, “barbarians” and “easily killed”.  The settlers called them the “Skraeling”.  The origin of this name is disputed, but it may be related to the Icelandic word “skrælna”, which meant “shrink”.  Thus, the meaning would have been “little men”.

In 1721, a missionary called Hans Egede sailed from Norway to Greenland in a ship called The Hope. The purpose of his journey was to find the Norse farmers whom the Europeans had not had contact with for two hundred years and convert them to Protestantism. The largely Christian eleventh century settlers would have been Catholic.

The ruins of Erik the Red’s farm

Egde explored the Greenland fjords and valleys searching for the settlers, but in vain.  He sought the help of the Inuit to show him where he might find the Norse settlements, but all they could show him was the remains of their stone buildings. What had happened to the last of the Vikings?

Egde reported back to Norway, “What has been the fate of so many human beings, so long cut off from all intercourse with the more civilised world?  Were they destroyed by an invasion of the natives or perished by the inclemency of the climate and the sterility of the soil?”

Analysis of archaeological finds has shown that the settlements were still in existence in the 15th Century. It is indeed a mystery why such a large colony of resourceful people should completely disappear. Many theories have been put forward, the most popular one was that the Vikings did not adapt to the harsh conditions of the “New ice Age” and continued trying to survive on farming rather than making a living from the sea. This theory has now largely been discredited by archaeologists.  Other causes might be a plague, massacre by the Inuit or European pirates or violent strife between the population.  Whatever the reason, in the end, it was the Skraeling, the Inuit, who showed that it was possible to survive the rigours of the “Greenland”.

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