EIRiK The Red

Eirik Thorvaldsson, often referred to as "Eirik the Red," is a historical character known primarily from the Saga of Eirik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders. Both sagas were written in Iceland and date from the early 13 th century. They tell the story of the settlement of Greenland from Iceland and the attempted colonization of the land they named Vinland. It is likely that these texts were written independently of each other and that both derive from oral narratives. Eirik is also mentioned in the Icelandic historical texts tslendingabok (The Book of the Icelanders) and Landnamabok (The Book of Settlements) as well as in several others of the Sagas of Icelanders.

According to the Saga of Eirik the Red, Eirik and his father left Jaeren in southwest Norway because they had been involved in slayings. They traveled to Iceland and took land on the Hornstrandir coast in the northwest and settled at Drangar. There Eirik's father died. Eirik subsequently married a woman named Thjodhild. She and Eirik moved south and built a farm called Eiriksstadir by Vatnshorn in Haukadalur in the western part. Later, Eirik's slaves caused a landslide to fall on the neighboring farm of Valthjof at Valthjofsstadir. In the ensuing squabble, Eirik killed two men. Eirik was then exiled from Haukadal. Leaving his home, he claimed the islands of Brokey and Oxney in nearby Breidafjord. He lived mainly on Oxney where he established another farm, also called Eiriksstadir. A further disagreement with neighbors led to more killings and another sentence of outlawry. This time he was banished from Iceland (at the time, a common form of punishment for such misdemeanors).

It is noteworthy that in the historical tslendingabok (c.1125), the author states that Eirik the Red hailed from Breidafjord. Thus, some 100 years or so before the Vinland Sagas, the personage of Eirik is documented. It is possible therefore that according to tslendingabok, Eirik was in fact born in Iceland. This is the opinion of the Icelandic scholar Olafur Halldorsson (2002).

Regardless of where he was born, there seems little doubt regarding the event for which Eirik is most famous—the colonization of Greenland. The Saga of Eirik the Red describes the circumstances of his settlement of Greenland in some detail. After his sentence of outlawry was passed, it is stated that he intended to seek the land that the Icelander Gunnbjorn, the son of Ulf Crow, had seen when he was recently driven off course to the west. According to the narrative, Eirik states that if he finds this land he will return to his friends. It is written that they parted company with great warmth. Eirik sailed from Snaefellsnes in the west of Iceland and approached land in Greenland under the glacier that was named Hvitserk ("White shift"). From there, he sailed seeking land suitable for settlement. He spent the first winter on Eiriksey ("Eirik's island"), near the middle of the Eastern Settlement (which would become the more populous of the two Norse settlements in Greenland—in fact located in the southwest). The following spring he traveled to Eiriksfjord, where he settled. That summer, he traveled around the then-uninhabited Western Settlement (the more northerly of the Norse settlements). The fourth summer after he had left Iceland, he returned there. The summer after that, he left Iceland to settle in Greenland. It is said that he gave the country he had discovered the name "Greenland," because he said people would be attracted to go there if it had a favorable name. As the fjord areas of Greenland are indeed green, this name was not a misnomer. According to the source Landnamabok, 25 ships set out in a colonization attempt for Greenland from Breidafjord and Borgafjord in the west of Iceland, but only 14 reached their destination. Some were driven back, and some were wrecked. According to tslendingabok, Greenland was settled around AD 985.

The Saga of the Greenlanders resumes the account with Eirik well established in Greenland. He ran a farm called Brattahlid ("Steep slope") in the so-called Eastern Settlement. He was held in the highest esteem, according to the narrative description, and everyone apparently deferred to his authority. He had three sons with his wife Thjodhild: Leif, Thorvald, and Thorstein. He also had a daughter, Freydis, with one of his slaves. According to the Saga of Eirik the Red, Thjodhild converted to Christianity and built a church. The saga also states that after her conversion, Thjodhild refused to sleep with the heathen Eirik, much to his displeasure.

The Saga of Eirik the Red and the Saga of the Greenlanders are known collectively as the Vinland Sagas. As the name suggests, much of the material in the two texts is concerned with the discovery and exploration of the area named Vinland by the Norse and located somewhere on the northeastern seaboard of the continent of North America. Both writings state that Eirik the Red did not travel to Vinland. In the Saga of Eirik the Red, it is said that he was persuaded to join his son Thorstein on a voyage, a journey Eirik repeatedly resisted and then finally agreed to. After their boat was blown off course, they finally returned to Eiriksfjord. In the Saga of the Greenlanders, it is stated that Leif, Eirik's son, asked his father to head an expedition to Vinland. Apparently Eirik was reluctant, saying that he was getting on in years. However, Leif convinced him and they set out on horseback. When they were almost at the ship, the horse Eirik was riding stumbled, and threw him, injuring his foot. He then declared to Leif that he felt he was not intended to find any other land than Greenland, and that this was the end of their traveling together. Both texts agree that it was Leif Eiriksson who was the first European to set foot in the New World.

Eirik the Red appears to have been a complex character. The killings he performed suggest impulsive and ill-judged behavior, but it is also clear from the sagas that he was an adventurous and resourceful man who had many friends, and who became a respected leader in Greenland. Archaeological evidence from Iceland and Greenland corroborates many of the details described in the historical sources. Excavations in the area of the eastern settlement in Greenland have led to the discovery of many sites, which correspond to those mentioned in the Vinland Sagas. In Iceland, the site of Eiriksstadir in Haukadalur has recently been excavated, and a reconstruction of this farm, supposedly the birthplace of Leif Eiriksson, has been built.

Astrid E.J. Ogilvie

See also Eriksson, Leif; Norse and Icelandic Sagas; Vinland

Further Reading

Barlow, L.K., J.P. Sadler, A.E.J. Ogilvie, P.C. Buckland, T. Amorosi, J.H. Ingimundarson, P. Skidmore, A.J. Dugmore & T.H. McGovern, "Interdisciplinary investigations of the end of the Norse Western Settlement in Greenland." The Holocene, 7(4) (1997): 489-499 Bergthorsson, P., The Wineland Millennium, Reykjavik: Mal og Menning, 1997

Buckland, P.C., T. Amorosi, L.K. Barlow, A.J. Dugmore, P. Mayewski, T.H. McGovern, A.E.J. Ogilvie, J.P. Sadler & P. Skidmore, "Bioarchaeological and climatological evidence for the fate of Norse farmers in medieval Greenland." Antiquity, 70 (1996): 88-96 Halldorsson, O., Grwnland i Midaldaritum, Reykjavik:

Sogufelag, 1978 Hreinson, V. (general editor), The Complete Sagas of Icelanders, Volumes I—V, Reykjavik: Leifur Eiriksson Publishing, 1997 Magnusson, M. & H. Palsson, The Vinland Sagas. The Norse Discovery of America. Grwnlendinga Saga and Eirik's Saga, translated with an introduction by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson, London: Penguin Books, 1965

Ogilvie, A.E.J., L.K. Barlow & A.E. Jennings, "North Atlantic Climate c.A.D. 1000: Millennial Reflections on the Viking Discoveries of Iceland, Greenland and North America." In Approaches to Vinland, edited by Andrew Wawn & Thorunn Sigurdardottir, Reykjavik: Sigurdal Nordal Institute, 2002 pp. 173-188

Olafsson, G. Eiriksstadir, "The Farm of Eirikr the Red." In Approaches to Vinland, edited by Andrew Wawn & Thorunn Sigurdardottir, Reykjavik: Sigurdal Nordal Institute, 2002 pp. 147-153

Wallace, B.L., "L'Anse aux Meadows. Gateway to Vinland." In G.F. Bigelow (presentor): The Norse of the North Atlantic. Acta Archaeologica, 61-1990, Munksgaard, Copenhagen, 1991, pp. 166-197

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