Eriksson Leif

Leif Eriksson (Leifr Eiríksson), the son of Eiríkr raui3 ^orvaldsson (Eirík Thorvaldsson or Eirík the Red), was a Norwegian explorer and subject of sagas about the Old Norse. Much of what historians know about Eriksson derives from sagas written in Iceland in the early 13th century. He is best known as an explorer of Vinland, an area of North America found and traveled by the Greenland Norse. Many scholars believe that the Old Norse were the first Europeans to have visited the continent of America.

Eirík the Red had organized the Old Norse settlement in Greenland c. 985-986, according to the first historian to write in Icelandic, Ari fró5i (Ari the Learned, 1067-1148). Reportedly, the name of Greenland was intended to lure people to settle there. Ari is characteristically brief about the settlement and further adventures of the Greenlanders, but much later, perhaps as late as 1300, two sagas about the Old Norse settlement in Greenland and further travels in America were recorded: Saga of Eirík the Red and Saga of the Greenlanders (commonly known as the Vinland Sagas). The main facts about Eriksson as reported in these sagas suggest that he lived in Greenland as an adult, went to the court of the Norwegian king Ólafr Tryggvason (died 999 or 1000), accepted Christianity, and became a missionary in Greenland. There Eriksson managed to convert most of the Norse population to the new faith. He is also credited with having saved the lives of shipwrecked sailors, and hence earned another name, Leifr heppni (Leif the Lucky).

Eriksson's expeditions led to the founding of the land that the Old Norse named Vinland it goda, which has never been located with any certainty. However, Eriksson's role in the Vinland journeys remains problematic, although scholars agree that he played some part in it. According to the Saga of Eirik the Red, Eriksson sailed from Norway until he discovered lands "where he expected to find none." Later on, other Greenlanders sailed to these lands, which they then named Helluland (which might have been Baffin Island), Markland (which might have been Labrador), and Vinland (located in Newfoundland or even further south). However, according to the Greenlandic saga, the shipwrecked sailor Bjarni Herjolfsson first traveled to these lands, although Eriksson went to explore them further and named them. This discrepancy is perhaps due to different oral traditions, as the accounts do not seem to be textually related.

Both accounts in the Vinland Sagas agree that the name Vinland derives from the fact that the Old Norse found vines for wine-making there. Helge Ingstad (1899-2001), among other modern scholars, has contested this notion based on the account that vines are nowhere to be found in Newfoundland. Attempts at different etymological explanations, linking the name with vinjar ("grasslands") rather than vin ("wine"), have, however, not managed to convince many linguists. It is not clear where the Norsemen thought Vinland was located, but the most common explanation seems to have been that it was a peninsula connected to the African continent. As Greenland was thought to be connected by land to Bjarmaland (the area of Karelia in Russia), it is clear that the Norsemen had a worldview quite different from the modern one, with the continents being placed much closer to another than actually is the case.

In Eirik's saga, nothing further is told of the life of Eriksson after he brought Christianity to Greenland. According to the Greenlandic saga, he inherited his father's farm at Brattahlf5 in Greenland and became the most prominent farmer in the land. Eriksson never traveled again to Vinland, but other Greenlanders stayed there for brief periods of time, using the facilities that Eriksson built. Eriksson lent but always retained ownership of his cabins in Vinland.

Nationalistic Norwegian and Icelandic historians have spent much energy quarreling about whether Eriksson ought be considered an Icelander or a Norwegian. This debate has until recently been continued by academics in popular newspapers. In fact, according to the written evidence, Eriksson was born in Iceland of an Icelandic mother, but his father was an immigrant from Norway. Whether this makes him a Norwegian or an Icelander is hardly relevant from a medieval perspective, but a fair compromise might be to call him a Greenlander. The medieval sagas offer no assistance in settling this question, and it seems fair to assume that for medieval historians his identity as a missionary and as a devout Christian was of greater consequence.

In 1930, the United States government donated a statue of Eriksson to the government of Iceland in order to commemorate the millennial anniversary of the Albingi, the world's oldest parliament. The statue, made by the sculptor A. Sterling Calder (1870-1945), is located at Skölavöröuholt, near the center of Reykjavik.

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