The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition: A Discourse on Method

  Sigurðsson, Gísli. 2004. The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition: A Discourse on Method. Trans. Nicholas Jones. Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature 2. Cambridge, MA: Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature.

7. The Saga Map of Vínland

As has become clear in the preceding chapters, the relationship between the written sagas and oral tradition is not simple and uniform. There are no clear-cut answers to the questions facing us. And, as if the part of orality in the composition of the written sagas were not in itself fraught with uncertainties, the position we take on this affects how we view another complex question: How much truth is there in the sagas, and how can we sift what is true from what is not? [1] How much of what the sagas say really happened? Once we allow that the written texts contain material derived from an oral tradition, we need to face up to the possibility that within this tradition were preserved memories of real events—with all the proper caveats regarding the relationships between on the one hand the texts and truth, and on the other between the texts and the parts played by imagination, the laws of narrative art, and the interests of storytellers and audiences during the long period of oral preservation.

Floating Memories

For all the dominant attitude found in the introductions to the Íslenzk fornrit series and elsewhere of placing the overriding emphasis on the part of individual authors in the creation of the sagas, there has always been a strong tendency to link the events described with some kind of external historical reality, for instance in the matter of chronology. Where sources differ there has often been much scholarly speculation about which is likely to be closer to the truth and saga writers have frequently been accused of interpreting their sources incorrectly, as exemplified several times in the previous chapters. In such cases we have no reliable or agreed ways of determining which account should be taken in preference to any other. The aesthetics of presentation, and the sheer length of time that elapsed between the events and the texts that describe them, mean that it is perfectly natural to harbor considerable reservations about the relationship between the sagas and truth. When we add to this the fact that stories and other information preserved orally is subject to constant change according to the demands of the present—as we see, for example, with Landnámabók (see Rafnsson 1974:125-214)—we are duty-bound to be extremely tentative about using the Icelandic sagas as sources for anything other than literary history.

These kinds of doubts over the source value of the sagas, which revolve largely around the nature of the texts and academic theorization on the relationship between history and truth, have been music to the ears of the archaeological community. Many archaeologists have argued that the patent unreliability of the sagas makes them worthless as historical sources and that they should therefore be rejected en masse; that the times they describe should be treated to all intents and purposes as prehistory and, if we are interested in truth, amenable only to the verifiable methods of archaeology (see for instance Vésteinsson 1998:1-2).

It is easy enough to point to much in the sagas of Icelanders that cannot possibly have happened in anything like the way the sagas say it did—at any rate, not when viewed against our modern understanding of the real world and what is possible in it. Grettir, for example, can hardly have lived among trolls in Þórisdalur as we read in Grettis saga; Gunnarr of Hlíðarendi can hardly have jumped more than his own height wearing full battle gear as it says in Njáls saga; and we have every reason to be more than a little skeptical about the account in Bárðar saga of Helga Bárðardóttir drifting on an ice floe all the way across to Greenland. But this does not mean that we should throw the baby out with the bath water and reject all the texts out of hand as potential sources for what happened in the past. Rather than approaching Landnámabók and the sagas with an eye to picking out matters that appear dubious or cannot be true, and then using these as grounds to reject the texts as sources entirely, it is possible to turn the matter on its head and ask instead: What might be correct, or at least somewhere along the right lines, in the sagas and records from the 13th century so far as events of the 9th, 10th, and 11th centuries are concerned?

Viking sagas and archaeological remains

Great events only become great events when someone tells about them or puts them into a story. Mainly in the 12th and 13th centuries, the oral poetry and storytelling tradition of the Icelanders became the basis for a literature that preserved memories reaching back to the Viking Age (800-1050), when the peoples of Scandinavia used their superb ships to sail east across the Baltic and into Russia and expand their power and influence all the way south to the Caspian Sea and Constantinople. Others turned their attention to Western Europe and crossed the North Sea to the British Isles, raiding and establishing colonies in York, Dublin, the Scottish islands, and elsewhere. In stages these men ventured farther out into the Atlantic and discovered the Faeroe Islands and Iceland, places that hitherto had been visited only sporadically by Irish hermits. About a hundred years after the settlement of Iceland, people whom we can now call Icelanders continued on to Greenland and eventually all the way to the mainland of North America, to places to which they gave the names Helluland, Markland, and Vínland. The voyages to Vínland took place some two hundred years after the raid on the monastery of Lindisfarne off the northeast coast of England in 793, the event that marks the beginning of the Viking Age. These vikings were a fearsome race, combining trade, pillage, and warfare with a search for new lands to explore, settle, and govern. For most of the period that bears their name they were successful wherever they went, but little by little their resources and lines of communication became stretched and eventually overstretched when they came into contact with the indigenous peoples of North America some thousand years ago. After a few years of attempted settlement these adventurers were forced to concede and withdrew back across the ocean, thereby postponing the Iron Age in North America by some 500 years.

The sagas that were written in medieval Iceland extend across the entire world known to the peoples of Scandinavia at the time, from the Caspian and Constantinople in the east to Vínland in the west. People in Iceland were happy to record stories set in parts of the world they knew of only by hearsay. Tempting as it may be to use these sagas as sources of Viking Age history, the whole area is beset with enormous problems. Historians have, with every justification, shown that the sagas contain considerable elements of fantasy and exaggeration and much that is patently untrue—as, for example, when the hero Ǫrvar-Oddr is said to have lived for 300 years. It is clear that their creators often had recourse to legendary and adventure motifs to fill in gaps where their knowledge failed. For instance, the account in Heimskringla described below of Haraldr harðráði’s travels in the south and service in the Varangian Guard is packed with fantasy and improbable adventures that might easily be dismissed as pure fiction, typical Märchen material. The problem is that to do so would be wrong—the core of the story, as can be shown from contemporary and independent sources, is based on hard fact.

There are many accounts in the sagas telling of Icelanders and other Scandinavians who traveled south to Constantinople and served in the Varangian Guard at the court of the Byzantine emperor. By far the most detailed is found in Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla and tells of Haraldr Sigurðsson, the man who later became King Haraldr harðráði and was eventually killed leading an attack on England in 1066. According to Þorsteins þáttr sǫgufróða the account goes back to an Icelander called Halldórr, the son of Snorri goði, who was with Haraldr in the south and later taught the story to Þorsteinn sǫgufróði (‘the Story-Wise’: see p. 35). Snorri’s purpose in relating these adventures is clearly to present Haraldr as a bold and resourceful military campaigner, and he is unsparing in his praise of Haraldr’s exploits. But for all the exaggeration, much of what Snorri says can be verified from contemporary sources from Constantinople and elsewhere, which put it beyond doubt that Haraldr did serve as a commander in the army of the Byzantine emperor in the years 1034-43 and fought widely in the Aegean area, Asia Minor, Jerusalem, Africa, and Sicily. The most important of these sources, The Emperor’s Counsel, written some time during the reign of the emperor Michael VII (1071-8) or Alexios I (1081-1118), describes Haraldr and his deeds among the Varangians as follows:

Araltes [i.e. Haraldr] was the son of the King of Varangia [here, Norway] and had a brother called Julavos [i.e. Óláfr] who had inherited the kingdom on the death of his father and placed Araltes as his deputy within the kingdom. But Araltes, who was young and admired the majesty of the Romans [i.e. of the emperor of the Greeks], left his own land and wished to take up service with us and show allegiance to the blessed Lord Emperor Michael the Paphlagonian, and see with his own eyes the Roman customs and system of government. He brought with him a company of 500 brave men, and entered the service of the emperor, who received him with the honor that was his due and sent him to Sicily because the Roman army was there at the time, engaged in a war on the island. Araltes went there and performed many deeds of valor. And when the war was over he returned to the Emperor, who awarded him the title of manglavites. But some time later it happened that Delianos started a revolt in Bulgaria; Araltes then went on an expedition with the emperor, taking his men with him, and performed great deeds of valor against the enemy, as befitted one of his noble lineage and courage. When the Emperor had subjugated the Bulgarians he returned home [to Constantinople]; I was there myself in the war and fought for the Emperor to the best of my ability. So when we came to Mosynupolis the emperor rewarded him for his valor and honored him with the title of spatharokandidatos. After the death of the Emperor Michael and the emperor after him, his sister’s son, in the days of the Emperor Constantine Monomachos, Araltes desired to return to his ancestral land and asked for permission to leave, but this was refused and he found his way barred. Nonetheless he managed to escape in secret and became king in his own native land in the place of his brother Julavos. Nor was he angry at being made only a manglavites or spatharokandidatos, but rather, even after he became king, kept his faith with the Romans and remained on friendly terms with them. [2]

So far as the external framework of the story goes, this source brings us very close to Snorri’s account in Heimskringla, though of course it lacks the legendary motifs that we find interwoven into the saga. The example proves that, for all its fantasy and adventure, Haralds saga can also serve as some kind of source for past events even if it does not present us with the truth whole and unvarnished. It is all very well to doubt the source value of the sagas, but we should not do so at the cost of recognizing that they can, despite everything, have an extraordinarily close relationship to reality; that is, to the reality we reckon we can approach through alternative means, whether contemporary sources from elsewhere or archaeological discoveries.

Haraldr harðráði’s time in Constantinople thus supplies evidence of travels and service in the east that can be verified from external sources. The same is to some extent true of the journey of Yngvarr víðfǫrli (‘the Wide-Traveled’) (see Snædal, Þ. 1997). Yngvars saga is preserved in manuscripts from around 1400 and later and is reckoned to date from the 14th century. The saga is highly fantastic in character, although at the end the writer makes great play of his sources and informants, claiming that everything he has said derives ultimately from the king of Sweden (see Hofmann 1981). The saga tells of a journey made by a Swede called Yngvarr Eymundsson with thirty ships through Garðaríki (i.e. Russia) and lands to the east during the years 1036-41. Only the most credulous would be inclined to place much faith in the story as it is related were it not for the existence of some thirty runestones in the area around Lake Mälaren in central Sweden dedicated to people who lost their lives on an expedition into Asia with Yngvarr, mostly from a disease which the saga links to heathen women they slept with on the way (see Jansson 1987:63-69, Wessén 1960:30-46). So, fantastic and legendary though the account may be, there can be no doubt that this voyage actually took place. Omeljan Pritsak (1981:423-460) has even established that many of the ethnographic and historical details in the saga make sense in view of sources from Asia. Much the same can be said about the work of the Swedish scholar Mats Larsson (1983, 1990, 1996), who has managed to correlate the descriptions in the saga with the facts of the geography of western Asia. The expedition seems to have set off along the customary route south by boat down the river Dnieper to the Black Sea, and then moved east up the river Rion to the city of Kutaisi, through the inhospitable terrain of the high Caucasus to the river Kura and the city of Tbilisi, and then down to the Caspian Sea and on as far as Khorezm on the Oxus. By good fortune we have historical sources from the Kingdom of Georgia that are not incompatible with the saga account, describing a power struggle between a pair of brothers around the year 1040 in which Varangians were involved. As well as constituting an interface between legend and historical truth, it is worth bearing in mind that the saga was written primarily as a travel book and as such is in some ways comparable with the sagas that tell of the Norse journeys west across the Atlantic to Vínland (see Andersson 2000:26-8).

Other evidence suggestive of very ancient historical elements in the sagas comes from the conclusions that have been drawn from the most impressive archaeological finds of Viking-Age Norway, the Gokstad and Oseberg ship-burials, in the light of the details given in Heimskringla about the Norwegian royal family of the 9th century. In 1880 a Viking longship dating from the second half of the 9th century was uncovered from a burial mound at Gokstad in Vestfold on the Oslo Fjord. The skeleton in the mound showed signs of a crippling condition of the leg, and some have seen in this a connection with the figure of King Óláfr Geirstaðaálfr who, according to Snorri, was described in an early poem by Þjóðólfr úr Hvíni as suffering from severe leg pains. Óláfr was the stepson of Queen Ása, the daughter of King Haraldr inn granrauði (‘the Red-Moustached’) mentioned in Heimskringla and the grandmother of Haraldr hárfagri (see Jones 1984:84-5). This Queen Ása has often been identified with the occupant of the Oseberg ship discovered in 1903 in a mound at Oseberg, also by the Oslo Fjord in Vestfold. The ship in question was twenty-two meters (seventy-two feet) long and built around 800, and formed the centerpiece of the lavishly furnished burial of a woman clearly of chieftainly class, together with a slave woman, some time in the middle years of the 9th century.

These connections are of course extremely tentative. No modern-day Norwegian archaeologist would lay his neck on the line and state categorically that the skeletons found in the ship- burials are those of the characters mentioned in the sagas; there is simply too much inconsistency in the saga accounts and too much confusion about the family relationships for such identifications to hold water in the hard world of archaeology. By their very nature, the written sources cannot provide information on individual chieftains who lived in 9th-century Norway that is accurate down to the year or decade. It is remarkable enough that 13th-century Icelanders should have retained any memory at all of the names of people who had lived 400 years earlier and recorded these memories in organized fashion in their books. Even if the stories told of Óláfr Geirstaðaálfr and his crippled leg and Queen Ása cannot stand up to conventional source criticism, it is astonishing in itself that any kind of connection can be made between them and the remarkable graves from the very time and place where these people were said to have lived their real lives on earth.

The settlement of Iceland in the sagas and other sources

Allowing for a degree of simplification, it may be said that the accounts given in the Icelandic sagas of the main events of the Viking Age, in so far as they affect Iceland, are in all main respects correct. The written sources describe a comparatively rapid settlement of the country from about 870 onwards under the leadership of chieftains who came both direct from Norway and from the Norwegian colonies in the British Isles and established a few hundred large estates and around 3,000 farms. All this is confirmed by modern-day archaeology. The dating is secure in the light of the so-called ‘settlement layer’ of volcanic ash which extends over a large part of the country. This layer was the result of an eruption in 871 (± 1 year), as confirmed by ice-core samples from the Greenland icecap, and immediately above it are found the remains of the oldest habitation in Iceland (see Vésteinsson 1998). The writers of the sources were also fully aware that Greenland had been settled by people from Iceland in the last years of the 10th century. Likewise, people knew stories about sailings to the North American continent around the year 1000, voyages confirmed by remains left by people from Greenland and Iceland and uncovered since the 1960s at L’Anse aux Meadows at the northernmost tip of Newfoundland (see p. 000). The saga writers were also, rightly, aware that at the time of the settlement the dominant religion was the Norse heathendom but that around the year 1000 this had changed with the adoption by law of Christianity. All this was known because people preserved stories about these events in their memories; these stories were told from man to man and particular events were associated with the names and lineages of certain individuals. As a natural result of the inherent properties of narrative art and oral tradition, various details must inevitably have strayed from the strait and narrow path of truth over the course of time. This, however, does nothing to invalidate the general picture, a picture fully consistent with the evidence gleaned by archaeologists. None of this could have been made up by the saga writers on the basis of literary models and sources brought in from continental Europe or the lands of the Mediterranean. So there is no avoiding the fact that the sagas constitute independent sources for these times, a fact that is in no way compromised by the presence in the sagas of material that a modern scientific outlook would reject as farfetched or impossible.

Vegetation and climate. Various incidental details mentioned in the ancient sources regarding vegetation and climate have also been verified through modern methods of research. For instance, Ari fróði’s statement in Íslendingabók that at the time of the settlement Iceland was ‘viði vaxit á miðli fjalls ok fjǫru’ (‘wooded between mountain and shoreline’) has been shown on the evidence of paleobotanical research to have been in all probability true, the woods in question having consisted chiefly of birch trees and scrub (see Einarsson, E. and Gíslason, E. 2000). Ice-core sampling on the Greenland icecap has provided us with a range of valuable information about climatic conditions and temperature fluctuations in former times. Research in this area has made it possible to go through the past year by year and extract details of temperature, precipitation, volcanic eruptions, and other factors as if we had access to some kind of natural diary. For instance, from such sources we now know that only shortly before the start of the settlements around 870 the climate of Iceland was much colder than in subsequent periods, much as it was in the late 17th century when the country was surrounded by ice floes reaching all the way to the Faeroes. This mini ice age coincides well with the story in Landnámabók about Hrafna-Flóki and how Iceland got its name. Previously, doubts had been expressed about this story on the grounds that Flóki was unlikely to have seen large amounts of sea ice from the mountains above Flókalundur on Breiðafjörður in the west where he spent his first winter in Iceland. However, these new findings have dispelled all such doubts, showing that such a scene was altogether plausible in the middle years of the 9th century. After around 860 temperatures began to rise and during the 10th century the climate was rather warmer than it is nowadays. Glaciological research also tends to support the saga accounts of the settlement of Greenland; in 985, the probable year of Eiríkr rauði’s emigration, seasonal conditions had been good for an entire century and vegetation was then at its historical high point, with wide expanses of birch scrub in low-lying areas providing favorable farming conditions for settlers from Iceland. By the middle of the 14th century the climate had become much colder, and this may in part account for the abandonment of the Western Settlement around the year 1350 (see Sveinbjörnsdóttir 1993:106).

Heathens and Christians. When we turn to the religious background to the settlement period, however, there appears to be a degree of contradiction among the sources. The general impression given is of a land that was entirely heathen up to the year 1000, when the Icelanders as a body accepted Christianity. However, the sources do say that many of those who came to Iceland from the colonies in the British Isles were Christian, although Scandinavian culture and heathendom were dominant in Iceland from the earliest days. According to Landnámabók, these Christians settled particularly in the west and south, which accords well with the inferences that can be drawn from the distribution of the place name Breiðabólstaður, which is found only in the Norse colonies in the British Isles and in the parts of Iceland where people from these areas are reported to have settled (see Gammeltoft 1998:226-7). It is hardly surprising that there are few signs of these people exerting any influence at the upper layers of society, since it was men of Scandinavian descent who controlled administration and public affairs in Iceland, whether they came directly from Norway or by way of a generation or two in the colonies in Britain. It was these heathen Scandinavians who directed the work and organized the farming, who decided how things would be done and how chattels and livestock were to be distributed. Slaves of Irish and Scottish origin were given Norse names and compelled to accept the language and customs of their masters. As a result, their culture never became a dominant force in Iceland (see Sigurðsson, G. 1988), even though the latest genetic research indicates that over half the female population of Iceland in the earliest period had had Gaelic foremothers and around a fifth of the men had been of Gaelic origin (Helgason A. et al. 2000, 2000a).

Although it is impossible now to assess the geographical distribution of different religions in the 9th and 10th centuries, the evidence of archaeology makes it clear that Norsemen in Shetland and Orkney had adopted Christianity long before the final years of the 10th century, the ‘official’ date given in the written sources for their Christianization through the offices of King Óláfr Tryggvason (Morris 1996). Also, the people who left the Breiðafjörður region in the west of Iceland with Erik the Red in 985 or 986 and settled in Greenland did not leave any signs of heathen burial customs in their new country. The oldest graves in the cemetery at Þjóðhildr’s church at Brattahlíð are all Christian and probably date from the last years of the 10th century (976 ± 41 years; see Arneborg et al. 1999:161), indicating that Christianity was the active faith of these people from the outset and in spite of what the sources say about Óláfr Tryggvason sending Leifr heppni to convert the Greenlanders around the year 1000.

According to Landnámabók, many of the settlers around Breiðafjörður originally came from the British Isles and are thus likely to have brought Christianity with them to their new home. It was the descendants of these people who were responsible for the settlement of Greenland (see the genealogical table on p. 262) and it is thus perfectly understandable that Christianity should have been well established in Greenland from the beginning of the Norse settlements there. A further pointer to the existence of links between the people who journeyed to Greenland and Vínland and the Christian cultural world of the British Isles is provided by a ringed pin of a design specifically associated with Viking Dublin, found at the Norse site at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland; no brooches of this type have been found in Norway, but they are common in the lands around the Irish Sea, in Denmark, and in Iceland (Fanning 1994:35; see also p. 271).

All in all, it is clear that the picture given in the sources of a land that was entirely heathen up until the adoption of Christianity at the Alþingi in the year 1000 is an oversimplification. There is clear evidence of Christianity among the original settlers, and good reason to believe that it survived intact in some form throughout the ‘pre-Christian’ period, at least in the west of Iceland. However, on closer examination a number of hints emerge from the sources that bring them more into line with what archaeology has to tell us about the religious background of Iceland in the earliest days of its history.

Leifr Eiríksson, magical lands in the western ocean, and the Gaelic connection

A further possible connection between Britain and the Norse journeys to America can be found in the central figure of Leifr Eiríksson (Leifr heppni, ‘Leif the Lucky’), who was himself, at least according to some, said to have been of good Christian stock. Icelandic sources give two accounts of the origins of his father, Eiríkr rauði (‘Erik the Red’). In the oldest source, Ari fróði’s Íslendingabók (‘Book of the Icelanders’), written some time in the years 1122-33, Eiríkr is said merely to have been ‘breiðfirzkr,’ i.e. from the Breiðafjörður region of western Iceland. However, younger sources—Landnámabók and the sagas that tell of Eiríkr’s life—say that he was originally from Jæren in western Norway and moved to Iceland with his father and lived initially at Drangar on Hornstrandir in the extreme northwest (see also Ólafur Halldórsson 1980). From there Eiríkr later moved south to the Dalir region at the head of Breiðafjörður and married a woman called Þjóðhildr. This Þjóðhildr was the daughter of Jǫrundr, son of Bjǫrg, who was the sister of Helgi magri (‘Helgi the Lean’) and the daughter of Eyvindr, who had been married to Rafarta, the daughter of Kjarval, king of the Irish. Thus, on his mother’s side, Leifr had Irish Christian blood in his veins, like so many other people in Dalir.

The written sources contain no record of where or when Leifr was born, but on the basis that his family moved to Greenland in 985 or 986 after Eiríkr rauði had spent three years exploring the new country it is assumed that Leifr was born in Iceland to have been old enough by the year 999-1000 to command a ship to the Hebrides (where he might have visited his relatives and where he acquired a son named Þorgils by a woman named Þórgunna, as related in Eiríks saga rauða), and then gone on to Norway and then back home to Greenland, touching in on Vínland on the way. It thus seems likely that Leifr was born where his parents lived first after they were married, i.e. at Eiríksstaðir in Haukadalur—if, of course, he is to be considered a historical figure at all.

Perhaps some confirmation of an element of historical truth in the sources has been provided by excavations led by the archaeologist Guðmundur Ólafsson (1998) at some ruins in Haukadalur known as Eiríksstaðir, which have uncovered a 50 square-meter (540 square-feet) hall that was occupied for a short period in the latter part of the 10th century. Two stages have been identified in the construction, but the hall was abandoned shortly after completion. It stood on the eastern boundary of the estate of Vatnshorn, on a limited space between two existing farms, so that whoever lived there stood every chance of landing up in disputes with his neighbors over land use and grazing rights. The information provided by the archaeologists, and the inferences that can reasonably be drawn from it, thus tie in excellently with the written sources of the life of Eiríkr rauði.

The world of the Icelandic sagas, in Greenland, Iceland, Scandinavia, the British Isles, and mainland Europe, all the way south and east to Russia and Constantinople, was a world that was known to the writers of the sagas through the journeys of their contemporaries as well as from books—a world that people had living contact with up to the time when the sagas were written. The impulse to tell stories about and set them within this world may thus be related to the fact that this was a known world and a known setting. Things change when we move out past the limits of the world known to medieval man and find ourselves on the shores of North America in the Vínland sagas, Grœnlendinga saga, and Eiríks saga rauða. There were no books in 13th-century Iceland to provide writers with information about the lands to the south and west of Greenland, let alone first-hand contemporary accounts of journeys in those regions—though this has recently been mooted as an idea by Helgi Þorláksson (2001). Even so, people wrote sagas about voyages to these places in which the geography and inhabitants are described in some detail. So where did the saga writers get their information from?

Sigurdsson-fig7.1Figure 7-1: Origins and family relations of the main Vínland explorers

As mentioned previously, many of the settlers around Breiðafjörður were of British descent, and so there would undoubtedly have been people in this region that would have been familiar with Irish tales of legendary, magical lands in the western ocean, lands of plenty where the tellers envisaged beautiful women, inexhaustible wine, rivers full of enormous salmon, and everlasting bliss. These highly fanciful tales have features reminiscent of the mythical Ódáinsvellir (‘Fields of the Undying’) described in Norse sources, in so far as those who managed to get to these wonderful lands had no way back to this earthly life. Tales preserved in Landnámabók and younger sources of a voyage by Ari Másson and other men from Breiðafjörður to a place called ‘Hvítramannaland’ (‘Land of the White Men’) may perhaps owe something to such legends and it is not improbable that stories of this type may have encouraged people to sail west in search of lands beyond the sea (see Pálsson, H. 2000, 2001). For instance, Landnámabók records that in the first party to move to Greenland with Eiríkr rauði there was a Christian man from the Hebrides, while according to Eiríks saga rauða Leifr heppni’s crew that landed in America included a man and woman from Scotland called Haki and Hekja (see Breeze 1998). Once people from Iceland and Greenland had reached the continent of North America, where the flora and climate bore distinct similarities to the descriptions in these legends, it is well conceivable that fact and fiction became merged in the telling, leading people to believe that they had reached the lands they had heard about in these accounts. However, the Irish legends are hardly on their own enough to explain the many realistic features of the Vínland sagas. However much these sagas may owe in their form to the literary genre of the travel sagas like Yngvars saga víðfǫrla (Andersson 2000), there is a vast difference between the descriptions of the lands to the west of the Atlantic and the stories of travels in the east where men capture cities and fight against kings. Such exotica in relation to faraway lands is entirely absent from the Vínland sagas—and it is tempting to see in this absence of exaggeration reality and hard fact and say that, if such wonders do not appear in the Vínland sagas, it is because such wonders did not appear in Vínland around the year 1000 either.

The Sagas and Other Records of Vínland

The Vínland sagas, Grœnlendinga saga, and Eiríks saga rauða, are in all probability the oldest writings to contain memories going back directly to people who witnessed the mainland of North America with their own eyes. They tell the story of a number of voyages from Iceland and Greenland around the year 1000, the earliest fully authenticated journeys across the Atlantic of which we know. These voyages led to the first encounters between Europeans and the indigenous peoples of North America. References in earlier sources also make it clear that the Vínland voyages were known of both in Iceland and mainland Europe before the two sagas were written early in the 13th century.

The Vínland sagas have been the subject of much learned study and research (see Bergersen 1997) and numerous theories have been advanced about the voyages based solely on the testimony of the sagas. The various and apparently incompatible views expressed on the source value of the sagas and the location of Vínland itself (see the table on p. 277) can, however, to a large extent be put down to the different scholarly methodologies employed and the changes in attitudes towards the origins of the sagas that have prevailed among scholars and interested amateurs over the years. If we take the trouble to understand the fundamental problems that lie behind the different findings and take into account the advances that, despite obstacles, have been made in Vínland studies in recent decades—in archaeology, in philological analysis of the saga texts, and in our improved understanding of how stories survive and change in oral preservation from generation to generation—then we will be in position to take up the search for Vínland again against the background of the ideas on oral tradition presented in the previous chapters.


The earliest written reference to Vínland occurs in Adam of Bremen’s Gesta hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum (‘History of the Archbishops of Hamburg’), written around 1075. Adam cites information that he received in 1068 or 1069 from the Danish king Sveinn Úlfsson about an island in the west named Vínland where there were both grapes and self-propagating wheat. Were it not for the existence of the more circumstantial saga accounts from Iceland telling of this same Vínland, one would be tempted to suppose that Adam’s description was of the same stock as the stories from Ireland and elsewhere mentioned earlier concerning marvelous legendary islands far out in the western ocean. There is even a curious reference in Grœnlendinga saga that suggests how news of Vínland might have reached Bremen in Saxony: toward the end of the saga we read about a valuable item from Vínland called a húsasnotra (a term of uncertain meaning) made of mǫsurr (burlwood found in Vínland) which Þorfinnr karlsefni is said to have sold on a Norwegian quayside to a man from Bremen. Given the way that oral stories circulate, it is not hard to imagine, if there is anything in this story at all, that this húsasnotra might have been accompanied by some kind of narrative or other details of its origins and that this information may have then been passed on by the Bremen merchant when he displayed his exotic acquisition back in his home port (see Perkins 1989 on the connections between stories and memories and physical artifacts). We may also note that the hero of the short Icelandic tale Auðunar þáttr vestfirzka (‘Tale of Auðunn of the West Fjords’) is said to have traveled with a polar bear from Greenland to the court of King Sveinn in Denmark, which seems to confirm that to a medieval Icelander the idea of information and stories being transmitted between Greenland and Denmark did not present insuperable problems.

A much briefer reference to Vínland occurs in Ari fróði’s Íslendingabók, the oldest extant history of Iceland, compiled some time between 1122 and 1133. Ari tells us that in Greenland Erik the Red found evidence of ‘manna vistir’ (‘human habitation’), which indicated that the people who had lived there were of a similar kind to those who lived in Vínland and whom the Greenlanders called Skrælingar. Ari’s information on Greenland has every chance of being reliable since he cites an unimpeachable source, viz. his paternal uncle Þorkell Gellison, who had himself been to Greenland and met there a man who ‘fylgði Eiríki enum rauða út’ (‘went there with Erik the Red at the time of the settlement’). Moreover, the wording of Ari’s reference suggests that he assumed the existence of Vínland to be a generally known fact; indeed, one of the two bishops to whom he submitted his work for approval, Þorlákr Runólfsson, bishop of Skálholt (1085-1133), was himself the grandson of Snorri, the son of the Vínland voyagers Þorfinnr karlsefni and Guðríðr, and a man as likely as anyone to have known what there was to be known about the Vínland voyages. This all fits in well with an entry in the Icelandic annals for the year 1121, which records that Eiríkr upsi Gnúpsson, bishop of Greenland, set out to look for Vínland himself; nothing more was ever heard of him, but his journey in itself provides a further indication of a general awareness of Vínland and the earlier voyages across the Atlantic around the time that Ari was writing.

The Vínland sagas per se consist of two independent works: Eiríks saga rauða (‘Saga of Erik the Red’) and Grœnlendinga saga (‘Saga of the Greenlanders’). Eiríks saga is preserved in two Icelandic manuscripts, Hauksbók from the first half of the 14th century and Skálholtsbók from the first half of the 15th century, both based on an original written some time after 1263, which in turn was probably based on an older text from the first half of the 13th century (see Ólafur Halldórsson 1985:367-9). The saga in fact has little to say about Eiríkr himself and appears to have been written to elevate the memory of the first Europeans to have a child in North America, Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir from Laugarbrekka on Snæfellsnes in western Iceland and Þorfinnr karlsefni, whose son Snorri was born during their three-year expedition to Straumsfjörður, east and south of Leifr’s Vínland. Karlsefni was from one of the best families in Iceland, a descendant of Kjarval, king of the Irish, and of the great matriarch Auðr djúpúðga (‘Auðr the Deep-Minded’), who had been the wife of a viking king of Dublin before moving to Iceland and settling in the Dalir region. Guðríðr, on the other hand, was the granddaughter of a former Gaelic slave called Vífill brought to Iceland and freed by Auðr; this rather obscure background perhaps explains the somewhat frosty reception given to Guðríðr by her mother-in-law when Karlsefni returned home to Skagafjörður in the north of Iceland after his journey to Vínland. According to Eiríks saga rauða, King Óláfr Tryggvason of Norway entrusted Leifr Eiríksson, the son of Eiríkr rauði, with a mission to convert the Greenlanders to Christianity.

Grœnlendinga saga is preserved only in Flateyjarbók from around 1387 and forms part of one version of the compilation known as Óláfs saga Tryggvasonar hin mesta (‘Greatest Saga of Óláfr Tryggvason’). It therefore lacks its original beginning, this being replaced by a general introduction in the previous chapter about Eiríkr rauði and Greenland based on material from the Sturlubók redaction of Landnámabók. There is no doubt, however, that the saga was written much earlier, possibly at the very beginning of the 13th century, though there is little in the way of hard evidence to prove this (see Ólafur Halldórsson 1985:390-5, Ólason, V. 2001). The saga focuses on the role of Leifr Eiríksson. It describes his first voyage of exploration to Vínland in some detail and includes the tale, also found in Eiríks saga rauða, of how he got his nickname—Leifr heppni (‘Leif the Lucky’)—by rescuing some stranded sailors from a rock on his journey home (rescuing others is still considered a sign of luck among Icelandic seafarers). Grœnlendinga saga also includes further information on Guðríðr, the wife of Þorfinnr karlsefni, that in her later years she made a pilgrimage to Rome, as a result of which she later acquired the nickname ‘víðfǫrla’ (‘the Wide-Traveled’), before ending her days as a nun in Skagafjörður.

Both the Vínland sagas were written in the first half of the 13th century, independently of each other. They reflect a saga tradition among the descendants of Guðríðr and Þorfinnr karlsefni and both mention with pride that among their descendants were three bishops of the 12th and 13th centuries. In many respects their narratives tell the same story, but they also differ on a large number of points, making them particularly interesting for any discussion of the interconnections linking the sagas, oral tradition, and the external historical reality.

Table 7-1: The Vínland sagas. Material common to both sagas is shown in bold.

Eiríks saga rauða Grœnlendinga saga
Guðríðr comes to Greenland from Iceland with her father in a group of thirty people. Half of them fall ill and die on the way. A seeress tells Guðríðr’s future and she goes to Eiríkr rauði. Leifr accepts King Óláfr Tryggvason’s commission to promote Christianity in Greenland.
Leifr is blown off course and finds previously unknown lands to the west of Greenland where self-propagating wheat, grapevines, and mǫsurr trees grow. He rescues a group of people shipwrecked on a rock, converts them to Christianity, and is given the nickname ‘heppni’ (‘lucky’).
Bjarni Herjólfsson is blown off course and sees previously unknown forested lands to the west of Greenland.
Leifr buys Bjarni’s ship and asks his father Eiríkr to come with him. Eiríkr says he is too old for such a journey but in the end agrees to go. On their way to ship, Eiríkr falls from his horse and returns home. Leifr discovers Helluland, Markland, and Vínland and on the way home rescues Þórir and his crew, fifteen all told, from a rock where they have been shipwrecked. They all fall ill during the winter and Þórir and some of the others die. Guðríðr is Þórir’s wife. Leifr gets the nickname ‘heppni’ (‘lucky’) from saving these people.
Leifr’s brother Þorvaldr explores lands to the west and east of Leifr’s camp at Leifsbúðir. He wrecks his ship on a headland, which from this becomes known as Kjalarnes (‘Keel Point’).
Þorvaldr says he wishes to settle thereabouts, but then they see nine men under three skin-covered boats and kill them all except one, who escapes. They are attacked by a large force of natives. Þorvaldr is killed by an arrow and buried on Krossanes.
Eiríkr rauði’s son Þorsteinn buys Guðríðr’s father’s ship and persuades Eiríkr to come with him on the voyage. Eiríkr hides his gold before setting off, but on the way to ship he falls from his horse and refuses to go any further. The others lose their bearings and sail around lost for the whole summer.

Þorsteinn Eiríksson marries Guðríðr, Þórir’s widow. They set sail for Vínland but lose their way and finish up in Lýsufjörður in Greenland. Þorsteinn dies but rises up from his deathbed and foretells Guðríðr’s future. His remains are moved to consecrated ground at Brattahlíð. Guðríðr also moves to Brattahlíð.

Þorsteinn marries Guðríðr and they move to Lýsufjörður in the Western Settlement of Greenland. Þorsteinn falls ill and dies, but rises up from his deathbed and foretells Guðríðr’s future. His remains are moved to consecrated ground at Brattahlíð. Guðríðr’s father dies and she moves to Brattahlíð.
Þorfinnr karlsefni comes to Greenland and marries Guðríðr. There is much talk about voyages to Vínland, and Karlsefni and Guðríðr decide to go. With them go Eiríkr’s daughter Freydís, her husband Þorvarðr, and Eiríkr’s son Þorvaldr. They find Helluland, Markland, and Bjarney, as well as the keel of a ship on Kjalarnes.
Þorfinnr karlsefni comes to Greenland and marries Guðríðr. There is much talk about voyages to Vínland, and Karlsefni and Guðríðr decide to go. They intend to settle, so they take livestock with them.
They sail past Furðustrandir and stop at Straumsfjörður, where they find a beached whale. One ship intends to sail north around Kjalarnes in search of Vínland but is blown off course. Karlsefni continues south to Hóp, taking the livestock with him.
They arrive at Leifsbúðir, where they find a beached whale that provides them with plenty to eat. They also live off the land, hunting, fishing, and collecting grapes.
At Hóp they meet native Skrælingar. Karlsefni and his men trade with them, giving them red cloths in return for skins. Karlsefni forbids his men from trading their weapons. The Skrælingar are frightened away by a bull.
But they return and attack Karlsefni and his men, who flee. Freydís, who is pregnant, puts the Skrælingar to flight by baring her breasts and beating on them with a sword.
The Skrælingar find one of their number dead with an iron axe in his head. They take the axe and try it out on a tree, but it breaks on a stone and they throw it away.
On the way home, Karlsefni kills five Skrælingar sleeping in their bags/boats made of hides. These Skrælingar feed on blood and bone marrow.
After one winter they become aware of natives, who become frightened by Karlsefni’s bull. They trade with the natives, who offer furs and want weapons in return, but Karlsefni forbids this.
Guðríðr gives birth to a son, Snorri, and sees a phantom. Karlsefni plans to use the bull to frighten off the natives. The natives attack and many are killed. One of them tries out an iron axe by striking one of his companions and killing him. Their leader picks up the axe and throws it into the sea.
The following spring Karlsefni decides to return to Greenland, taking with him timber, berries, and skins.
Karlsefni sails north around Kjalarnes and comes to a river flowing eastwards. A one-legged man appears and shoots an arrow at Þorvaldr. He pulls it out and is impressed to see the fat hanging from it, a sign of prosperity in the new land.
They realize they are looking at the same mountains as they had seen from Hóp, but from the other side. They estimate the distance from here to Straumsfjörður to be about the same as that from Straumsfjörður south to Hóp.
At Straumsfjörður there is a quarrel over women. Snorri, the son of Guðríðr and Karlsefni, is now three years old. They take hostages on their way home and lose yet another ship.
Freydís Eiríksdóttir leads an expedition to Vínland with her husband, Þorvarðr of Garðar. Egged on by Freydís, the members of the expedition fall out and start fighting at Leifsbúðir. She kills the women herself and the survivors return to Greenland. Leifr condemns Freydís’s behavior.
Karlsefni and Guðríðr move to Iceland and settle at Reynines in Skagafjörður. Karlsefni’s mother takes against Guðríðr, considering her to be too low-born to marry into their family, but eventually comes to accept her.
Three bishops are named as being descended from Karlsefni and Guðríðr.
Karlsefni goes to Norway and sells his goods. He returns to Iceland and makes his home with Guðríðr and their son Snorri at Glaumbær in Skagafjörður.
Three bishops are named as being descended from Karlsefni and Guðríðr.

The place of the Vínland sagas among the sagas of Icelanders

As works of literature, the Vínland sagas are generally included among the sagas of Icelanders, though as regards subject matter their main interest is in journeys rather than some kind of feuding. Greenland is mentioned many times in the sagas of Icelanders, including Flóamanna saga, Fóstbrœðra saga, Bárðar saga, Eyrbyggja saga, Gísla saga, Hallfreðar saga, Jǫkuls þáttr Búasonar, Króka-Refs saga, Auðunar þáttr vestfirzka, and Grœnlendinga þáttr (which is set later than the other sagas), and there is a general awareness and familiarity with Greenland throughout the world of the sagas. However, as a result of the distance it is possible to have adventures happening there that would be unthinkable in an Icelandic setting. If the Vínland sagas contain any genuine information about past events, the only possible place that the writers who put them together could have gotten this information from is oral tradition, i.e. traditional tales and the memories of living people. These sagas purport to describe some extremely unusual sea journeys, undertaken more than two centuries before the texts were written. The stories about these journeys must therefore have altered in their handling over time and undergone modifications in line with the laws of oral narrative. They would without doubt have been kept alive by the descendants of those who undertook the original voyages, but they would equally have been taken up by mariners, who at this time, as at all times, would have exchanged stories and information about distant places, how to get to them, and how unfamiliar lands might be recognized from the descriptions of routes and places included in such stories; as mentioned earlier (p. 57), one of the prime functions of oral poetry and storytelling is to act as a reservoir for the fund of information on which oral societies depend in order to operate.

Even though the Vínland sagas are literary products, cast in the mold of the dominant form of the time when they were written and colored by the prevailing beliefs and assumptions, they are equally clearly based on memories of former times passed down orally from generation to generation by the people of Iceland. They are not spun out of thin air like creative fiction, and they are most certainly not to be viewed as myths or legends. There can thus be little doubt that they contain genuine memories about actual people and events that took place around the year 1000. But it is equally certain that the saga accounts of these characters and events do not mirror historical reality in every respect; they disagree on many minor points and contain much that would now be considered fanciful or supernatural, such as the account in Eiríks saga rauða of the one-legged man (for all that such things were an integral part of the ‘real world’ to the medieval mind). All in all, the sagas represent the best evidence we have that people from Greenland and Iceland undertook a number of voyages to the North American continent at about the time the sagas indicate; we do not need archaeological finds, rune stones, or the so-called Vínland Map to prove this basic fact.

The Vínland sagas thus present an object exercise in any attempt to winnow out any grain of truth that might lie behind the ancient Icelandic sources. For many years these sagas were victims of a philological methodology that sought to explain all vaguely similar occurrences in medieval texts as examples of literary relations, i.e. as borrowings between written works (rittengsl). Strict application of these methods led Jón Jóhannesson (1956) to conclude that Grœnlendinga saga was older and more reliable than Eiríks saga rauða and that the latter had used the former as a source. Prior to this, scholars had adopted a variety of differing views, some giving precedence to one or other of the sagas, and some treating each as being of equal value. However, more recent research by Ólafur Halldórsson based on a detailed analysis of the texts has largely overturned the picture presented by Jóhannesson. Halldórsson (1978:293-400, 1985:341-99) came to the conclusion that the correspondences between the texts do not permit interpretation in terms of a literary relationship in which one saga was written based on the other; this being the case, the similarities and differences between the two sagas are, in his view, best explained by viewing them as having been written independently of each other, each drawing on traditional material that was circulating in oral form at the time of their writing. Halldórsson’s conclusions have not as yet been seriously challenged. Thus we can say that the traditional philological methodology, supported by mistaken assumptions about the nature of oral tradition, led scholars to mistaken conclusions about the textual relations between the two Vínland sagas, very much as in the case of the sagas from the east of Iceland discussed in Chapters 4 and 5.

L’Anse aux Meadows: viking remains in Newfoundland

Early in the 1960s the archaeologists Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad started excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows at the northwestern tip of Newfoundland. It immediately became apparent that the site contained remains from the Viking Age, including dwellings of a type common in Greenland and Iceland, and thus provided the first concrete proof of Scandinavian visitors to North America and hard evidence of at least one place they had visited. In his report, Helge Ingstad (1985) somewhat speculatively identified the site with Leifr Eiríksson’s Vínland as described in the sagas. However, Ingstad’s identification was based on Jóhannesson’s view that Eiríks saga rauða was a reworking of Grœnlendinga saga, a view that is no longer sustainable. This allowed him to reject some of the material found in Eiríks saga in favor of the accounts in Grœnlendinga saga, in which all the voyages after Leifr’s call at the so-called ‘Leifsbúðir’ (‘Leifr’s Camp’), as a result of which his identification could be made to fit in with everything in the sagas that he considered to be of independent value. Ingstad thus felt confident that he had discovered the one true Vínland—or *Vinland as he believed the word should be: see below, p. 276. However, from archaeological work carried out since the early findings, it is now clear that L’Anse aux Meadows was in fact used as a staging post at an easily located point on the sea route from Greenland to lands farther south. A further advantage of the site was that it offered the explorers immunity from incursions by indigenous peoples: northern Newfoundland had previously been occupied by native Americans and was to be so again, but it appears that at the time in question, i.e. around the year 1000, the area was temporarily deserted (Wallace 2000).

The site contained three dwelling halls and a number of smaller buildings that were used for only a few years around the year 1000 and would have housed sixty to ninety occupants. By the largest hall, probably the chieftain’s, was a boathouse where ships’ nails and pins were replaced. The smallest hall was used for carpentry work, while the third contained a forge for working iron extracted from bog iron in a furnace situated on the other side of the stream that runs past the site; altogether, the iron produced at the furnace and forge would have sufficed to make around 150 nails. A number of smaller buildings were also found, some of which would probably have been lodgings for workmen or even slaves.

A further pointer to the origins and cultural contacts of the people from Iceland and Greenland at L’Anse aux Meadows a thousand years ago is a ringed pin of a type associated with Viking Dublin in Ireland. Fastenings of this particular type are unknown from Norway but are common in Viking Age finds from Ireland, Britain, and Denmark and fifteen have been found in Iceland (see p. 260). The discovery of this artifact reinforces the picture we receive of the Vínland voyages from the sagas, viz. that they included people from Iceland with strong connections with the British Isles. Other finds include ships’ rivets, evidence of ship repair work carried out at L’Anse aux Meadows, and a bone needle and a soapstone spindle whorl, indicating that there were women among the residents of the camp. All these finds are in line with the general picture of the voyages that we find in the written sources.

The northern tip of Newfoundland is hardly the sort of place to give rise to memories like those preserved in the sagas about Leifr Eiríksson’s Vínland, the land of wine and grapes, and the archaeological evidence removes all doubt that the people who used L’Anse aux Meadows were also familiar with regions further south. There is thus absolutely no reason to identify the site with Vínland, as Ingstad attempted to do. However, it is highly unlikely that such a large staging post would have disappeared entirely from people’s memories—memories that clearly go back to some extent to real events—and it may well be that L’Anse aux Meadows is the place described in the Grœnlendinga saga accounts of the voyages of Þorvaldr and Freydís, as described below.

Two independent sagas—a re-examination

Ólafur Halldórsson’s recent finding of the textual independence of the two sagas opens the way for a thorough re-examination of the whereabouts of Vínland. Now that we can read the two sagas as independent accounts deriving from an oral tradition, we can look at them from a broader perspective, taking into account the fluid nature of all orally derived texts as well as the specific knowledge obtained from L’Anse aux Meadows. We can now look at the sagas as sources of information on their own terms, bearing in mind that without the explicit testimony of the sagas no one would ever have dreamed of going off to North America in search of remains left by Viking Age travelers and explorers from Greenland and Iceland. However, there is no question of the sagas giving us the whole truth about these voyages; they are a compilation of memories from a distant past, assembled, organized coherently, and written down for the first time in the thirteenth century, and thus a patent combination of fact and fiction, a body of disparate information that was kept alive on people’s lips over several generations before finally finding its way onto parchment. There are thus strict limits to how far we can go in treating these sagas as sources, but if we are clear about their general nature there may also be certain advantages.

The scholarly search for Vínland

We cannot hope to find accurate locations for the places where people of Icelandic or Greenlandic origin landed on the east coast of North America using the evidence of the sagas alone; the descriptions are too general in nature to allow us to pinpoint the individual places mentioned with any accuracy. Much in the sagas, however, fits in well with the general descriptions of the vegetation and inhabitants of the east coast given by explorers in later times (see Ólafur Halldórsson 1978:371-3; Gathorne-Hardy 1921:173-95). This has led to innumerable attempts to identify the places mentioned in the ancient accounts with various sites along the east coast, but the very nature of the sources allows for endless differences of opinion, so that perhaps the most striking feature of the attempts to locate Vínland is that each and every person to have made one has disagreed with everyone else. In these attempts, some have chosen to accept the word of Grœnlendinga saga over that of Eiríks saga rauða, and some the reverse; some have taken both as equally valid sources; and others have set about emending the texts to make them fit in with the topography of wherever their favored locations lie for the landings of the Vínland voyagers. Thus people’s attitudes to the sources and the emendations they have seen fit to introduce have inevitably influenced the ways in which they have interpreted the texts.

Figure 7-2: The World of Vίnland Studies

The search for Vínland began in earnest with the publication of Carl Christian Rafn’s excellent diplomatic edition of the Vínland sagas in 1837. From this point on, the northeastern states of the United States, in New England, became the favored hunting ground of Vínland- seekers, working out from Rafn’s idea that Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts provided the best candidates; for instance, Rafn himself identified the Straum(s)ey of the texts with the island of Martha’s Vineyard. Rafn regarded both the sagas as of equal value and his views dominated thinking for most of the 19th century, giving rise to a certain civic pride among the residents of the Boston area and Cape Cod that their homes had once been the haunt of ancient vikings. The first major challenge to these ideas came with Gustav Storm’s edition of the texts in 1887, including the results of his own research, in which he argued that all the events said in the sagas to have taken place south of Markland should be located on Cape Breton Island and in Nova Scotia. Storm was much more critical than Rafn in his treatment and evaluation of the texts and, even though his theory about Vínland being in Nova Scotia was given a lukewarm reception, his main conclusion, that Eiríks saga rauða was a more reliable source than Grœnlendinga saga, was generally accepted.

In 1910 the botanist M. L. Fernald (1910, 1915) turned his attention much farther north, identifying the ‘vínber’ (‘grapes’) of the sagas with cranberries, which grow in more northerly regions, the ‘self-propagating wheat’ with strand wheat, and the mǫsurr-wood with canoe birch. By so doing he was able to shift the Vínland of the sagas all the way to Labrador. Fernald’s ideas based on the plants mentioned found little favor until they were picked up on by Samuel Eliot Morison (1971:52) in the light of the findings at L’Anse aux Meadows. Morison also suggested that the ‘Straum(s)fjörður’ of Guðríðr and Karlsefni was the Strait of Belle Island, between Newfoundland and Labrador, and that their three-year expedition had taken them not far beyond L’Anse aux Meadows, viz. a single day’s sailing south along the shores of Newfoundland, first down the east coast (where Morison located ‘Hóp’) and then down the west coast (where he took ‘Einfœtingaland’ to be): see Morison 1971:53-6.

In 1911 Vínland studies took a novel turn with the publication of the ideas of the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen. Nansen claimed that the Vínland sagas had gotten most of their material from hagiographical legends about blessed islands in the western ocean, though he did not go so far as to maintain that people from Greenland had never set foot on the mainland of North America. This hypothesis received a very muted reception at the time of its publication but literary scholars have subsequently echoed various of Nansen’s views and drawn attention to parallels between the sagas and the ideological world of medieval works written in the Christian learned and religious tradition (see Tómasson 2000).

William H. Babcock (1913) followed Storm in setting greater store by Eiríks saga than Grœnlendinga saga. He located Markland on Newfoundland, Kjalarnes at the northwest of Cape Breton Island, Furðustrandir in Nova Scotia, Straum(s)fjörður and Straum(s)ey as the Bay of Fundy and Grand Manan Island, and Hóp as Mount Hope Bay, the same as Rafn had suggested almost a century before. W. A. Munn’s suggestion in 1914 that Vínland had lain somewhere toward the north of Newfoundland, close to L’Anse aux Meadows, remained unnoticed by the scholarly world for several decades. Hans P. Steensby (1918) interpreted Karlsefni and Guðríðr’s voyage in Eiríks saga rauða as following a route westward along the south coast of Labrador, where he located Furðustrandir, and into the estuary of the St. Lawrence, where he placed his Straum(s)fjörður, with Hóp further inland. Despite Steenby’s failure to find a place for the story of Þórhallr the Hunter and Karlsefni’s search for him within this picture, his suggestions gained wide acceptance. G. M. Gathorne-Hardy’s (1921) translation of the sagas made a number of valuable contributions to Vínland studies. Perhaps the most important lay in his comparisons between the saga accounts and the descriptions given by later travelers in the region of its geography and the ethnology of its native inhabitants. Gathorne-Hardy is also interesting in that he took the modern view of treating both sagas as representatives of differing narrative traditions and treating them with equal credence. He suggested the following locations: Helluland, Labrador or Newfoundland; Markland, Nova Scotia; Furðustrandir, Cape Cod and Barnstable; Straum(s)ey, Fisher’s Island; Straum(s)fjörður, Long Island Sound; and Hóp, the mouth of the Hudson River.

Halldór Hermannsson (1936) produced a considerably more conservative interpretation of the sagas, rejecting most of the material and taking the view that the only parts that were of genuine value were the two voyages described in Eiríks saga rauða, Leifr Eiríksson’s chance discovery of Vínland in the west and the subsequent expedition led by Karlsefni. Leifr, he believed, had sighted land in New England, to the south of the Passamaquoddy Bay, and then sailed north and been carried by the currents into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, before finally making his way back along the northern shore of the Gulf. Karlsefni had then retraced Leifr’s route south and into the Gulf of St. Lawrence; Furðustrandir was on the southern shore of Labrador around Blanc Sablon (as Steensby also believed); Kjalarnes was on Anticosti Island; Straum(s)fjörður was Chaleur Bay on the Gulf of St. Lawrence; and Hóp lay farther to the south on the coast of New England. An interesting and original study of the problems appeared in Finland in a book by V. Tanner (1941). Tanner had himself sailed along the coast of Labrador and come to the conclusion that this was the area of the sagas, extending south to Newfoundland (where he placed Leifsbúðir, very close to L’Anse aux Meadows). Tanner considered Straum(s)fjörður to be the Strait of Belle Isle. In line with the general view at the time, Matthías Þórðarson (1929) considered Eiríks saga to be the more reliable account and limited his ideas on Leifr’s route to this source alone, reaching the conclusion that Leifr’s journey had taken him south beyond Nova Scotia. Þórðarson went into much greater detail on the subject of Karlsefni’s voyage, which he envisaged as going west along the south coast of Labrador and north of Anticosti Island, returning to land a little to the west of Prince Edward Island (Straum(s)fjörður), and finally reaching Hóp somewhere on the coast of New England.

A recurrent feature of much of this research is the strong partiality shown for New England and the northeastern states of the USA as the final destination for the Vínland voyages. But little by little it began to dawn on people that to the north of the USA lies an enormous land called Canada, which anyone sailing southwest from Greenland in days of old could not have failed to notice. As a result, the focus began to shift to Nova Scotia, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, and Labrador as probable landing places for the mariners of yore. After around 1950, historians became ever more skeptical about the status of the sagas as sources and fewer and fewer academically trained scholars showed themselves willing to come forward and put their reputations on the line with ideas that were likely to be treated as unsubstantiated hypotheses. As a result there was a sharp decline in the number of serious attempts to solve the riddle of Vínland. By the time the Ingstads made their discoveries at L’Anse aux Meadows, there was a growing body of opinion that behind the sagas there were in fact no genuine memories of genuine voyages. The initial response to the archaeological proof provided by the Ingstads—in so far as it was acknowledged at all—was therefore to believe that everything had now been found that was to be found; this was the Vínland of the sagas and there was no point in looking any further; if the descriptions in the sagas failed to match up with this place, then these descriptions were the creations and exaggerations of generations of storytellers. So literary scholars went about reading the sagas from a purely literary perspective, without reference to any source value they might have; among historians they became something of a no-go-area; and the archaeologists felt they had enough to keep themselves busy with the material from L’Anse aux Meadows without needing to keep turning back to the sagas in search of inspiration.

Given the northerly location of his Vínland, Ingstad resurrected an idea put forward many years previously by Sven Söderberg (1910), that—despite the unanimity of all the sources— ‘Vínland’ had nothing whatsoever to do with wine but was a misunderstanding or textual corruption for an original *Vinland, the first element being vin, denoting a patch of grass, rather than vín, wine, vine; the original meaning of the word was thus ‘grassland,’ an apt description for the area around L’Anse aux Meadows—and problem solved! This hypothesis has been accepted by a number of other scholars, for example Erik Lönnroth (1996) and Magnús Stefánsson (1997), fitting in as it does so neatly with the view that the saga descriptions of ‘Vínland’ as a land of wine and plenty are unsupported fictions inspired by other medieval writings. However, others, the great majority, rejected this idea entirely, both on linguistic grounds and because of the agreement of all the various sources on the presence of vines in Vínland, a feature supported by the reports of 16th-century explorers of the landscape and flora of the lands around the Gulf of St. Lawrence: see Haugen (1981), Davíðsson (1965), Wahlgren (1974), Holm (1997), and Crozier (1998).

More recently, the archaeologist Birgitta Wallace (2000), who took over the excavations at L’Anse aux Meadows on the retirement of the Ingstads, has adopted a rather more imaginative approach in her interpretation of the finds. Her view is that the ‘Hóp’ described in Eiríks saga rauða could well lie some way south of L’Anse aux Meadows, her favored location being somewhere on the southern shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, in particular the tidal pool at the mouth of the Miramichi River; in support of this, it seems eminently probable that this is the kind of area that travelers from Greenland would have headed to in search of better land once they had gotten as far as L’Anse aux Meadows. However, another fairly recent theory, that of T. E. Lee (1971) puts the location of the Vínland journeys considerably farther to the north; Lee argues that Scandinavian artifacts found in longhouses on Pamiok Island in Ungava Bay, towards the north of the Labrador coast, go back to 11th-century visits by Norse explorers. This may be possible, but it is also possible that these artifacts were acquired by Inuits through trade elsewhere and brought by them to this site.

Table 7-2: Suggested locations of places mentioned in the Vínland sagas. GS = Grœnlendinga saga. ES = Eiríks saga rauða.



Four other attempts at overall interpretations of the Vínland sagas warrant special mention, those of Farley Mowatt (1965), Erik Wahlgren (1986), Páll Bergþórsson (2000), and Mats Larsson (1992, 1999). Mowatt went into the saga accounts in great detail, concentrating on the east coast of Newfoundland in his attempt to explain the voyages of Leifr Eiríksson, while those of Þorvaldr and Karlsefni he considered most likely to have been confined to the area immediately around L’Anse aux Meadows. Wahlgren sent Leifr all the way south to the Bay of Fundy but had Karlsefni settling at L’Anse aux Meadows and giving it the name Straum(s)fjörður. Bergþórsson, on the other hand, has the Vínland explorers make their way step by step down the east coast of North America: Leifr sails west along the north coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, then south from Anticosti Island and into the mouth of the St. Lawrence; Þorvaldr explores the southern shores of the Gulf, while Karlsefni sails down along the coast of Nova Scotia and into the Bay of Fundy, and finally all the way south to the mouth of the Hudson River, to the site of modern New York. Larsson’s search for the location of Vínland focuses mainly on southern Nova Scotia.

Although the views outlined above appear to offer highly contradictory conclusions derived from readings of the same sources, it should be borne in mind that this is not essentially a matter of different understandings of what the texts actually say but of different ideas about the nature of the texts, their textual interrelations, and their reliability. Scholars’ views have differed on these matters and these views have in turn influenced their interpretations of the texts. Where the information given in the texts on climate and vegetation appears to conflict with the information they give on routes, many scholars have been inclined to place more faith in what they say about the land conditions, such as the mildness of the Vínland winter experienced by Leifr in Grœnlendinga saga, than in the navigational directions. Thus the task remains unchanged: the sagas have very concrete stories to tell, contradictory in some respects but also supplementary; and, most importantly, they need to be analyzed in their own right and on their own terms.

Hoaxes, forgeries, and hard evidence. Ever since the Vínland bug took off in earnest in the first half of the 19th century there have been numerous claims of discoveries of runic inscriptions and archaeological finds supposedly supporting particular theories of the location of Vínland and other places mentioned in the sagas. One early example was a statue found at Bradford, Massachusetts, and claimed to be of Scandinavian origin (Whittier 1841) but subsequently shown to be from the British colonial period. Runes carved on the so-called Dighton Stone convinced even the eminent antiquarian and philologist C. C. Rafn that this was an artifact from Karlsefni’s voyage—mistakenly as it was later shown (Delabarre 1917, 1918, 1919). A stone tower at Newport, Rhode Island, was at one time believed to date from the Viking Age but was later identified as a mill referred to in his will by Benedict Arnold (1615-77), an early governor of Rhode Island (Godfrey 1949, 1950, 1951). On the island of No Man’s Land, just off Martha’s Vineyard, a ‘runic’ inscription turned up in around 1920 with the name Leifr Eiríksson and the date MI in Roman numerals, i.e. 1001 (Delabarre and Brown 1935); the inscription was in fact a hoax and the lettering recently carved, but before this came to light the ‘find’ had made its way into a number of authoritative reference books and become part of popular learning, manifested most recently when First Lady Hillary Clinton, in a speech announcing the staging of a major viking exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington in the year 2000, referred blithely to viking runes having been found in the area. Any number of other finds have been reported, such as the mooring holes in Maine and elsewhere where vikings are supposed to have tied up their ships (Pohl 1952), often backed up with alleged runic inscriptions, sparking off enthusiastic debate in certain circles, though in all cases they can be shown with absolute certainty to be either hoaxes or to have no connections whatsoever with Viking Age Norsemen (see Wallace and Fitzhugh 2000).

The most famous and persistent of these runic forgeries is without doubt the so-called Kensington Stone, dug up on his land by a Swedish immigrant farmer near Kensington, Minnesota, far away at the head of the Great Lakes, in 1898. The inscription tells of a group of Swedes who made it to this area in the year 1362. The inscription is patently 19th-century work: for instance, it includes runic symbols that are only known from post-Reformation times in the Dalarna region of central Sweden; and the language and morphology betray evidence of modern Swedish with influence from English (Wahlgren 1958, Knirk 1997). Minnesota was largely settled by people of Scandinavian, particularly Swedish, origin, many of whom—including the farmer who found the stone—had antiquarian interests and some knowledge of runes. For all that, the Kensington Stone was much discussed for many years and even put on display at the Smithsonian Institution in 1947 before scholars finally demonstrated its inauthenticity beyond dispute. It now stands in a ‘Viking Museum’ in Minnesota, near the place where it was found. There have been other alleged indications of vikings in and around the later Scandinavian settlements in the Dakotas and Minnesota, but none have been accepted by any reputable scholar in the fields of archaeology, history, or philology.

All these ‘finds’ say more about what people want to believe than the realities of Viking history. A recent, much publicized case in point is a stone found in 1997 on the beach in the Bellevue Barachoies near the head of Trinity Bay in southeastern Newfoundland. The finder, a Danish adventurer called Niels Vinding (1998), inspired by the ideas of Farley Mowatt, believed the stone to be from Greenland or Newfoundland and to have been used as ballast in an ocean-going knarr on its way from Greenland to Vínland. However, there is no particular reason to date this stone to the Viking Age nor to link it in any way with ships from that period.

A much better candidate for a relic from the Viking Age in North America is a coin found in 1957 at a native American archaeological site in Maine and shown to have been issued during the reign of Óláfr kyrri (‘the Peaceful’), king of Norway 1067-93. Many have been taken by the idea that this coin perhaps came from the purse of Eiríkr upsi Gnúpsson, bishop of Greenland, who went off in search of Vínland in the year 1121 and was never heard of again; perhaps he did make it to land, leaving this coin behind as the sole relic of his ill-fated journey. Another possibility, perhaps more likely, is that the coin was acquired farther north by indigenous peoples in contact with Icelandic Greenlanders and brought south to Maine by trade or barter (Cox 2000).

In spite of all these fakes and forgeries, and the misconceptions and false hopes they have raised, it is a salutary lesson that the search for remains left by people from Greenland and Iceland in the Viking Age eventually did bear fruit on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland in the early 1960s, and that this has given us at least one fixed point from which to operate. It is perfectly admissible to entertain the thought that the finds at L’Anse aux Meadows are reflected in some (though not necessarily all) of the camps described in sagas that were set down on parchment in Iceland over 200 years later.

Calculations of latitude. Many scholars have looked beyond the direct descriptions of the sailing routes in their attempts to reconcile the accounts in the sagas with the realities of the east coast of North America. In particular, there is a reference in Grœnlendinga saga to a measurement taken by Leifr Eiríksson’s party of the length of day at the winter solstice in Vínland, which, if reliable, ought to provide a fairly accurate indication of where they were at the time: ‘Meira var þar jafndœgri en á Grœnlandi eða Íslandi; sól hafði þar eyktar stað ok dagmála stað um skammdegi’ (‘Day and night were more equal there than in Greenland or Iceland; in the depths of winter the sun was in the sky [presumably, set and rose] at around 3 p.m. and 9 a.m.’) (ÍF IV:251). However, scholars have interpreted this passage in remarkably conflicting ways and calculated the latitude referred to as anything between 31°N and 50°N. Apart from the fact that the text refers to ‘the depths of winter’ (‘skammdegi’) rather than what would have been the more precise ‘solstice’ (‘sólstaða,’ ‘sólhvarf’), there is a problem in precisely how the words ‘eyktarstaðr’ and ‘dagmálastaðr’ should be interpreted; the general sense of these words is the position in the sky where the sun is at eykt (around 3-3:30 p.m.) and dagmál (around 9 a.m.) respectively, but the question arises as to whether the reference is to time or to the position on the horizon where the sun sets and rises. Gustav Storm (1886), with the help of the astronomer Hans Geelmuyden, made a thorough and determined attempt to solve this problem late in the 19th century and came to a conclusion that Leifr’s reading had been made a little to the south of about 50°N, the latitude of northern Newfoundland; this was reckoned to be too far north at the time, when the dominant view was that Vínland lay somewhere in New England, and Storm’s work was largely ignored. Recently the matter has been taken up again by Páll Bergþórsson (2000:161-5). Bergþórsson’s study is marked by attention to detail and an expert knowledge of Icelandic chronological terminology and comes to the conclusion that the observation refers to the direction and position of the sun on the horizon at sunrise and sunset and thus corresponds fairly accurately to the latitude of L’Anse aux Meadows.

Flora and fauna. The descriptions of the qualities of the land, the vegetation and the types of fish encountered by the saga characters have also been used to narrow down the search for Vínland. If we assume that the grapes mentioned in the sagas are true wild grapes (Vitis riparia) and not just some kind of berry (see Kristjánsson 2001), the northern limit for Vínland can be set somewhere along the southern shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which almost forms an inland sea enclosed by the island of Newfoundland. Wild grapes were such a conspicuous part of the local flora here when the first post-Viking Europeans arrived in the 16th century that the French explorer Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) gave the name Île de Bacchus to a site near the modern city of Quebec at the mouth of the St. Lawrence. On the south side of Miramichi Bay in New Brunswick is a smaller bay called Baie de Vin (Wine Bay), a name which goes back to the early settlers. It is hardly possible to imagine anything closer in spirit to the way Leifr regarded the land he visited 500 years earlier when he chose to call it Vínland.

The self-propagating wheat mentioned in the sagas may refer to wild rye (Elymus virginicus), which grows in the same area and looks much like wheat (Larsson 1992:314). The northern limits of both wild rye and wild grapes coincide fairly closely with the northern limit of the butternut (Juglans cinerea), as found at L’Anse aux Meadows, proving beyond doubt that the explorers who brought these nuts to L’Anse aux Meadows would also have come across true wild grapes in profusion on their travels.

According to Grœnlendinga saga, in the place they named Vínland Leifr’s men encountered salmon both larger and more numerous than any they had seen before. The Canadian archaeologist Catherine Carlson (1996) has shown that in the 11th century there were no salmon in the rivers of Maine or further south as a result of the warmer climate then prevailing. The rivers flowing into the southern shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, however, would have been, then as now, teaming with salmon. Moreover, according to the marine biologist David Cairns of the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans, salmon enter the rivers of Prince Edward Island, northern Nova Scotia, and southeastern New Brunswick for breeding after two or more years at sea (that is two or multi-sea-winter salmon) as opposed to just one year in Newfoundland (those are called grilse, and dominate the rivers in Newfoundland), making them appreciably larger than those in Newfoundland.

Putting all this together, we can narrow down the likely location of Leifr’s Vínland to the area between Maine in the USA and the southern shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Other natural resources would also seem to point in this general direction: for instance, the mǫsurr-wood mentioned, i.e. burlwood, which grows on several types of tree in the area, and the beached whale. Slightly more problematic, but in no way contradicting the overall conclusion, are the ‘helgir fiskar’ (‘holy fish’) caught by Karlsefni at Hóp. This certainly refers to some kind of flatfish: the term is often translated ‘halibut,’ though in fact the species is unclear. The latest and most exhaustive attempt to identify this fish is that of Páll Bergþórsson (2000:83), who believes it to have been the winter flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus), which is common in these waters. Karlsefni’s Hóp lay well to the south of Leifr’s Vínland and the sources mention good catches of fish, but perhaps significantly not of salmon, which might point to Hóp having been beyond the southern limit of salmon distribution.

Using the Textual Evidence

When interpreting the saga texts we do not need to assume that every detail has to be reconciled with what is now known from L’Anse aux Meadows. Nor should we pay undue attention to what is likely, given the resources and techniques of Viking Age seamanship, to have developed into the regular sailing route between Greenland and mainland North America once the area had been explored and the best routes identified. Such knowledge was not available to the first explorers. The evidence of the sagas, which speak of voyages lasting several years, supports the obvious supposition that the pioneers must have taken some time and ranged fairly widely before identifying the most convenient routes and the places they could get to safely in search of the goods and land conditions they were interested in without running the risk of encountering dangerous waters and too many hostile natives. Moreover, people with the whole summer before them to sail south from the northern tip of Newfoundland in search of new lands are unlikely to have had their curiosity slaked after just one day’s sailing down the coasts of Newfoundland or west along the south coast of Labrador, as Samuel Morison (1971:56) would have us believe (see also Kristjánsson 2001). It is more likely that these voyages took them far further afield, especially in the light of what we know of the early exploration of both Iceland and Greenland.

The records tell us that Eiríkr rauði spent three years exploring Greenland from south to north, combing the coastal regions so thoroughly that he was able to locate the very best land in this vast country for the kind of farming he was familiar with. A similar picture emerges from the accounts of the early exploration of Iceland recorded in Landnámabók. The first explorers sailed all around the country, testing the conditions at various places to both north and south—Iceland is about 500 kilometers (310 miles) from east to west, comparable in size to Newfoundland from north to south or Nova Scotia from northeast to southwest. It was not until after several such voyages that the first settler arrived. Ingólfr Arnarson is said to have spent first one and then three years exploring some 400 kilometers (250 miles) of the south coast before eventually settling in Reykjavík—again the ideal location from his perspective when set against all the other regions he had passed through. This suggests that explorers and prospective settlers in the Viking Age thought little of setting up temporary winter quarters, particularly where there were plenty of building materials to hand, as was the case in North America, and of spending several years exploring new territories before finally deciding where best to raise their farms.

Advances in Vínland studies: oral lore, L’Anse aux Meadows, and the independence of the saga accounts

Once we are clear in our minds about the nature of the problems that bedevil Vínland studies, it becomes possible to make reasoned suggestions about the actual course of events that can be inferred from the saga accounts and the routes that the Viking Age mariners are most likely to have taken. In making such suggestions we have the benefit of advances made over the past fifty years or so that offer entirely new perspectives on the field of Vínland studies:

  1. Our knowledge and understanding of oral tradition has increased enormously.
  2. One site has been found in North America where it has been shown beyond doubt that people from Greenland and Iceland once lived, albeit temporarily, around the time when the events in the sagas are supposed to have taken place.
  3. We now know that the two sagas were written independently of each other. Each of them is thus based on differing oral traditions that can reasonably be traced back to the same events and/or accounts. So, to extract any source value from the sagas, they need to be taken together, warts and all; they are both equally reliable and equally unreliable. There is no justification for accepting what one of them says and rejecting the other—that is, if we think that they have anything to say to us at all.

One thing that is quite clear is that the two Vínland sagas draw on similar or comparable memories about the same voyages but differ greatly in the amount of detail they accord to each. In this respect each compliments the other. Grœnlendinga saga has more to say about the voyages of Leifr and Þorvaldr Eiríksson, while in Eiríks saga rauða the center of interest lies in the expedition of Þorfinnr karlsefni and Guðríðr, about which Grœnlendinga saga says comparatively little. Given this difference in perspective, it need hardly surprise us that Grœnlendinga saga should tell us little more about Karlsefni and Guðríðr than that they went to the same place as Þorvaldr had visited previously, with some grapes and battles with the natives thrown in for good measure, and leave it more or less at that. If we take account of the differing interests and purposes of the two texts in this way, there is no absolute reason to go along with Jón Jóhannesson’s contention that the account of the journey of Karlsefni and Guðríðr in Eiríks saga is the product of an amalgamation of all three of the journeys described in Grœnlendinga saga—as if the writer of the saga knew better than his source what had actually happened. However, there are clear signs that the writer of Eiríks saga was working on the assumption that his audience already knew something about the previous journeys; for example, the saga takes for granted an awareness of the location of Leifr’s Vínland without ever describing it in any detail in the text. Eiríks saga is perfectly clear about Karlsefni and Guðríðr going to places other than those explored by Leifr, both farther east and farther south. Again, when dealing with Kjalarnes and the stories surrounding it, Eiríks saga clearly assumes that its audience has some kind of prior knowledge of the events in question, a knowledge that must come from elsewhere since it is not in the saga as we know it. Features of this sort are, of course, a general property of oral narrative: see pp. 45 and 184.

The main voyages in popular memory

It is fair to assume that the people who told stories about the voyages to Vínland were skilled and experienced seafarers and that it was thus a matter of considerable importance to them to be able to give, receive, and pass on to others information about the best ways of sailing from one place to another—the directions to take, how long they might expect to be at sea, and what landmarks to look out for in the places they were heading to. Details such as these were a matter of life and death to such people and were in all probability integrated into narratives about sea journeys, as is general practice among traditional oral societies that use stories and poems as a way of preserving knowledge (see p. 269). If we read the two Vínland sagas with this in mind and take them seriously as sources, analyzing carefully what they have to say about landfalls, bearings, and sailing routes, and, where they differ, favoring the fuller account over the shorter one, it becomes possible to build up a reasonably coherent mental or ‘immanent’ map of the voyages undertaken.

The fundamental methodological difference inherent in viewing these texts as the product of an oral tradition—rather than as historical documents of uneven reliability, or as works of literature to be analyzed first and foremost in the light of the literary tradition and world view of the European Middle Ages—is that it allows us to put the two sagas together and consider the overall picture they present of the lands and sea routes to the south and west of Greenland, i.e. the whole and inclusive picture preserved within the tradition. We can suppose that this picture bears some resemblance to the picture that 13th-century Icelanders might have been able to build up in their own minds as they listened to and digested the tales about the ancient voyages to Vínland: they had never been to these places themselves and they had no maps to put beside the descriptions of the routes taken, but these lands existed and they could visualize them in their mind’s eye. This is the picture we need to try to recreate before it is even worth considering whether and how well it corresponds with modern maps of the coastline of eastern North America.

There is, of course, no point in approaching the descriptions in the texts as if they were entries in a ship’s logbook, with precise details recorded from day to day of whatever met the eye. The stories were in the first instance told by people who were already familiar with the regions sailed through and were attempting to pass on an image of this to audiences that did not have the same experience and knowledge. These stories were then repeated by others who had never visited the places mentioned but could even so construct a mental image of their own of the configuration of the lands, an image good enough to provide a meaningful context for their descriptions of the routes and to allow their own listeners to build up the same image for themselves.

Bjarni Herjólfsson. The first description, found in Grœnlendinga saga, concerns the voyage of Bjarni Herjólfsson. Bjarni sights three new lands to the west of Greenland when he is blown off course on his way to Greenland from Drepstokkur, near Eyrarbakki on the south coast of Iceland:

En þó halda þeir nú í haf, þegar þeir váru búnir, ok sigldu þrjá daga, þar til er landit var vatnat, en þá tók af byrina, ok lagði á norrœnur ok þokur, ok vissu þeir eigi, hvert at þeir fóru, ok skipti þat mǫrgum dœgrum. But despite this they put out to sea when they were ready, and sailed for three days until they were out of sight of land, and then the wind dropped, and there came breezes from the north and fogs, and they had no idea where they were going, and this continued for many days.
Eftir þat sá þeir sól ok máttu þá deila ættir. Vinda nú segl ok sigla þetta dœgr, áðr þeir sá land, ok rœddu um með sér, hvat landi þetta mun vera, en Bjarni kvezk hyggja, at þat mundi eigi Grœnland. After this they saw the sun and were able to get their bearings. They hoist sail and sail for that day until they saw land, and discussed among themselves what land this might be, but Bjarni says he doesn’t think this could be Greenland.
Þeir spyrja, hvárt hann vill sigla at þessu landi eða eigi. They ask whether he wants to sail up to this land or not.
‘Þat er mitt ráð, at sigla í nánd við landit.’ ‘It’s my advice that we sail close in to the land.’
Ok svá gera þeir ok sá þat brátt, at landit var ófjǫllótt ok skógi vaxit, ok smár hæðir á landinu, ok létu landit á bakborða ok létu skaut horfa á land. This they do, and saw quickly that the land was low-lying and wooded, with small hills on shore, and they turned to keep the land to port and the sail-end facing toward the shore.
Síðan sigla þeir tvau dœgr, áðr þeir sá land annat. Then they sail for two days before they saw another land.
Þeir spyrja, hvárt Bjarni ætlaði þat enn Grœnland. They ask whether Bjarni supposes it is Greenland yet.
Hann kvazk eigi heldr ætla þetta Grœnland en it fyrra, ‘því at jǫklar eru mjǫk miklir sagðir á Grœnlandi.’ He said he didn’t think this was Greenland any more than the previous time, ‘because there are said to be very big glaciers in Greenland.’
Þeir nálguðusk brátt þetta land ok sá þat vera slétt land ok viði vaxið. Þá tók af byr fyrir þeim. Þá rœddu hásetar þat, at þeim þótti þat ráð, at taka þat land, en Bjarni vill þat eigi. Þeir þóttusk bæði þurfa við ok vatn. They quickly came in closer to this land and saw it to be flat and even land and wooded. Then the wind dropped on them. The crew declared that they thought it would be a good idea to land there, but Bjarni doesn’t want to. They claimed they needed both timber and water.
‘At engu eruð þér því óbirgir,’ segir Bjarni, en þó fékk hann af því nǫkkut ámæli af hásetum sínum. ‘You’re not in short supply of any of that,’ says Bjarni, and for this he got a fair amount of complaints from his crew.
Hann bað þá vinda segl, ok svá var gǫrt, ok settu framstafn frá landi ok sigla í haf útsynnings byr þrjú dœgr ok sá þá land it þriðja. En þat land var hátt ok fjǫllótt ok jǫkull á. He told them to raise the sail, and this was done, and they turned the prow away from land and sailed out to sea on a southwesterly wind for three days and then saw a third land. This land was high and mountainous, with a glacier on it.
Þeir spyrja þá, ef Bjarni vildi at landi láta þar, en hann kvazk eigi þat vilja, ‘því at mér lízk þetta land ógagnvænligt.’ They then ask if Bjarni wanted to make for land here but he said he didn’t want to, ‘because this land doesn’t look to me likely to be of any use.’
Nú lǫgðu þeir eigi segl sitt, halda með landinu fram ok sá, at þat var eyland; settu enn stafn við því landi ok heldu í haf inn sama byr. En veðr óx í hǫnd, ok bað Bjarni þá svipta ok eigi sigla meira en bæði dygði vel skipi þeira ok reiða. Sigldu nú fjǫgur dœgr. This time they did not take down the sail and keep along the coast and saw that this was an island. They turned the stern back to land and held out to sea on the same breeze. Shortly afterwards the wind got up, and Bjarni told them to lower the sail and not sail harder than their ship and tackle could easily take. Now they sailed for four days.
Þá sá þeir land it fjórða. Þá spurðu þeir Bjarna, hvárt hann ætlaði þetta vera Grœnland eða eigi. Then they saw a fourth land. Then they asked Bjarni whether he reckoned this was Greenland or not.
Bjarni svarar: ‘Þetta er líkast því, er mér er sagt frá Grœnlandi, ok hér munu vér at landi halda.’ Bjarni answers: ‘This is much more like what I’ve been told of Greenland, and we’ll make for land here.’

(ÍF IV:246-7)

The main points in the narrative are that there are three lands from south to north. The first, most southerly, is described as being ‘ófjǫllótt ok skógi vaxit, ok smár hæðir á landinu’ (‘lowlying and wooded, with small hills on the land’) (ÍF IV:246); the next is ‘slétt land ok viði vaxit’ (‘flat and even and wooded’) (246); and the third and most northerly is ‘hátt ok fjǫllótt ok jǫkull á’ (‘high and mountainous, with a glacier on it’) (247). At this point the men realize they need to sail east to get to Greenland. Between these sightings, Bjarni and his men are said to have been out on the open sea. The picture that emerges from this voyage might therefore look something like this:

Leifr Eiríksson. From the account in Eiríks saga we get little clue as to where Leifr Eiríksson’s Vínland might have been. Grœnlendinga saga, however, provides a fairly detailed account of Leifr’s route against the background already laid down in Bjarni’s journey:

Nú bjuggu þeir skip sitt ok sigldu í haf, þá er þeir váru búnir, ok fundu þá þat land fyrst, er þeir Bjarni fundu síðast. Þar sigla þeir at landi ok kǫstuðu akkerum ok skutu báti ok fóru á land ok sá þar eigi gras. Jǫklar miklir váru allt it efra, en sem ein hella væri allt til jǫklanna frá sjónum, ok sýndisk þeim þat land vera gœðalaust. Now they fitted out their ship and sailed out to sea when they were ready, and came first to the land that Bjarni and his men had found last. There they sail up to the land and drop the anchors and lowered a boat and went ashore and saw no grass there. Higher up it was all great glaciers, and as if it were all a single slab of flat rock right the way to the glaciers from the sea, and the land seemed to them devoid of any qualities.
Þá mælti Leifr: ‘Eigi er oss nú þat orðit um þetta land sem Bjarna, at vér hafim eigi komit á landit. Nú mun ek gefa nafn landinu ok kalla Helluland.’ Then Leifr said: ‘Things have turned out differently with this land for us than for Bjarni, not setting foot on it. Now I will give the land a name and call it Helluland.’
Síðan fóru þeir til skips. Eftir þetta sigla þeir í haf ok fundu land annat; sigla enn at landi ok kasta akkerum, skjóta síðan báti ok ganga á landit. Þat land var slétt ok skógi vaxið, ok sandar hvítir víða, þar sem þeir fóru, ok ósæbratt. Then they returned to ship. After this they put out to sea and found a second land. Again they sail to the shore and drop anchor, then launch a boat and go ashore. This land was flat and even and wooded, with wide expanses of white sands where they found themselves, and shelving gently down to the sea.
Þá mælti Leifr: ‘Af kostum skal þessu landi nafn gefa ok kalla Markland.’ Then Leifr said: ‘I shall give this land a name according to its qualities and call it Markland.’
Fóru síðan ofan aptr til skips sem fljótast. Then they went back down to the ship with all speed.
Nú sigla þeir þaðan í haf landnyrðingsveðr ok váru úti tvau dœgr, áðr þeir sá land, ok sigldu at landi ok kómu at ey einni, er lá norðr af landinu, ok gengu þar upp ok sásk um í góðu veðri ok fundu þat, at dǫgg var á grasinu, ok varð þeim þat fyrir, at þeir tóku hǫndum sínum í dǫggina ok brugðu í munn sér ok þóttusk ekki jafnsœtt kennt hafa, sem þat var. Now they sail out into the ocean on a northeasterly wind, and were at sea for two days before they saw land, and sailed toward the shore and came to an island that lay north of the land, and landed there and had a look about them in good weather and found that there was dew on the grass, and by chance they put their hands in the dew and put it to their mouths and it seemed to them that they had never tasted anything as sweet as that was.
Síðan fóru þeir til skips síns ok sigldu í sund þat, er lá milli eyjarinnar ok ness þess, er norðr gekk af landinu; stefndu í vestrætt fyrir nesit. Þar var grunnsævi mikit at fjǫru sjávar, ok stóð þá uppi skip þeira; ok var þá langt til sjávar at sjá frá skipinu. Then they went to their ship and sailed into the channel that lay between the island and a headland that extended north from the land. They headed in a westerly direction around the headland. At low tide there were extensive shallows and then their ship became beached, and from the ship the sea looked a long way off.
En þeim var svá mikil forvitni á at fara til landsins, at þeir nenntu eigi þess at bíða, at sjór felli undir skip þeira, ok runnu til lands, þar er á ein fell ór vatni einu. En þegar sjór fell undir skip þeira, þá tóku þeir bátinn ok reru til skipsins ok fluttu þat upp í ána, síðan í vatnit, ok kǫstuðu þar akkerum ok báru af skipi húðfǫt sín ok gerðu þar búðir; tóku þat ráð síðan, at búask þar um þann vetr, ok gerðu þar hús mikil. But their curiosity was so great to go ashore that they could not be bothered to wait for the sea to rise under their ship, and they ran to land where a river flowed out from a certain lake. But when the sea lifted their ship again, they took the boat and rowed to the ship and moved it up into the river and so into the lake, and dropped anchor there and carried their sleeping bags from the ship and made camp there. Then they took the decision to arrange themselves at this place for the winter and put up some large buildings.
Hvárki skorti þar lax í ánni né í vatninu, ok stœrra lax en þeir hefði fyrr sét. There was no shortage of salmon either in the river or in the lake, and bigger salmon than they had ever seen before.
Þar var svá góðr landskostr, at því er þeim sýndisk, at þar myndi engi fénaðr fóðr þurfa á vetrum. Þar kómu engi frost á vetrum, ok lítt rénuðu þar grǫs. Meira var þar jafndœgri en á Grœnlandi eða Íslandi. Sól hafði þar eyktarstað ok dagmálastað um skammdegi. The land there was of such good quality, so far as they could see, that livestock would not need any fodder in winter. There were no frosts there in winter and the grass hardly withered at all. Day and night were more equal there than in Greenland or Iceland; in the depths of winter there the sun was in the sky at around 3 p.m. and 9 a.m.

(ÍF IV:249-51)

The audience now gets a rather fuller picture of the lands being described. It is possible to sail southwest from Markland (the second land from the north), and after two days (dœgr) on the open sea you reach an island lying just north off the mainland. In the channel between the island and the mainland there is a salmon river and a lake or lagoon where Leifr and his men make their camp. Leifr apparently has little interest in the first land seen by Bjarni and holds a more westerly course.


Þorvaldr Eiríksson. The second expedition (following Grœnlendinga saga) is led by Leifr’s brother Þorvaldr and spends the winter at what is now called Leifsbúðir (‘Leifr’s Camp’). During the first summer Þorvaldr explores the land to the west and finds many islands and areas of shallows. The next summer he moves north and east, finally breaking his ship on a promontory at Kjalarnes (‘Keel Point’), which also comes into the account of Karlsefni and Guðríðr’s expedition in Eiríks saga rauða. It is not entirely clear from the text how the name Leifsbúðir—not previously so named in the saga—should be understood; the most natural explanation is that Þorvaldr is thought of as having found and occupied the buildings that Leifr had put up in Vínland on his earlier visit, but it is also conceivable that the place the saga supposes him to have stayed was only later given the name Leifsbúðir. The text in Grœnlendinga saga is as follows:

Nú bjósk Þorvaldr til þeirar ferðar með þrjá tigu manna með umráði Leifs, bróður síns. Síðan bjuggu þeir skip sitt ok heldu í haf, ok er engi frásǫgn um ferð þeira, fyrr en þeir koma til Vínlands, til Leifsbúða, ok bjuggu þar um skip sitt ok sátu um kyrrt þann vetr ok veiddu fiska til matar sér. Now Þorvaldr made ready for this voyage with thirty men with the advice of his brother Leifr. Then they fitted out their ship and put to sea, and there is no account of their journey until they get to Vínland, to Leifsbúðir, and saw to their ship and remained there through that winter and caught fish to feed themselves.
En um várið mælti Þorvaldr, at þeir skyldi búa skip sitt ok skyldi eftirbátr skipsins ok nǫkkurir menn með fara fyrir vestan landit ok kanna þar um sumarit. Þeim sýndisk landit fagrt ok skógótt, ok skammt milli skógar ok sjávar, ok hvítir sandar. Þar var eyjótt mjǫk ok grunnsævi mikið. But in the spring Þorvaldr said that they should see to their ship, and the ship’s boat and some of the men with it should go west along the coast and explore there through the summer. The land seemed beautiful to them and well wooded, with woods coming down close to the shore, and white sands. There were many islands there and wide shallows.
Þeir fundu hvergi manna vistir né dýra; en í eyju einni vestarliga fundu þeir kornhjálm af tré. Eigi fundu þeir fleiri mannaverk ok fóru aptr ok kómu til Leifsbúða at hausti. They found no signs of human habitation or animals anywhere, but on one island toward the west they found a corn rick made of wood. They found nothing else made by humans and turned back and arrived at Leifsbúðir in the autumn.
En at sumri ǫðru fór Þorvaldr fyrir austan með kaupskipit ok it nyrðra fyrir landit. Þá gerði at þeim veðr hvasst fyrir andnesi einu, ok rak þá þar upp, ok brutu kjǫlinn undan skipinu ok hǫfðu þar langa dvǫl ok bœttu skip sitt. The second summer Þorvaldr went east with the ship and further north around the coast. Then they ran into sharp weather off a certain headland and were blown onto the shore there, and broke the keel from under the ship and they had a long stay there while they repaired their ship.
Þá mælti Þorvaldr við fǫrunauta sína: ‘Nú vil ek, at vér reisim hér upp kjǫlinn á nesinu ok kallim Kjalarnes.’ Then Þorvaldr said to his companions: ‘Now I want us to put up the keel here on the headland and we’ll call it Kjalarnes.’
Ok svá gerðu þeir. And this they did.
Síðan sigla þeir þaðan í braut ok austr fyrir landit ok inn í fjarðarkjapta þá, er þar váru næstir, ok at hǫfða þeim, er þar gekk fram. Hann var allr skógi vaxinn. Þá leggja þeir fram skip sitt í lægi ok skjóta bryggjum á land, ok gengr Þorvaldr þar á land upp með alla fǫrunauta sína. Then they sail away from there and east along the coast and into the mouths of the bays that were closest at hand and to a cape that jutted out there. It was all covered with woods. Then they berth their ship in the roads and put out a gangplank and Þorvaldr goes up onto the shore with all his companions.
Hann mælti þá: ‘Hér er fagrt, ok hér vilda ek bœ minn reisa.’ He said: ‘It’s beautiful here, and this is where I would like to raise my farm.’
Ganga síðan til skips ok sjá á sandinum inn frá hǫfðanum þrjár hæðir ok fóru til þangat ok sjá þar húðkeipa þrjá ok þrjá menn undir hverjum. Þá skiptu þeir liði sínu ok hǫfðu hendr á þeim ǫllum, nema einn komsk í burt með keip sinn. Þeir drepa hina átta ok ganga síðan aptr á hǫfðann ok sjásk þar um ok sjá inn í fjǫrðinn hæðir nǫkkurar, ok ætluðu þeir þat vera byggðir. They go back to the ship and see on the sand in from the cape three hills, and went toward them and see there three skin boats with three men under each of them. They split up and laid hands on them all, except that one got away in his boat. They kill the other eight and then walk back to the cape and look around the place and see some mounds further up the bay, which they took to be signs of settlement.
Eptir þat sló á þá hǫfga svá miklum, at þeir máttu eigi vǫku halda, ok sofna þeir allir. Þá kom kall yfir þá, svá at þeir vǫknuðu allir. After this a heaviness came upon them so great that they could not keep themselves awake and they all fell asleep. Then a shout sounded over them, so that they all woke up.
Svá segir kallit: ‘Vaki þú, Þorvaldr, ok allt fǫruneyti þitt, ef þú vill líf þitt hafa, ok far þú á skip þitt ok allir menn þínir, ok farið frá landi sem skjótast.’ This is what the shout says: ‘Wake up, Þorvaldr, and all your companions, if you want to keep your life, and go to your ship and all your men, and get away from land as quick as you can.’
Þá fór innan eptir firðinum ótal húðkeipa, ok lǫgðu at þeim. A countless number of skin boats were coming up the bay and making toward them.
Þorvaldr mælti þá: ‘Vér skulum fœra út á borð vígfleka ok verjask sem bezt, en vega lítt í mót.’ Then Þorvaldr said: ‘We shall put up protective boards on the sides of the ship and defend ourselves as best we can, but do little about fighting back.’
Svá gera þeir, en Skrælingar skutu á þá um stund, en flýja síðan í burt sem ákafast, hverr sem mátti. This they do, and the Skrælingar shoot at them for some time, but then flee away with all alacrity, any of them that could.
Þá spurði Þorvaldr menn sína, ef þeir væri nǫkkut sárir. Þeir kváðusk eigi sárir vera. Then Þorvaldr asked his men if they were wounded in any way. They said they were not wounded.
‘Ek hefi fengit sár undir hendi,’ segir hann, ‘ok fló ǫr milli skipborðsins ok skjaldarins undir hǫnd mér, ok er hér ǫrin, en mun mik þetta til bana leiða. Nú ræð ek, at þér búið ferð yðra sem fljótast aptr á leið, en þér skuluð fœra mik á hǫfða þann, er mér þótti byggiligast vera. Má þat vera, at mér hafi satt á munn komit, at ek muni þar búa á um stund. Þar skuluð þér mik grafa ok setja krossa at hǫfði mér ok at fótum, ok kallið þat Krossanes jafnan síðan.’ ‘I have a wound under my arm,’ he says, ‘and an arrow flew between the gunwale of the ship and the shield and in under my arm, and here is the arrow, and it will lead to my death. Now I advise you to make ready your journey back from here as quickly as you can, but you shall carry me onto that cape, the one I thought would be best to settle. It may be that my words have turned out true, that I would stay there for some time. There you shall bury me and put crosses at my head and feet, and call the place Krossanes for ever hereafter.’

(ÍF IV:254-6)

From this, the audience might have been able to visualize a map something as follows:

East of Leifsbúðir the seas become more dangerous and the ship runs aground on Kjalarnes. They sail on to Krossanes (located by reference to Karlsefni’s voyage).

Both sagas mention that Þorsteinn, a third son of Eiríkr rauði, also set out to find Vínland but failed. At the end of the summer he arrived back at Lýsufjörður in the Western Settlement of Greenland, married Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir, and died. The accounts of this journey add little to attempts to reconstruct the geography of Viking North America.

Þorfinnr karlsefni and Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir. The next journey, the major expedition and attempted settlement led by Þorfinnr karlsefni and Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir, is dealt with in considerably greater detail. The fullest account is given in Eiríks saga rauða, which speaks of two ships from Iceland and one from Greenland, carrying 160 people all told. The account in Grœnlendinga saga is less detailed and makes no mention of Karlsefni and Guðríðr going anywhere other than ‘Leifsbúðir.’ However, this is a rather different Leifsbúðir from the one we find elsewhere; most notably, both sources agree that Karlsefni and Guðríðr encounter Skrælingar on this journey, whereas neither Þorvaldr before them nor Freydís later in Grœnlendinga saga see anything of native inhabitants while at Leifsbúðir. This might indicate, in line with the narrative of Eiríks saga rauða, that Karlsefni and Guðríðr’s base was in fact somewhere further to the south, in an area where natives were more to be expected. This is a matter of considerable importance when it comes to trying to place their camp on a real map. Around the year 1000 there were neither Inuits nor American Indians in the region around L’Anse aux Meadows, making it a safe base for Norse travelers at the time. This was not the case farther south, where the whole area north to the St. Lawrence valley was comparatively densely populated (McGhee 1991:49-50), and there was thus no way that three boatloads of prospective settlers might ensconce themselves through the winter anywhere south of Newfoundland and the Gulf of St. Lawrence without running into native tribes. This incongruity in the Grœnlendinga saga account of the Leifsbúðir that Karlsefni and Guðríðr stayed at might thus indicate that behind this account lie memories of a time spent actually in some other place some distance further to the south.

Eiríks saga provides a very detailed description of the journey of Karlsefni and Guðríðr and the routes they took. There is no mention of them using any pre-existing houses or huts, nor do they make straight for Leifr’s Vínland. Here they start by sailing, via a couple of stopovers, to a promontory where they find a broken ship’s keel and name the place Kjalarnes (‘Keel Point’). This seems to imply some kind of background knowledge of the story of Þorvaldr at Kjalarnes recorded in Grœnlendinga saga. This Kjalarnes is south of Leifsbúðir, the place where Þorvaldr actually stayed, and is clearly represented as lying north of Straum(s)fjörður (‘Stream Firth,’ ‘Bay of Currents’), where Karlsefni and Guðríðr eventually set up camp. On the journey south from Kjalarnes to Straum(s)fjörður, Karlsefni and Guðríðr have land to starboard (i.e. to the west) and sail past Furðstrandir (‘Wonder Beaches’) and coasts cut by many bays and inlets where vines and self-propagating wheat grow. At Straum(s)fjörður there is an island in the mouth of the firth where they hope (possibly because of the strong currents suggested by the name of the firth) to be able to continue fishing throughout the winter when the bay freezes over further in.

After a very severe winter the party splits up. The Greenlander Þórhallr veiðimaðr (‘the Hunter’) sails north, intending to around Kjalarnes in the hope of finding Leifr’s Vínland somewhere to the west. Karlsefni however wants to continue south and comes to a river emptying from a tidal pool with shallows at its mouth; he names this place Hóp (‘Lagoon,’ ‘Tidal Pool’). The qualities of the land and its natural resources are described: there is self-propagating wheat in low-lying areas and vines on the hills, an abundance of fish in the streams and flatfish of some kind in the sea—but no mention of any salmon. The winter at Hóp is very mild and Karlsefni trades with and eventually fights against the native inhabitants, who appear to be American Indians rather than Inuits. He returns to Straum(s)fjörður, on the way passing a promontory teeming with animals, and then continues on northward around Kjalarnes in search of Þórhallr. Having rounded the headland, he sails west with land to his port side until he reaches a place where he thinks he recognizes the same mountains as they had seen from the other side from Hóp; at this point he reckons the distance from here to Straum(s)fjörður is about the same as that from Straum(s)fjörður to Hóp. On the way home Karlsefni loses another of his ships, so that, of the three that set out, only one eventually makes it back to Greenland after the three-year expedition.

There is a fair degree of difference between the two manuscripts of Eiríks saga and so both texts are given below following the diplomatic edition of Sven B. F. Jansson (1944). According to both Jansson (1944:260) and Ólafr Halldórsson (1985:333-8), the text in Skálholtsbók stands closer to the common original of both manuscripts but is more prone to errors than the Hauksbók text. The passages of most importance as regards the route directions are as follows:

Skálholtsbók Hauksbók
a. skipvm þeira var fiorvtiggi manna annars hundrads. sigldv þeir vnndan sidan til uestri bygdar ok til biarmeyia.
(On their ships there were 160 people. Then they sailed on to the Western Settlement [of Greenland] and to the Bjarney Islands.)
þeir hofþv allz .xl. manna ok .c. er þeir sigldv til vestri bygðar ok þaðan til bianeyiar
(They had altogether 160 people when they sailed to the Western Settlement and from there to Bjarney Island.)
sigldu þeir þadan unndan biarneyium nordan uedr . uorv þeir uti tuau dægr
(From there they sailed by the Bjarney Islands on a northerly wind. They were at sea for two days (dgr).)
þaðan siglðv þeir .íj. dœgr i svðr
(From there they sailed south for two days (dgr).)
þa funndv þeir lannd ok rero firir . a baatvm ok kavnnavdu lanndit ok funndv þar hellr margar ok svo storar at tveir menn mattu vel spyrnazt i iliar.
(Then they found land and rowed along it in boats and explored the land and found many flat rocks there so big that two men might well lie end to end [on one].)
þa sa þeir land ok skvtv bati ok konvðv landit ok fvnnv þar hellvr storar ok margar . xij. allna viðar
(Then they saw land and launched a boat and explored the land and found many big flat rocks there, twelve ells wide [about six meters].)
melrackar voru þar margir
(There were many foxes there.)
fiollði var þar melracka
(There were a great number of foxes there.)
þeir gafv naf lanndinv ok kavllvdv hellv. lannd.
(They gave the land a name and called it Helluland.)
þeir gafv þar nafn ok kollvðv hellvland
(They gave the place a name and called it Helluland.)
þa sigldu þeir nordan uedr tvav dægr ok var þa lannd firir þeim ok var . aa skogr mikill ok dyr mavrg.
(Then they sailed on a northerly wind for two days and then there was a land before them on which there was a great forest and many animals.)
Ðaþan sigldv þeir .ij. dœgr ok bra til landsvðrs or svðri ok fvndv land skogvaxit ok morg dýr a
(From there they sailed for two days and the wind shifted from south to southeast and they found a wooded land with many animals on it.)
ey la i lannd svdr vnndan lanndinv ok funndv þeir þar biarn dyr ok kaullvdv biarn ey. Enn lanndit kavllvdv þeir marklannd þar er skogurinn.
(An island lay off the land to the southeast and there they found a bear and called [the place] Bjarney (‘Bear Island’). But the land they called Markland (‘Forest Land’) where the forest is.)
ey la þar vndan i landsvðr þar drapv þeir ein biorn ok kollvðv þar siðan bianey en landit Markland
(An island lay offshore to the southeast. There they killed a bear and from this called the place Bjarney and the land Markland.)
þa er lidin uorv tvau dægr sia þeir . lannd . ok þeir sigldu unndir lanndit . þar . var nes er þeir kvomu at þeir. beittu med lanndinu ok letv lanndit aa stiorn borda.
(When two days had passed they sighted land and they sailed along the coast. There was a promontory. When they got there they tacked along the coast, keeping the land to starboard.)
þaþan sigldv þeir svðr með landinv langa stvnd ok komv at nesi einv la landit a stiorn
(From there they sailed south along the coast for a long time and came to a promontory. The land lay to starboard.)
þar var avræfi ok strandir lanngar ok sanndar.
(There were wastes there and long, sandy beaches.)
voro þar strandir langar ok sandar
(There were long, sandy beaches there.)
fara þeir a . batum til lanndz ok fengu skiol af skipi ok kaulludu þar. kialar nes
(They go on boats to land and got shelter from a ship and called the place Kjalarnes (‘Keel Point’).)
þeir rerv til lanz ok fvndv þar a nesinv kiol af skipi ok kollvðv þar kialarnes
(They rowed to land and found there on the headland a ship’s keel and called the place Kjalarnes.)
þeir gafv ok nafn straunndunum ok kavlludu furdu stranndir . þviat langt var med at sigla.
(They also gave the coasts a name and called them Furustrandir (‘Wonder Beaches’) because it was a long way to sail down them.)
þeir kollvðv ok strandirnar fvrðv strandir þvi at langt var með at sigla
(They also called the coasts Furðustrandir because it was a long way to sail down them.)
þa giordiztt vog skorid lanndit ok helldu ok helldu þeir skipvnvm at vogvnvm
(Then the land became cut by bays and inlets and they steered [and they steered] the ships into the bays.)
þa gerðiz landit vágskorið þeir helldv skipvnvm i ein vág
(Then the land became cut by bays and inlets. They steered the ships into a bay.)
  (Jansson 1944:61-63)

Tokv þeir þav a. skip sitt ok forv leidar sinnar þar til er vard . fiardskorid
(They took them [sc. Haki and Hekja, the pair of Scottish scouts] up onto their ship and went on their way until [the coast] became cut by a firth.)
gengv þav a skip vt ok siglðv þeir siþan leiðar sinnar
(They went out onto a ship, and then they sailed on their way.)
þeir lavgdv skipvnvm in a . fiordinn
(They steered the ships into the firth.)
þeir siglðv in a fiorð eín
(They sailed into a certain firth.)
þar var ey ein vvt firir ok uoru þar stravmar mikli ok vm eyna.
(There was an island outside the mouth and there were strong currents there and around the island.)
þar la ein ey fyri vtan þar vm voro stravmar miklir
(There lay an island outside the mouth; around it there were strong currents.)
þeir kaullvdu hana stravmsey.
(They called it Straumsey (‘Stream Island’).)
þvi kollvðv þeir hana stravmey
(So they called it Straumey (‘Stream Island’).)
fvgl var þar svo margr at travtt matti fæti nidr koma i milli eggianna.
(There were so many birds there that you could hardly put your foot down between the eggs.)
sva var morg æðr i eyni at varla matti ganga fyri egivm
(There were so many eider ducks on the island that it was hardly possible to walk for eggs.)
þeir helldv inn med firdinvm ok kavllvdv hann straums. fiavrd . ok barv farminn af skipvnvm. ok biuggvzt þar vm
(They continued in along the firth and called it Straumsfjrörður (‘Stream Firth’) and unloaded the cargo from the ships and struck camp.)
þeir kollvðv þar stravmfiorð þeir baru þar farm af skipvm sinvm ok bioggvz þar vm
(They called the place Straumfjörðrur (‘Stream Firth’). They there unloaded cargo from their ships and struck camp.)
þeir haufdv med ser allz konar fe ok leitudv ser þar lanndz nyttia.
(They had with them all kinds of livestock and made a survey of the land’s resources.)
þeir hofþv með ser allzkonar fenað
(They had with them all kinds of livestock.)
fiaull voru þar ok fagurt var þar um at litazt
(There were mountains there and it was beautiful to look around them.)
þar var fagrt lanzleg
(There was beautiful country there.)
þeir gaadv einskis nema at kanna lanndit . þar voru gravs mikil
(They paid heed to nothing except exploring the land. There were extensive grasslands.)
þeir gaðv enkis vtan at kanna landit
(They paid heed to nothing except exploring the land.)
  (Jansson 1944:64)

Vill . þorhallr veidi madr fara nordr um furdu stranndir ok firir kialar nes ok leita svo uindlanndz. enn . karl uill fara sudr firir . lannd ok firir austan ok . þickir lannd þui mera . sem svdr er meir ok þickir havnum þat raadligra at kanna hvartvegia.
(rhallr veiimar (‘the Hunter’) wants to go north by way of Furðustrandir and around Kjalarnes and look for Vín[d]land again. Karl[sefni] wants to go south along the land on the eastern side, thinking that there will be more (fairer?) land the farther south it is; it makes more sense to him to explore both.)
Sva er sagt at þorhallr vill fara norðr fyri fvrðvstrandir at leita vínlandz en karlsefni vill fara svðr fyri landit
(It is said that rhallr wants to go north by way of Furðustrandir and search for Vnland, but Karlsefni wants to go south along the land.)
  (Jansson 1944:67)

Sidan skildu þeir ok sigldv nordr firer furdu stranndir ok kialar nes ok uilldu beita þar firir vestan
(Then they parted and [sc. Þórhallr and his men] sailed north past Furðustrandir and Kjalarnes and wanted to tack there westward.)
Siþan siglðv þeir norðr fyri fvrðv strandir ok kialar nes ok villdv beita vestr fyri
(Then they sailed north past Fuðrustrandir and Kjalarnes and wanted to tack on westward.)
kom þa uedr. a moti þeim ok rak þa upp uid. irlannd ok vorv. þar miok þiadir ok bardir. þa let. þorhallr lif sitt.
(Then a wind came up against them and they were cast ashore in Ireland and were tortured badly and beaten there. Þórhallr lost his life.)
þa kom mote þeim vestan veðr ok rak þa vpp a irlandi ok voro þeir þar barðir ok þiaðir ok let þorhallr þar lif sitt eftirþvi sem kavpmenn hafa sagt
(Then a wind came up against them from the west and they were cast ashore in Ireland and they were beaten and tortured there and Þórhallr lost his life, according to what traders have reported.)
karls efni for sudr firir lannd ok Snorri ok biarni ok annat lid þeira
(Karlsefni went south along the land with Snorri and Bjarni and the rest of their party.)
Nv er segia af karlsefni at hann for svðr fyri landit ok snorri ok biarnni með sinv folki
(It is now said of Karlsefni that he went south along the land and Snorri and Bjarni with their people.)
þeir foru leingi ok til þess er þeir kuomu at aa þeiri er fell af lanndi ofan ok i vatn ok svo til siofar.
(They traveled a long time, until they came to a river that flowed down from the land and into a lake and so to the sea.)
þeir forv lengi ok allt þar til er þeir komv at a einni er fell af landi ofan ok i vatn eitt til siofar
(They traveled a long time, all the way until they came to a river that flowed down from the land and into a certain lake to the sea.)
eyiar uorv þar miklar firir aarosinvm ok matti eigi komazt inn. i ana nema at ha flædvm
(There were big islands outside the mouth of the river and you could not get into the river except at high tide.)
eyrar voro þar miklar ok matti eigi komaz i ana vtan at haflœðvm
(There were big islands there and you could not get into the river except at high tide.)
sigldu þeir. karl þa til aar osins ok kaullvdv i hopi lanndit
(Then Karl[sefni] and his men sailed to the mouth of the river and named the place Hóp (‘Lagoon,’ ‘Tidal Pool’).)
þeir karlsefni sigldv í ósin ok kollvðv i hópi
(Karlsefni and his men sailed into the estuary and named it Hóp.)
  (Jansson 1944:68)

karl for aa einv skipi at leita. þorhallz. enn lidit uar eptir ok foru þeir nordr firir kialar nes ok ber þa firer vestan fram ok var lanndit a bak borda þeim
(Karl[sefni] went on one ship to search for Þórhallr but the group stayed behind and they went north around Kjalarnes and are borne forward along the western side, with the land on their port side.)
karlsefni for þa einu skípí at leita þorhalls veidimanz en annat lidit uar eptir. ok foru þeir nordr fyri kialarnes ok berr þa fyri uestan fram. ok uar landit a bakborda þeim.
(Then Karlsefni went with one ship to search for Þórhallr veiðimaðr, leaving the rest of the group behind. They went north around Kjalarnes and are borne forward along the western side, with the land on their port side.)
þar vorv eydi merkr einar ok er þeir haufdu leingi farit fellr af lanndi ofan vr austri ok i vestr
(There was nothing but forested wastes there, and when they had traveled a long time [a river] flows down off the land from the east toward the west.)
þar uoro þa eydimerkr einar allt at sea fyri þeim ok npr huergi riodr .i. ok er þeir hafdu lengi farit fellr a af landi ofan or austri ok .i. uestr.
(Then there was nothing but forested wastes there as far as they could see in front of them, with hardly a clearing anywhere, and when they had traveled a long while a river flows down from the land from the east toward the west.)
þeir lagu inn i arosinvm ok lagu vit hinn sydra backann.
(They stayed in the estuary and tied up on the south bank.)
þeir logdu inn i arosinn. ok lagu uid hinn sydra bakkann
(They steered into the estuary and tied up on the south bank.)
  (Jansson 1944:75)

þeir foru þa i brutt ok nordr aptr ok þottuzt sia ein fætinga. lannd villdu þeir þa eigi leingr hætta lidi sinu
(They then went away back north and thought they saw Einfætingaland (‘Land of the One-Legged’). They were reluctant to put their people at risk any longer.)
Þeir foru þa i brott ok nordr aptr ok þottust sia Einfætingaland. uilldu þeir þa eige hætta lidi sinu lengr.
(Then they went away back north and thought they saw Einfætingaland. They were reluctant to put their people at risk any longer.)
þeir ætlvdu at kanna aull fiaull þav er i hopi vorv ok er þeir fvnndv.
(They intended to explore all the mountains that were at Hóp and that they found.)
þeir etladu oll ein fioll þau er i hopi uoro ok þessi er nu funnu þeir. ok þat stedist miog sua a. ok væri iam langt or straumfirdi beggia uegna.
(They reckoned they were all the same mountains, the ones that were at Hóp and these that they found now, and that would have made good sense, [for] it was equidistant from Straumfjórður in both directions.)
  (Jansson 1944:76)

The account of Karlsefni and Guðríðr’s journey draws up a clear picture of the lands traveled through in the minds of the audience (despite the evident textual corruption at the very end: the Hauksbók text at least makes reasonable sense but something has clearly gone awry in the hands of the Skálholtsbók copyist). This image is fully consistent with the earlier journeys of Leifr and Þorvaldr; in fact, if we work on the basis that all the route details given in both sagas should be taken into the picture and nothing omitted, what we come up with can hardly look very different from the following:

The final journey (according to Grœnlendinga saga) involved two ships and was led by Freydís, the daughter of Erik the Red. They go to Leifsbúðir, but there a dispute flares up between the crews and everything ends in disaster. No route details are given about this voyage that add anything to what we know already. The only possibly significant piece of information to emerge from the account of Freydís’s expedition is negative, viz. there is no mention of any contact with native inhabitants during their time at Leifsbúðir.

Eventually Karlsefni and Guðríðr move back to his home region of Skagafjörður in the north of Iceland and settle there with their son Snorri. According to Grœnlendinga saga, after Karlsefni’s death Guðríðr made a pilgrimage to Rome and devoted the remainder of her life to God. Both sagas close with the information that among her descendants were three Icelandic bishops of the 12th and 13th centuries.

Leifr’s Vínland: southwest of ‘Markland’ in the south of the Gulf of St. Lawrence: Prince Edward Island and the Miramichi Bay

The information from the sagas presented above is, of course, very general, but in spite of this appears to correlate excellently with the geographical facts. Bjarni may be supposed to have sighted Newfoundland, Labrador, and Baffin Island, and the information given on Leifr’s voyage seems to suggest that we should concentrate our search for his Vínland somewhere in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Two days’ sailing southwest from Labrador brings one to the southern shores of the Gulf, with Prince Edward Island lying in the sea north of the mainland and cut off from it by a shallow channel—now bridged in impressive fashion, despite the objections of many of the islanders. There seems good reason to identify the Leifsbúðir visited by Þorvaldr (and later by Freydís in Grœnlendinga saga) with L’Anse aux Meadows at the northern tip of Newfoundland. Þorvaldr explored the coastal regions to the west of this place in his first summer and to the east the following one, and this fits in well with Newfoundland. The route taken by Karlsefni and Guðríðr (in Eiríks saga) is also reasonably consistent with a journey southwest along the southeast coast of Nova Scotia, conceivably all the way to the Bay of Fundy and perhaps beyond. Straum(s)fjörður (‘Stream Firth,’ ‘Bay of Currents’) describes the Bay of Fundy excellently, since the tidal range here is the greatest of any place on earth (on average fifteen to sixteen meters), with powerful and highly conspicuous tidal streams. There is an island in the mouth of the bay and the seas around it do not ice over in winter. Such an interpretation brings out the way in which the description of each expedition adds something to the ones before it, allowing us to build up an increasingly detailed map of major features of the regions visited.

The description in Grœnlendinga saga of the qualities and natural features of Vínland, and of the island and the channel Leifr sails through between it and the mainland, cannot possibly be made to tie in with the reality of L’Anse aux Meadows without assuming considerable confusion in the text—which should preferably be avoided, in the first instance anyway. This means that the ‘Leifsbúðir’ mentioned on subsequent expeditions cannot be identified with both Leifr’s Vínland as we know it from Grœnlendinga saga and L’Anse aux Meadows. It is, however, conceivable that Leifr stayed at more than just the one place that the saga describes in detail, or that Leifsbúðir was indeed named after Leifr, but only later—he may, for instance, have inherited the camp from his brother Þorvaldr after Þorvaldr was killed in Vínland by an arrow from a native bow; it is a common feature of oral art to use names and nicknames in stories before, or even without, explaining where they come from (Foley 1991:22-29).

A careful reading of the Grœnlendinga saga account of Leifr’s journey, therefore, provides a series of instructions and directions that would prove eminently practicable to anyone wishing to navigate a Viking-Age ship from Newfoundland or Labrador directly across the Gulf of St. Lawrence or the Cabot Strait to Prince Edward Island and on into the Northumberland Strait between the island and the mainland. One would first sight land at the northeast of the island, just as Leifr did. After Leifr enters the strait it is not clear from the saga whether the writer thinks of him as making his landfall on the island itself or on the mainland. At both sides of the strait there are shallow waters, large tides, and tidal pools, leaving open the possibility that Leifr sailed all the way through the strait from east to west before landing at Miramichi Bay in New Brunswick, which opens up to port shortly after one emerges from the strait. Miramichi Bay offers all the natural qualities the saga attributes to Vínland: wild vines and salmon in one of the best-known salmon rivers around the Gulf, with the majority of the fish being grilse but a substantial minority being multi-sea-winter salmon. The only discordant note in this comparatively precise account is the winters, which are generally rather severer than the one described in the saga.

Straum(s)fjörður and Hóp: south and east of Leifr’s Vínland: the Bay of Fundy and the coast of New England

Once we accept the identification of Leifr’s Vínland as described in Grœnlendinga saga with the southern shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, it becomes possible to square all the directions given for the journeys of Karlsefni and Guðríðr in Eiríks saga rauða with the saga’s notions of Leifr’s Vínland. It is said that Karlsefni sailed north from Straum(s)fjörður in search of Þórhallr veiðimaðr, who reckoned he would find Leifr’s Vínland by sailing north around Kjalarnes. Karlsefni himself sails north past Kjalarnes and then turns west, with land to port—which the saga believes sets him on a course for Leifr’s Vínland. These bearings make sense if Straum(s)fjörður is situated toward the south of Nova Scotia, with Kjalarnes at the extreme north of Nova Scotia on Cape Breton. They also work with regard to Hóp, which is said to be some distance further to the south and where there is no mention of salmon: as mentioned previously, in the Middle Ages salmon did not spawn in rivers anywhere south of Nova Scotia.

How far south of Straum(s)fjörður Karlsefni may have gone is impossible to say: various rivers and marine pools on the coast of New England have been suggested (see the table on p. 277), including the site of modern New York City, as argued most recently by Páll Bergþórsson (2000:80-90). However, according to experienced yachtsmen in these waters, to get this far south these northern mariners would have needed to use completely different navigational techniques to the ones they were familiar with (William Fitzhugh, personal communication). On the other hand, it is worth bearing in mind that this journey was made only once, and proved to be very dangerous, since only one of the three ships that set out made it home to Greenland. The reference to the mountains that Karlsefni’s men saw once from Hóp, and then again from the other side after sailing north around Kjalarnes and then some distance west following the coast (into the Gulf of St. Lawrence?), is an indication that they were aware of the mountain system reaching from the Hudson valley to the Gaspé peninsula, that is between the northeast coast of the USA and the St. Lawrence valley. We do not need to assume that their knowledge of these mountains was restricted to just what they could see from the coast, for, judging from the record of the vikings in Europe, these seamen were in the habit of going up any river they could manage in a ship, and there is no reason to think they would have acted any differently once they reached the other side of the Atlantic.

Table 7-3: Relative positions of the chief places named in the Vínland sagas

Leifr’s Vínland (‘Vineland,’ ‘Wineland’) On or near an island that lies north of a shallow strait separating it from the mainland; two days’ (dœgr) sailing southwest of Markland; west of Kjalarnes
Leifsbúðir (‘Leifr’s Camp’) On land with islands and shallows to the west; dangerous waters when sailing north around the coast and then south on the eastern side
Kjalarnes (‘Keel Point’) On a headland projecting north, south of Leifsbúðir, east of Leifr’s Vínland and north of Straum(s)fjörður
Furðustrandir (‘Wonder Beaches’) On the way from Kjalarnes to Straum(s)fjörður
Straum(s)fjörður (‘Stream Firth,’ ‘Bay of Currents’) South of Kjalarnes and north of Hóp
Hóp (‘Lagoon,’ ‘Tidal Pool’) South of Straum(s)fjörður
Einfœtingaland (‘Land of the One-Legged’) Some distance west and south of Kjalarnes; to the west of the mountains that lie between here and Hóp

The only thing that remains to be added to the ‘immanent map’ derivable from the saga accounts is the white sands mentioned in the account of Þorvaldr. By placing them north of the islands explored by him, this produces something like a fjord to the west of where Þorvaldr’s Leifsbúðir was situated. The configuration of the lands that emerges is not dissimilar to the one we find on ordinary modern-day maps:

If, as a matter of principle, we adopt the attitude that all the material given in both the sagas should be incorporated into the picture, but without assuming a priori that Þorvaldr’s Leifsbúðir should be equated with Leifr’s Vínland (thereby leaving ourselves in a position to take full account of both the archaeological finds at L’Anse aux Meadows and the Grœnlendinga saga report of the superior natural resources to be found at Vínland), the cumulative map that emerges from the saga accounts of the Vínland voyages shown above bears a striking likeness to maps we might find in any modern-day atlas. The main problems faced by previous scholars in their search for Vínland lay in the matter of the scale to be applied and the best place to begin their interpretations. There was a powerful tendency to overlook the sheer size of Canada, even to move ‘Markland’ all the way south to Nova Scotia and start from there when attempting to find locations for the events recorded in the sagas. Also, prior to the discovery of L’Anse aux Meadows, with a few notable exceptions (see p. 275), there had been a marked reluctance to imagine ‘Leifsbúðir’ anywhere so far north as northern Newfoundland.

Of particular importance here is the interpretation of Kjalarnes, and in this we now have the advantage of a) being able to read the two sagas as manifestations of a single narrative tradition of the Vínland voyages, and b) being able to use L’Anse aux Meadows as a reference point, specifically the location of Þorvaldr’s ‘Leifsbúðir.’ Without these recent advances in Vínland studies, Kjalarnes might have been almost anywhere on the east coast of North America where one can sail north around a headland and then in a westerly direction. This could, for instance, take us as far south as Cape Cod, as Rafn believed. Moving north from here, the next candidate would be the northern tip of Cape Breton Island, then the north of the Newfoundland peninsula (see Morison 1971:56), and then even farther north on Labrador at the entrance to the Hudson Strait. These would appear to be the only places where it is possible to approach from the south, then sail north around a headland, before finally heading west. However, if we allow for a) L’Anse aux Meadows being the probable base used by Þorvaldr Eiríksson (with Kjalarnes to the south of this according to Grœnlendinga saga), and b) the fact that, by sailing west from Kjalarnes, Karlsefni (in Eiríks saga) hoped to reach Leifr’s Vínland (as described in Grœnlendinga saga), the only cape that comes into consideration is at the north of Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia. Attempts to situate Kjalarnes at the northern tip of Newfoundland founder on the description of Þorvaldr’s expedition in Grœnlendinga saga and the fact that Leifr’s Vínland (which lies west of Kjalarnes) is said to lie near a place where there is an island off the north coast of the mainland, two days’ sailing southwest from Markland. The only such island that fits the bill is Prince Edward Island in the south of the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Siting Kjalarnes at the northern tip of Labrador would mean moving Leifr’s Vínland and Einfœtingaland into the Hudson Bay and south to James Bay. This might work if we considered only the Eiríks saga account of Karlsefni’s voyage but falls down when we turn to Grœnlendinga saga, where the descriptions of the routes and lands preclude any possibility of letting Leifr sail into the Hudson Bay.

It is, of course, theoretically possible to point to some or other smaller islands and try to correlate everything the two sagas say with the geography of Newfoundland. Such a diminution of scale, however, is extremely improbable since the sagas speak of voyages of exploration lasting several years. It is, for instance, unlikely that in three years Karlsefni would have sailed no farther than around the immediate neighborhood of northern Newfoundland, which is the only solution if the saga narrative is to be made to fit in with the lie of the land in those regions. Such a reading requires us to assume that the tellers of these tales viewed a single day’s sailing as something long and arduous for people who had come all the way from Iceland and Greenland to explore and occupy distant lands; it also conflicts strongly with the combined evidence that emerges if we read all the texts together and with the overall picture that can be built up from their descriptions.

It is hardly fanciful to imagine that in the course of three major expeditions covering several years Viking mariners were able to build up a reasonably accurate picture of the coastal regions stretching from northern Labrador south to the Hudson River and the site of modern-day New York. This length of coastline covers a range of latitude approximately equivalent to a journey from Oslo to Portugal. People used their narrative accounts of these voyages to keep alive the knowledge that had been gained and pass on an overall picture of the new lands for others to reconstruct in their own minds. Even if it does not allow us to identify individual bays and inlets with any certainty, or to say, for instance, whether Hóp was New York or somewhere else along the coast of New England, this picture turns out to be extraordinarily close to the ‘real thing.’ For all the problems, the overall picture that emerges is consistent and credible, demonstrating a genuine knowledge of otherwise unknown lands that lie well outside the realms of medieval religious writings and vague notions of earthly paradises or legendary islands lying somewhere in the mists of the western ocean. It seems altogether more sensible to take the view that oral tradition was capable of preserving for two or three hundred years real information that had been acquired in the course of demanding voyages of exploration in the seas to the southwest of Greenland. This information was then incorporated into the dominant narrative and literary form of its time and colored by popular ideas about distant lands and strange peoples, in exactly the way we might expect of stories and information preserved by memory and passed on by word of mouth.

The Limitations of Oral Evidence

The long oral background to the sagas means, of course, that conclusive proof can never be achieved. Because the sagas were written down on the basis of oral accounts many generations after the events they describe, there is no way that they can be used to pinpoint the exact location of the particular places mentioned—places which, unlike the saga locations in Iceland, the writers had no first-hand knowledge of themselves. There are thus generally several possibilities when it comes to attempting precise interpretations of the texts. In spite of this, the overall picture is reasonably clear: around the year 1000, people from Greenland and Iceland made a number of sea voyages south along the east coast of North America, into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and beyond. They built winter camps in more than one place and stayed in them for anything between one winter and several years. They came into contact with indigenous peoples from these lands, who were sometimes peaceful in order to trade with them and sometimes violent. After a number of attempts at founding settlements, they returned home to Greenland and Iceland, as a result of both attacks from the native inhabitants and internal conflicts among themselves. After these early voyages, there is nothing to indicate that the ancient Greenlanders continued to sail as far south as the places mentioned in the sagas, though it remains possible that they continued to go to Labrador or ‘Markland’ for supplies of timber. This is perhaps supported by a casual entry in an Icelandic annal for the year 1347, reporting a Greenlandic ship on a run to Markland being driven into Outer Straumfjörður in Hnappadalssýsla in the west of Iceland. We know that hunting expeditions continued up to the north of Greenland throughout the Middle Ages, both to supply personal needs and for trade with foreign merchants, notably in walrus and narwhal tusks (see Roesdahl 1995), and this may explain the ever-increasing number of finds of materials traceable to Norse visitors that has been building up from archaeological sites in the polar regions of Canada in recent years (see Sutherland 2000, Schledermann 2000).

There were plenty of people who got back home to tell of their adventures in the previously unknown lands to the west of Greenland. Several generations later in Iceland the surviving stories were collected in books and these books are now our main source for the first journeys by Europeans to the mainland of North America. We have already found physical remains from their time there at L’Anse aux Meadows at the northern tip of Newfoundland, remains that prove beyond doubt that the people who built the camp came from Iceland and Greenland and that they subsequently journeyed farther south to places where butternuts and wild grapes grew.

And where do you go if you are a Viking-Age traveler at L’Anse aux Meadows around the year 1000, and you have a good ship ready in slip and the whole summer before you to explore new lands and gather valuable goods to take back home with you to Greenland or Iceland, or to sell in Norway? The obvious answer is to keep going south, into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. It was there that you could find the fruits and plants that Greenland lacked, and some might have taken the notion to stay there and settle down and spend the rest of their lives in this land of plenty. But there was a snag, of which they quickly became aware: these bountiful lands were already densely populated with indigenous peoples who had no intention of handing them over to newcomers from the sea. So all that was left was to get back into your ship and turn back home, and spend the rest of your life boasting of heroic voyages upon the seven seas exploring unknown lands where wonder, adventure, and danger dogged your every step—exactly as we are told in the Vínland sagas.


[ back ] 1. I use the word ‘truth’ here in its popular, everyday sense; that is, whether the events described actually happened and whether the people who appear in the sagas really existed and did what the sagas say they did in the way the sagas say. It is not my intention to indulge in epistemological speculations along the lines of Pilate’s ‘What is truth?’, though of course these kinds of questions on the nature of truth and reality have provided fertile ground for scholarly discussion in our time, all the way from the realization among natural scientists of the effect of measurement on the thing being measured to the preoccupations of philosophers investigating the basis of knowledge and the role of language in the formulation of our conceptions of reality and existence as they appear, for example, in the sagas.

[ back ] 2. The Greek text is attributed to Cecaumenos and dates from the last quarter of the 11th century. The manuscript was discovered in Moscow in 1881 and edited and published by Vasilevskii, V. G. and Jernstedt, P. as Cecaumeni Strategicon, St Petersburg 1896. The relevant passages are to be found, with a discussion, in Blöndal 1954, esp. pp. 57-8.

[ back ] 3. Smith reckoned that one of the stones may have come from eastern Newfoundland; this matter is as yet unresolved.

[ back ] 4. That is, the mǫsurviður mentioned in the sagas: see Bergþórsson 2000:204-6.

[ back ] 5. Cf. Karlsefni’s route from Helluland to Markland as described in the Skálholtsbók text of Eiríks saga rauða: ‘Þá sigldu þeir norðan veðr tvau dœgr’ (‘Then they sailed for two days on a northerly wind’) (corresponding to ÍF IV:222). ON dœgr sometimes has the sense ‘half day,’ but in the route descriptions under discussion here the natural interpretation seems to be ‘day.’