From Miklagard to Vinland: The Norse in the New World

Mitch ShervenSymbolic World Icon
May 9, 2023

Discovery and exploration are often incremental, long processes which involve many people and take years to reach a resolution or founding of a new place. These events can be central to an understanding of a people, or a country’s history. Stories of discovery, and the explorers who led expeditions, give people a sense of their origins and symbolically frame the boundaries around their identity. Stories of exploration and foundings of new places are often passed down orally, with tales and legends providing a symbolic basis for a people to define themselves. These forms tend to condense or crystallize the events into a narrative that emphasizes individuals, and those individuals’ stories.

In these narratives, the personhood of the explorer takes a central role. He occupies a symbolic position of a creator—looking down and across his domain, seeking new horizons to personally expand his influence and his people or country. The explorer occupies an in-between position with no fixed point, as he extends the boundaries of the physical world. He operates on the limits of perception, having to rely on his knowledge of the sea or land, maybe assisted by a few trusted companions. Often his journey is supplemented by divine favour, or outright luck.

During the Middle Ages, as Christianity reached the farthest corners of the European continent and beyond, monks and priests took an active role in studying the cultures with which they came into contact. It was a long and collaborative process between the existing culture and the Church. It also included writing down oral histories about the foundings and beginnings of nations, and mapping these stories onto the larger Christian understanding of the world.

Part One: The Distant Travels of a Fringe People

Adam of Bremen1 was involved in this project of Christianization. He was a German medieval chronicler, Church historian, biographer, and geographer who lived from roughly 1050-1085. He is remembered most for his work Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, (History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen) which became an essential source for future study of Northern Europe—especially Scandinavia—between the ninth and eleventh centuries, as the Norse world transitioned away from paganism.

In the last section of this work, Adam concludes a survey of northern European countries which adopted Christianity, with geographic notes to provide background information on these formerly mysterious and often dangerous people. Adam had archives, records, and manuscripts, thanks to the Church. But he also consulted influential people from the regions of which he wrote. King Sweyn II of Denmark invited him to his court and shared many things of interest about his people and their travels. Of particular note, was an island the Norse discovered in the far reaches of the Atlantic Ocean:

He spoke of yet another island of the many found in the ocean. It is called Vinland because vines producing excellent wine grow wild there. That unsown crops also abound on that island we have ascertained not from fabulous reports but from the trustworthy relation of the Danes. Beyond that island, he said, no habitable land is found in that ocean, but every place beyond it is full of impenetrable ice and intense darkness.2

That was the first mention of Vinland in any geographical work, and for many years no one in Europe would think much of it or hear more. Far away lands were interesting to chroniclers and kings, who sought to identify, catalogue, conquer, or settle them. But for the most part, Vinland remained a curiosity, beyond the concerns of the continent. At this point, Vinland was little more than a geographical footnote encountered by the Norse, an in-between people on the fringes of Christendom.

Sceaf: A Liminal Ancestor

That position on the fringe, or the in-between of the Christian and the pagan worlds, was not just the opinion of outsiders. It was apparent to the Norse themselves and reflected in their mythology. Depending on the source, Sceaf, Sheave, or Scyld, was an ancient king and hero who many peoples of the north traced their genealogies back to. Scyld Scefing in Beowulf is likely this same figure. The epic begins in medias res, with Scyld washing ashore on a raft. The Danes are without a king, and choose him to lead them, and he eventually founds a legendary dynasty. He leaves the story as abruptly as he entered, and upon his death, he is laid in a boat and sent back out to sea:

They decked his body no less bountifully
with offerings than those first ones did
who cast him away when he was a child
and launched him alone out over the waves.3
Sceaf in the boat, an illustration from Fredrik Sander’s 1893 edition of the Poetic Edda.

Perhaps nowhere was this state of being in-between worlds more apparent than the Norse’s relationship with Constantinople, or as they called it: Miklagard (the large/great city). They made their way throughout Europe navigating rivers and seas, trading in goods and slaves, and eventually arrived at the center of Christendom. Thousands more would arrive in the great city as warriors. The Romans referred to many different groups from northern Europe as Varangians, and men from the Kievan Rus, Scandinavia and the Anglo-Saxon world were recruited or gifted to the Byzantine empire as a fighting force. The Varangian Guard came to be an elite group of soldiers and personal bodyguards of the emperor. They could be relied upon for their fierce and brutal fighting on the field. Also, their in-between, outsider status removed them from the politics and factionalism of the Byzantine court, ensuring a personal loyalty to the emperor.

Norse graffiti inside Hagia Sophia, Constantinople.

The Norse identified with this state of being between worlds and mapped this part of their culture onto the Christian story. 4 Sceaf, Sheave, or Scyld continued to be popular throughout the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian worlds, and began to be represented as a fourth, non-biblical son of Noah, who was born on the ark. Symbolically, he occupied a hybrid position in-between worlds, not born on solid ground, and on the boundary of pagan legend and Christian apocrypha:

The surviving written records suggest…[that] Sceaf was recast as Noah’s ark-born son in Wessex towards the end of the ninth century, at a time when the royal house of Wessex was emerging as the unifying authority for those areas of England not under Viking control… the budding Anglo-Saxon royal houses needed to vindicate their status with an impressive ancestry as much after, as before, their conversion.5

During this process of Christianization, the days of raiding and pillaging monasteries were over. For many years, the Norse had expanded settlements and built Christian churches and centres of learning of their own. Books became an important part of educational and religious life, as the Norse gradually began writing down oral stories told for generations. These included their history, identity, travels, and explorations. Hundreds of years after Adam of Bremen, this process resulted in another mention of the mysterious island of Vinland.

The Sagas – The Norse Side of the Story

Eirik the Red’s Saga and the Saga of the Greenlanders (Eirik’s saga rauða and Grœnlendinga saga) were told as oral stories for many years, and were put to parchment between 1220-80. Both stories feature sailors getting blown off course during their travels in the Northern Atlantic, and winding up in Vinland. Compared to other sagas in the Norse tradition, these do not have as many literary flourishes and embellishments. There are clear discrepancies between the two, and details which do not hold up to scientific scrutiny. But overall, there were no fabrications about the foreignness of the land the stories describe: “[the] descriptions of topography, natural resources and native lifestyles [were] from a world unknown to people in Europe.”6

1894 map of the Arctic. A perspective of the northern world of the Norse.

The Christianization of the Norse is present in these narratives, and spurs the action. One saga features Olaf Tryggvason, who became King of Norway in 995. During his reign, Christianity became the religion of the country—having likely become acquainted with Christianity while in exile in England. The spread of Christianity to Scandinavia was heavily influenced by political leaders adopting the religion. Papal missions staffed by monks were sent in much larger numbers to places like England, “monks and priests there always were: but in Scandinavia the initiative [for conversion] was that of the local rulers.”7 The Icelandic Family Sagas in particular reflect this gradual process of conversion, and the symbolically the in-between state of the Norse with regards to Christianity:

On the whole the reader of medieval literature is struck less by the presence of religious sentiments in the sagas than by their absence. Their minimal interest in God or gods, afterlife, religious experience, and divine justice and order may qualify the sagas as the most secular narratives of the Middle Ages.8

In Eirik the Red’s Saga, the king sends Leif Eiriksson (son of Eirik the Red) as a representative to convert Norse settlers in Greenland to Christianity. Leif loses his way along the journey, and drifting off course to the west—perhaps guided by the breath of Providence—he finds three unknown lands, which he names. These are Helluland (stone slab-land) Markland (forest-land) and lastly Vinland,(wine or vine-land).In Vinland, “self-sown wheat, grapes and maple trees grow.”9 Leif stays in Vinland for about a year: working the land, hunting, and raising animals. On the way back to Greenland to complete his mission, he spots a group of sailors adrift. He rescues them from the shipwreck, earning his nickname ‘the Lucky’. During this encounter, it is noted Leif’s vision is above that of his companions:

one of the crew spoke up, asking, ‘Why do you steer a course so close to the wind?’ Leif answered, ‘I’m watching my course, but there’s more to it than that: do you see anything of note?’ The crew said they saw nothing worthy of note. ‘I’m not sure,’ Leif said, ‘whether it’s a ship or a skerry that I see.’ They then saw it and said it was a skerry. Leif saw so much better than they did, that he could make out men on the skerry. ‘I want to steer us close into the wind,’ Leif said, ‘so that we can reach them; if these men should be in need of our help, we have to try to give it to them. If they should prove to be hostile, we have all the advantages on our side and they have none.10

In 1930, a statue of Leif Eiriksson was gifted from the United States to Iceland. It stands outside of Hallgrímskirkja, (Church of Hallgrímur) and features Leif as a distinctly Norse and Christian, with an axe in his right hand and a crucifix in the left.

Leif can be seen as a microcosm of Norse society. He is chosen by the sovereign to embody the new principles of his people, and travels in-between worlds to integrate others into the new paradigm. He mediates between islands of the northern seas, negotiating the waves, glaciers, snow, rocks, and fog. Leif has the vision and courage to help others, to give structure and stability in a sea of chaos and uncertainty. He attempts to merge the abstract ideas of expansion and nation building, and gives them a concrete form in a new place in the world. However, ultimately he serves symbolically as a transitory or in-between figure, for an in-between people. The sagas tell of those who followed his path, making future voyages to Vinland, which is singled out as a distant place where few had been. Even in a society that pushed the limits of exploration and adventure.

That status on the periphery prompted interest, “since the trip seemed to bring men both wealth and renown.”11 A woman wanted some of this renown for herself, and the Saga of the Greenlanders also tells the story of Freydis Eirikdottir (Leif’s sister). That saga shifts to what amounts to a biography of her, detailing her marriages and her group’s encounters with natives of the new land, who the Norse referred to as skraelings. Later on in the saga, there is the story of a man named Thorfinn Karlsefni. He attempts to establish a larger settlement, but continued conflict with the native population—which greatly outnumbered the Norse—made this a short-lived experiment.

Skraeling was a term the Norse in Greenland first used to describe the Thule people, and later their ancestors, the modern Inuit. The Norse and Inuit coexisted in Greenland for at least two centuries.12The term is most likely related to the Old Norse word skrá meaning “dried skin”, in reference to the animal pelts worn by the Inuit, or from the Old Norse verb skrækja, meaning “bawl, shout, or yell”.13 The Inuit had their own stories about strange visitors to their lands, which help to verify episodes in the sagas of conflict between the two peoples.

Oral stories were told about encounters with odd-looking visitors, which began peaceably and cooperatively, but eventually turned into violent clashes. The new people were driven back to where they came from, but they were expected to eventually return, “soon the kayaker sent out his spear in good earnest, and killed the Kavdlunait (Norsemen) on the spot. When winter came, it was a general belief that the Kavdlunait would come and avenge the death of their countrymen.”14

The peripheral nature of the settlement and conflict with these strangers who outnumbered the Norse shows why the project was abandoned. It was out of reach of the Norse to truly make it their own, as they had done with other places in the north. Their resources were stretched too wide and thin to be sustainable. At the outermost reaches of the known world, these posts functioned as experiments more than permanent settlements. Vinland was a new world, but for the Norse it was just out of reach to be anything other than one of the many pit stops of a people on the hunt for new horizons.

Part Two: The Modern Day Norse

The Ingstads

In the 1950’s, Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad traveled throughout Greenland, studying the ruins of Norse settlements.15 With a small boat, they gradually made their way along the same routes as their ancestors: staying close to the rocky coasts of the cold, North-Atlantic. They were searching for any evidence of Vinland. They were a Norwegian husband-and-wife team; explorer and archaeologist. Helge was a man who was not terribly different from his ancestors. He craved adventure and exploration, and this need compelled him into the unmapped and the unknown.

Helge Ingstad poses for a portrait.

Helge wrote and spoke extensively on his travels, and the people that he met. He spent time in the 1920’s trapping in the Northwest Territories, where an intimate knowledge of the land and its people can only be won through direct experience. His bestselling book The Land of Feast or Famine published in 1933 was based on these experiences. He also coincidentally served briefly as governor of a piece of territory called Erik the Red’s Land from 1932-33, following Norway’s annexation of a small eastern region of Greenland.16

In 1950, he visited the Nunamiut people in the Northwestern Alaskan interior, who he lived with for nine months. Then in 1998, he produced a CD titled Songs of the Nunamiut, consisting of recordings he made during his time with the tribe. It proved to be an invaluable contribution to the preservation of their language, and included a collection of songs not heard for many years.17 Later, representatives of the Nunamiut were part of an effort which named a mountain in his honour, in the Brooks Range, near Anaktuvuk Pass, Alaska.

The Ingstads were uniquely suited to trace the steps of their Norse ancestors. In many ways, they saw the world as the Norse did. The team voluntarily went into the unknown, adapting to the land and people they encountered. Beyond physically recreating the Norse journeys, they also consulted materials related to the sagas, including The Skálholt Map from 1690.18 It is an early visual representation of the sagas. It is fairly basic and sparsely detailed, and gives only a general picture of the far reaches of western world as the Norse saw it. A mix of real, rumoured, and fictional geography, it was discounted by many experts as capable of providing any precise data.

Helge took this distorted yet valuable representation of the sagas and mapped it onto his own experiences. Through land, air, and sea, the couple searched for clues along the north Atlantic coasts. After scouring areas in Rhode Island and New York’s Long Island, they gradually made their way further north. On the Skálholt Map, the northern tip of “Winlandia” roughly lines up with the southern tip of Ireland, along the 51st parallel North. The Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland lined up with these coordinates, and seemed to be an ideal location to establish a small, isolated settlement, but not one filled with wine producing vines.

The Skálholt Map.
Greenland is represented as a large continuous landmass, not an isolated island. In the west are the lands of Helluland, Markland, Skraelinge Land, and the peninsula of Winlandia (Vineland).
In 1965, Yale University presented an earlier, much more detailed map purported to be made before 1492. As of 2021, investigations have found this so-called Vinland Map to be fraudulent, with evidence of titanium in the ink proving 20th century revisions and deliberate deceptions to create an older appearance.19

In 1914, William A. Munn, a Newfoundland native, wrote a short book in which he used the sagas and the Skálholt Map as references. He believed he knew the precise location where the Norse first tasted the sweet dew of grass in the Americas:

I believe when Leif started to come in towards the land, he was just south of Belle Isle at the break of day, and when he came to the land, the island mentioned is the Sacred Island just to the North of Cape Onion. They went ashore at Lancey Meadows [sic] as it is called to-day, where there is plenty of grass.20

The Ingstads endured years of disappointment. They were used to reactions of bewilderment upon asking the locals—along the eastern coasts of North America—if they knew of any nearby remnants of Viking settlements. But in 1960, the Ingstads struck iron when they met fisherman George Decker. Decker led them away from a small fishing village on The Great Northern Peninsula of Newfoundland, to an isolated and overgrown meadow. They quickly recognized the overgrown mounds in the area. There appeared to be buried versions of the Norse ruins they were familiar with in Greenland all around L’Anse aux Meadows.

L’Anse aux Meadows
A mound of a large Norse building at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland.

Between 1961-1968, a series of archaeological excavations confirmed the site found by the Ingstads to be Norse. Several common use and everyday items of Norse origin were recovered, and evidence was found of a small community that was home to between 70 and 90 people. The site included eight timber-and-sod houses, four boat sheds, three large cooking pits, sunken fireplaces, and a smithy for producing iron.21 From the apparent size of the community, the lack of evidence of rebuilding or long-term maintenance, and radiocarbon dating, it was found that the settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows existed near the year 1000—for around 50 years—as a base for repairing ships, stocking up on supplies, and resting before continuing further south.22 It was an in-between space for an in-between people.

Anne Stine Ingtad conducting an archaeological dig at L’Anse aux Meadows.

Estimates of the Indigenous population of the Maritimes at the time of the settlement vary, but even just the Mi’kmaq people alone may have numbered up to 35,000—far outnumbering the small, isolated amounts of Norse settlers. The archaeological evidence shows that at that time, it is likely there were no Indigenous inhabitants near the Norse settlement. All of this despite the fact that various groups inhabited the area intermittently, for 5000 years, before the Norse arrived and continued to do so after they left.23 Therefore, it is likely much of the conflict described on both sides, Indigenous and Norse, happened elsewhere.

Recreation of a Norse longhouse at L’Anse aux Meadows.
The interior of the longhouse. Today, tours at L’Anse aux Meadows offer an experience of the Norse way of life around the year 1000—with recreations of their homes, demonstrations of their occupations, and readings of the sagas around the fire.

L’Anse aux Meadows is likely more of an entrance to Vinland than the place itself. Most experts believe Vinland’s true location to be somewhere much further south, somewhere along the east coast of the United States, or further into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.24 L’Anse aux Meadows was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978, and is the only undisputed site of pre-1492 presence of Europeans in the Americas. It took a people who could symbolically live in-between worlds, from Miklagard to Vinland, to become the first in Europe to reach the New World.

Nearly 500 years before Columbus or Cabot, the Norse came ashore in lands that would eventually be called Canada, beginning a new pattern of discovery, exploration, and interaction between peoples. Almost 1000 years after the Norse landed in Newfoundland, their descendants had to see the world as they did to trace their steps. In this way, the Ingstads followed their ancestors, Sceaf and Leif, in their work of symbolically occupying the space in-between worlds. Rewriting the timeline of European discovery and contact with the New World in the process.

For more on Canadian history and symbolism by Mitch Sherven:
A Liminal State: Canadian Symbolism and Identity.

This article is currently being edited and will be reposted soon

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  1. A short biography of Adam of Bremen in the Catholic Encyclopedia.
  2. Adam of Bremen, Trans. Francis J. Tschan. History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, at 217. Columbia University Press, 2002.
  3. Trans. Seamus Heaney. Beowulf, at lines 42-46. WW Norton, 2001.
  4. Pageau, Jonathan. “A Universal History: History through the Symbolic Lens with Richard Rohlin”, at 38:46. Youtube, May, 2021.
  5. Daniel Anlezark. “Sceaf, Japeth and the origins of the Anglo-Saxons”, at 26. Anglo-Saxon England, Vol. 31, December, 2002.
  6. Ed. Jane Smiley and Robert Kellogg. The Sagas of Icelanders, at 710. Penguin, 2001.
  7. Carole M. Cusack. The Rise of Christianity in Northern Europe 300-1000, at 151. Cassell. 1998.
  8. Ed. Carol J. Clover and John Lindow. Old Norse-Icelandic Literature: A Critical Guide, at 267. Cornell University Press, 1985.
  9. Smiley, The Sagas of Icelanders, at 756.
  10. Ibid, 738.
  11. Ibid, 745.
  12. P. Schledermann and K. M. McCullough. “Inuit-Norse Contact in the Smith Sound Region,” at 201, in Contact, Continuity, and Collapse: The Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic, Brepols Publishers, 2003.
  13. This second definition gives the term a pejorative connotation similar to the Greek word barbaroi (barbarian).
    Ed. Ernst Hakon Jahr, Ingvild Broch. Language Contact in the Arctic: Northern Pidgins and Contact Languages, at 233. Mouton De Gruyter, 2011.
  14. Hinrich Rink and Robert Brown. Tales and Traditions of the Eskimo, at 310. Kessinger Publishing Co, 2004.
  15. The National Film Board of Canada has two documentaries about the Ingstads and their search, The Man Who Discovered America directed by Ralph Maud, and The Vinland Mystery directed by William Pettigrew.
  16. The Permanent Court of International Justice ruled against Norway’s claim to the region in 1933, deciding in favour of a claim of ownership by Denmark.
  17. Helge Ingstad. Nunamuit: Among Alaska’s Inland Eskimos, The Countryman Press, 2006.
  18. Helge mentions this in the 1984 documentary The Vinland Mystery directed by William Pettigrew. The original map from 1570 no longer survives, the earliest copy is from 1690.
  19. This article breaks down the controversy behind the Yale map.
  20. William A. Munn. Location of Helluland, Markland, and Wineland from the Icelandic Sagas, at 211. St. John’s Newfoundland Gazette Print, 1914.
  21. Paul M. Ledgera, Linus Girdland-Flinkc, and Véronique Forbes. “New horizons at L’Anse aux Meadows”, at 1. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116 (31). July, 2019.
  22. Brigitta Wallace. “L’Anse aux Meadows and Vinland: An Abandoned Experiment”, at 207. In Contact, Continuity, and Collapse.
  23. Ibid, 216.
  24. Ibid,231.
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