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It is widely known that Eiríkr inn rauði (Erik the Red) was the first settler in Grænland (Greenland). There is the misconception, though, that he also discovered it or that settling there was a simple act of curiosity.

Things may not have been what they seem, as it often happen.

As we delve in Eiríks saga rauða (The Saga of Eirik the Red) and Grænlendinga saga (The Saga of the Greenlanders), we find that he didn’t really choose to leave Norway and, after all, leaving Iceland wasn’t probably something that he necessarily wanted to do from the beginning. 

From what Norse literature narrates, it may seem that Eirik may not have had only his hair covered in red, but also his hands.


Eirik the Red (“Grönlandia”, Arngrímur Jónsson)

Þórvaldr Ásvaldsson (Thorvald Ásvaldsson) was Eirik’s father. They moved from Jæder (Norway) to Dröngum (Iceland) due to some killings when Eirik was just a child. It is presumed that Thorvald killed a man and, at that time, banishment was a common sentence.

Time passed, his father died, and he married Þjóðhildar (Thjodhild) from Haukadalr, and they dwelled in Eiríksstöðum (Erikstad in Haukadalr).

Having his father left behind footprints of blood, Eirik almost seemed destined to walk that path himself, and soon he did.

It all started when Eirik’s thralls1 caused a landslide and, as a consequence, Eyjólfr Saurr2 (Eyjolf the Foul) slaughtered them. This clearly displeased Eirik that in return, killed Eyjolf and Hólmgöngu-Hrafn (Hrafn the Dueller)3.

Due to these violent actions, he found himself in his father’s boots, and was banished from Haukadalr4. He then moved to Öxney (Eyxney), but would not have a calm stay either.

He lent some seat-posts5 to Þorgestr (Thorgest), expecting to get them in return. Thorgest, though, had no intention to give back the posts. He should have known better, as Eirik and his family clearly never had problems solving matters with their own hands.

At this point, Eirik, a warrior in heart, went to fetch the now stolen property himself. Violence was met again, this time, two of Thorgest’s sons died, amongst other men. War was declared, they would both start recruiting men for this enterprise. Amongst Eirik’s most loyal men, we count Styr, Eyjolf and Þorbjörn Vífilsson (Thorbjorn Vifilsson), the father of the later famous Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir.

In order to settle this bloody dispute, at the Þórsnessþingi (Thorsnes Thing6), he was declared outlawed and forced to leave those lands. Once again, he was forced to leave the land he lived in, and once again, because of blood.

Probably with a feeling of failure, rage and disappointment, he decided to leave Iceland altogether. He told his men that he would look for the land that, years before, Gunnbjörn saw when driven westwards in the ocean.

He left with two promises that later fulfilled. Eirik was a man of battle and blood as he was of honour and loyalty. The first: if he ever found land, he would come back to visit his friends, and tell them about it. The second: if they ever needed help and he had the means, he would do whatever possible to help them.

Land was found, he proceeded to name every place that he encountered during his exploration of the territory.

The first promise was then fulfilled. He returned to Iceland to let know of this land that he settled in, that he called it Greenland. Eirik himself explained this name:

“Því at menn þat mjök mundu fýsa þangat, ef landit héti vel”

“Because men will desire much more to go there if the land has a good name”

Thirty five ships left Iceland for settling in Greenland, only 14 arrived. Greenland would become an important stepping stone for settling in Vínland7 in the coming years.

As for the second promise, he would help Thorbjorn Vifilsson settle in Greenland with his daughter Gudrid, giving them land and all sorts of commodities.

Eirik lived ever after in Brattahlíð (Brattahlid), in Eiríksfjörð (Eiriksfjord), with his wife Thjodhild and his children: Leif inn heppni Eiríksson (Leif “The Lucky” Eiriksson), Þorsteinn Eiríksson (Thorstein Eiriksson), Þorvaldr Eiríksson (Thorvald Eiriksson) and Freydís Eiríksdóttir (Freydis Eirik’s daughter).

References

  1. From ON þræll, meaning slave.
  2. From ON saurr, has different meanings, none of them appealing: mud, dirt, excrements. So that we can deduce that Eyjólfr Saurr was meant as “Eyjolf the Foul”.
  3. I could not find any information about Hrafn and his killing in Eiríks saga rauða or Grænlendinga saga. Most probably he was Eyjolf’s companion.
  4. The people who took legal actions were Eyjolf’s kinsmen: Geirsteinn and Oddr.
  5. From ON set-stokkr, meaning: planking-beam. It was the beam that would go between the seat and the centre of the hall.
  6. A þing, was a great assembly, a parliament. Where laws were made and applied.
  7. Vínland, Vineland, the name that was given to America due to the strong presence of vines.

Sources


Riccardo Polacci

Riccardo Polacci

Software Developer with a passion for History, specifically Norse history, language and mythology.

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