The Norse Discovery of America, by A.M Reeves, N.L. Beamish and R.B. Anderson, , at sacred-texts.com
IT will be remembered that a passage in the Book of Settlement [Landnamabok] recites the discovery, by one Ari Marsson, of a country lying westward from Ireland, called White-men's-land, or Ireland the Great. This White-men's-land is also mentioned in the Saga of Eric the Red, and in both places is assigned a location in the vicinity of Wineland the Good. Many writers have regarded this White-men's-land as identical with a strange country, the discovery of which is recounted in the Eyrbyggja Saga, having been led to this conclusion, apparently, from the fact that both unknown lands lay to the "westward," and that there is a certain remote resemblance between the brief particulars Of the Eric's Saga and the more detailed narrative of Eyrbyggja.
It is related in the Eyrbyggja Saga that a certain Biorn Asbrandsson became involved in an intrigue with a married woman named Thurid, which resulted in his wounding the affronted husband and slaying two of the husband's friends, for which he was banished from Iceland for the term of three years. Biorn went abroad, led an adventurous life, and received the name of "kappi" [champion, hero] on account of his valorous deeds. He subsequently returned to Iceland, where he was afterwards known as the Broadwickers'-champion. He brought with him on his return not only increase of fame,
but the added graces of bearing due to his long fellowship with foreign chieftains, and he soon renewed his attentions to his former mistress. The husband, fearing to cope alone with so powerful a rival, invoked the aid of one skilled in the black art to raise a storm, which should overwhelm the object of his enmity. The hero, however, after three days of exposure to the preternaturally-agitated elements, returned exhausted, but in safety, to his home. The husband then prevailed upon his powerful brother-in-law, the godi ( 72) Snorri, to come to his assistance, and as a result of Snorri's intervention, Biorn agreed to leave the country. He accordingly rode "south, to a ship in Laga-haven, in which he took passage that same summer, but they were rather late in putting to sea. They sailed away with a north-east wind, which prevailed far into the summer, but nothing was heard of this ship for a long time afterwards."
Further on in the same saga we read of the fortuitous discovery of this same Biorn by certain of his fellow-countrymen, and as the account of their strange meeting contains the sole description of this unknown land, it may best be given in the words of the saga. "It was in the latter days of Olaf the Saint that Gudleif engaged in a trading voyage westward to Dublin, and when he sailed from the west it was his intention to proceed to Iceland. He sailed to the westward of Ireland, and had easterly gales and winds from the northeast, and was driven far to the westward over the sea and toward the southwest, so that they had lost all track of land. The summer was then far spent, and they uttered many prayers that they
might be permitted to escape from the sea, and it befell thereupon that they became aware of land. It was a great country, but they did not know what country it was. Gudleif and his companions determined to sail to the land, for they were weary with battling with the tempestuous sea. They found a good harbour there, and they had been alongside the land but a short time when men came toward them. They did not recognize a single man, but it rather seemed to them that they were speaking Irish; soon so great a throng of men had drawn about them that they amounted to several hundreds. These people thereupon seized them all and bound them, and then drove them up upon the land. They were then taken to a meeting, at which their case was considered. It was their understanding that some [of their captors] wished them to be slain, while others would have them distributed among the people and thrown into bondage. While this was being argued they descried a body of men riding, and a banner was carried in their midst, from which they concluded that some manner of chieftain must be in the company; and when this band drew near they saw a tall and warlike man riding beneath the banner; he was far advanced in years, however, and his hair was white. All of the people assembled bowed before this man and received him as he had been their lord; they soon observed that all questions and matters for decision were submitted to him. This man then summoned Gudleif and his fellows, and when they came before him he addressed them in the Northern tongue [i. e., Icelandic], and asked them to what country they belonged. They
responded that they were, for the most part, Icelanders. This man asked which of them were the Icelanders. Gudlief then advanced before this man, and greeted him worthily, and he received his salutations graciously, and asks from what part of Iceland they came, and Gudleif replied that he came from Borgarfirth. He then enquired from what part of Borgarfirth he came, and Gudleif informs him. After this he asked particularly after every one of the leading men of Borgarfirth and Breidafirth, and in the course of the conversation he asked after Snorri Godi and Thurid, of Froda, his sister, and he enquired especially after all details concerning Froda, and particularly regarding the boy Kiartan, 1 who was then the master at Froda. The people of the country, on the other hand, demanded that some judgment should be reached concerning the ship's crew. After this the tall man left them, and called about him twelve of his men, and they sat together for a long time in consultation, after which they betook themselves to the [general] meeting. Thereupon the tall man said to Gudleif and his companions: 'We, the people of this country, have somewhat considered your case, and the inhabitants have given your affair into my care, and I will now give you permission to go whither ye list; and even though it may seem to you that the summer is far spent, still I would counsel you to leave here, for the people here are untrustworthy and hard to deal with, and have already formed the belief that their laws have been broken.' Gudleif replied: 'If it be vouchsafed us to reach our native land, what shall we say
concerning him who has granted us our freedom.' He answered: 'That I may not tell you, for I cannot bear that my relatives and foster-brothers should have such a voyage hither as ye would have had if ye had not had my aid; but now I am so advanced in years,' said he, 'that the hour may come at any time when age shall rise above my head; and even though I should live yet a little longer, still there are those here in the land who are more powerful than I who would offer little mercy to strangers, albeit these are not in this neighbourhood where ye have landed.' Afterward this man aided them in equipping their ship, and remained with them until there came a fair wind, which enabled them to put to sea. But before he and Gudleif parted, this man took a gold ring from his hand and handed it to Gudleif, and with it a goodly sword; and he then said to Gudleif: 'If it be granted thee to come again to thy father-land, then do thou give this sword to Kiartan, the master at Froda, and the ring to his mother.' Gudleif said: 'What shall I reply as to who sends these precious things?' He answered: 'Say that he sends them who was more of a friend of the mistress at Froda than of the Godi at Helgafell, her brother. But if any persons shall think they have discovered from this to whom these treasures belonged, give them my message, that I forbid any man to go in search of me, for it would be a most desperate undertaking, unless he should fare as successfully as ye have in finding a landing-place; for here is an extensive country with few harbours, and over all a disposition to deal harshly with strangers, unless it befall as it has in this case.' After
this they parted. Gudleif and his men put to sea, and arrived in Ireland late in the autumn, and passed the winter in Dublin; but in the summer they sailed to Iceland, and Gudleif delivered the treasures, and all men held of a verity that this man was Biorn Broadwickers'-champion; but people have no other proof of this, save these particulars, which have now been related."
It will be observed that the narrator of the saga does not in this incident once connect this unknown land with White-men's-land, nor does he offer any suggestion as to its situation. The work of identifying this strange country with White-men's-land, and so with Wineland the Good, has been entirely wrought by the modern commentator. If we accept as credible a meeting so remarkable as the one here described, if we disregard the statements of the narrative showing the existence of horses in this unknown land, which the theorist has not hesitated to do, and, finally, if we assume that there was at this time an Irish colony or one speaking a kindred tongue in North America, we may conclude that Biorn's adopted home was somewhere on the eastern North-American coast. If, however, we read the statements of the saga as we find them, they seem all to tend to deny this postulate, rather than to confirm it. The entire story has a decidedly fabulous appearance, and, as has been suggested by a learned editor of the saga, a romantic cast, which is not consonant with the character of the history in which it appears. A narrative, the truth of which the narrator himself tells us had not been ratified by collateral evidence, and whose details are so vague and indefinite, seems to afford
historical evidence of a character so equivocal that it may well be dismissed without further consideration.
Of an altogether different nature from the narrative of discovery above recited is the brief notice of the finding of a new land, set down in the Icelandic Annals toward the end of the thirteenth century. In the Annales regii, in the year 1285, the record reads: "Adalbrand and Thorvald, Helgi's sons, found New-land;" in the Annals of the Flatey Book, under the same year, "Land was found to the westward off Iceland;" and again in Gottskalk's Annals an entry exactly similar to that of the Flatey Book. In Hoyer's Annals the entry is of a different character: "Helgi's sons sailed into Greenland's uninhabited regions."
In the parchment manuscript AM. 415, 4to, written, probably, about the beginning of the fourteenth century, is a collection of annals called "Annales vetustissimi," and here, under the year 1285, is an entry similar to that of the Flatey Book: "Land found to the westward off Iceland." In the Skalholt Annals, on the other hand, the only corresponding entry against the year 1285 is: "Down-islands discovered."
It required but the similarity between the names Newland and Newfoundland to arouse the effort to identify the two countries; and the theory thus created was supposed to find confirmation in a passage in a copy of a certain document known as Bishop Gizur Einarsson's Register [brefa-bok], for the years 1540-47, which is contained in a paper manuscript of the seventeenth century, AM. 266, fol. This passage is as follows: "Wise men
have said that you must sail to the southwest from Krisuvik mountain to Newland." Krisuvik mountain is situated on the promontory of Reykianess, the southwestern extremity of Iceland, and, as has been recently pointed out, to sail the course suggested by Bishop Gizur would in all probability land the adventurous mariner in southeastern Greenland. The record of the Annals, however, is so explicit, that in determining the site of "Newland" we do not need to orient ourselves by extraneous evidence. We are informed, that, in 1285, Helgi's sons sailed into Greenland's "obygdir," the name by which the Greenland colonists were wont to designate the uninhabited east coast of Greenland; and as it is elsewhere distinctly stated that the "Newland," which these men discovered in the same year, lay to the "westward off Iceland," there can be little room for hesitancy in reaching, the conclusion that "Newland," and the "Down-islands" all lie together, and are probably only different names for, the same discovery. However this may be, it is at least manifest, from the record, that if Newland was not a part of the eastern coast of Greenland, there is nothing to indicate that it was anywhere in the region of Newfoundland.
A few years after this discovery is recorded, namely in 1289, we find the following statement in the Flatey Annals: "King Eric sends Rolf to Iceland to seek Newland;" and again in the next year: "Rolf travelled about Iceland soliciting men for a Newland voyage." No additional information has been preserved touching this enterprise, and it therefore seems probable that if the voyage
was actually undertaken, it was barren of results. The Flatey Annals note the death of Rolf, Land-Rolf, as he was called, in 1295, and as no subsequent seeker of Newland is named in Icelandic history, it may be assumed that the spirit of exploration died with him.
This brief record of the Annals is unquestionably historically accurate; moreover there may be somewhat of an historical foundation for the adventures of the Broadwickers'-champion recounted in the Eyrbyggja Saga; neither of these notices of discovery, however, appears to have any connection with the discovery of Wineland; they have been considered here chiefly because of the fact that they have been treated in the past as if they had a direct bearing upon the Wineland history.
The historical and quasi-historical material relating to the discovery of Wineland has now been presented. A few brief notices of Helluland, contained in the later Icelandic literature, remain for consideration. These notices necessarily partake of the character of the sagas in which they appear, and as these sagas are in a greater or less degree pure fictions, the references cannot be regarded as possessing much historical value.
First among these unhistorical sagas is the old mythical tale of Arrow-Odd, of which two recensions exist; the more recent and inferior version is that which contains the passages where Helluland is mentioned, as follows: "'But I will tell thee where Ogmund is; he is come into that firth which is called Skuggi, it is in Helluland's deserts . . . .; he has gone thither because he does not wish to meet thee; now thou mayest track him home, if
thou wishest, and see how it fares.' Odd said thus it should be. Thereupon they sail until they come into Greenland's sea, when they turn south and west around the land . . . They sail now until they come to Helluland, and lay their course into the Skuggi-firth. And when they had reached the land the father and son went ashore, and walked until they saw where there was a fortification, and it seemed to them to be very strongly built."
In the same category with Arrow-Odd's Saga may be placed two other mythical sagas, the Saga of Halfdan Eysteinsson, and the Saga of Halfdan Brana's-fostering; in the first of these the passage containing the mention of Helluland is as follows: "Raknar brought Helluland's deserts under his sway, and destroyed all the giants there." In the second of these last-mentioned sagas the hero is driven out of his course at sea, until he finally succeeds in beaching his ship upon "smooth sands" beside "high cliffs;" "there was much drift-wood on the sands and they set about building a hut, which was soon finished. Halfdan frequently ascended the glaciers, and some of the men bore him company . . . . The men asked Halfdan what country this could be. Halfdan replied that they must be come to Helluland's deserts."
Belonging to a class of fictitious sagas known as "landvættasogur" [stories of a country's guardian spirits], is the folk-tale of Bard the Snow-fell god. The first chapter of this tale begins: "There was a king named Dumb, who ruled over those gulfs, which extend northward around Helluland and are now called Dumb's sea." Subsequently we find brief mention of a king of Helluland, of
whom Gest, the son of the hero of the saga, says: "I have never seen him before, but I have been told by my relatives that the king was called Rakin, and from their account I believe I recognize him; he at one time ruled over Helluland and many other countries, and after he had long ruled these lands he caused himself to be buried alive, together with five hundred men, at Raknslodi; he murdered his father and mother, and many other people; it seems to me probable, from the reports of other people, that his burial-mound is northward in Helluland's deserts." Gest goes in quest of this mound, sails to Greenland's deserts, where, having traversed the lava-fields [!] for three days on foot, he at length discovers the burial-mound upon an island near the sea-coast; "some men say that this mound was situated to the northward off Helluland, but wherever it was, there were no settlements in the neighbourhood."
The brief extracts here quoted will suffice to indicate not only the fabulous character of the sagas in which they appear, but they serve further to show how completely the discoveries of Leif, and the exploration of Karlsefni had become distorted in the popular memory of the Icelanders at the time these tales were composed, which was probably in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. The Helluland of these stories is an unknown region, relegated, in the popular superstition, to the trackless wastes of northern Greenland.
111:1 This Kiartan was Thurid's son.