Friday, October 9, 2009

Happy Leif Eriksson Day!

In honor of today being Leif Eriksson...uh...Leif Erick...uh...the True Day North America Was Discovered (TM), we have a great post from Cultural Advisor, Colin. Take it away, Colin!

Today is Leif Eriksson Day, and in honor of the occasion, I thought I’d post some answers to some frequently asked questions I get a lot around this time of year.

How should we spell his name? Leif Erikson, Leif Eriksson, Leif Ericsson, or what?

In Old Norse, Leif’s own language, his name would have been rendered Leifr Eiríksson. Given the differences between Old Norse (the ancestor language of modern Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, Icelandic and Faroese) and modern English, it makes sense to tweak the spelling a little to make it intelligible, so really any version of “Erikson” could be said to be correct. Personally I advocate for the spelling “Eriksson” with a “k” and double “s” because it’s the closest to Old Norse. I really see no reason for “Ericson” or “Ericsson” other than the predominance of the spelling “Eric” over “Erik” as a personal name in contemporary America.

Oh, and as for pronunciation, strictly speaking “Leif” should rhyme with “safe” not “leaf.”

Who was he and what did he do?

Pretty much everything we know about Leif comes from two Icelandic sagas, the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red, often referred to collectively as the Vinland Sagas. The basic gist of the story is that Leif’s father Erik the Red got himself banished from Iceland for murdering some of his neighbors, and so the family picked up and moved to Greenland. Erik built up a farm there and became quite wealthy. As a young man Leif took to the sea to make a name for himself. In Norway he won the favor of King Olaf Tryggvason, became a Christian, and was charged with the task of bringing the new faith to Greenland. Having accomplished that, he later struck out from Greenland to search for a new land ever farther to the west.

Here the sagas differ somewhat. In the Saga of Erik the Red, Leif discovers the new country on accident, when he gets blown off course en route to Greenland. In the Saga of the Greenlanders, more or less the same thing happens to a completely different person, Bjarni Herjólfsson who sights land but chooses not to go ashore. Years later, the saga tells us, Leif Eriksson buys Bjarni’s ship and goes looking for the land Bjarni sighted. Over the course of a summer he finds a place he calls Markland (“forest land” probably the Labrador coast), another spot he dubs Helluland (“flat stone land” probably Baffin Island) and finally Vinland (“wine-land” now generally accepted to be Newfoundland). At the end of the season, he returns to Greenland. Other expeditions follow, notably those of his brothers Thorvald and Thorstein, as well as that of Thorfinn Karlsefni who intended to establish a more permanent settlement there. However, conflicts with the local “skraelings (First Nations peoples) and infighting amongst the Norse themselves put an end to the Vinland adventure.

Why do we celebrate Leif Eriksson Day?

In the 1800s Norway was swept by a great tide of national romanticism. The new, nearly-independent nation had emerged from a 400 year-long “union” with Denmark and was striving to define itself on its own terms. As Norwegians began pushing more and more for complete political independence, they also agitated for cultural independence in language, literature, music and many other areas. A side effect of this was renewed popular interest in Old Norse sagas, which connected the Norwegian people to a proud history.

As thousands of Norwegians left Norway for America, they brought their love for the sagas with them. The story of Leif Eriksson, a brave, pioneering (grand)son of Norway who had set foot in North America five hundred years before Columbus, became especially popular. Like many immigrant groups, the Norwegians faced some hostility from native-born Americans; the notion that a Norseman had gotten there first imparted on the Norwegians the “right” to be here. Leif Eriksson became a folk hero, not only to Norwegians but to all Scandinavians in the New World.

This did not sit well with a number of other ethnic groups, particularly Italian-Americans, who had similarly venerated Christopher Columbus. Groups representing each side, including Sons of Norway, competed for years for official recognition of their hero as the original “discoverer” of America. Books and magazines of the time were filled with debate and conjecture about the accuracy of the Vinland Sagas, the location of Vinland, and of course the legitimacy of the Kensington Runestone. As evidence of this, take a walk around the Minnesota state capitol building in St. Paul. About a block away in one direction, there’s a huge statue of Leif Eriksson, with the inscription, “DISCOVERER OF AMERICA.” A block in the other direction, there’s a statue of Columbus, also bearing the inscription, “DISCOVERER OF AMERICA.”

In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson proclaimed the first Leif Eriksson Day. By this time, the history of Norse activity in North America had been established as an archeological fact. Interestingly, the day selected, October 9th, had no connection whatsoever to Leif Eriksson, Vinland or the Vikings. Instead, October 9th had been picked because on that date in 1825, the first immigrant ship from Norway, the Restauration, arrived in New York. I can’t help but feel that it also had something to do with pre-empting Columbus Day, which falls on October 12th.

Did he really exist? Are the sagas accurate?

People have argued for hundreds of years about the historical value of the Norse sagas, which were passed down orally, in some cases for generations, before being written down hundreds of years later. But conclusive proof of Norse settlement in North America came in 1960, when Dr. Helge Ingstad, a Norwegian archeologist, discovered a Norse encampment at L’Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland. Ingstad and his wife Anne Stine Ingstad performed excavations at the site throughout the 60s, finding many obviously Norse artifacts, carbon dated to the year 1000, the same time frame presented in the Vinland Sagas. According to Parks Canada’s excellent website on L’Anse Aux Meadows, the site was occupied by people who must have traveled a good deal in the area, perhaps as far as New Brunswick and the St. Lawrence River. Regardless of to whatever degree the sagas are historically accurate, they attest to a short period of exploration and colonization by Norse people in the New World, all of which is very well supported by the archeological evidence.

What happened to the Vinland colony? Why didn’t the Norse come back?

Vinland was a vast, unknown country on the very furthest extremity of the known European world. It was explored by people living in Greenland, itself a small, remote outpost accessible only by a perilous sea journey. In time, the Greenland colony would fade away and die.

The mystery of Vinland has inspired a lot of interesting theories over the years, both before and after the excavation of L’Anse Aux Meadows. Besides the Kensington Runestone, the less famous runestones in Oklahoma, not to mention the Newport Tower, the Beardmore Relics, the Westford Knight and the Maine Penny have all been advanced as further evidence of Norse presence in America and all of which - excepting the last named - have been rejected by mainstream scientists. There’s also a whole family of theories based on the idea that the Norse stayed in North America and blended in with Native American tribes. A classic of this line of thought is the 1940 book, in 4 volumes, entitled The Viking and the Red Man, which postulates that the Algonquin Native American languages are descended from Old Norse. Most recently, Myron Paine, Phd, has advanced a theory that the Greenland Norse walked across sea ice from Greenland to America.


Frode said...

Dr. Payne's theories are really interesting, also taken in concideration that they is supported by an old indian legend, telling that the forefathers of the Algonquians came to their land "across a frozen sea in the east". Across the ice, or with ships, time will show that there were far more "vikings" that followed Leiv Eiriksson than we want to know of today.
F.T. Omdahl, Asker, Norway

Richad said...

Dr. Paine has devoted much time and effort into the theory he proposes and has presented much evidence to support his hypothesis. With all of the current and past findings by various historians and intellectuals in addition to his own, we can conclude that his theory is credible and reasonable. His recent finding of religious evidence connecting the Norse and Algonquians further validates his theory.
Richard Moriguchi, USA

rhino said...

The body of evidence for pre-Columbian contact continues to grow, while "mainstream scientists" continue to cling to tired paradigms based on old, incomplete knowledge easily improved upon by today's technology. Dr. Paine assembles many lines of evidence into a very credible theory deserving of objective, scientific scrutiny and archaeology.

Valdimar said...

There are lots of evidence of traveler going to NA before Erik the Red and Leifur. In our Landnama (Book of Icelandic settlements) they mention man named Ari that was a merchant and left from Ireland to Iceland but was blown of course and landed in Whitemansland in around 950AD. He was neighbor of Erik the Red. Landnama also mention few people that met Ari there.Ari never wanted to come back ti Iceland and left his wife with 3 sons. So where do people think Erik was part of those 3 years in exile knowing as everybody that his neighbor was there. See by law he could not claim anothers mans land. He already tried that in Iceland.

There is also in other places in our sagas where certain man sailed south and then in another place where another merchant was blown of and landed most likely in southern states probably Florida and met this man whom did not tell his name but was then chief but took a ring to be give to certain woman he was not allowed to married and said she will know who I am. All these men where from same part of Iceland and from families had been around 100 years so pure Icelanders. There is one account of Icelandic man walking to Norway from Greenland and if I recollect right it is in our Eddas. It was also known that men walked south from NE Greenland on the Glazier. Written of my head but all names are in out sagas. Note: Our Sagas are more that Greenland and Erik saga and among them we have diplomas, annals written by different people at different places in Iceland at the same time. Leif Erikson was born Icelander in NW Iceland. I have Ari story Translated.
Valdimar Samuelsson, Reykjavik, Iceland.

Valdimar said...

When writing above I had not read Dr. Payne's post but knowing his line and really aggree with but seeing the discution on Leif name I pulled out our saga book registere on names. Leif was written like this:
Leifr Eriksson,inn(hinn) heppni,Brattahlid,Graenland.
Valdimar. Iceland.

Amber said...

Thank you for your note on the pronunciation of Leif. I know this entry is a few months old, but relevant nonetheless. We named our son Leif and people I meet actually argue with me that I'm pronouncing my son's name wrong. After I introduce them, they say, "Oh, "Leaf", like "Leaf" Eriksson. I say, "Well, we call him "Layf", but you can call him whatever you would like," and try to smile. People get all crazy about it sometimes. Regardless, what's the difference, right? They should respect his name as given by his parents, but people often regard their own opinion as superior regardless, and that's their problem, not mine, right?! Anyhow, I thank you for your "Sons of Norway" pronunciation guide. I concur!
Amber from Oklahoma