Erik the Red

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Erik the Red (Old Norse: Eiríkr hinn rauði) was a Norwegian Viking who founded the first Norse settlement in Greenland.

Erik Thorvaldsson (Eiríkr Þorvaldsson) was born in 950 AD in the Jæren district of Rogaland, Norway and died in Greenland in the year 1003 AD.  He was the son of Thorvald Asvaldsson, whose violent actions would begin his son, Erik the Red’s, saga. The appellation “the Red” in Erik’s name most likely refers to his hair and beard color.

Erik the Red and his wife Þjóðhildr (Thjodhildr) had four children: a daughter, Freydís, and three sons, the explorers Leif Eiríksson, Þorvaldr (Thorvald) and Þorsteinn (Thorstein)

Eric the Red’s saga begins when his father was expelled from Norway

Erik “the red” Thorvaldsson’s father, Thorvald Asvaldsson, was exiled from Norway in the year 960 AD, during the reign of King Harald Fairhair, for the crime of manslaughter.

Erik the Red’s father. Thorvald Asvaldsson (Old Norse: Þórvaldr Ásvaldsson), was born in Norway. He was the son of Ásvald Ulfsson, whose father was Ulf Oxen-Thorisson, whose father was Oxen-Thorir, brother of Naddodd, discoverer of Iceland.

After the expulsion, Þorvald Ásvaldsson resettled in Iceland with his family (which included Erik) as many Norse refugees from Norway had done before him.

Erik had adjusted well in his new home in Iceland until two years after his father died in 980 AD, when he himself had also been expelled at a “thing” assembly from Iceland in 982 AD for a period of three years.

This is what happened, after marrying a woman named Thjodhild (Þjóðhildr), Erik moved to Haukadal (Hawksdale) Iceland where he built a farm called ‘Eiríksstaðir’.

Eiríksstaðir, tilgátubær.
Reconstructed longhouse at Eiríksstaðir, Iceland

The initial confrontation occurred when Erik’s thralls (slaves) started a landslide on the neighboring farm belonging to Valthjof (Valþjófr).

Valthjof’s friend, Eyiolf the Foul (Eyjólfr saurr), killed Erik’s thralls for causing the landslide. This angered Erik greatly and in retaliation, he killed Eyjiolf and Holmgang-Hrafn (Hólmgöngu-Hrafn) for killing his thralls. Eyiolf’s surviving kinsmen demanded his banishment from Haukadal, Iceland.

Erik then moved to the island of Öxney. He asked Thorgest (Þórgestr) to keep his setstokkr, (inherited ornamented beams of significant mystical value) which his father had brought from Norway.

setstokkr. m. planking-beam (between the set and the unfloored center of the hall).

When he had finished his new house, he went back to get his setstokkr, but they “could not be obtained.” Erik then went to Breidabolstad and took the setstokkr there. These are likely to have been Thorgest’s setstokkr, although the sagas are unclear at this point.

Thorgest gave chase and in the ensuing fight Erik slew both Thorgest’s sons and “a few other men”.

After this, each of them retained a considerable body of men with him at his home. Styr gave Erik his support, as did also Eyiolf of Sviney, Thorbjiorn, Vifil’s son, and the sons of Thorbrand of Alptafirth; while Thorgest was backed by the sons of Thord the Yeller, and Thorgeir of Hitardal, Aslak of Langadal and his son Illugi.

The dispute was resolved at a Thing assembly, with the result that in the year 982 AD, Erik the Red was outlawed from Iceland for three years.

It was during this time in exile that Erik the Red made his way to Greenland.

Now for clarification, Erik the Red did not discover Greenland, he is accredited as being the first one to successfully settle Greenland.

Greenland had been discovered previously by Gunnbjörn Ulfsson, who had discovered it by accident when strong winds had driven him to the ‘land mass’ which he called Gunnbjarnarsker. Later, a Viking named Snaebjörn Galti attempted to settle Greenland in 978 AD, but this attempt ended in disaster and he was killed in internal strife.

Erik the Red made the first successful permanent settlement in Greenland.

Probably because he had nowhere else to go, Erik sailed to a somewhat mysterious and little-known land. He rounded the southern tip of the island (later known as Cape Farewell) and sailed up the western coast. He eventually reached a part of the coast that, for the most part, seemed ice-free and consequently had conditions—similar to those of Iceland—that promised growth and future prosperity.

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Erik the Red spent his three years of exile from Iceland exploring this land. The first winter he spent on the island of Eiriksey, the second winter he passed in Eiriksholmar (close to Hvarfsgnipa). In the final summer he explored as far north as Snaefell and into Hrafnsfjord.

Eric the Red (Eiríkur rauði). Woodcut frontispiece from the 1688 Icelandic publication of Arngrímur Jónsson's Gronlandia (Greenland). Fiske Icelandic Collection.
Eric the Red (Eiríkur rauði). Woodcut frontispiece from the 1688 Icelandic publication of Arngrímur Jónsson’s Gronlandia (Greenland). Fiske Icelandic Collection.

When Erik returned to Iceland after his exile had expired, he is said to have brought with him stories of “Greenland”. Erik deliberately gave the land a more appealing name than “Iceland” in order to lure potential settlers. He explained, “people would be attracted to go there if it had a favorable name”.

iceland-vs-greenland

He knew that the success of any settlement in Greenland would need the support of as many people as possible. His salesmanship proved successful, as many people (especially “those Vikings living on poor land in Iceland” and those that had suffered a “recent famine”) became convinced that Greenland held great opportunity.

After spending the winter in Iceland, Erik returned to Greenland in 985 AD with a large number of colonists.

Out of 25 ships that left for Greenland only 14 arrived, 11 were lost at sea. The Icelanders established two colonies on the southwest coast: the Eastern Settlement or Eystribyggð, in modern-day Qaqortoq, and the Western Settlement or Vestribyggð, close to present-day Nuuk. Eventually, a Middle Settlement grew, but many people suggest it formed part of the Western Settlement.

The Eastern and Western Settlements, both established on the southwest coast, proved the only two areas suitable for farming. During the summers, when the weather favored travel more, each settlement would send an army of men to hunt in Disko Bay above the Arctic Circle for food and other valuable commodities such as seals (used for rope), ivory from walrus tusks, and beached whales.

In Eystribyggð or Eastern Settlement, Erik built the estate of Brattahlíð, near present-day Narsarsuaq. He held the title of paramount chieftain of Greenland and became both greatly respected and wealthy.

The settlement flourished, growing to 5000 inhabitants spread over a considerable area along Eriksfjord and neighboring fjords. Groups of immigrants escaping overcrowding in Iceland joined the original party. However, one group of immigrants which arrived in 1002 brought with it an epidemic that ravaged the colony, killing many of its leading citizens, including Erik himself, who died in 1003 AD.

Erik the Red
Erik the Red statue at Qagssiarssuk, Greenland.

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by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing


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