Viking Settlers in Greenland

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Viking Settlers in Greenland


About 1,000 years ago, the North Atlantic island of Greenland, the largest island in the world, was colonized by a group of Vikings ruled by the famous Erik the Red. The colonies died out after about 400 years, their inhabitants perhaps victims of changing climate or conflicts with native peoples. During their existence, however, the Norse settlements in Greenland provided a springboard for further exploration westward, including the first journeys by Europeans to North America.


The Vikings were a seafaring Nordic people of the Middle Ages, ancestors of today's Danes, Norwegians, Swedes and Icelanders. During the height of their influence, from about 750-1050, they ranged across northern Europe and as far south as the Mediterranean. They established a territory in northern England called the Danelaw. The Norse occupation of northern France is reflected in the name of the region of Normandy.

The Vikings have the reputation of being marauders, and this is not undeserved. They increased their wealth by ferocious raids in which they burned and looted villages and towns, killed their inhabitants, and headed back out to sea before any opposing force could be mustered. However, they were also skilled farmers, craftsmen and explorers. Their culture and ideas had a profound effect on the development of European civilization.

A major factor in their dominance at sea was their efficient shipbuilding methods. Their swift, low-slung longboats were propelled by a few dozen oarsmen, often assisted by a single square sail. The hulls of Viking ships were clinker-built, with overlapping planks for extra strength and to reduce leaks. Vikings had no compass for navigation, or method to compute their longitude. However, they did have an instrument called a bearing dial, which could be used to track the position of the North Star and maintain a steady east-west course.

Eventually the success of the Vikings led to an increase in their population beyond what their Scandinavian homelands could comfortably support. Piracy and conquest had been their typical response to such a situation in the early days. But more integrated into the civilization of medieval Europe by this time, they were less inclined to fall upon their neighbors as berserkers, their name for warriors, and destroy everything in their paths. Concentrated along the seashore, and with their sturdy seagoing vessels at the ready, they naturally saw the uninhabited Atlantic islands to their west as offering opportunities for expansion. Iceland in particular became a thriving settlement.


Iceland was short on land suitable for growing crops. Grain, timber and metals had to be imported from Norway. But, as they had on the mainland, Viking settlers fished and tended pigs, sheep, cattle and goats. They also hunted sea mammals for their skins, ivory, and oil. Falcons they caught and trained were in demand all over Europe. Icelanders set up a constitution and a general assembly, called the Althing, with a chief "law-speaker" or president. The Icelandic Althing continues to exist today, and is the oldest parliamentary body in the world.

By the tenth century, many Vikings had abandoned their Norse gods, such as Odin and Thor, and become Christians. Combining their own tradition of oral poetry and storytelling with Christian and Irish written narratives, they developed the saga, a literary form unique to Iceland written in an alphabet called runic. From these sagas, such as the Eiriks saga (Saga of Erik) and the Groenlendinga saga (Saga of the Greenlanders), we get much of our knowledge of Viking history and explorations. However it is a challenge to interpret and confirm the information gleaned from the sagas, as the stories include fanciful elements and sometimes contradict one another.

The Icelandic Vikings are believed to have first learned about Greenland from a man named Gunnbjorn Ulf-Krakuson, who reported islands to the west after his ship had blown off course in about the year 930. It was an explorer named Erik the Red who followed up on this knowledge. Erik was a violent man from a violent family. He was born in Norway, but his family emigrated to Iceland when he was a child, after his father Thorvald was banished for what the Eirikssaga calls "some killings." Erik in turn was banished from Iceland for three years in 982, after killing a total of four men in two family feuds.

With the help of his supporters, Erik outfitted and manned a ship and headed west. Within a few days, he found land, but it didn't look terribly promising. It was covered in a huge icecap, with glaciers and rocks guarding its inhospitable coast. Still, Erik continued around the island to the south, and up its western shore. Here he found a land of greater potential, with grassy meadows and natural harbors. During his three years of exile, Erik and his crew explored the island in the summer, scouting about 1,000 miles (about 1,600 km) of its coast and marking off their future land claims. They wintered in sod shelters, hunting and fishing for their food.

By the time he could return to Iceland, Erik had plans of mounting a larger expedition to settle the island. Like any enthusiastic land promoter, he gave his destination an attractive and rather optimistic name, Greenland, and touted its harbors, wildlife and pastures. Many were motivated to join him by a thirst for adventure, compounded by depleted pastures in Iceland and the rigors of a recent famine. Erik sailed from Iceland in 986 leading about 25 ships. These were not longboats, but larger, broad-beamed ships called knarr, designed for carrying cargo and passengers.

Eleven of the ships, according to the sagas, were either forced back or sank. The other 14, carrying about 400 settlers, landed safely. The colonists spread out among the fjords of Greenland's southwestern coast in three settlements. The largest one, to the south near Ericsfjord, was called the Eastern Settlement. At its peak, it consisted of several hundred farms. A smaller colony further up the coast, near the modern capital of Godthab, was called the Western Settlement. There was also a hamlet called the Middle Settlement, with about 20 farms, near today's Ivigtut.

Greenland had no timber, so the settlers built their homes and barns of sod, stone and driftwood. Although the land wasn't good for crops, it was productive as pasture, and the colonists devoted large farms to raising cattle and sheep. They also fished and hunted reindeer, bear, foxes, birds, whales, seals, and walrus. They exported fur, hides, wool, oils, whalebone, walrus ivory, falcons and polar bears to the European mainland. In return, they obtained lumber, grain, beer and wine, metal items like tools and weapons, and luxury goods such as finished garments.

It was only a few months after Greenland was settled that the seagoing trader Bjarni Herjolfsson was blown off course and noticed land even farther west. This accidental sighting prompted Erik's son Leif to mount the first European expedition to North America in the year 1000, establishing a camp in an area he called Vinland. Most scholars believe this was probably on the northern tip of Newfoundland. Leif's expedition was followed by several other journeys to the northeastern corner of North America.

When Leif returned to Greenland, having converted to Christianity himself, he likewise converted his mother, Tjodhild. Near the family farm in Brattahild, located in the most fertile region of the Eastern Settlement, she built the first Christian church in Greenland. This small sod structure, which was described in the sagas, has recently been excavated by archaeologists. Eventually there would be 12 parish churches, a monastery, and a cathedral with its own bishop in Greenland. The Greenlanders also established a government with a constitution and a code of laws. In 1261 they voted to unite with Norway. Norway united with Denmark in 1380, thus bringing Greenland under Danish rule.

The Viking settlements in Greenland, with a peak population of about 3,000, lasted until the fifteenth century. The exact reason for their demise is not known, although a drop in the already harsh temperatures in the 1400s probably contributed. There may also have been conflicts with Eskimos making their way down from the north. In 1712, with contact lost for centuries, the king of Denmark and Norway sent out the pastor Hans Egede to minister to any Viking descendants of the Christian faith who remained on Greenland. He found none. The island was by that time inhabited solely by Eskimos.

When the union between Denmark and Norway was dissolved in 1814, Greenland remained a colony of Denmark. Norway disputed the claim for over a century, but Denmark finally prevailed in the World Court in 1933. The new Danish constitution of 1953 elevated Greenland's status from a colony to a province. Under home rule, established in 1979, it governs its own internal affairs. Greenland's residents are of mixed Eskimo and Danish heritage. Most speak an Eskimo language called Greenlandic, and many speak Danish as well. The principal religion is the official Lutheran church of Denmark.

Greenland's location makes it an important base for forecasting North Atlantic storms. During World War II, when Denmark was occupied by Germany, the United States agreed to take over the defense of Greenland. Under NATO agreements, U.S. military bases in Greenland continue to form an important part of the North American "early warning" defense system.


Further Reading

Brent, P. The Viking Saga. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1975.

Graham-Campbell, J. Cultural Atlas of the Viking World. New York: Facts on File, 1994.

Jones, G. A History of the Vikings. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1968.

Logan, F. D.The Vikings in History. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Magnusson, M. Vikings! New York: Elsevier-Dutton, 1980.