on 23 August 2008
Are you also tired of supermarket magazines where just about everyone in the known universe discovers America before poor Columbus? No? You should be. Forget about the Nephites, the Mandingos, the Knights Templar or space aliens from Wherever. Instead, read this: the Vinland Sagas. This is the real deal. As far as we know today, only one Old World people reached America before Columbus: the ancient Scandinavians, also known as the Norsemen, more colloqially known as Vikings.
How do we know? First, archeological excavations prove it. Second, we have the Vinland Sagas! There are two main characters in these stories: Erik the Red, who is forced to leave Iceland in a hurry after a blood feud and inadvertently discovers Greenland, and Leif Eriksson, who leads the expedition that eventually reaches North America, called "Vinland" by the Norsemen. Yepp, this actually happened, folks.
Since the word "Viking" conjures up pictures of heathen human sacrifice, many will be surprised to learn that Leif Eriksson was a Christian. Thus, the first European to reach America was a Roman Catholic.
The Vinland Sagas also describe the Norsemen's encounters with American Indians. The portrait of the Indians is highly insensitive: they are called skraelings (wretches), and are described as dirty, primitive and irrational. It's chilling to contemplate that the contacts between Whites and Indians got off to such a bad start already 500 years before Columbus!
The Norsemen established several settlements in the New World, but all of them were abandoned relatively quickly. During the Middle Ages, people forgot about the Norse voyages to America, and the Vinland Sagas were regarded as fairytales. Until, one day, Columbus made that fateful journey to what he thought was Asia...
The world would never be the same again.
on 6 August 2001
The Vinland Sagas are widely read because of the light they shed on the Norse visits to America long before Columbus. However, since I first read this book the sagas have stuck in my mind as particularly fascinating examples of Icelandic literature. There is definitely something creepy about the story of this small group of settlers so far away from home. As the sagas are short they are particularly accessible for the general reader.