A few weeks before this announcement, shocking images of a man in Viking horns flashed around the world during the storming of the Capitol building. Author of American Vikings, to be published this November, Martyn Whittock discusses the Norse influence on the New World with The Viking Herald.
A schoolteacher for the best part of four decades, he has produced some 50 books on subjects ranging from the State Police in Soviet Russia to the Mayflower pilgrims.
However, he reserves a particular fascination for the early medieval and Viking eras.
In his upcoming book, American Vikings, to be published by Pegasus Books on November 7, he explores the concept of Vinland and shows Norse culture's influence on contemporary America.
As Martyn is the first to point out, there are caveats to some of his underlying concepts: By "America," he is referring to North America, and "Vikings" is a "label of choice," as he puts it, "for most people."
"Many of the people I'm talking about would never have described themselves as 'Vikings' or 'going Viking.' Many of the people that did a bit of 'Viking' would never have called them Vikings either," he tells The Viking Herald early on in our long conversation.
Christian Vikings in America
"Two tracks converged when it came to American Vikings. I became fascinated by Anglo-Saxon history and, through that, the Norse diaspora. There's Ukraine, the Caspian Sea, the Mediterranean…"
"With my daughter, I wrote several books. One was titled The Viking Blitzkrieg 789-1098, which delved into the Viking wars in England. Another was 1016 and 1066, Why the Vikings Caused the Norman Conquest."
"In England, 1066 is a significant date. However, it seems many have forgotten - apart from academics and history enthusiasts - that Cnut the Great conquered England in 1016."
"We also wrote Norse Myths and Legends, which was published under the title Tales of Valhalla in America. Having graduated from Cambridge in Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Celtic, Hannah brought a deep understanding of the Old Norse texts."
"We then published The Vikings, From Odin to Christ, the often-forgotten story of the Christian Vikings, making the point that, wherever the Vikings settled, for one reason or another, within at least two generations, sometimes one, they converted to Christianity."
"In the latter part of that book, we explored the 'legends,' the semi-mythological, historical – they're extraordinary documents – of the Saga of the Greenlanders, the Saga of Erik the Red, and other supporting sagas as well."
"And that really piqued my interest because I began to think about the whole North American connection and Vikings being devoted to Christ."
"We talked about the first Christians in North America, making the point that there's Jamestown, there's the Mayflower Pilgrims, but actually, whatever the depth of their faith, Erikson regarded himself as a Christian."
"Now, how sincere he is or not, it's not for me to judge, but the point is, it all jumps back 500 years before Columbus. This is a fascinating story."
Whittock emphasizes in his writings that while many during the Viking era might have engaged in Viking activities, not all identified or labeled themselves as Vikings. Photo: Martyn Whittock
"The other, very different track, was what you might call deep stories: the way by which we, or any generation, uses, sometimes misuses and abuses, the past, to explain who we are and what we are."
"And latterly, I wrote the Mayflower Lives, and a very different book, called Trump and the Puritans, which was trying to explain whether the Trump phenomenon fitted into a much longer history of Puritan settlement."
"Trump's no puritan. Nevertheless, the evangelical right supports Trump for various reasons."
"We aim to be balanced and neutral on this topic, not taking a pro or anti stance."
"There appears to be a profound narrative in America, which might be right or wrong. For them, it traces back to the Mayflower Pilgrims and this sort of myth-making."
"That's when I realized my two interests had converged. My fascination with Vikings and the North American connection had deep cultural roots in America."
"This connection has gained significant, and controversially so, traction among the modern alt-right in North America."
"Now, clearly, the Viking legacy is far more than that, but this intrigued me. That's when the idea of American Vikings came about."
"I produced a book titled 'American Vikings.' However, my 'Get Out of Jail Free' clause for those who ask, 'What about...?!?' is the subtitle: 'How the Norse Sailed into the Lands and Imaginations of America.' In other words, this isn't solely about L'Anse aux Meadows and its archaeological site, fascinating as that is."
"While we cover all of that, it also delves into Midwest runestones, Maine pennies, and West Virginia runestones. What is going on here?!?"
"We now know it's rooted in reality because of L'Anse aux Meadows. I'm convinced the Maine penny probably got there via Native American trade routes."
"Nevertheless, there's this Norwegian penny found on the East Coast of America. There's also a wealth of artifacts in the Canadian Sub-Arctic and Arctic, indicating connections with the Inuit and early Native Americans. There's ample evidence for that."
"However, rather than leave it there, which is a fascinating story in its own right, I wanted to say, 'Ok, What happened next?'".
While Columbus is often credited with discovering America, the Norse settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows predates his journey by over 500 years. Photo: Erik Mclean / Pexels
America before Columbus
"We then have a section on sharing the stage with the Norse, things like the Brendan voyage, which again was technically possible, and some of which are highly unlikely. These muddy the waters for people interested in the Norse because they got lost in that mish-mash of made-up European people who got to America before Columbus."
"Then look at how it was picked up in the 18th century when Americans – Benjamin Franklin gets a walk-on part – began to ask, 'Where are our origins?'"
"And by 'our' origins, they controversially mean North or West European origins in America. Who are the discoverers of America? In their view, that always implies European discoverers."
"As I mention in the book, Native Americans, of course, had known about America for a very, very long time."
"Then comes a cultural tussle. Cabot, for example, was associated with the British Crown – after American independence, that wasn't the sort of association you wanted. Columbus – culturally, South European, Catholic… there were many people in 19th-century America who had issues with that, leading to pushback."
"As the 19th century progressed, more Americans began asking, 'What's this about Vikings, Vinland, and the sagas?'"
"This takes us back to the medieval stories, which get translated into English, appear in North America, and become much more well-known in North America."
"Obviously, Icelanders and Scandinavians had known about them for centuries, but suddenly, English-speaking people in North America picked up on them for the first time and said, 'This is an amazing story; why didn't anyone ever tell us about this?'"
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A crew of 12 sailors sailed a replica of the Gokstad ship, called The Viking, across the Atlantic from Bergen, Norway, to Newfoundland. Photo: Museum of Cultural History / University of Oslo
1892 and all that
"For the centenary of Columbus in 1892, they sailed a replica of the Gokstad ship across to America – all of this is pushback, pushback, pushback…"
"Scandinavian settlers in the Midwest controversially try to stake prior claim to the land – 'I'm not the first Swede to break the soil here, I'm contesting the ownership of it with the Dakota people.'"
"Very controversially, they say, 'There were Vikings here, and look, there's a runestone that they left behind,' which is the Kensington Runestone."
"This was also picked up by the right in the 1930s, some members of the America First movement – then the Norse have this completely other life in Marvel comics and Hollywood movies."
"By the time you get to the 1950s, Vikings in America are both part of a global fascination with the Norse and the Norse myths, but they also have a curiously North American flavor."
"All of this exploded within the alt-right in the 21st century – at the 'Unite the Right' rally in Charlottesville in 2017, with Thor's hammers being worn."
"This is also part of the latest dimension of myth-making – there are people who are very controversially saying, 'Here are the first white settlers battling for the soul of America.'"
"Alarm bells should be ringing everywhere, but the point is, as a historian, I'm interested because that's the latest chapter in the journey into the imaginations of North America."
"As for the person who responded to my post on social media, claiming that 'L'Anse aux Meadows was only about Canadian Vikings' and that 'American Vikings exist only in the mind' – I believe that, in time, this may be challenged by archaeological evidence from the East Coast."
"The point is, it's fascinating where they sailed into people's imaginations, even into some dark corners of the mind. It's all part of the story."
"And that's the book. The two strands came together, the deep stories of people and an ultimate fascination with the Norse in a historical setting."
While the exact reasons for the village's abandonment remain speculative, L'Anse aux Meadows remains an invaluable window into the early encounters between the Old World and the New. Photo: Erik Mclean / Pexels
Will we find more Viking discoveries in America?
"I think we will. Talking with people in Maine, looking at the archeological data, and there was Point Rosee – although our only indisputable site is L'Anse aux Meadows, there are enough clues there alone."
"White butternuts don't grow in the area – it's difficult to imagine anyone trading those at L'Anse aux Meadows. Other wood has been found, which might have been driftwood, but that seems unlikely."
"It appears to originate from further south… I believe that, regardless of whether L'Anse aux Meadows is one of the places mentioned in the sagas, it's more logical to assume people ventured further south."
"The name Vinland – in historic times, no one has grown vines at L'Anse aux Meadows. It can mean any wine-making fruit; it can be bilberries, but it does look like they were talking about tree-borne fruit."
"They must have explored at least as far south as New Brunswick. They could have ventured easily into Maine, and we should remain open to the idea of exploration through Hudson Bay. It would take a very confident individual to claim, 'I believe L'Anse aux Meadows is the furthest south they went.'"
"I think they went significantly further south. People talk about sites on Cape Cod, but there's no evidence for that yet, or Rhode Island, there's no evidence for that either, nothing that persuades."
"Still, I believe it's possible that a time may come when we discuss New England Vikings, for which we currently lack solid archaeological evidence."
"I think there's evidence for significant movement down the East Coast – albeit very tentative, just a voyage or two – but one of the interesting things to have come out of L'Anse aux Meadows is that the archeological finds are pretty thin. There wasn't a great depth of activity there."
"They were active there. They were working with iron and wood. They were definitely present. However, the limited depth of their footprint suggests they weren't there for very long."
"But the interesting thing is what they've done quite recently. They've conducted a statistical analysis of the carbon-dated finds and some environmental studies, and the emerging data suggests that while the finds don't indicate a deep settlement, the presence could have spanned over a century."
"This is really interesting. If, in fact, the Norse from Greenland were using L'Anse aux Meadows for over a century, which is now a plausible assumption, it certainly raises interesting questions."
"Were people going to and from Vinland into the 13th century, into the 12th century, perhaps, but also, if L'Anse aux Meadows was being repeatedly visited, where were they going beyond that?"
"And if L'Anse aux Meadows is interpreted that way, then it's a boat-repair, stop-off resting place before going somewhere else."
"So, it's possible that some of the places mentioned by name in the sagas – where are they? They might not be real places. However, I'm convinced that the sagas do reflect historical reality, even if they embellish it as part of literature. I hold the sagas in high regard."
"In which case, where are those places? Maine? New Brunswick? The Saint Lawrence Seaway? I think we'll find them all."
While direct evidence about women in L'Anse aux Meadows is scarce, the artifacts and sagas provide glimpses into their contributions to Viking exploration and settlement in North America. Photo: Erik Mclean / Pexels
Women in Vinland
"There's some evidence for women being at L'Anse aux Meadows, assuming gendered roles like textile-making and so on."
"There clearly isn't a label that says, 'A woman made this,' but from what we know about Norse-gendered society, the norm is probably relatively reliable."
"The things we might have been expecting for women to be doing there, it's there, but not much of it, so it does give the impression that this is primarily a male event but with some women present."
"There's no evidence for children, so again, that makes one think that the kind of settlements described may be happening elsewhere."
"We detect tensions in the other sagas. Married men began to desire the wives of those who had brought women with them – this doesn't seem to describe L'Anse aux Meadows."
"In other words, if we're looking for that tentative pioneering settlement, it doesn't give us much archeological evidence for that."
"This isn't an issue as long as we assume the evidence likely exists elsewhere. There might be signs of more women, perhaps children, but L'Anse aux Meadows doesn't provide it."
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How will people react to the book?
"We live in extraordinarily turbulent times. 2023 isn't showing signs of calming, and 2024, for various reasons, is poised to be even stormier. I'm aware that this particular Viking longship is navigating turbulent waters, with skerries, rocks, and whirlpools potentially in its path."
"But I hope if people read it with an open mind, they will recognize that the Norse contribution to North America is many, varied, and very complicated."
"One of the things as a historian I think that we have to be committed to is to look at the past and its present manifestations, warts and all."
"The Norse have influenced a wide range of things, from TV series to Viking pâtisseries – you name it, someone in Wisconsin has probably given it a Viking name. I also believe there's a controversial legacy, with some of it being harmless and unexciting."
"The Norse have contributed to a whole bunch of things, from TV series to Viking pâtisseries – you name it, someone in Wisconsin has named it after a Viking. I also believe there's a controversial legacy, with some of it being harmless and unexciting."
"I'm hoping people will say, 'That's an angle on the Norse in North America that I've not been aware of as much as I could have been.' It's fully referenced, so people can check what I've said."
"I know there are controversial aspects to it, but I've not done it just to be controversial."
"Increasingly, we live in a world where people are not having conversations about areas that give cause for concern. We have to talk about everything, I think."
"It doesn't mean to say we have to agree with everything, but I think it's important to talk about it, address it. That's the aim."
American Vikings by Martyn Whittock, Pegasus Books. Hardcover USD 29.95, 272 pages with eight pages of color illustration. To be published on November 7.
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