It would have been relatively easy for Martyn Whittock to have played it safe with his engaging history, American Vikings.
He could have extracted what he needed from the Norse sagas about Leif Eriksson's seminal oceanic voyage in the year 1000, taken the salient detail from a visit to the Viking site at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, and woven the two together.
But, like the Scandinavian exploration of North America, there are no easy paths for Mr. Whittock. This is an author, after all, whose track record includes Jesus: The Unauthorized Biography.
He also co-wrote Trump & the Puritans, a political strand he returns to here, highlighting the unwitting influence of these Nordic pioneers on the darker side of mythmaking in modern-day America.
American Vikings sees Martyn Whittock argue that the Norse impact on America extends beyond historical events to influence modern cultural and political perceptions. Photo: Martyn Whittock
The Norse and North America
By subtitling his book How the Norse Sailed into the Lands and Imaginations of America, Whittock lends himself an expanded remit to tie in the many strands of Viking association with the New World.
He also puts down a marker straight away that "America" is shorthand for North America – L'Anse aux Meadows is certainly north of the border in Canada – therefore, according to most experts, so is Leif Eriksson's Vinland.
But Whittock argues that Vinland, the tantalizingly vague area Eriksson and his crew explored and overwintered in at least once, is almost certainly not L'Anse aux Meadows, one of the first UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which was the Norse settlement excavated over the course of the 1960s.
Indisputable evidence of transoceanic contact half a millennium before Columbus, this complex of eight buildings was, as Whittock points out by suggesting what's missing – no barns, no livestock spaces, no storage for winter fodder – only a base camp, not a homestead.
It was recently more accurately radiocarbon-dated to 1021, which ties in nicely with Whittock's narrative arc.
Precisely 1,000 years after Norsemen took two months to construct eight buildings from the scarce timber of their Greenland homeland, a striking parallel emerged.
On January 6, 2021, Jacob Chansley, a QAnon follower adorned with Viking tattoos and bison horns, became the most recognizable figure in the crowd that breached the Capitol.
Later sentenced to 41 months in prison, Chansley symbolized the almost exclusively white male grievance currently warping the political narrative in contemporary America, many misleadingly inspired by the romantic notion of Vinland from Viking lore.
Extensive archaeological research at L'Anse aux Meadows has provided evidence of the Viking presence and suggested interactions between Norse explorers and indigenous peoples of the region. Photo: Erik Mclean / Pexels
Where was Vinland?
As Whittock outlines in the first of 15 chapters of American Vikings, Vikings were more an activity than a race of people. The term only fell into everyday use in English in the 1800s.
Horned helmets were rare if they existed at all. Of the few dozen who sailed with Leif Eriksson 1,000 years ago, some were still pagan, some Christian.
Their tales were recorded nearly 250 years later by medieval Christians, whose writings were influenced by their faith after four generations of separation.
The adventurers described had recently settled in Greenland, led by Erik the Red, Leif Eriksson's father, who had the opportunity to join his son's voyage but chose not to.
Among them were Norwegians fleeing the rule of King Harald Fairhair, a few Irish escaping Dublin after its reconquest, and likely slaves.
The round hut, excavated by Norwegian archaeologists after years of meticulous work at L'Anse aux Meadows, was probably intended for captives.
Whittock is at his best when providing detail to explain context.
A warmer climate would have reduced the extent of Arctic pack ice – and presumably the threat of icebergs in the North Atlantic – allowing these new Greenlanders to voyage further than any Europeans before them.
As the center of power in the Middle East shifted to Baghdad, silver became scarcer, and Scandinavians had to seek riches elsewhere.
Then there are the grapes discovered by Eriksson's foster father on early forays, leading to the name Vinland.
First, the crew landed in Helluland, named for the stone slabs on what is now believed to be the east coast of Baffin Island, and then Markland, likely the forests of southern Labrador.
But Vinland? Grapes would not have been found in Newfoundland, nor butternuts, which were later discovered at L'Anse aux Meadows.
How much further south might they have traveled?
Whittock offers several possibilities but seems most satisfied with a location where Maine meets New Brunswick. However, he doesn't dismiss the notion that they may have reached what is now the tourist destination of Cape Cod.
Wherever they overwintered, the location needed to have freshwater salmon, as documented in the Snorri Sturluson sagas from the 1230s, which serve as our primary point of reference.
While the first journey is the most detailed, it was by no means the only one. Whittock speculates on how often and for how long the medieval Scandinavians picked grapes and chopped wood in North America.
A subsequent sojourn was marred by female intrigue and the slaying of Native Americans, whom the Norse saga writers referred to in disparaging terms.
Much as the Viking Greenlanders seemed determined to learn nothing from the Inuits, who were knowledgeable about the territory and its potential bounty, those who sailed further west left their recently established Arctic colony perilously stretched, as Whittock notes.
They were equally reluctant to interact with others unless it involved barter and trade.
According to the Saga of Erik the Red, Leif's ship lost course, and he and his crew discovered what would soon become Vinland. Source: Dimitrios Karamitros / Shutterstock
For hundreds of years, only those who delved into medieval Norse literature would have been aware of these groundbreaking undertakings.
After gaining independence in 1776, a significant interest in America's European origins coincided with the need to downplay British influence.
The initial explorations in 1497 by the Italian explorer John Cabot, commissioned by Henry VII of England, may have taken place on the continental mainland.
However, Columbus was prominently featured in America's early history books for his voyages in the Caribbean. Columbus festivals, Columbus Day, and Washington D.C. all have their roots in this narrative.
Then, after the mid-1800s Civil War, the Mayflower Pilgrims, staunchly Protestant in contrast to Southern-European Catholics, gained special reverence with the establishment of Thanksgiving, which remains the primary annual family gathering for many.
Fighting on both sides of the Civil War were first- and second-generation settlers from Scandinavia, with the first Norwegian emigrant landing at New York Harbor in 1825.
Between 1820 and 1920, over two million Scandinavians immigrated to America, with more than half of them being Swedish.
They primarily engaged in farming in the Midwest, especially in Minnesota, which still has an NFL team called the Vikings today.
According to Whittock, more than 300 businesses in the state bear the name "Viking."
They formed Norse clubs, often intermarried, and preserved their domestic culture, similar to the Irish, Italians, and Central Europeans. At one point, the U.S.A. had several hundred Swedish-language newspapers.
The provided narrative celebrated the heroics of England's Pilgrims, especially within the snobbish social circles of urban New England.
However, in Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin, efforts were made to rebalance the historical perspective. Histories were written to downplay the significance of 1620 and, indeed, 1492.
In 1893, a replica of the Gokstad, the Viking ship excavated in 1880, successfully sailed from Norway to Lake Michigan.
This voyage aimed to demonstrate that such a journey was feasible and to advocate for the Norse cause during the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Sheer chronology alone claimed this alternative origin myth should win the day. A number of bizarre runic stones were "discovered" across the Midwest as if to drive home the point.
Whittock debunks each one in turn, just as he scrutinizes the theories that suggest the Celts arrived first, whether in the form of St. Brendan of Ireland or later, thanks to Prince Madoc of Wales and Henry I Sinclair of Orkney.
All of these unwitting competitors, whether a Genoese captain or Leif the Lucky (as Eriksson became known), were white Europeans. Actual Native Americans play only minor roles in the entire saga.
Whittock draws a line from the historic Norse explorations to the modern-day, culminating in the storming of the Capitol, where Viking imagery was co-opted by political extremists. Photo: Sergey Korneev / Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)
A dark turn
The quest for Nordic pre-eminence in America took a rather dark turn in the late 1930s, coinciding with the activities of groups sympathetic to Hitler's rise in Europe.
The poster for a pro-Nazi event that drew 20,000 attendees to Madison Square Garden on Washington's birthday in 1939 featured a Viking warrior spearing a snake.
Charles Lindbergh, the renowned aviator whose father was Swedish, faced public rebuke from President Roosevelt for his non-interventionist views in the early 1940s, and biographers continue to debate the extent of his political commitment to the Third Reich.
Things have taken a more ominous turn in modern times with the emergence of white supremacist groups across America. Some of these groups invoke a vague notion of Vinland, even resorting to violence in its name.
In advertising, movies, comic books, and on TV, Vikings are often portrayed as strong and heroic figures. In video games, they confront unseen forces that manipulate territory or wield power behind the scenes.
The culmination of these trends is evident in the rise of QAnon conspiracy theorists and the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Whittock takes the reader on this 1,000-year journey in an entertaining and informative fashion, leveraging his extensive background in history to seamlessly incorporate details about the flora of specific American states or the evolution of Marvel comics.
One can only wonder where his next journey will lead.
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