Norse sagas and legends are full of tall tales of Viking sailors going to a land beyond Ireland.
Could it be possible that Vikings were the basis for the Aztecs' belief in a "white-skinned" God, Quetzalcoatl, who Hernan Cortes ruthlessly exploited to such a bloody effect when Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mesoamerica in the 16th-century CE onwards?
Without any doubt, the Norse exploration, and colonization, of North America is surely one the most impressive feats of people in Viking societies.
The Viking Age (c. 793 – 1066 CE) saw an expansion of Viking raiders, traders, and settlers explode outward, from their Scandinavian homeland, from as far east as the areas surrounding the Black Sea to the fringes of the North American mainland.
The sagas are rich with the exploits of Viking adventurers and explorers. Whilst they may make for a fascinating read, it is problematic to try and establish any historicity within them.
Two settlements were established with high estimates of a population peaking at 24,000 spread over 1500 farms. Yet this was not the extent of their push into the western realms of the North Atlantic Ocean.
Vikings in America
From the settlements in Greenland (which lasted until the early 15th century CE), it is believed that Norse sailors – whether by accident or design – sailed westward until they reached what is now the modern Canadian island of Newfoundland.
Here, at L'Anse aux Meadow, they established a rudimentary settlement consisting of eight buildings (whose recent radiocarbon dating has given construction dates of between 990 to 1050 CE) and the remains of 800 Norse objects.
- READ MORE: The history of Vikings in Canada: A primer
This site is believed to be the "Vinland" that features so prominently in the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Erik the Red.
This Norse site, the first and only uncovered so far in North America, was discovered in the 1960s by a Norwegian husband and wife archaeological team and is scientific proof, beyond a doubt, that the Vikings beat other European "voyages of exploration" by more than five centuries and were the first European civilization to establish Pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact.
Further archaeological research in Newfoundland has, only recently, pointed to a possible second Viking settlement, further south on the island, at Point Rosse.
Despite the high hopes, an accumulation of bog iron ore – which scientists believed was the result of smelting used by Viking peoples – turned out to be nothing more than a natural process, nature slyly enticing us Viking enthusiasts.
However, if we turn to the sagas, there are tall tales of Vikings traveling even further south than "Vinland."
Did the Vikings travel as far south as the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico? Based on current evidence - unlikely. Photo: Shutterstock / DanielCz
Vamos a Mexico!
Though the Vikings reached modern-day Canada, is it possible that they traveled as far south as the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico?
Now before we get accused of peddling theories as crazy as anything on Ancient Apocalypse, it was only until the 1980s that the Viking settlement on Newfoundland was scientifically proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Before the archaeological and scientific evidence was proven, many academics pointed to the sagas, which were rich with stories of a Viking settlement in the Americans and a deadly confrontation with the indigenous population (named skrælings).
One epic saga, though, the Eyrbyggja Saga, has been seized on by some academics as proof that the Vikings may have made it as far south as the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico.
In this saga, we meet one Björn Breiðvíkingakappi, who flees Iceland after a deadly blood feud involving his wife and another man. He sails off westward, never to be heard of again.
That is, as the saga relates, until 30 years late, in 1030 CE, when Gudlief, the captain of a trade ship, was blown off course for many days and nights westward from Ireland and landed in a strange place.
Gudleif and his crew were apprehended by the locals and brought before a chief who... was a bearded white-skinned man and spoke Norse. The chief then asked about his wife and relations back in Iceland.
It was only when Gudleif and his crew were allowed to sail back to Iceland that they realized the "chief" was Björn, who had disappeared years before.
Some scholars have pointed out that this may point to a Viking exploration of Mexico, with the land "westward of Ireland" (named "Great Ireland") may very well be the Yucatan peninsula.
Furthermore, the presence of a "white-skinned and bearded chieftain" bears a striking similarity to the Toltec myth of Quetzalcoatl. Could it be possible that the Vikings were the origin of this Toltec myth?
The Toltecs and Quetzalcoatl
The Toltecs were just one of a handful of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican civilizations that dominated parts of what is now Mexico and northern Central America.
The Toltec Empire, though based around the modern state of Hidalgo, in the heart of Mexico, expanded to reach as far away as the Yucatan peninsula.
Though scholars disagree over its exact dating, it is believed to have flourished from the late 7th to early 11th century CE, making it roughly contemporary with Viking societies a world away.
One of the most important elements of Toltec mythology was the myth of Quetzalcoatl. It is through later European contact with the Aztecs that we know of the Quetzalcoatl.
This "contact" was, of course, the Spanish invasion of the Americas from the 16th century CE, which saw the tragic civilizational destruction of the Toltec's cultural successors, the Aztecs.
For the Toltecs, however, the myth of Quetzalcoatl was a key feature of their rich tapestry of mythology. He was said to be a warrior king, a real person, who once ruled the mighty Toltecs.
However, he fell foul of the Gods when he only offered animal, and not human, sacrifices to the Gods. He was, eventually, banished eastward for performing "black magic" and would go on an eastward voyage – mirroring the historicity of the Toltec invasion of the Yucatan peninsula.
He was to said to return after ten cycles of their calendar, which amounted to about five centuries.
For the Toltecs, however, the myth of Quetzalcoatl was an important feature of their rich tapestry of mythology. Photo: Noradoa / Shutterstock
Assessing the "evidence"
So, to recap. The Norse made it as far west as Newfoundland, in modern-day Canada, by the early 11th century CE.
At this point, the Toltec civilization was at its zenith and extended as far east as the Yucatan peninsula.
We then have a Toltec myth about a white-skinned and bearded God who sailed eastward and was prophetically destined to return to the Toltecs and later Aztec Empires.
Other than a few vague references in one Norse saga, is there any actual evidence that people from Norse societies made it as far as Mesoamerica?
The short answer: no scientific or archaeological evidence has been unearthed yet.
Even allowing the fact that the Vikings had unparalleled success navigating throughout the Western hemisphere, reaching and establishing a settlement in North America, journeying to the Yucatan peninsula appears to be simply too far.
Though a Viking ship was one of the most impressive pieces of maritime engineering in the medieval period, it would still have to travel, from the nearest permanent settlement in Iceland, over 3000 nautical miles (3400 miles / 5556 kilometers) to reach the furthest extent of the Toltec Empire.
The only "scientific" evidence we have is a mural on a temple at Chichen Itza of white figures that appeared to be enslaved by Toltec warriors. Pseudo-historians have used this as proof of a Viking presence in Mesoamerica, but the established academic world dismisses this as mere speculation.
Is it possible that there was European pre-Columbian contact with civilizations in Mesoamerica?
It could be possible but we, at The Viking Herald, like to deal with cold hard facts, and there simply has not been any substantial scientific, or archaeological proof found... yet.
The return of Quetzalcoatl?
Whilst the story of Gudleif to the land beyond Ireland is fascinating, there is a coda to this story. The European invasion of Mesoamerica is a tragic tale of when worlds collided.
Many people believe that the Aztecs, the cultural successors of the Toltecs, were defeated so easily because they believed that Hernan Cortes, leader of the Spanish invasion in the early 16th century CE, played on their beliefs of a white-skinned, bearded God "returning" from the east. He was Quetzalcoatl himself returning from exile.
The latest academic thought, however, is that this was a later Spanish invention, and there was no record of the Aztecs genuinely believing this.
Nonetheless, the ease at which the conquistadors subjugated the great civilizations of Mesoamerica would be a fascinating story if it wasn't steeped in blood, cultural genocide, pain, and suffering.
So, until there is actual scientific proof (other than a few figures painted white on a temple wall) that people from Viking societies traveled to Mesoamerica during the early medieval period, we simply must believe that the tale in the saga is just a source of entertainment and not a historical record.
However, the Viking colonization of North America was dismissed similarly before the settlement was unearthed at L'Anse aux Meadows in the 1960s. Perhaps the sagas will be proved right, a second time, about Vikings in America.
An article on the Vikings in America from National Geographic is available to read here.
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