While historians are well-versed in his devious crimes, manslaughter, subsequent exile, and explorations, it is said that he owned the famed sword, Fótbítr (Leg Biter).
Born at the height of Viking power
Erik Thorvaldsson is believed to have hailed from the Norwegian region (presently its own fylke) of Rogaland around 950 CE.
This period marked the zenith of the Viking Age.
Norse explorers, traders, and warriors expanded across much of the Western Hemisphere, from modern-day Newfoundland, Canada, to the eastern shores of the Sea of Azov and seemingly everywhere in between.
Huge swathes of what would become the medieval kingdoms of England and France were directly under Viking control, and the only limit to Viking expansion was the Islamic civilizations that controlled much of Mediterranean Europe.
The early life of Erik seems to be one of upheaval.
Young Erik and his family were uprooted from their Norwegian home thanks to his father's bloody actions.
Committing manslaughter, which would become something of a gruesome family custom, Erik's father was banished from his community and took his young family to settle in Iceland.
They would settle in northwest Iceland and eke out a living on a farm.
There had been less than a century of Norse settlement in Iceland. Being banished there carried a similar stigma and implied punishment as the English sending their ne'er-do-wells to Australia in the late 18th century.
Unearthed from a grave in Sollerön, Sweden, this sword, with its detailed silver inlays, provides a tangible link to the kind of prestigious weapon Erik the Red might have owned. Photo: The Swedish History Museum, Stockholm / CC 2.5 SE
Dead slaves, a leg biter, and exile
Modern academics and historians always stress that we, sitting from the comfort of the 21st century, should never try to psychoanalyze or "get inside" the thoughts and minds of historical figures.
However, the case of Erik the Red could be used as a fascinating example of the "Nature versus Nurture" debate in psychology.
Was young Erik genetically predisposed to violent acts like his father had committed? Or was it a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Either way, Erik committed manslaughter, like his father had done, and was banished (again, like his father) from his home and community.
The charges of manslaughter appear to stem from when Erik was a young man with his own family, farm, and a collection of thralls (slaves).
These enslaved servants appear to have caused a landslide that damaged a neighbor's property. In revenge, the neighbor killed some of the thralls. In bloody retaliation, Erik killed two of his neighbors.
Following in his father's footsteps, his punishment was exile from his home.
The weapon that he supposedly used in a fit of bloody retaliation was a preciously crafted sword that he had jokingly christened Fótbítr (Leg Biter).
Sadly, the only detail that has been passed down to us about this deadly weapon is its name.
What is interesting about this choice of weapon is that it suggests a level of wealth and prestige that Erik appeared to have.
Swords were a sign of conspicuous consumption during the early medieval period, especially in Viking societies.
It took a skilled craftsman a great deal of time and effort to carefully fashion a sword, which then fetched eye-watering prices.
Blacksmiths and metalworkers in the Frankish realms were renowned for their craftsmanship so much that these Frankish swords were always high on the list of what Vikings wanted – either through legal trade and purchase or by illegal raiding and pillaging.
These swords became so popular with Vikings (and were then used devastatingly against the societies that had created them) that a Frankish Emperor slapped an export ban on them for people in Viking societies.
It should be no surprise that when exiled from his home, one of the few prized possessions that Erik was said to have taken with him was Fótbítr.
Aside from its protective function, it also portrayed him as a man wealthy and important enough to pay for a bespoke sword to be crafted.
In a masterstroke of early marketing, Erik the Red dubbed the icy terrains he discovered as "Greenland", enticing settlers with the promise of fertile lands. Photo: Kim Ries Jensen / Shutterstock
What exile meant for Erik the Red
Like most of the historical characters in Viking history, our only source of information comes from sagas written centuries after their lives and times.
Erik is the central figure in his own saga, Eiríks saga rauða (The Saga of Erik the Red). It is believed to have been first written in the 13th century CE in Iceland, with additions made in the 14th and 15th centuries CE.
Regardless of the exact date, the fact remains it was written centuries after Erik's lifetime, so any information in it should be viewed with a great deal of skepticism.
Furthermore, although the saga is named after Erik the Red, he is not the focus of this epic tome. He is merely one of many Viking-era explorers, warriors, and ordinary people who feature.
Unfortunately, there are no more mentions of his precious sword, but we can assume it would have remained a prized possession until his death.
Following his banishment from Iceland, Erik sailed west and, according to the saga, spent more than three years exploring the coast of an unknown landmass.
His saga goes into details of how he sailed and explored this land, which, at least in the south, seemed mild and suitable for farming.
When his exile ended, he sailed back to Iceland and decided to start what was one of the medieval period's most blatant cases of false advertising.
He spoke of a great land he had discovered, perfect for farming, which he dubbed "Greenland."
Erik felt that this name was more appealing than the name of the current island he lived on (Iceland), and it would entice settlers.
In 985 CE, Erik is said to have returned to Greenland to establish a Norse settlement, which would eventually blossom into an Eastern and Western settlement.
Historians have estimated that these settlements had a population peak of between 2,000 and 10,000 Norse settlers before economic and climate factors led to their collapse sometime in the late 14th century CE.
We only have brief mentions in the sagas of Erik the Red's famed sword, Fótbítr. However, these intricate details help bring an era more than a millennium old to full life for us in the 21st century.
Thankfully, we will never have to see Erik the Red wielding Fótbítr in the flesh, only in our minds when we read the glorious Norse sagas.
For more information on a new theory of why the Norse abandoned their settlements in Greenland, read an article by The Washington Post here.
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