Who is this Viking explorer, and can we find any truths in this seemingly outlandish pre-Columbian trans-oceanic voyage?
Fake history in an era of fake news
Alternative histories and conspiracy theories are very much in vogue now.
In an era of instant communication and the whole knowledge of humankind accessible with the swipe of your finger, all sorts of fake, false, and disturbing information are available worldwide.
While several politicians have used conspiracy theories and "alternative facts" to further their careers (not least many on the far right worldwide, including the 45th President of the United States of America), it has also spread to Hollywood.
Shows like the wildly popular "Ancient Apocalypse," hosted by author Graham Hancock, and podcasts such as Joe Rogan's have helped popularize historically incorrect but nevertheless widely popular "facts" and theories.
These theories and alternative ways of (incorrectly) thinking have also spread into Viking studies.
There is a plethora of online information on supposed pre-Columbian trans-oceanic contact between Vikings and pre-Columbian American societies.
Theories have sprouted online that Norse explorers did reach Central America, thanks to the story of Björn Breiðvíkingakappi found in the Saga of the Icelanders.
Emerging in late 10th-century Iceland, Björn Breiðvíkingakappi's story involves a romantic dispute that led to his departure by sea in 998, after which he disappeared from history. Photo: Herbert Ortner (CC BY-SA 2.5)
A Viking Age transatlantic traveler?
The Saga of the Icelanders, a collection of sagas dealing with the exploration and settlement of Iceland by the Norse during the 9th – 11th centuries CE, has many historically verifiable and accurate events.
Whilst it should be treated as historical fiction, there is general academic agreement that most of the events depicted in these sagas have, at least, a basis in historical fact.
It should be noted, however, that many of these sagas were compiled in 13th-century Iceland, centuries after the events they depict.
The story of Björn Breiðvíkingakappi first emerges in late 10th century Iceland.
He reportedly engaged in a love affair that led to the threat of a deadly duel. To avoid this, Breiðvíkingakappi set sail westward in 998, which appears to be the last we hear of him.
"About three decades later, a Norse merchant named Gudlief and his crew sailed from Ireland when storms blew their ship off course. Making land some days later, they were greeted by people whom they initially believed to be speaking "Irish."
Apprehended by the locals, they were brought before their white-skinned chief, who spoke Norse.
The chieftain let them go, and Gudlief concluded that the chieftain was, in fact, Breiðvíkingakappi, who had gone missing years before.
Some online "keyboard academics" have postulated that Gudlief and his crew wound up making land on the Yucatan Peninsula, with the locals who apprehended them being the Toltec people.
These people, and the later Aztecs, believed in a white-skinned god who would return from the east – centuries later, Hernan Cortes played on this belief and a case of mistaken identity to help bring down the mighty Aztec Empire.
Could people from Viking societies have traveled as far as Meso-America centuries before the Columbian "voyages of discovery"?
Despite a wealth of online theories about Viking journeys to Central America, the notion of them reaching the Yucatan Peninsula and influencing Toltec culture is firmly dismissed by historical research. Photo: Luidger (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Little more than speculative fiction
Whilst the saga of Breiðvíkingakappi offers the tantalizing prospect of pre-Columbian contact between Norse and Meso-American peoples, serious and learned historians and academics take the story as little more than a ripping yarn.
Aside from this tale, no other literary or archeological evidence suggests that Breiðvíkingakappi, or any people from Viking societies, somehow traveled to Central America.
However, no credible historian, archeologist, or academic supports the notion that they journeyed as far as Mexico or Central America.
Yet this has done nothing to dispel theories that the Vikings did reach Central America.
The myth of Quetzalcoatl, embraced in several Meso-American cultures and civilizations, was said to include the fact that he was a feathered serpent – not dissimilar to some depictions of dragons in the Norse sagas.
Online heroes have also pointed out that the great feathered serpent, when retaking human form upon his return, requested to be burnt on a funeral pyre and required human sacrifices – two hallmarks of worship and belief in Viking societies, at least until the widespread adoption of Christianity.
Even though the thought of Vikings reaching America was dismissed as mere fiction until the discovery of the remains of the settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in the 1960s, we can conclusively dismiss the notion that they ever reached Meso-America.
Though pre-Columbian cross-civilizational contact is a tempting prospect, this only occurred in parts of North America, definitively in Greenland and Newfoundland, but not further south.
Regardless of extensive speculation on Viking exploration in the Americas, archaeological findings at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland provide the only concrete evidence of Norse settlement. Photo: Russ Heinl / Shutterstock
The man, the myth, and the legend
Having separated the cold reality from speculative fiction, we can now safely say with certainty that people from Viking societies, including Breiðvíkingakappi, did not travel to the Yucatan Peninsula or anywhere else in the Americas other than their settlement on Newfoundland.
As quickly as he enters the sagas, Breiðvíkingakappi disappears into thin air. We know nothing of his life other than this supposed voyage across the ocean to a distant and "exotic" land.
It is possible – though this is little more than mere speculation – that a historical settler in Iceland had to leave the island due to a tangled affair of the heart and was called Björn Breiðvíkingakappi.
This is possible due to the often bloody end to many feuds that plagued Norse settler society in Iceland during the first two centuries of settlement.
Did this person sail from the island, never to be seen again?
Again, it is possible but hard to prove. He might have sailed off to any of the lands where people from Viking societies had settled, traded, or fought, from the Balearics to the Baltic, down to the Byzantine Empire, and anywhere between.
Did this person end up on the Yucatan Peninsula and become a revered god for the local Toltec population? Definitely not.
As tantalizingly a prospect as this would be (especially for the screenwriters at Netflix or Amazon Prime), it did not occur.
To say anything else leaves the world of solid historical fact and enters the realm of fantasy and fiction. As they say in the business, this myth has well and truly been busted.
For more information on historical conspiracy theories, visit Sky History TV here.
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