Given that this famous explorer was banished from society, is it any wonder that he was not perhaps the most trustworthy salesman?
A human footprint that stretches back over four and a half millennia
With a history of human settlement that stretches back to at least 2500 BCE, Greenland has seen many civilizations come and go.
The early human history of Greenland is marked by a series of migrations of Paleo-Inuit peoples arriving via the North American mainland. Modern archaeology can only give an approximate guess as to the exact history and timings of these cultures, but by about 700 BCE, the "Dorset Culture" had arrived.
These Paleo-Inuit peoples had a rich cultural heritage, closely linked with sites in Canada, but seemed to have perished, due to the extreme climatic conditions of Greenland, by about 1 CE.
For the next seven centuries, it appears, Greenland was uninhabited by humans until the arrival of peoples, which modern historians and academics have coined as coming from a "Late Dorset culture."
Like their ancestors, these Paleo-Inuit peoples adapted to Greenland as best they could but mostly settled in the northwest of the island, having emigrated from the North American mainland, like their ancestors, in small canoes.
Soon, however, they would be joined on the island by another seafaring people from a vastly different culture.
First Norse explorers
Given recent political and cultural debates surrounding the legacies of European colonization worldwide, history still is very much a Eurocentric affair.
We may never know the identity of the first human that set foot on Greenland (modern science is good but not that good...yet), so, for the time being, we have to get what information we can from civilizations that have written records.
Somewhat annoyingly, the written sources of the (European) "discovery" of Greenland were recorded more than three centuries after the fact and in saga form.
According to the Landnámabók - a saga recounting the settlement of Iceland by Norse settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries BUT compiled sometime in the 12th century CE - the very first person to "discover" Greenland was one Gunnbjörn Ulfsson, who wasn't even looking for it!
It appears that upon sailing from Norway to Iceland, his ship was blown off course, and he made his discovery by accident. Whether this is historically accurate or not is beside the point, as the accidental discovery of a new land is a common motif running throughout medieval literature.
An approximate date of when his voyage took place has been recorded as being somewhere between 876 to 932 CE. Yet Ulfsson is not the most famous accidental explorer of the "Viking Age" (c. 793 – 1066 CE) and not the one with the best epithet.
In fact, we don't even know the color of his hair unlike the man traditionally held as having "discovered" Greenland.
According to the Landnámabók saga, the first person to "discover" Greenland was Gunnbjörn Ulfsson. Photo: Chris Linnett / Unsplash
The Saga of Erik the Red
Sagas are stories and histories that were, mostly, compiled in Iceland during the 12 and 13th centuries CE.
Perhaps the most famous is the Saga of Erik the Red, which, somewhat contradictorily, only gives a small number of pages to the man with the famous red hair.
Erik Thorvaldsson was believed to have been born somewhere on the western coast of Norway in the middle of the 10th century CE and, due to his bright red locks, has gone down in history as "Erik the Red."
Not only did Erik have fiery red hair, but it appears he also had a bit of a volcanic nature. Having moved as a young boy, from Norway to Iceland, due to his father being banished for manslaughter, Erik eventually married and had four young children, including two future explorers – Leif and Freydis.
A disagreement involving his slaves creating a landslide onto a nearby property that escalated into Erik seeing red and killing two of his neighbors. This resulted in a banishment (just like his father) from Iceland for three years in 982 CE.
During his banishment, Erik sailed westward to try and find this little-known land that was the subject of myth and legend. If we are to believe the Saga of Erik the Red, having rounded the southern tip of the island (Cape Farewell), he eventually found an area of the icy land that had similar climatic conditions to Iceland.
It should be noted that there was at the very beginning of what climatologists today have dubbed the "Medieval Warm Period" (c. 950 – 1250 CE), a period of unusually warm climatic conditions in the North Atlantic.
Upon sailing to Greenland, he had seen mostly snow and ice, so this area of temperate climate was a perfect place to spend the remainder of his exile. The saga relates how he spent three winters on the island before returning to Iceland.
Upon his arrival back in Iceland, he arrived with stories of a new settlement that he dubbed "Greenland." He is said to have admitted that he wanted a name that would entice Norse settlement, even if it was stretching the truth a bit.
"Greenland," after all, is a bit snappier than "Land of mostly ice, snow, and a tiny bit of green"...
The Norse settlement of Greenland lasted for more than five centuries. Photo: LouieLea / Shutterstock
The Norse settlement of Greenland
Regardless of his previous crimes and fiery nature, Erik appears to have the gift of the gab and to be one of medieval Europe's most capable salesmen.
Unlike their Scandinavian ancestral societies, the Norse settlement of Iceland was a relatively poor affair. Erik the Red's promise of a new lush green land must have been music to the ears of the mostly poor small tenant farmers.
This salesman proved so successful that he returned to Greenland, in 985 CE, with a huge number of colonists. However, of the 25 ships that left Iceland, only 11 survived the voyage.
The Norse settlement of Greenland is one of the more interesting medieval tales of colonization, as it lasted for more than five centuries. Eventually, the Norse would found two settlements (an eastern and a western settlement, both on the southwest corner of the island).
At the height of the Eastern settlement, a population of more than 5,000 Norse settlers was spread out over hundreds of farms. The false advertising of Greenland appeared to matter little as the Norse settlements flourished until the advent of the "Little Ice Age" brought about colder climatic conditions from the mid-14th century CE.
For Erik, the return to Greenland proved fruitful. He not only was he credited, from then on, as the "founder" of Greenland, and the Norse settlement, but was made a chieftain and acquired several large farms.
Unfortunately, in 1002 CE, a new settler brought with them a disease that caused an epidemic killing a huge number of Norse settlers, including Erik himself.
The man who kicked off more than a millennium of the European colonization of Greenland – which many Greenlanders nowadays would like to finally end – was also one of medieval Europe's first real estate moguls and salesman.
If we are to believe the sagas, his life was a tale of the redemptive power of second chances and how bending the truth can, sometimes, work.
For more on the colonial legacy of European rule in Greenland and possible future independence, read an article in International Relations magazine here, whilst Visit Greenland has more on Erik the Red's "discovery" of the island here.
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