Saturday, August 18, 2012

Eirik the Red's Saga

Book Review: Eirik the Red’s Saga (translated by the Rev. J Sephton) – read before the Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool (January 12, 1880)

This is a Kindle edition and may not be an ideal translation. It is also likely a bit more pro-Christian than might be, although like most sagas it was likely an account of Christians, since most but not all had been converted, somewhat converted, or were being converted by then. The text was translated from Dr. Gudbrand Vigfusson’s Icelandic Prose Reader. A few passages also come from “the Hauks-bok version given in Antiquitates Americanae. The translator gives praise to Vigfusson’s works after the text.

This was an interesting Nordic Saga of the earliest settlements in Greenland and voyages to various islands and places including Vinland, or North America. Erik the Red (950-circa 1003), or Erik Thorvaldsson, was the son of a Norwegian nobleman. He was the father of the famed explorer Leif Ericson. Erik was exiled for three years from Norway (as was his father previously) for manslaughter, or killings in some sort of blood feud with another prominent family.

The saga begins with genealogy lists and past history which helps to set the stage. Overall, this saga seems much more historical than mythical, compared to some, as it is often an account of travels and hardships. Indeed, this saga has important historical connotations as it is the only account of the early history of the Greenland settlements, the only written account of Norse discovery and settlement in North America, and the earliest account of encounters with Native Americans.

Erik buys a ship and sets sail for the west towards Greenland. Apparently, there were already small settlements there as the text indicates but he is also credited with discovering it. He explores various parts of Greenland for a few years and travels to Iceland as well. The accounts of a few other travelers are noted and also of Thorbjorn’s expedition from Iceland to Greenland where they were received early in winter of a harsh year. Due to this time of troubled fate there is an account of the consultation of a “spae-queen” (prophetess) which may be similar or equivalent to a “seidr-kona” or female seidr shaman. This is an interesting account and one of few such detailed accounts in Nordic literature. Her name was Thorbjorg. She would make a circuit around the countryside dwellings to divine for the season for people. She was customarily welcomed heartily.

“A high seat [common to seidr mages] was prepared for her, and a cushion laid thereon in which were poultry-feathers. …. she had a blue mantle over her, with strings for the neck, and it was inlaid with gems down to the skirt. On her neck she had glass beads.” She also wore a hood of lambskin, lined with ermine. She carried a brass and gem ornamented staff. She wore a girdle of soft hair. She carried talismans in a skin bag. She wore calf-skin shoes and ermine skin gloves. Food prepared for her included kid’s milk porridge and the cooked hearts of “all kinds of living creatures.” She slept there for the night and later the next day prepared for the rite. She requested women who knew the “Weird-songs” (songs to call the spirits). Thorbjorn’s daughter, the noblewoman Gudrid, though Christianized and reluctant, did know some Wyrd-songs and was convinced to sing. Her songs were said to be lovely and enchanting. The spae-queen noted how the songs made the spirits open up to her. Thorbjorg’s prophecies were well-received and said to have come about. Thorbjorn was there as well enjoying the heathen festivities.

Later he (Thorbjorn) went on to visit Eirik in Brattahlid (still in Greenland) and there got land from Eirik. Eirik’s sons were Thorstein and Leif. Leif sailed to Norway and spent time with King Olaf Tryggvason who had converted to Christianity and insisted by the sword that his subjects would as well. Olaf convinced Leif to travel to Greenland to preach Christianity which he did. Leif did note that it would be a hard sell in Greenland. Leif returned to Greenland and converted many to Christianity including his mother but Eirik was not interested. On his way Leif discovered new lands, presumably Vinland, and rescued a shipwrecked crew. Eirik’s son Thorstein marries Gudrid in a big wedding production. Soon thereafter a great fever came and many people died, including Eirik’s son Thorstein. Before he died he convinced more people to take up the Christian way and bury the dead in the consecrated ground of the Church with Christian rites rather than on the farms.

The next year a traveler came with a ship of forty men from northern Iceland – Thorfinn Karlsefni. He stayed with Eirik and was accepted to marry the widowed Gudrid (as her predicted fate  - by Thorbjorg – would have it. The winter was passed in joy, telling stories and playing backgammon.

Next they prepared for a trip to “Vinland the Good” with the ships of Thorbjorn and Karlsefni and others. They made it to Vinland, explored the shoreline and islands. One island was described as dense with birds and bird eggs. They spent the first winter there on the shoreline which was harsh and the fishing was poor. One of Eirik’s confidants, called Thorhall (he may have been a son of Eirik) was a good explorer taken to going off by himself to learn lands and hunt. Thorhall went off to meditate one day and soon thereafter they captured a whale for food. When they convinced Thorhall to return he had this to say:

“Has it not been that the Redbeard [Thor] has proved a better friend than your Christ? This was my gift [presumably the whale] for the poetry which I composed about Thor, my patron; seldom has he failed me.”

When the men heard that none of them would eat of it. The text also says that bad effects came from it and that they begged for God’s mercy and their food luck got better as the season progressed. So we see in the text some conflict between the old heathen ways that were gradually dying out and the new Christian ways. It seems the Christian ones tolerated but gradually marginalized their pagan brethren. When summer came they split up with Thorhall (the pagan hunter) proceeding north to seek Vinland and Karlsefni going south along the land. Only nine men went with Thorhall – which indicates the dying influence of paganism. The text says that Thorhall’s ship encountered a gale which pushed them to Ireland where they were severely treated.

Karlsefni discovered lowlands full of wild wheat and wild grape vines as well as abundant fish along the mouth of rivers. There was abundant wild game. They also had their cattle that they brought with them. Then they saw nine canoes made of hide. This was their first encounter with Native Americans. The canoes came to meet them and were astonished at them. They were described as short men with disheveled hair with large eyes and broad cheeks. The settlers stayed there that winter and there cattle grazed without enclosure. It was noted that there was no snow at all that winter. They had dwellings spread out near a lake and inland as well. In the spring many of the Natives came in hide canoes and there was trade set up. The natives brought furs and the Norse people gave red cloth. The text refers to the natives as ‘SkrSlingar’ and the author equates them with Eskimos. They wanted to buy swords and lances but these were not traded. When a bull came out and bellowed the SkrSlingar were startled and got in their canoes and left. They came again three weeks later in great numbers and ready for war. The SkrSlingar had arrows, slingshots, and catapults. The Norse had to retreat inland. The woman Freydis spurred them on with shouting. She took up a dead man’s sword but was pursued and caught by the SkrSlingar. She then tore open her shirt and cut herself with the sword which apparently scared them off. After this battle the Norse decided to leave for fear of further attacks from great numbers of natives. They went north.

They spent another winter there further north. The author seems to think they made it as far south as Cape Cod but others, supported by archaeological evidence of Norse settlements suggests that they were further north along Newfoundland and Labrador. They found a river mouth further north and there is a curious tale recounted of a race of one-footed men (or perhaps just one). The One-footer shot an arrow at them hitting Eirik’s son Thorvald. They chased the One-footer but could not catch him. They spent a third winter a little further north. There is also mentioned that some people/ships may have split up and settled in different places.

Karlsefni and his people set sail toward home after three years. On the way they captured two SkrSlingar children and taught them their speech and baptized them.

“The children called their mother VStilldi, and their father UvSgi. They said that kings ruled over the land of the SkrSlingar, one of whom was called Avalldamon, and the other Valldidida.”

They also mention that they lived in caves and holes, that people wore white garments and fringes. Some land they called “white man’s land.” This and other indications from the saga suggest that there may have been other Nordic settlements in coasts and islands in the area.

Karlsefni’s ship made it to Greenland and the native children stayed with Eirik the Red (I wonder if Eirik taught them some of the heathen ways). The ship of Bjarni, son of Grimolf, made it to the Irish Ocean where their ship became infested with ship-worms. They had a ship’s boat coated with seal-fat but it could only hold half the men. Bjarni decided to cast lots. Bjarni’s lot was to stay but a young Icelander convinced him to trade places. The men on the ship perished but the ones on the boat must have survived to tell the story. Karlsefni and Gudrid returned to Iceland and started a family.

Overall, this was an interesting read with the themes of the dying vestiges of Norse paganism and growing Christian influence, the explorer-spirit and homesteading-spirit of the post-Viking Norse, and the earliest accounts ever of European encounters with Native Americans.

The Norse had settlements in Greenland for about 500 years until the documented “Little Ice Age” beginning in the late 1400’s made life more difficult there so they left. The increased cold also sent Greenland Eskimos further south in numbers and they may have clashed with them adding to their decision to leave. Norse archaeological finds as recent as 2009 in Labrador and much further north and west on Baffin Island (dated about 1300) suggest that either ships continued to traverse from Greenland to North America and back or that some of those from the original settlements made it further up and continued – although the second scenario is unlikely as there would probably be more archaeological evidence of continued settlement.

Below is an article on the recent settlement discoveries, a Wiki account of Erik the Red, and a youtube link for Tyr’s song – Eric the Red – which compares the spread of Christianity to a virus and expresses perplexity at the notion that the idea of “one true divinity” is somehow superior to the older gods. I think the words to the song capture the view of the situation – perhaps from the view of Erik, Thorhall, and Thorbjorg the spae-queen. See lyrics below the song on the site.

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