The Iceland Guide

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The land and the people

History: The discovery of Greenland and America

Greenland may first have been sighted by an Icelander called Gunnbjörn Úlfsson, c.900. At any rate rumours of its existence led to its discovery some eighty years later by the celebrated Viking Eirík the Red c.982, who had settled in Iceland after being outlawed from Norway as the result of a blood feud. However, he was banished from Iceland, too, for three years as the result of further feuding, and spent the period exploring Greenland's southern coast.

Returning to Iceland at the end of his three-year banishment, he named the country he had discovered "Greenland", in the hope, so the Sagas say, that such a name would attract settlers. It seems to have worked for he set out next year with twenty-five ships full of colonists. Eleven were forced to turn back by bad weather, but the remainder, including that of Eirík the Red, reached Greenland and founded two settlements, one on the south coast near Cape Farewell, the other near where Godthaab now lies on the west coast.

Recent research indicates that Greenland's climate was much milder from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries than it is now and the colonies prospered for some time, having at their peak a combined population of some 2,000 people. Climatic conditions greatly deteriorated during the fourteenth century however, and the settlements died out, most probably at some point during the fifteenth century.

Eirík the Red had three sons, all well-known as sailors and travellers, but one of them, Leif Eiríksson, was considered the greatest navigator of his day, in 999 making the first direct trans-oceanic Atlantic voyage from Greenland to Norway.

Another Icelander, Bjarni Herjólfsson, is credited with having first sighted America after losing his course in fog on his way from Iceland to Greenland. Leif Eiríksson is said to have bought Bjarni's ship and set off to find and explore the Iand he had sighted. This he succeeded in doing, arriving first at a barren rocky shoreline with glaciers in the mountains beyond, which he named "Helluland" ("Stoneland"). This is thought to have been Baffin Island or Northern Labrador. Next he reached wooded country which he named "Markland" ("Woodland"), now thought to have been Southern Labrador.

Finally, after two days further sailing, he came to a fertile country with so mild a climate that there were grapes growing wild, causing Leif to name the country "Vinland" ("Wineland"). He erected dwellings and explored the country more thoroughly before returning to Greenland.

Not surprisingly, great interest was aroused by Leif`s discovery and one of his brothers, Thorvald, returned to the spot where Leif had landed, and explored the country for two years, before he was killed in a fight with natives. It seems probable that colonisation of America by the Norsemen was prevented by the hostility of the natives; the well-known later expedition led by Thorfinn Karlsefni, which was at least one hundred strong, also suffered casualties at their hands and was forced to withdraw.

The exact site of Leif`s landing in "Vinland" has remained a source of controversy, with locations from New York state to Newfoundland being put forward. The presence of grapes would appear to suggest an area south of Newfoundland, at least.

Such knowledge as we have of these epic voyages is drawn from the (sometimes conflicting) Vinland Sagas.

What`s in the website ?


The land and the people

The first explorers
The Age of the Settlement
The conversion to Christianity
The discovery of Greenland and America
The collapse of the Commonwealth
The Dark Ages
The nineteenth century
The twentieth century
Culture in the Icelandic environment
Old Icelandic literature
Eddic and skaldic poetry
The Sagas
Later literature
Modern literature
Painting, sculpture and music
The Icelanders
Traditional living conditions
The seasons
Changes in the modern world
Independent minds
Superstition, morality and the media
The land
On the edge of Europe
The shape of the land
The volcanoes
The glaciers
The natural world
The climate
The economy and infrastructure
Industry and energy