• Richard Murff

America's First Honkies

When even Norway is too close to Baby-Mama

You cannot, in fact, see North America from Greenland, even if it is technically the same continent. The Vikings, though, were a seafaring people. What seafaring people standing on the west coast of Greenland can see on a clear day, with a little elevation, are certain cloud formations that they would have associated with land. In short, the Vikings knew, or assumed, that something was out there. At those latitudes, the world is a lot smaller.

Eric the Red, the chieftain and head of one of Greenland’s first families could see this. And because he had a regrettable habit of killing his neighbors and gotten himself banished from Iceland in 986, he really was the patriarch of Greenland’s first actual family (First white family, there were Innuits already there, but everyone tended to stay out of each other’s way). Eric would have probably taken the family back to Norway but his father, Thorvald, had gotten banished from the motherland for the same foolishness. So, at the family estate of Brattahilð, Eric and his wife Thjodhild had a happy, slightly murderous brood: Thorvald, Leif, and Thorstien, and possibly a daughter named Freydis – who, depending on which saga you read, is either damn near a proto-feminist super-hero, or just a vicious bitch. It should come as no surprise that Eric was not really a hands-on father, so he trusted an old German thrall – a bit like a slave in Norse society – called Tyrker to care for the kids.

Leif, as you’ve probably heard, was the ambitious one of the family and as second son, he was sent to serve on the court of King Olaf I of Norway in 999. While en route, a storm blew him off course and planted him in the Hebrides (modern Scotland) until the winds picked up at the end of the summer. There he met and pitched some woo with Thorgunna - the daughter of a nobleman. As the Gloop website wasn’t yet online, she had to settle for the 10thcentury equivalent of rich-girl pastimes: She fancied herself something of a sorceress practicing a magic called Seið. It was a girls-only club that Viking men never really got their head around.

Now, Leif was is something of a pickle. The Norsemen attached a great deal of significance to someone coming in to your house and drinking your mead. It obligated a guest to the host – in both a social and military sense. It was a way to swear allegiance to a lord. When Hrothgar of Beowulf fame wants to be king, the first thing the man does is build the biggest mead hall anyone has ever seen to fill it with thirsty people who will drink their loyalty to him. And women, if not exactly equal, held an important place in Norse culture. One tradition stated that if a gal serves you a certain type of drink, (even tradition isn’t entirely clear on the specifics) you were obligated to marry her. It’s not the sort of thing a fella wants to leave up to the discretion of a sorceress.

As it was Thorgunna wanted to run away with Leif, who kept reminding her that he had an appointment with the King of Norway. Whether it was the prospect of a wife that was giving him the willies, or that it was being married to a Seið sorceress, remains unrecorded. Thorgunna upped the ante by admitting that she was in a family way. Being a sorceress, she knew the kid was a boy. At that, Leif said that he really had to get moving and loaded her up with the sort of presents gals just love to get when their Baby Daddy is hightailing it to Norway: A gold ring, a cloak and a belt-buckle made of walrus teeth. Damned if the baby wasn’t a boy. She named him Thorgils and promised to send the knee-biter off to live with his father when he was old enough. She also predicted that the boy would be about as useful to Leif as he’d had been to her. And Thorgils was a strange kid, you know, just a bit “off.” In Greenland they blamed it on the Seið.

Leif was entirely witless to the fact that King Olaf I had converted to Christianity after a physic told him to and was planning to convert the rest of Norway. Leif converted, but he wasn’t given much of a choice: Olaf’s evangelism had a very Viking flare that involved spectacular levels of violence for the commoners and politic arm-twisting for the upper-class. Olaf told Leif to convert the Greenland, and sent a priest back with him to make sure he wasn’t a slacker about it.

For his part, Leif was busy tracking down a fellow named Bjarni Herjólfson, who claimed that he’d sighted land off to the west of Greenland after getting lost on his way to visit his father. Leif bought Bjarni’s boat, reverse engineered his hazy directions, and gathered up 35 men (including his servant and former manny, Tyrker) to go see what was out there. He wanted to do this before Thorgunna could send him the kid or Olaf’s priest could send a progress report.

Sometime in 1002 or 1003, the expedition landed at place they called Helluland, and meant it to sound that way (actually, it means Land of Flat-Rock). Then the gang continued onward to find various Labrador Islands. Eventually as winter was coming they found a green place of mild weather and rivers loaded with salmon, so they decided to make camp for the season – wouldn’t you? None of the Greenlander Sagas specifically mentions a clam-bake, but it seems pretty obvious.

One day, old Tyrker came back from one scouting trip laughing hysterically and talking about find the place lousy with grapes. Historians have long speculated as to just what the old guy was laughing about – but I have a theory: He thought he’d entered into Heaven or some sort of promised land. And for a slave, even a well-regarded one like Tyrker, that’s the sort of thing that spells relief. That the grapes he found were likely whortleberries is hardly the point, he thought that they were grapes. And besides, there is no law against making wine out of whortleberries. He named the place Vinland the Good.

“For wine alone weapons-good Oðin always lives.” is the way the Norse poets put it. What, you well may ask, is the significance of grapes and the heavens? Wine is not a Scandinavian product, so how did it become so well regarded in Norse society? Precisely because it was so foreign and expensive that it could never be a central part of society, it became a central part of their religion. Odin, the chief of the Norse gods, only consumed wine. No water, no food. The name means the “Frenzied one” and given the Norse habit of stating the obvious in the most obscure way, they also referred to him as “the drunk one.” Wine, for these people, was somewhat aspirational, god-like. Sure, Leif had converted to Christianity a year or so earlier, but old habits die hard: Wine was nectar of the gods.

Polite society – as far as the Vikings had it – drank mead. They swore oaths to the stuff a drank it out of funnel shaped cups that wouldn’t stand up. So, one assumes, that you had to quaff the whole cup in one. It was a show-off drink. The commoners drank ale – which would have been dark and malty and weigh in at about 8% ABV. You don’t hear much about Viking ale, even though it was the go-to. Mead just sounded so much more high-rent. You how poets are… and Instagram. So just imagine what went on in Old Tyrker’s head when he realized that he’d stepped into a place where a tired thrall like himself could, literally (not figuratively) drink like a god. Leif probably didn’t see it that way, but no one records him as having a giggle fit over the wine.

According to the sagas, at first the Vikings didn’t have much trouble with the natives – whom the Vikings called skrælings. Evidently when they saw boatloads of drunken, unwashed white people washing up on shore, the locals treated them like the nomadic fans of the Grateful Dead or Phish. They dined elsewhere and waited for the little vagabonds to leave. In the spring, the Vikings returned to Greenland to boast.

Leif never returned to Vinland. His brother, Thorvald, borrowed the family boat and made another journey. This one ended badly. Thorvald appears to have indulged in the family tradition of murdering your neighbors, so locals shot him in the gut with an arrow. Thorvald famously (if dubiously) said, “This is a rich country we have found; there is plenty of fat around my entrails.” Not enough, evidently, as he yanked the arrow out and promptly died.

Enter Gudrid, the wife of the youngest brother Ericson, Thorstein, decided that she wanted a Vinland vacation and pestered her husband into leading an expedition to retrieve Throvald’s body. With bad weather they never made it and turned back home. That winter Thorstein died. Not one to be put off, Gudrid remarried a merchant named Thorfinn Thórdarson and proceeded to hector him about a Vinland outing. In about 1010, the couple finally made it spent a few years abroad where she gave birth to Snorri Thorfinnson, North America’s first honkey.

The Vikings went to Canada to gather lumber and while there seems to have been some settlements, there doesn’t seem to be an idea of what, exactly they’d stumbled upon. Leif is last mentioned alive in 1019. By 1025 the chieftainship was held by his son, Thorkell. His half-brother, Thorgill – Thorgunna’s boy – was never really in the running for the job. There was something was strange about that kid.