Friday, November 22, 2013

Viking Discovery of America

Fig.1: "Dibbs!"
Everyone and their uncle's monkey knows that in fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But what those sly kindergarten teachers failed to tell you was that around the year ten-hundred, Leif Erikson reached the New World and plundered! That's right, conclusive evidence exists that history's greatest bullies, the Vikings, actually became the first Europeans to discover America (fig.1)! While the old Norse legends had long claimed that great explorers voyaged west and made landfall in a place called "Vinland," it wasn't until the 1960s that crazy people digging in the dirt (a breed commonly known as archaeologists) confirmed these stories through the finding of an old Viking settlement on the Canadian island of Newfoundland. Although no long-term colonization occurred at this time (as other Europeans would conceitedly graciously do 500 years later), this initial journey remains a remarkable feat of Norse ingenuity, curiosity, and insatiability of the desire to find more heads of lob off with their axes.

Before we get into the cool stuff, let's get this out of the way before I have the entire world of snobby, four-eyed, pointy-noised academics on my britches. The word viking is really kinda used incorrectly here. Officially, the word for the seafaring people from Scandinavia who explored, raided, and settled around the North Atlantic is Norsemen, because they spoke variations of the Norse language (and a Norse is a Norse, of course, of course). In Old Norse, the term víking meant an expedition, as in, "We're heading out on a víking!" or "I hope I score at least sixty kills on my víking next weekend!" It wasn't until the 18th century when the period was romanticized (because no one from the time was alive to make you feel bad about praising such a bloody age) that viking was transformed from the journey to the actual journeyer. So I apologize in advance for using the word incorrectly in the title of this history, as well as throughout the text. Nonetheless, the public is more familiar with the term "Vikings," and who am I to argue with my adoring fans?

(You can also argue that the Vikings didn't discover America since it was already inhabited, and that America really isn't the correct descriptor since that name would apply only after the 16th century. But seriously, shut up. You wouldn't have clicked on this link if it was called "Norsemen Land upon a Western Hemispheric Landmass." I took a Marketing class once, thank you very much.)

Fig.2: In Erik the Red's 
defense, not committing 
manslaughter is a lot 
harder when you hold 
pointy stuff all the time.
Anyway, back to the good stuff. The Vikings liked to take exploration in steps, partly because they were shrewd organizers who preferred to draw up a business plan every time they sought to plunder some village, but mostly because their longboats were not made for long continuous journeys. And so the first step was the discovery and settlement of Iceland around 874 AD, whose volcanic smoke plumes have been delaying flights ever since. From there, it was approximately a hop, skip, and a decent jump to the largest island on Earth: Greenland. The histories tell us of a man named Erik the Red (fig.2), who was banished from Iceland after committing manslaughter, and whose father was banished from Norway to Iceland after doing the same exact thing (oh, the circle of crime). Thus, Erik founded the first settlement there in the 980s, but he didn't wish to live the rest of his days alone without any men to slaughter. Thus it was him who actually used his realtor skills give the name Greenland in order to attract more people to the island, regardless of its actual reputation as a barren inhabitable hellhole (the same principle once applied with Candyland).

But the fun didn't stop there! The Vikings couldn't help but explore further west, and it was on these journeys that another discovery was made. Legend states that a merchant who voyaged off course with his thirty-volume set of dictionaries "ascertained the abode of some acreage abreast of the archetypical avenue for my amphibious advancement apparatus" (he was still studying the "a" section). The first to hear of this tale was Leif Erikson, son of Erik the Red (thus: Erikson), who was respected throughout Greenland since he had only committed some minor assaults and kept clear of all the temptations of manslaughter. He quickly gathered a crew and set sail in a southwestern direction, where the temperature went from blisteringly cold to just blistering cold. After a voyage of just under two thousand miles (which greatly bolstered Leif's CaptialOne® Venture Card℠ account), they finally spotted new-found land on the northern tip of an island whose name I'm completely drawing a blank on.

Fig.3: Remember to celebrate Leif
Erikson Day every October 9th!
The Viking records refer to this land as Vinland, which either translates to "Land of Wine" or "Land of Meadows" depending on whether the Old Norse linguist you're speaking to enjoys a good drink now and then or not. Anyway, Leif wintered in Newfoundland twice, in 1001 and 1002, before getting really bored with playing curling all the time and deciding it was best to return home. Leif's brother, Thorvald, would try to outdo him in 1004 by attacking some of the natives near the camp in true Viking fashion. Alas Thorvald would prove only to excel in stupidity, as he was mortally wounded by an arrow during the skirmish. In 1009, their sister, Freydís, even made the journey and, according to the sources, somehow managed to scare off all the natives by flashing them (my casual observations of MTV's Spring Break typically demonstrate the opposite reaction by men).

Apart from the casual visits to chop down some timber and pee their names in the snow, this was about the extent of Norse settlement in the Americas. Sure, there have been some artifacts discovered within the United States that suggest a pre-Columbian Viking presence, but all of those are considered big fat phonies by most experts. This prominently includes the Kensington Runestone, discovered in 1898 in central Minnesota, whose inscribing appears to imply that Scandinavian explorers visited the region in the 14th century! However, pretty much every runologist (yes, that's a thing) in the world views it as a hoax, especially since the language on the rock closely resembles a modern form of Swedish that sounds more like the tongue spoken by present-day Viking invaders Daniel and Henrik Sedin than that of Leif Erikson. In the end, if it wasn't for the archaeological evidence of a settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland (fig.4), we wouldn't have had a bloody clue they came to visit in the first place! No house-warming gift or anything! How rude!

Fig.4: Reconstruction of a Viking longhouse at L'Anse aux Meadows, which must of had a terrible
roach problem if Leif Erikson preferred to return to the Earth's back pimple known as Greenland.
This remains a huge mystery for historians. During the Viking Age from the 8th to the 11th centuries, Norsemen certainly didn't have much of a problem killing people and settling in France and Britain and Ireland and Spain and Russia and Poland and Italy and maybe even the North Pole (you can't tell me Santa Claus doesn't look like he was a bloodthirsty Viking before in his present-giving days). What was it about Canada that turned the Vikings away so quickly? It couldn't have been the climate, since they were quite used to the cold and snowy conditions of the Arctic Circle. It couldn't have been the people, since they would just say, "Sorry," after attacking and give themselves two minutes in the penalty box for roughing. It could have very well been the distance, since people had to make a stop at Greenland in order to continue the voyage, and who in the right mind wants to do that? But maybe, just maybe it wasn't the right time for Europeans to stomp all over the land (and the residents) of the New World quite yet. Either way, Leif Erikson deserves just as much praise for his discovery as Columbus receives on a yearly basis! And by praise, I mean for self-righteous college students to make some awkward comment about the genocide of indigenous peoples every October (which is almost as annoying as the post office being closed).

No comments:

Post a Comment