Leif Erikson is one of the most famous Norse figures in the world and his legacy lives on through many statues and even a day in his honor. This is the story of the legendary Norse explorer who traveled to Newfoundland 500 hundreds of years before Christopher Columbus "discovered" North America.
Leif Eriksson Discovers America by Hans Dahl (1849–1937)
Leif Erikson, nicknamed “the Lucky” was Probably born in Iceland around 970-980 CE. He was the middle son of Erik the Red, who set up the first Viking settlement in Greenland in the late 980s CE.
Leif's larger-than-life reputation mostly stems from the 13th-century CE Icelandic Vinland Sagas (the independently composed The Saga of the Greenlanders and Erik the Red's Saga) which tell the story of how he kitted out the first Norse expedition to Newfoundland and the surrounding areas, in present-day Canada. In Canada he discovered, among others, the grapevines that inspired the Vikings' name for the area: Vinland, meaning literally Wine Land.
Leif’s history began with his grandfather, Thorvald Asvaldsson, who came from Jæren, Norway. He had been banished from Norway for manslaughter and lived in exile in Iceland with his son Erik, better known by his nickname, Erik the Red.
When Erik himself was exiled from Iceland, for killing Eyiolf the Foul around 982 CE, he set out West with his family and became one of the first permanent settlers on Greenland.
Reconstruction of a Viking church that stood at Erik the Red's (and his descendants') farm at Brattahlíð
In 999CE, Leif and his crew set out from Greenland to visit Norway. Following a summer in the Hebrides after being blown off course, they eventually arrived in Norway and Leif became a member of King Olaf’s official entourage.
He converted to Christianity and was tasked with introducing the religion to Greenland. Before Leif even gets back to Greenland from Norway, he heard the tale of Bjarni Herjolfsson an explorer who, on attempting to find Greenland for the first time with his crew, was blown off course and sighted hospitable-looking land, with mountains, hills and forests to the west. According to the saga, Bjarni never actually sets foot on the new found land, a mistake Leif would not make.
Leif and his crew set sail from Greenland to try to find the place discovered by Bjarni. They first encountered a land of ice and stone, which they called Helluland – Land of the Flat Stones – now widely believed to be Baffin Island. Seeing little there of interest they continued on.
Their next stop was a forested land with white shores which they named Markland, meaning Wood Land. This is thought to be somewhere on the Labrador coast of modern-day Canada.
Again, this did not fit the description of Bjarni’s rich and fertile discovery and so once more they carried on. After another couple of days of sailing south-west, they finally encountered a place that seemed like the place they were searching for. They landed at a headland, with an Island offshore, and a pool accessible to ships at high tide in an area with shallow sea and sandbanks.
They established a camp and explored the land, finding great forests for timber, wild wheat growing abundantly, and huge vines of grapes. Leif called the area Vinland (Vine Land) and he and his crew remained there until the spring. They then set sail back to Greenland, loaded with timber, wheat and grapes for their people at home.
Map showing the reconstructed route Norse Vikings sailed in the Vinland sagas on their way to Vinland (Newfoundland, Canada)
In Erik the Red's Saga, the base set up by Leif is instead named Straumfjǫrðr (Fjord of Currents). Its different name might be explained by the fact that this saga seems to downplay Leif's role in general, focusing instead on his sister-in-law Gudrid and her husband Karlsefni who are depicted as leading one big expedition to Vinland. This is a possible result of a movement in the 13th century CE which sought to canonise Bishop Björn Gilsson, a direct descendant of theirs. History is written by the winners… or the ones who actually know how to write (not a common thing on the IX and X century).
Leif’s settlement in Vinland is most commonly believed to be L’Anse aux Meadows – the only known Norse archaeological site in North America. The site was found in 1961 and added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1978.
L’Anse aux Meadows is a site consisting of eight buildings – dwellings or workshops – on the northernmost tip of Newfoundland. The excavated remains of wood-framed peat-turf buildings are similar to those found in Norse Greenland and Iceland.
L’Anse aux Meadows
The first statue of Leif Erikson in the United States was erected in Boston in 1887 and a replica was erected in Milwaukee.
In 1929 the Wisconsin Legislature passed a bill to declare it Leif Erikson Day and in 1964 the US Congress authorized and requested the President to proclaim each year that October 9th be Leif Erikson day.
Erected in 1887, a stature of Norse explorer, Leif Erikkson rises up from the mall on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston.
Leif Erikson is the common English spelling, but the surname can also be spelled Ericson and, in Norway, it's much more common to see the Norwegian variant Leiv Eiriksson, or even the Norse variant Leifr Eiríksson.
Simek, Rudolf. 1993. Dictionary of Northern Mythology. Translated by Angela Hall. ISBN- 9780859915137
Ármann Jakobsson. 2013. Nine Saga Studies: The Critical Interpretation of the Icelandic Sagas. Reykjavík: University of Iceland Press. ISBN 9-789-97954997-0.
Smilely, Jane. 2001. The Sagas of Icelanders. Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition. ISBN-13: 978-0141000039