When the Vikings Discovered North America (JóB)


Jóhannes Benediktsson's picture

The Vikings arrived in North America almost 500 years ahead of Columbus. They traded with the natives and fought them—it’s all documented in the Icelandic Sagas. Now, let’s take a look at those adventurous Vikings.

Bjarni Herjólfsson of Iceland was the first one to cross the Atlantic Ocean. This was in the year 986 and he was aiming for Greenland where his father lived. He got lost in fog and ended up in North-America. Bjarni found his way back to Greenland and told everyone about his findings.

The Icelandic-born Leifur Eiríksson was living in Greenland at the time. He met with Bjarni and got all the details on how to get to this new land. He then hired a crew of 35 men and went on in search of adventure.

Painting by NC Wyeth.

Those events are described in The Saga of the Greenlanders. The text suggests that Leifur arrived in Newfoundland, Canada; we can determine the location from this line (translation: J. Sephton): “On the shortest day the sun was above the horizon from half-past seven in the forenoon till half-past four in the afternoon.”

One day an old family servant of Leifur went missing and was later found mumbling to himself, drunk from eating some grapes he’d found. This grape-land may have been the northeastern part of the United States, and Leifur called it Vínland.

I must mention that we have another account of Leifur’s voyages to Vínland: The Saga of Erik the Red. It tells his story a bit differently.

Þorfinnur Karlsefni is yet another Viking who went to North- America and he’s a central figure in The Saga of Erik the Red. He led a company of 140 people to Vínland in the year 1010. In this episode we get a very detailed description of the natives of North America:

The Vikings stepped forward. They had white shield as a symbol of peace. The natives approached in canoes, waiving straw-bouquets in clockwise circles above their heads. “They were short men, mean-looking, with mean-looking hair on their head. They were large-eyed and had broad cheeks. They stayed there for a while in astonishment.”

Later in the story, things take a turn for the worse: The natives attack, and Þorfinnur and his crew get away; a Viking woman goes berserk and presses her naked breast against a sword. That scares the natives, and they run away.

Þorfinnur concludes that this is a good country, but that they will not be able to live there in peace. He then leaves for Greenland and later for Iceland.

Finally, we have a very interesting story from The Eyrbyggja Saga. One of the main characters, Björn Breiðvíkinga-Champ, is lost at sea and presumed dead. He is found alive some thirty years later, somewhere in Central or North America. By then he has become the chief of the natives.

Mexican folktales describe a man who resembles Björn. His name was Ce Acatl Topiltzin and arrived “from east” to the Yucatan in the 10th century. He came on a big ship and he was bearded. This man would become a king of the natives.


I will give a 70-minute lectures on the Settlement of Iceland and the Vikings who ventured to North-America at Café Haiti in 101 Reykjavík September 27, October 4 and October 11 at 18:00. Free entrance/tip-based.

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.