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Vikings in World History


Vikings, Vínland, and the Indigenous "Other"

Hayden Eric Godfrey


     Between the ninth and eleventh centuries, the Norse raiders, collectively called Vikings, developed one of the world's most expansive premodern networks of human encounter. "Encounter" is not a word their contemporaries would have chosen. Starting with the Battle of Lindisfarne (793), Viking depredations were long remembered as throughout Europe as brutally violent.

     "Viking" was more a career choice than a cultural identity. While these Norwegians, Swedes, and Danes earned a lasting reputation as warriors, they developed trade routes as far south as Constantinople and Baghdad, building powerful polities in what are now Ukraine, Sicily, Normandy, England, and Ireland while leaving lasting cultural legacies.

     Among the most dramatic episodes of Scandinavian enterprise was arc of successive settlements established in the ninth through eleventh centuries across the North Atlantic: from Faroes and Shetland through Iceland, Greenland and, for a short time, Vínland. In 1960, archaeological work at L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland confirmed stories transmitted through the Icelandic accounts collectively known as the Vínland sagas.1  Eiríks saga rauða2 (Saga of Erik the Red) and Grænlendinga saga, (The Saga of the Greenlanders) describe the ventures of Eiríkr inn rauði, (Erik the Red) to Greenland, and of Leifr Eiríksson (Leif Eriksson) to Vínland. Settling in Vinland, the Norse made the first recorded European contact with indigenous people, whom they called the skrælingar.3

Figure 1
  Figure 1: Summer Night on the Greenland Coast circa Year 1000 (Sommernat under den Grønlandske Kyst circa Aar 1000) by Jens Erik Carl Rasmussen (1841–1893). [A Romantic Reimagination of Norse Expansion beyond Greenland.] Licensed Under Public Domain. File Created 3 June 2013.  

     The Vínland sagas illuminate a central issue in world history: how is it that a "people" define themselves, drawing definitional boundaries between "us" and "other"? This question of alterity is basic to contemporary debates over the vexed histories of nationalism, race, and the rise of the state.4

     This boundary-drawing is, of course, not original to the Norse. Richard Kearney notes that "[t]he figure of the 'stranger'—ranging from the ancient notion of 'foreigner' (xenos) to the contemporary category of alien invader—frequently operates as a limit-experience for humans trying to identify themselves over and against others. Greeks had their 'barbarians', Romans their Etruscans, Europeans their exotic overseas 'savages.'"5  Like the Greeks and Romans, the Norse drew distinctions based on distance—both linguistic and geographic—between the Norse "us" and the non-Norse "them. Thus, the suðrmenn ("Southernmen," a term for Germans) as distinct from themselves, but closer than the skozkir menn (Scotsmen) brought as thralls to Vínland as part of Þorfinnr Karlsefni's expedition in Eiríks saga rauða. At a greater distance from what we might call "Norseness" were Arabs, Persians, Africans, Central Asians. Medieval European literature made much of the eastern "other" to reinforce a cohesive conception of belonging.6 

     The skrælingar did not fit into this conceptual system. In Iceland, the Norse had encountered no one else except a few ascetic monks known by the Norsemen as papar. The continent of North America, previously undocumented in European sources, already possessed a multitude of peoples who had already inhabited the continent for more than 15,000 years.7  Thus the Icelandic sagas give the reader an opportunity to explore identity at the moment it was constructed, one of the few windows into this process to open before the sixteenth century. (Unfortunately, this is a window through which we can peer in just one direction. No evidence exists which might help us reconstruct the view from the other side. How the skrælingar saw the Norse is unknown and probably unknowable).  

Figure 2
  Figure 2: Map of Artic Cultures 900–1500 CE. Created by Masae [pseudonym], 29 November 2006. Distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license. Four maps showing the different cultures in Greenland, Labrador, Newfoundland and the Canadian Arctic islands in the years 900, 1100, 1300 and 1500. The green color shows the Dorset Culture, blue the Thule Culture, red Norse Culture, yellow Innu, and orange Beothuk.8  

Where does the word skræling come from?

     Language can diminish—or emphasize—distinctions between the "us" who name and the "other" who are named. Notably, there is no precedent for the term skrælingar in Old Norse sources: the term seems to have been coined specifically during the Norse encounter with Vinland's native peoples. For that reason, its origins and connotations are a matter of considerable disagreement. Some scholars believe that the term was never used in the Vínland settlements at all, but was coined in Greenland.9 The precise nature of the Norse-indigene relationship turns on that definition. Was it pejorative or merely descriptive? Did its meaning change over time or change from its first use with a particular group of people to later usages among other groups?

     For answers, we must depend largely on two of the Sagas of the Icelanders (Íslendingasǫgur): the Grœnlendinga saga and Eiríks saga rauða. These are the only sources to recount explorations of the newfound lands beyond what was known of the world. Other medieval Norse literary sources that also touch on Vínland: Ari Þorgilsson's Íslendingabók, Adam von Bremen's Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, and the anonymously written Historia Norwegiæ.10  

     If the ethnonym skrælingar derives from a pre-existing Germanic word, that word has been lost; skrælingar appears to have been unique to Old West Norse.11 Its first written usage appears to have been in Ari Þorgilsson's Íslendingabók, written in the decade after 1122.  However, the Íslendingabók is known to be an abridged version of a previous history of the Icelanders known only as Liber Islandōrum, which might have contained a more thorough account of the Vínland encounters.12

     The account the Íslendingabók gives us is tantalizingly (and frustratingly) brief: describes the Norse settlements of Greenland and the arrival of Norse Greenlanders in Vínland, including their encounters with the skrælingar:

The land which is called Greenland was discovered and settled by Iceland. There was a man named Erik the Red from Breiðfjörðr who sailed westward and took land there, which has since then been called Erik's Fjord. He gave the land a name and called it Greenland and said that one would desire to sail out there if the land had a good name. There they found traces of people both in the east and the west of the land and shards of pottery, at least to what they could discern, that there were a type of folk there, who inhabited Vinland and Greenland called "Skrælingar." And that was when Erik had settled the land fourteen or fifteen years before Iceland was Christianized [1000 CE], which is told by Þorkell Gellisson in Greenland, who had himself accompanied Erik the Red.13

     Based on this passage some scholars have speculated that skrælingar referred first to Greenland's Inuit populations. However, it is not known with any certainty whether Greenland was actually inhabited when the Norse arrived. Contemporary Inuit peoples, who call themselves Kalaallit (also a word of uncertain origins, although perhaps descending from the Norse term for them) descend from the Thule culture, which seem to have arrived Greenland after 1100, at least a century after the Norse.14  A previous Inuit people, the Dorset, inhabited regions on Greenland's northern coast, a considerable distance from Norse settlement on the island's south extremities.15 Robert W. Park notes that the Dorset-Inuit "may have died out before the Norse arrived [in Greenland]."16 Taken together, the evidence suggests that the term skrælingar first occurred in Vínland during the Norse expeditions of the late tenth century, documented in the Vínland Sagas.

What, then, did skrælingar and its variants mean when first applied to indigenous Newfoundlanders?

     Kirsten Seaver notes that Norsemen tended to be descriptive in their naming conventions (70–71), a practice evidence in Iceland's place-names:  Reykjavík (Smoke Harbor), Þingvellir (Assembly Field). This was true of Iceland itself, named Ísland (Ice-land) because—according to one plausible etymology—icebergs were seen during an early Norse reconnaissance of Arnarfjǫrður on Iceland's northeast coast.17  Exonyms also focused on what was seen. So, while in North Africa, Leifr Eiríksson encountered what he called bláir men, "blue people" (the Norse conflated "blue" with "black"). If this is true (and this work assumes that it is) what did skrælingar describe?

     Seaver suggests an etymological connection with the modern Norwegian adjective skral, meaning "of poor quality," possible if the arriving saw the native populations as particularly destitute.  However, skral apparently originated more than a century later as term in Middle Low German, not in North Germanic, making Seaver's suggested etymology anachronistic.18 

     Another possible derivation is from the Old Norse verb skrælna.  The verb means "to become shriveled" and is generally linked to the origin of the English word "scrawny,"19 which would align itself to an argument that Seaver makes toward the origin of the term perhaps being a reference to the shorter stature of the skrælingar in contrast to the generally taller Norsemen.20  This argument furthermore aligns itself with the aforementioned assumption that the Norsemen were by and large literal in their naming conventions, whether of newly encountered peoples or of the landscapes that they discovered.  Although this putative etymology for the exonym skrælingar is not nearly as pejorative as a derivation from a form related to the modern Nynorsk skral, even with the term's distinctively Low German origins, this etymology would still fall into a category that refers to small physical stature, for which Seaver makes the case that it was "a quality disdained by the medieval Norse."21

     Yet another possible origin for skrælingar, which H.G.A. van der Voort and his team suggest, is via an originally Old Norse cognate with modern Nynorsk skråla, meaning "to cry out."22  According to the authors, this suggested etymology is analogous to the Ancient Greek βάρβαροι (barbarians) a nonsense word with onomatopoetic origin, which alone means "those who speak in an unintelligible manner." The fact that modern Icelanders now understand skrælingi to mean "barbarian" or "foreigner" further boosts to an argument that is already semantically and phonetically plausible.23 

     However, if skræling is just an Icelandic version of barbaroi, why would the Norse not apply the same term to Slavs, Arabs, Italians, Byzantine Greeks or other peoples whose languages they could not understand? Why apply the term solely to people encountered on the other side of the Atlantic? Without further evidence, I consider van der Voort's view consistent with the evidence, but unproven.

     One last reconstruction of skrælingar's origin is less pejorative than the others: that the Icelandic term skrælingi derives from the Old Norse skrá (dried skin), a term corroborated on other phonological grounds,24 which might be a reference to the animals skins which, according Eiríks saga rauða, the Norsemen observed indigenous North Americans wearing.25

     In short, there is compelling evidence for several possible etymologies of skrælingar. The term could have referred to impoverished, scrawny, babbling or simply pelt-and-leather wearing, with a wide range of possible connotations, from the pejorative to the merely descriptive. Given the evidence linking skrælingi with skrá and the lack of the term skræling's general use to describe any other unintelligible linguistic group, I believe it likely that the word was originally descriptive, as were other Old Norse exonyms and place names.

     Regardless of its etymology, the term skrælingar clearly demonstrates that Norsemen identified fundamental distinctions—whether physical, linguistic, or cultural—between themselves and the skrælingar

Alterity through Christian Historiography in the Vínland Sagas


     Beginning in 1000 CE, Icelanders converted to Christianity. During the eleventh century, Ari Þorgilsson and his contemporaries came to be educated in religious settings such as the dioceses in Skálholt and Holar.  By the time the Vínland sagas were composed in the early thirteenth century, Icelanders perceived understood themselves as fully Christian; their recorded histories reflected this collective Christian identity.

     However, the pagan past was both recent and revered. The sagas adapted that tenth- and eleventh-century past to the needs of the thirteenth century present in order to affirm Christian authenticity and legitimacy. As Joseph Harris writes,

When we consider Icelandic medieval historiography in this light, we notice an interesting twist: Biblical typology ultimately meant interpreting the present to conform with the sacred past… But in twelfth- and thirteenth-century Scandinavia it meant [rearticulating] the past to create antecedent types for the Christian present… Such projection, however, is not random but patterns roughly according to typological principles to constitute a "historical myth."26

Harris finds Eiríks saga rauða particularly characteristic of how Icelandic historians chose to remember this era in which an admixture of both pagan and Christian beliefs were still present in Norse society.27

     That collective identity was reinforced by depictions of the skrælingar, depicted in the Vínland Sagas as proxies for uncivilized savages who do not possess the Christian mores of century Icelandic audiences. The sagas depicted the skrælingar as a more heathen "other," especially when juxtaposed against the noble Norse heathen who, despite his pagan belief system, was integral to Icelandic cultural identity. This adaptation of the pagan Norse past to the needs of a thirteenth-century Christian present served to affirm Christian authenticity and legitimacy.

     Eiríks saga rauða depicts the skrælingar as unfamiliar figures in unresolvable conflict with Norsemen in Vínland, although textual relationships between the two cultures could be interpreted as inconsistent due to different recollections in the sources. There is a suggestion here of allegory, with the skrælingar standing in for those Norse pagans who maintained their traditions despite the official conversion to Christianity. Yet sagas also depict the skrælingar as capable of Christian conversion, as in a passage from Eiríks saga rauða focused on two skrælingar children abducted by Þorfinnr Karlsefni's party and subsequently baptized and taught the language of the Norse:

Þá er þeir silgdu af Vínlandi, tóku þeir suðræn veðr ok hittu þá Markland ok fundu þar Skrælinga fimm, ok var einn skeggjaðr, konur váru tvær ok bǫrn tvau. Tóku þeir Karlsefni sveinana, en hinir kómust undan, ok sukku þeir Skrælingar í jǫrð niðr. Sveina þessa tvá hǫfðu þeir með sér. Þeir kenndu þeim mál, ok váru skírðir. Þeir nefndu móður sína Vethildi ok fǫður Óvægi. Þeir sǫgðu, at konungar stjórnuðu Skrælingum, ok hét annarr þeira Avaldamon, en annarr Avaldidida. Þeir kváðu þar engin hús; lágu menn þar í hellum eða holum.28

They took the southern passage and found Markland and encountered five Skrælings, of whom were a bearded man, two women, and two children. Karsefni's party took the children, but the others went away and sank down into the earth. They brought the children with them, taught them language, and baptized them. They named their mother as Vethildi and their father as Óvægi. They said that kings ruled over the Skrælings. One was named Avaldamon and the other Avaldidida. They did not dwell in houses, but in caves or holes in the ground.

In this passage the skrælingar are "uncivilized" or "savage" people who dwelt, not in houses, but "í hellum eða holum" (in caves or holes in the ground)29, a description contradicted by the archaeological record. Here, the skrælingar most definitely serve as a proxy for unbaptized heathenry, resistant to the advance of Christianity.  In fact, linguistic evidence hints that the entire episode may have been invented.30

     Like Eiríks saga rauða, Grænlendinga saga depicts hostilities between the Norsemen and the skrælingar whom they encountered in Vínland. Unlike Eiríks saga rauða, Grænlendinga saga includes a passage during the third battle between the two groups, in which Þorfinnr Karlsefni praises a skræling warrior's courage and fortitude:

Nú komu Skrælingar í þann stað, er Karlsefni hafði ætlat til bardaga. Nú var þar bardagi, ok fell fjǫlði af liði Skrælinga. Einn maðr var mikill ok vænn í liði Skrælinga, ok þótti Karlsefni, sem hann mundi vera hǫfðingi þeira. Nú hafði einn þeira Skrælinga tekit upp øxi eina ok leit á um stund ok reiddi at félaga sínum ok hjó til hans. Sá fell þegar dauðr. Þá tók sá inn mikli maðr við øxinni ok leit á um stund ok varp henni síðan á sjóinn, sem lengst mátti hann. En síðan flýja þeir á skóginn, svá hverr sem fara mátti, ok lýkr þar nú þeira viðskiptum.31

Then the Skrælings came to the place, where Karlsefni had intended to battle. There was then a battle and a great fold of Skrælings fell. One of the Skrælings present was tall and handsome, whom Karlsefni had thought to be their chieftain. Then one of the Skrælings raised an ax and looked around for a while and prepared to strike one of his companions. He immediately fell dead. Then the tall man took an ax, looked around, and threw it into the sea, as far as he could. They then fled into the forest, as far as each could go, which is where their story ends.

It is difficult to imagine how Þorfinnr Karlsefni could have accurately appraised the qualities of this man given the linguistic and cultural barriers between the two sides. More likely, it is a literary invention, reinforcing, via the enemy's admiration, disparities between the saga audience's Norse antecedents and the skrælingar in order to idealize the fundamentally Christian ethos of the Norse explorers. 

     It is, then, likely that the thirteenth-century audience heard in the stories of the skrælingar an otherness, an alterity, that buttressed their own cultural identity. But the Vínland sagas mention other peoples as well. How did the "othering" of the skrælingar compare with that of other non-Norse?


     Eiríks saga rauða reports that King Ólafr gave to Leifr Eiríkson two enslaved "skozk[ir] menn" (Scotsmen)32 to assist with the Christianization of Greenland. Leifr and Eiríkr inn rauði entrusted these thralls to Þorfinnr Karlsefni sometime before his voyage to Vínland so that he "might find aid in their swiftness."33 .  These two individuals, a man and a woman named Haki and Hekja, are described as being "dýrum skjótari," faster than animals.34 The two are distinguished in Eiríks saga rauða by their odd clothing, which Haki and Hekja refer to as kjafal,35 perhaps a corrupted Norse recollection of the Middle Irish Gaelic term gioball, meaning garment.36 The detailed discussion of the two skozkir menn's clothing emphasizes the cultural difference between the Norsemen and their Celtic slaves. 

     The names given to the two Celts are masculine and feminine variations of the same name,  suggesting that these were not individual names at all, but stock characters whose individual identities were unimportant.37  In fact, the masculine name Haki, might well be nothing more than the Old Norse word haki, a hook or tool, denoting an instrument of his master's will, a man whose animal-like swiftness makes him merely useful to Þorfinnr Karlsefni's expeditionary party.38  The two Celts make just a brief appearance in the saga: "Karlsefni and his company waited there a while, and when Haki and Hekja came back, one had wineberries in hand and the other self-sown wheat."39  Their task complete, they vanish from the story.

     Although not nearly as fully "othered" as the skrælingar, the Celts' animal-like utility, significantly sets them apart from a Norse/Icelandic audience.


     The two Celts do not appear in the Grœnlendinga saga. However, another character, a suðrmaðr (a "southern man"—a German) named Tyrkir, appears as a member of Leifr Eiríkson's expeditionary party. Unlike the Celtic thralls, Tyrkir seems to have joined Leifr's expedition of his own volition. Notably, of Leifr's thirty-five men, Tyrkir is the only one named.40 

     It emerges that Tyrkir shares a special bond with Leifr, who calls Tyrkir "fóstri minn" (my foster-father).41  This relationship situates Tyrkir's German identity far closer to Norseness than either the skrælingar or the Celtic slaves. It is a relationship of emotional concern: when Tyrkir goes missing, Leifr and his men set out, at some risk, to find him. Yet Tyrkir is not Norse, and the saga finds his difference worth describing: "Tykir was ugly and cockeyed, crooked in his face, short and stout, but a jack of all trades." 42  Tyrkir seems to embody negative physical forms that cause him, at least physically, to resemble the skrælingar. He is valued despite his physical appearance.

     In the Grœnlendinga saga, it is not the Celts (who are not mentioned) but Tyrkir who discovers the grapevines, while wandering alone, apparently lost.43 His recognition of grapes and their value places Tyrkir closer to enthralled Celts than to free Norse, who were unfamiliar with the vine. Like the Celts, Tyrkir is distinguished by physique, by useful skills, and by particular knowledge. Unlike them, of course, he is a free man in Leifr Eiríksson's circle of confidants.44

     When the search party finds Tyrkir, he speaks to them in his own native tongue, þýzka (German), confusing the Norsemen.45 There is no explanation for this temporary loss of his second language (does he become delirious while wandering Vínland? is he simply excited to have found grapevines?).  Regardless, the passage does emphasize his outsider status among the Norse.  For this reason, despite his close relationships to Leifr and Eiríkr and the considerable similarities between Norse and German cultural outlooks, Tyrkir becomes—like the Celts and the skrælingar—an "othered" figure. And, once he's served his purpose in the saga by identifying the grapevines (from whence Vínland likely acquired its name), he does not appear again by name in the saga literature. In fact, Tyrkir's very name leaves some reason to doubt that he actually existed. Even if Leifr had a German crew member who fit Tyrkir's description, the saga itself may well have conformed him to yet another ethnic stock character—perhaps a Turk, not (by birth, at least) a German.46

     Another German, an unnamed man from Bremen in Saxony,47 appears in the final chapter of Grœnlendinga saga, during Þorfinnr Karlsefni's return to Norway. In an interaction with Þorfinnr Karlsefni, this Mann ohne Eigenschaften (man without distinguishing characteristics) asks to purchase a hand-carved prow ornament from Þorfinnr Karlsefni. At first, Þorfinnr refuses to part with this memento from Vínland, but he ultimately decides to sell the object for half a golden mark.48 Afterward this unnamed Saxon from Bremen vanishes, and is never mentioned again in the literary corpus.  The nonchalance of this transaction and the simple description of the man as "suðmaðr einn, ættaðr af Brimum, ór Saxlandi" (a German, descended from Bremen, from Saxony) indicates that the Norse felt far less distance from Germans than from the skrælingar and the Celts. However, they did feel enough distance to identify the man as an outsider.

Supernatural Beings

     The sagas report two supernatural encounters in Vínland between the Norse and supernatural specters. While these stories obviously do not tell us much about tenth-century Norse encounters with the non-Norse, they can reveal something about the ways thirteenth-century Icelandic audiences understood and remembered those encounters.

     Vínland arguably represents a semi-mythologized land, inexplicably encountered far from the Norse world across an estranging ocean. As Aisling Byrne writes,

"[a]lthough otherworld descriptions are by no means 'realistic', their level of detail creates the illusion that what they are describing might actually exist… These accounts have a level of detail that we would associate with a mimesis of reality, but what they are ultimately conveying is a fantasy."49 Medieval narration, Byrne adds, was "constrained by no realism"— the precise truth is "unimportant.".50  This is a trait that the Vínland Sagas, share with other pre-modern travel literatures fantastical elements infuse naturalistic narrative , as when Historia Norwegiæ's attributes a number of supernatural traits to Greenland's screlinga, one of which affords them an imperviousness to attacks from physical weapons.51

The first encounter with the fantastical in Vínland appears in the Grænlendinga saga. While Þorfinnr Karlsefni and the others are bargaining for trade with visiting skrælingar. The woman Guðríðr Þorbjarnardóttir encounters a mysterious figure, who also happens to possess the name Guðríðr. This specter appears only to Guðriðr Þorbjarnardóttir, as she cradles her infant son, Snorri. She is clearly beyond any definition of Norseness, yet she shares Guðríðr's name. 52

     A second supernatural encounter appears in Eiríks saga rauða. Between encounters with skrælingar, Þorfinnr Karlsefni's men encounter a strange creature, which the saga refers to an "einfætingr" (a "one-footer," or uniped) who ultimately wounds Þorvaldr Eiríksson with an arrow that subsequently kills him.53 As when Guðríðr's encountered the spectral woman in Grænlendinga saga, Þorfinnr Karlsefni does not himself witness this event, which one his men recounts to him:

The men have chased,
all that is true,
a single uniped,
down to the shore,
a strange man
ran like a stream,
quickly over rough ground,
Listen, Karlsefni54

     What to make of these two episodes? The first does not serve any apparent narrative purpose within the sagas; the second "explains" Þorvaldr Eiríksson's death. Together, we can speculate that they place Vínland far outside the boundaries of what the Norse defined as civilizational norms, transforming Vínland itself into an "other-world." We might interpret Þorvaldr Eiríksson's last words, "Gott land hǫfum vér fengit kostum, en þó megum vér varla njóta" ("We have obtained good land on the coasts, although we can hardly enjoy it.")55 as an affirmation that Vínland lies far beyond the domain of Norse normalcy and why, in the thirteenth-century Icelandic imagination at least, successful settlement in Vínland is a Quixotic dream. In this context, the skrælingar are not just "the other" but a radical "other."

Norse Identity, the Ethnic Other, and the World History Classroom

Figure 3
  Figure 3: UNESCO Reconstruction of the L'Anse aux Meadows. Created by Rokker [pseudonym] on 2 August 2011.Distributed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.  

     The short-lived Norse settlement in Newfoundland appears in most world history textbooks as a brief prefatory note to the permanent conquest and the "Columbian Exchange" that began five hundred years later. In the sagas, these events occur on a distant periphery, distant both from the American civilizations of the Inca, Maya, and Aztec and from Medieval European civilization. In short, Vínland is easy to ignore.

     But students can learn a good deal from spending a day or two on passages from the Vínland sagas. Unfortunately, we possess no record of how the "skrælingar" integrated Norse incomers into their indigenous worldview. But the sagas provide fascinating (if fragmentary) evidence of the way the Norse saw the skrælingar. Discussing that evidence in a classroom can introduce the concepts of "alterity" or "otherness." Comparing passages in the sagas to comparable sources drawn from other encounters (between the Dutch and Japanese, Kongo and Portugal, Mexicans and Spanish, Chinese and Indian, etc.), students can consider the ways in which societies defined themselves by enumerating their differences from newly encountered peoples.

     What makes the sagas particularly compelling in this regard is their temporal distance from the actual events. Icelandic settlers arrived in both Greenland and in Vínland almost exactly at the moment that Iceland's elites repudiated the old gods in favor of Christianity. By the time the settlement story appeared in the form we now read it, the audience for that story was much more thoroughly Christianized. Without repudiating their forbearers' paganism, Iceland's Christians sought to read Christian and Icelandic cultural values back into events that had occurred a century and more in the past. In this sense, the Vínland sagas are roughly analogous to modern historical films, which often reveal as much about contemporary concerns as they do about the past itself. In short, the Vínland sagas can remind students that there's a difference between "the past" as it existed and the "collective memory"—the history—that later condensed around events generations before.

     This raises yet another issue, of particular interest to students in Advanced Placement or introductory college courses: what, exactly is a "primary source"? The Vínland sagas are undoubtedly primary sources—but for what, exactly? For eleventh-century events in Greenland and Newfoundland? For thirteenth-century Icelandic culture? For the development of a literary/performance genre? Students can listen to similar sagas, both online and on CDs, still available commercially.56

     Further, the sagas introduce to students the ideas of "othering" of unfamiliar peoples. This "othering" is common among many peoples but was in effect weaponized as European powers seized commercial and territorial control of much of the world. Its contemporary legacies are, of course, legion. Were conflicts between Europeans and indigenous Americans somehow predetermined? Do the sagas hint at other possible outcomes?

     These are topics for conversation, not for hard conclusions. It would be highly imprudent to draw too many hard judgments from the tentative trade and ultimate conflict between Norse settlements and Vínland's skrælingar. It is possible, even likely, that the venture in Vínland collapsed due to the harshness of the climate: Newfoundland, unlike Iceland, was not warmed by Gulf Stream waters, and its winters were often harsher. The "Little Ice Age" that lengthened European winters beginning in the fifteenth century seems to have made Norse settlements in Greenland unsustainable. A bad winter in Newfoundland would have done the same.

     Nevertheless, the encounter in Vínland offers considerable opportunity for rich discussion and speculation, well worth a detour during a world history course.

Hayden Eric Godfrey received his undergraduate B.A. in History and German Language and Literature at the University of California, Berkeley and his M.A. in Scandinavian Studies with a concentration in Germanic Philology from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is currently pursuing a PhD in the same field. Among the hats that he wears, Hayden has been employed as the assistant to the editors for the Scandinavian Studies journal, instructor of record in German at the University of Arizona and the German School of Madison, and instructor of record in Swedish at the University of Wisconsin. He can be reached at


1 The Vínland sagas are generally considered historically reliable documents in academic discussions on the subject, although it has been acknowledged that the more fantastic accounts found in Eiríks saga rauða are the product of pure fabrication. Kirsten Wolf, "Amazons in Vínland," The Journal of English and Germanic Philology 95, no. 4 (1996): 469–85. Wolf, on the subject of the reliability of either saga, describes that Grœnlendinga saga is the more reliable of the two in the portrayal of the accounts which they contain, even discussing that scholarship generally regards Eiríks saga rauða as an intentional reworking of Grœnlendinga saga (472–5). Both sagas, each possessing a terminus post quem of c.1250, contain separate accounts of encounters with skrælingar during the Norse expeditions to Vínland. Kirsten Wolf, on the subject of the reliability of either saga, describes that Grœnlendinga saga is the more reliable of the two in the portrayal of the accounts which they contain, even discussing that scholarship generally regards Eiríks saga rauða as an intentional reworking of Grœnlendinga saga.

2 Throughout this essay, I preserve the Icelandic spelling of proper names, usually without transliteration. Reading these names requires knowledge of two letters which appear in Old Norse and Icelandic (as well as in Old English manuscripts) but have not survived into modern English orthography: Þ ("thorn," pronounced as a soft "th" as in "think") and ð ("eth," a letter which has no exact equivalent in English, but is closer to the harder "th" of "that").

3 Skræling (plural, Skrælingar) is the nominative form [dictionary form] of an exonym, attested in the Old Norse literary corpus, excluding the Latin corpora.  They first appear in Íslendingabók, and are later more thoroughly depicted in Grænlendinga saga and Eiríks saga rauða

4 As shared group identity gels, so does alterity or otherness, contrasting in-group characteristics with those of out-groups. Doris Bachmann-Medick, "Alterity—A Category of Practice and Analysis. Preliminary Remarks," On Culture: The Open Journal for the Study of Culture, no. 4 (2017): 1–12. Bachmann-Medick writes: "We face various portrayed alterities and aliens as they are incorporated into a mostly one-sided practice of media representation. Fostered by the formation of stereotypes, this mode of representation was apt to shape the construction of national identity against the foil of the Other…. '[A]lterity' can be seen as a driving force laden with images, imaginations, feelings, and anxieties that individually might be perceived as threads to identity" (6).

5 Richard Kearney, Strangers, Gods and Monsters: Interpreting Otherness (London: Routledge, 2005), 3.

6 Michael Uebel. Ecstatic Transformation: On the Uses of Alterity in the Middle Ages (Springer 2016), 1–7. In the introductory chapter to his monograph on alterity in the medieval context, Uebel discusses the manifold usages of alterity in medieval literature, with both positive and negative associations – this particular usage being a negative that defines the self against the other.

7 The precise dates of inhabitance are subject to much scholarly debate. Annette Kolodny, "Cultures in Collision," Scandinavian Review 99, no. 2 (2012): 42–54. Kolodny writes, "The earliest inhabitants of North American and the probable ancestors appear to have arrived in several waves of migration, apparently from both land and sea, beginning as early as 20,000 years ago and perhaps even earlier" (44).

8 Masae's maps are based on: Hans Christian Gulløv, ed., Grønlands forhistorie (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 2005), National Museum of Natural History, Arctic Studies Center.

9Kirsten A. Seaver, "'Pygmies' of the Far North," Journal of World History 19, no. 1 (2008): 63–87. Seaver, "in particular, argues that "[t]his situation owes much to the fact that modern scholars grappling with the expression Skræling(j)ar encounter problems that, like so much else concerning the vanished Greenland colony, are rooted in nineteenth-century assumptions based on inadequate or wrong information" (63–4).

10 Adam von Bremen, Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum, ed. Anonymous (Hannover: Impensis Bibliopolii Hahniani, 1876); Historia Norwegiæ, ed. by Inger Ekrem and Lars Boje Mortensen; trans. Peter Fischer (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 2003).

11 Two possible noun forms, skrælingr and skrælingi, have no attested cognates in any Germanic language.

12 Gabriel Turville-Petre, "Notes on the Intellectual History of the Icelanders," History 27, no. 106 (1942): 111–23. "It is known that Ari wrote several works, and that he wrote in Icelandic. Snorri, in his Prologue to Heimskringla, states that Ari was the first Icelander to write in the vernacular, though it seems likely, from Ari's own statements, that some of the laws were written in Icelandic before his own works. This is no place to discuss the vexed question of what Ari wrote. It is known that he wrote a Liber Islandorum and a Libellus Islandorum, the second of which survives" (113).

13 Íslendingabók, Landnámabók, ed. Jakob Benediktsson (Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1986), 14–15. "Land þat, es kallat es Grænland, fannsk ok byggðisk af Íslandi. Eiríkr enn rauði hét maðr breiðfirzkr, es fór út heðan þangat ok nam þar land, es siðan es kallaðr Eiríksfjǫrðr. Hann gaf namn landinu ok kallaði Grœnland ok kvað men þat myndu fýsa þangat farar, at landit ætti nafn gótt. Þeir fundu þar manna vistir bæði austr ok vestr á landi ok keiplabrot ok steinsmiði es af því má skilja, at þar hafði þess konar þjóð farit, es Vínland hefir byggt ok Grœnlendingar kallar Skrælingar. En þat vas, es hann tók byggva landit fjórtán vetrum eða fimmtán fyrr en kristni kvæmi hér á Ísland, at því es sá talði fyrir Þorkeli Gellissyni á Grœnlandi, es sjalfr fylgði Eiríki enum rauða út." (Translations from the Icelandic are by the author).

14 Anthony Faulkes, ed., A New Introduction to Old Norse. Part II: Reader (University College London, 2000), 117.

15 Hans Christian Gulløv et al., "Nye mennesker fra vest og øst: 700–1300," in Grønlands Forhistorie, 175–200 (Copenhagen: Gyldendal, 2014). For Dorset settlement, see the Figure 1, appendix, 214. Faulkes, A New Introduction to Old Norse, 117. Faulks writes that "[w]hile there is archaeological evidence to suggest that there may have been contacts between Scandinavians and Dorset-Inuits in Newfoundland, we have no need to assume that in using the word Skrælingar here Ari is referring specifically to Dorset-Inuits. The word seems to have been applied indiscriminately by medieval Scandinavians to any non-Scandinavian people they encountered in Greenland or North America. Moreover, it is perfectly possible that the Scandinavians had not met with the Inuit in Greenland at the time from which Ari has his information; the Thule-Inuit (ancestors of the Inuit of modern Greenland) probably did not enter the northern part of the country from the Canadian islands until about AD 1100 at the earliest.".

16 Robert W. Park, "Anthropology. Stories of Arctic Colonization," Science 345, no. 6200 (2014): 1005.

17 See Landnámabók, 41: "Þeir Flóki sigldu vestr yfir Breiðafjǫrð ok tóku þar land, sem heitir Vatnsfjǫrðr við Barðastrǫnd. Þá var fjǫrðrinn fullr af veiðiskap, ok gáðu þeir eigi fyrir veiðum at fá heyjanna, ok dó allt kvikfé þeira um vetrinn. Vár var heldr kalt. Þá gekk Flóki upp á fjall eitt hátt ok sá norðr yfir fjǫllin fjǫrð fullan af hafísum. Því kǫlluðu þeir landit Ísland, sem þat hefir síðan heitit." ("Flóki and his men sailed westward through Breiðafjörðr and took land there, which is called Vatnsfjörðr and Barðaströnd. The fjord was filled with ample fish, but they were not able to to collect hay for their livestock, which all died over winter before a rather cold spring. Flóki then went up a tall mountain and looked to the northward over the mountains to see a fjord full of Icebergs. They called this land Iceland because of this, which it has been called ever since.")

18 See the Nynorskordboka, s.v. "skral," Språkrådet at Universitetet i Bergen, accessed 26 October 2018, s.v. "skral," for more on this. There are other, if there had been an endemic North Germanic cognate in Old Norse, there would have had to have been a long [ā] present in the root in order for the regressive i-mutation of [ā] to [æ], a form of linguistic vowel change, to have taken place in the derivation that would have become skrælingr/skrælingi, which is not suggested by the short vowel in the word skral. In order for this term to function as the origin of skrælingi, it would have to be manifested as *skrål in modern Norwegian, if attempting to derive from an unattested Old Norse *skráll. But regardless of phonetic arguments for the validity of the term, its origin of the term as a derivation from an adjective meaning "of poor quality" would illustrate a fundamentally pejorative meaning of the term versus that of a descriptive origin.

19 See Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. "Scrawny,"Accessed 26 October 2018,

20 Seaver, "'Pygmies' of the Far North," 71.

21 F.H.H. Kortlandt, "The Germanic Fourth Class of Weak Verbs," NOWELE: North-Western European Language Evolution 25 (1995): 137–38. Kortlandt provides an outline and description of the origins and obsolescence of class IV weak verbs in Proto-Germanic and its daughter branches. Vladimir E. Orel, A Handbook of Germanic Etymology. (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2003), 327. This etymology already depicts the root vowel [æ] (as in the vowel in the English word "hat") in an already shifted form, likely inherited from a Proto-Germanic [ē], a conclusion is drawn via analogy to the vowel in the adjective sæll [happy], which descends from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic *sēliz (Orel, 327) and accompanied by the verbal ending -na, which is the typical fossilized verbal ending of relict Germanic class IV weak verbs as they appear in Old Norse.  Although this fossilized class of verbs collapsed into class II weak verbs in North Germanic, they were however still preserved in the now extinct East Germanic languages, with the semantics of meaning "to become of a certain quality." 

22 H.G.A Van der Voort., Hakon Jahr, E., Broch, I., and Faculteit der Letteren, "Eskimo Pidgin in

West Greenland," Language Contact in the Arctic: Northern Pidgins and Contact Languages (1996): 233.

23 The modern Nynorsk form, using phonetic laws of sound shifts between Old Norse and its daughter languages on the Scandinavian mainland, would have to be derived from an original *skrála, indicating a long [ā] in the root, which would then be susceptible to i-mutation to the vowel [æ] that we find in the term skrælingar. Due to the lack of gemination of the phoneme [l], this etymology would suggest a weak origin with the suffixation of -ingi as the nominal ending.

24 Michael Fortescue, Comparative Eskimo Dictionary with Aleut Cognates (Alaska Native

Language Center, University of Alaska at Fairbanks, 1994), 153.This etymology is given in Fortescue's Comparative Eskimo Dictionary with Aleut Cognates while outlining a suggested etymology of Greenlandic kalaaleq [Greenlander], regardless of skrælingar's likely original usage to refer to the aboriginal inhabitants of Vínland in the saga materials. Given the phonetic processes that would occur before the weak suffix -ingi or the strong suffix -lingr, which would trigger i-mutation of [ā] to [æ] in Old Norse, this form fits all categories for the sound changes to make sense in the context of the origin of the name,

25 Eiríks saga rauða and Groenlendinga saga, in Eyrbyggja saga, Brands þáttr ǫrva, Eiríks saga rauða, Groenlendinga saga, Groenlendinga þáttr, ed. Einar Ól. Sveinsson and Matthías Þórd́arson (Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1935), 196–269. "…ok [þeir] fundu fimm Skrælinga í skinnhjupum, sofnaða, nær sjó" (230). "And they found five Skrælings in huts made from hide, sleeping near the sea.") Consistent with all the available evidence, this may well be the genuine etymology of skrælingar in its original usage, whether in its strong or weak variation, although the presence of the [l] in the word suggests a genesis from the strong suffixation, despite the prevalence of Modern Icelandic skrælingi. This might simply illustrate an example of convergence between the two variations that we find in the Norse sources and Modern Icelandic or spontaneous morphological leveling into another noun class. [There is no equivalent in English that can be used to explain. These are specific to Old Norse/Icelandic and are used in more advanced discussions in linguistic theory. These can be described as being traits unique to Old Icelandic. If too cumbersome, this information can perhaps be excluded.]

26 Joseph Harris, "Saga as Historical Novel," in Speak Useful Words or Say Nothing (Cornell University Library, 2008): 227–60.

27 Harris, "Saga as Historical Novel," 234.

28 Eiríks saga rauða, 233–4.

29 Ibid., 234.

30 The saga gives the names of the parents of the parents of the captured skrælingar, as Vethildi and Óvægi, which conform to North Germanic naming conventions, complete with [i]-umlaut [Vowel mutation inherent to old Germanic languages, which gives us forms such as Modern English "foot" and "feet" or "mouse" and "mice"] in the father's name.  These metalinguistic artifacts cast doubt on the veracity that of this and other stories depicting events which, by the time the saga manuscripts were written, were already over a century in the past.

31 Grænlendinga saga, 236

32 In Eiríks saga rauða, the phrase is framed and declined in the accusative plural as "menn skozka," but the terms have been de-declined into their nominative plural forms for the sake of consistency. [Returned to their "dictionary entry" forms. Old Norse has a number of grammatical inflections at the ends of words that are not intuitive to an English speaker which indicate a word's role in the sentence where English would use prepositions]

33 Ibid., 223

34 Ibid., 233.

35 Ibid., 223. "Þau [Haki ok Hekja] hǫfðu þat klæði, er þau kǫlluðu kjafal. Þat var svá gert, at hǫttr var á upp ok opit at hliðunum ok engar ermar á ok kneppt saman milli fóta með knappi ok nezlu, en ber váru þau annars staðar." ("They had that clothing, which they called 'kjafal.' It was made such, that there was a hood and it was open at the sides with no arms and buttoned together between the legs with buttons and threat, which they had worn elsewhere.")

36 Andrew Breeze, "An Irish Etymology for kjafal 'Hooded Cloak' in Þorfinns saga," Arkiv för nordisk filologi 113 (1998): 6. "There are three reasons for taking kjafal as a corruption of Middle Irish cochall. The words are tolerably close, the Norse labial fricative [f] presumably being substituted for the Irish unvoiced velar fricative [x], since in Norse of this period [x] no longer existed except internally before s or t, or at the beginning of words. Second, cochall is a common word, which might easily become across. Third, the description of the kjafal as having a hood, but going down to leg-height, corresponds to descriptions of the cochall."

37 See Einar Haugen, Scandinavian Language Structures: A Comparative Historical Survey (Tübingen: M. Niemeyer, 1982), 40–54. Both present the [i]-mutation of [a] > [e] before [j] in the secondary syllable in the feminine variation, as the [i] found in Haki's name serves as the marker for the masculine weak declension in the nominative, which would not trigger i-mutation, unlike the [j] present in Hekja's name, which is not a component of a declensional ending, but rather a morphological infix. See the Einar Haugen's description of phonetic processes of Old Norse in regard to vowel mutations, in particular before [i/j] in a subsequent syllable (46–47).

38 See entry in Sverrir Hólmarsson, Íslensk-Ensk Orðabók (Reykjávik: Iðunn, 1989), s.v. "Hak/-i m. (-a, -ar): pick, hook."

39 Eiríks saga rauða, 223 "Þeir [Karlsefni ok aðrir menn] biðuðu þar þá stund. En er þau [Haki ok Hekja] kómu aptr, hafði annat í hendi vínberjakǫngul, en annat hveitiax sjálfsáit."

40 Grænlendinga saga, 249 "Fór Eiríkr heim í Brattahlíð, en Leifr rézk tik skips ok félagar hans með honum, hálfr fjórði tøgr manna. Þar var suðrmaðr einn í ferð, er Tyrkir hét."

41 Ibid., 252. In direct speech with Tyrkir: "'Mun þat satt, fóstri minn?' kvað Leifr" [Is that true, my foster?]

42 Ibid. "Hann [Tyrkir] var brattleitr ok lauseygr, smáskitligr í andliti, lítill vexti ok vesalligr, en íþróttamaðr á alls konar hagleik."

43 Ibid. "'Ek var genginn eigi miklu lengra en þit. Kann ek nǫkkur nymæli at segja; ek fann vínvið ok vínber… at vísu er þat satt… því at ek var þar fœddr, er hvárki skorti vínvið né vínber" ("I had not gone any farther than that. I can tell of some news, however: I found grapevines and grapes, which is apparently true by sight, because I was born where there was a shortage of neither grapevines or grapes.").

44 Ibid. "Á einhverju kveldi bar þat til tíðenda, at manns var vant af liði þeira, ok var þat Tyrkir Suðrmaðr. Leifr kunni því stórilla, því at Tyrkir hafði lengi verit með þeim feðgum, ok elskat mjǫk Leif í barnæsku. Taldi Leifr nú mjǫk á hendr fǫrunautum sínum ok bjóst til ferðar at leita hans ok tólf menn með honum." ("One evening came the news, that one was missing from their company, and that was Tyrkir the Southman. Leifr could not bear it, because Tyrkir had been with him and his parents for a while and loved Leifr much during his childhood. Leifr now told more an account of his kinsman and went to look for him with twelve other men.")

45 Ibid. "Þá mælti Leifr til hans: 'Hví varstu svá seinn, fóstri minn, ok fráskili fǫruneytinu?' Hann talaði þá fyrst lengi á þýzku ok skaut marga vega augunum ok gretti sik. En þeir skilðu eigi, hvat er hann sagði. Hann mælti þá á norrænu, er stund leið…" "Then Leifr spoke to him: 'Why were you gone so long, my foster father? He spoke then at first for a while in German and made many gestures while speaking, but none understood what he said. He then spoke in Norse while time passed."

46 Halldór Hermannsson, "Tyrkir, Leif Erikson's Foster-Father," Modern Language Notes 69, no. 6 (1954): 391. There is no other historical record of the name "Tyrkir," either in Norse or German sources. There are also morphological reasons to question its historicity. The name appears with the anachronistic phoneme [y], absent from any form of German until the Middle High German period, centuries after the events depicted in the Grœnlendinga saga, when the secondary umlaut of [u] > [y] before [i/j] in the subsequent syllable [If found more suitable, it can simply be stated that the name Tyrkir is anachronistic for a German as found in the saga on linguistic grounds.]. Herbert Penzl, "Umlaut and Secondary Umlaut in Old High German." Language 25, no. 3 (1949): 230. As Penzel notes, "In Old High German, orthographic evidence for the completion of the sound-change giving rise to umlaut phonemes is scarce for all vowels except a. Upper German orthography around the year 1000 [the upper boundaries of what may define early Middle High German], however, provides evidence also for the umlaut of u and iu." For a possible derivation from "Turk," note the entry in Íslensk-Engsk Órðabók 1989: "Tyrk/-i m. (-ja, -ir): Turk." These vowel mutations did not infiltrate into more northern varieties of German until later centuries. One possible solution: the name Tyrkir might be a liberal adaptation of the Old Norse tyrki, meaning Turk, which, well before the Ottoman Empire's ascendance, some in the saga's Iceland audience would have understood as dispersed peoples just beyond the fringes of Christian Europe. Calling the man "Tyrkir" would have lumping Germans and Turks together as inhabitants of the broader world outside of Norseness.

47Grænlendinga saga, 268. "Nú er at segja frá því, er Karlsefni býr skip sitt ok sigldi í haf. Honum fórst vel ok kom til Nóregs með heilu ok hǫldnu ok sat þar um vetrinn ok seldi varning sinn ok hafði þar gott yfirlæti ok þau bæði hjón af inum gǫfgustum mǫnnum í Nóregi, en um várit eftir bjó hann skip sitt til Íslands. Ok er hann var albúinn ok skip hans lá til byrjar fyrir bryggjunum, þá kom þar at honum Suðrmaðr einn, ættaðr af Brimum ór Saxlandi. Hann falar at Karlsefni húsasnotru hans." ("Now it is said that Karsefni took his ship and sailed with his man to the east to Norway, after having resided for a winter in Iceland. When he was ready, and his ship was prepared to leave, he then met a German either from Bremen or Saxony. He wished to buy Karselfni's figurehead").

48 Ibid. "'Ek vil eigi selja,' sagði hann. 'Ek mun gefa þér við hálfa mǫrk gulls,' segir Suðrmaðr. Karlsefni þótti vel við boðit, ok keyptu síðan. Fór Suðrmaðr í burt með húsasnotruna, en Karlsefni vissi eigi, hvat tré var. En þat var mǫsurr, kominn af Vínlandi" ("'I don't want to sell,' he said. 'I would give you half a piece of gold,' said the German. Karselfni thought about it for a while before making the deal. The German left with the figurehead, but Karlsefni did not know what kind of wood it was, but it was one that had come from Vinland.")

49 Aisling Byrne, Otherworlds: Fantasy and History in Medieval Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 31.

50 Ibid. Byrne derives his argument from Roland Barthes' concept of the "reality effect." Roland Barthes, The Rustle of Language (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989), 143–4. Here is Barthes: "First of all. we must recall that Western culture. in one of its major currents, has certainly not left description outside meaning. and has furnished it with a finality quite 'recognized' by the literary institution. This current is Rhetoric, and this finality is that of the 'beautiful': description has long had an aesthetic function. Very early in antiquity, to the two expressly functional genres of discourse, legal and political. was added a third, the epideictic, a ceremonial discourse intended to excite the admiration of the audience (and no longer to persuade it); this discourse contained in germ-whatever the ritual rules of its use: eulogy or obituary-the very idea of an aesthetic finality of language; in the Alexandrian neo-rhetoric of the second century A.D., there was a craze for ecphrasis, the detachable set piece (thus having its end in itself, independent of any general function), whose object was to describe places, times, people, or works of art, a tradition which was maintained throughout the Middle Ages. As Curtius has emphasized, description in this period is constrained by no realism; its truth is unimportant (or even its verisimilitude); there is no hesitation to put lions or olive trees in a northern country; only the constraint of the descriptive genre counts; plausibility is not referential here but openly discursive: it is the generic rules of discourse which lay down the law" (Barthes 1989, 143–4).

51 See, for instance, Grænlendinga saga, 263.

52 Ibid., 262–3 "Ok er þeir sá þat, þá kǫstuðu þeir bǫggunum sínum inn yfir skíðgarðinn. En Guðríðr sat í durum inni með vǫggu Snorra, sonar síns. Þá bar skugga í dyrrin, ok gekk þar inn kona í svǫrtum námkyrtli, heldr lág, ok hafði dregil um hǫfuð ok ljósjǫrp á hár, fǫlleit ok mjǫk eygð, svá at eigi hafði jafnmikil augu sét í einum mannshausi. Hon gekk þar at, er Guðríðr sat, ok mælti: "Hvat heitir þú?" segir hon. 'Ek heiti Guðríðr, eða hvert er þitt heiti?' 'Ek heiti Guðríðr', segir hon. Þá rétti Guðríðr húsfreyja hǫnd sína til hennar, at hún sæti hjá henni, en þat bar allt saman, at þá heyrði Guðríðr brest mikinn, ok var þá konan horfin, ok í því var ok veginn einn Skrælingr af einum húskarli Karlsefnis, því at hann hafði viljat taka vápn þeira, ok fóru nú brott sem tíðast, en klæði þeira lágu þar eftir ok varningr. Engi maðr hafði konu þessa sét útan Guðríðr ein." [And when they saw these events, they cast their bows over the fences. Guðríðr remained inside by her infant son Snorri's. A shadow then crept through the doorway belonging to a rather short woman in a black mantle, wearing a headdress and possessed light brown hair, was pale and wide-eyed, such so that one had never seen such eyes on a person. She went to where Guðríðr sat and said: 'What's your name.' She responded: 'My name is Guðríðr, but what is your namesake?' She responded: "I am Guðríðr. The lady of the house gestured to the woman to sit next to her, but then it happened, that Guðríðr heard a large crash, and the woman then vanished, and at that moment a Skræling was killed by one of Karsefni's men, because the Skræling tried to take one of the weapons, causing them to run away as fast as possible while their clothing remained behind. Nobody had seen the strange woman except for Guðríðr.

53Eiríks saga rauða, 231–2. "Þat var einn morgin, er þeir Karlsefni sá fyrir ofan rjóðrit flekk nǫkkurn, sem glitraði við þeim, ok æpðu þeir á þat. Þat hrærðist, ok var þat einfætingr ok skauzt ofan á þann árbakkann, sem þeir lágu við. Þorvaldr Eiríksson rauða sat við stýri, ok skaut einfætingr ǫr í smáþarma honum. Þorvaldr dró út ǫrina ok mælti: 'Feitt er um ístruna. Gott land hǫfum vér fengit kostum, en þó megum vér varla njóta.' Þorvaldr dó af sári þessu litlu síðar. Þá hleypr einfætingr á braut ok suðr aftr. Þeir Karlsefni fóru eftir honum ok sá hann stundum. Þat sá þeir síðast til hans, at hann hljóp á vág nǫkkurn. Þá hurfu þeir Karlsefni aftr. Þá kvað einn maðr kviðling þenna: [verse redacted]. Þeir fóru þá í brott ok norðr aftr ok þóttust sjá Einfætingaland. Vildu þeir þá eigi hætta liði sínu lengra." It was one morning when Karlsefni and his men saw a fleck in the distance, which stood out from the background. They shouted out to it, but the uniped was frightened, and it ran off down the riverbank, by which they were camped. Þorvaldr, son of Erik the Red, set forth and he uniped him in his stomach. Þorvaldr drew out the arrow and said 'Fat is the paunch. We have obtained good land on the coasts, although we can hardly use it.' He died later from these wounds.The uniped then back to the south. Karlsefni and his men pursued it for a while, sometimes seeing it, but it disappeared in the distance."]

54 Ibid., 232. Eltu seggir,/allsatt vas þat,/einn einfæting/ofan til strandar,/en kynligr maðr/kostaði rásar/hart of stopir./Heyr, Karlsefni.

55 Ibid., 231–2. 'Gott land hǫfum vér fengit kostum, en þó megum vér varla njóta.' ['We have obtained good land on the coasts, although we can hardly use it.']

56 Students might listen to performance of the sagas. Listen, for instance, to the "Edda: Myths from Medieval Iceland," from Sequentia (RCA, 1999). Another recording worth a few minutes in the classroom is Steindór Andersen's "Rímur: A Collection From Steindór Andersen" (Naxos World). Andersen's work is available online at

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