Saga Video

No surviving medieval sagas tell of the end of the Norse settlement in Greenland. However, works about the initial settlement and trade with Norway provide glimpses of the vibrant community in Greenland, as well as some of the difficulties they faced as a small population, far from their European brethren. Most of the information in sagas and other literature focuses on daily life but not on the final fate of these remote settlers. 19th century folktales from Inuit oral tradition suggest that battles between Norse and Inuit as well as European pirates attacks spelled the end for the Greenland colonies but these tales cannot be verified and may be unreliable.

Erik the Red
Erik the Red in Armor

The Saga of Erik the Red starts the colony off with high hopes. The saga tells us that when Erik the Red came to the deep grass-fringed fjords of southwest Greenland and a second region 200 miles to the north, he took for his own the best land in what became known as the Eastern Settlement. Erik built a house at Brattahlid and returned to Iceland at the end of his three-year exile to encourage others to join him in this new land.

Once the colonies were in place, merchants like Thorfinn Karlsefni, an Icelandic trader, began sailing to Greenland to trade timber and other European products for Greenlandic goods, and Greenlanders like Leif Eriksson were sailing to Norway to present prestige goods to king Olaf Tryggvason, who asked him to bring Christianity to the new colonies. The Tale of the Greenlanders relays that the Greenlanders were also a devoutly Christian people. Sokki Thorisson gathered support in Greenland, and then traveled to Norway to beseech the king to appoint a bishop to Greenland. The church, in addition to trade, helped strengthen the ties between the Greenland Norse and Norway.

Arne Emil Christensen on Navigation

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However, the sagas emphasize that getting to Greenland was a difficult prospect. Of the twenty-five vessels that set sail from Iceland with Erik, only fourteen arrived safely in Greenland. The lack of navigation instruments and the stormy, ice-filled seas made even routine voyages unpredictable, which sometimes led to the discovery of new lands. According to The Saga of Eric the Red, Greenland was first sighted when a sailor named Gunnbjorn was blown westward and sighted high mountains and low rocky skerries in ice-strewn seas while hunting walrus west of Iceland. A similar tale is told of Bjarni Herjolfsson, a successful trader whose father Herjolf had moved to Greenland with Erik. According to The Saga of the Greenlanders, when Bjarni set off to Greenland to visit his father, he said, "Our journey will be thought an ill-considered one, since none of us has sailed the Greenland Sea". His premonition proved correct; he, too, was blown off course and ended up sighting North America.
RealAudio Listen to the Saga account of Bjarni's voyage (RealAudio).

Two centuries later, another literary source paints a similar picture of the difficulties in voyaging to Greenland.

It happens in Greenland...that all that is taken there from other countries is costly there, because the country lies so far from other countries that people rarely travel there. Every item, with which they might help the country, they must buy from other countries, both iron and all the timber with which they build houses. People export these goods from there: goatskins, ox-hides, sealskins and the rope...which they cut out of the fish called walrus and which is called skin rope, and their tusks...The people have been christened, and have both churches and priests.... (King's Mirror, Hellevik 1976)

The King's Mirror, written in the early 13th century as "hand-book" in the form of a father's advice to his young son, contains the description of Greenland quoted above. Although suffering some economic hardship due to its remote location and the hazards of navigation, it is clear that Greenland was considered part of the Norse European world - hard to get to, but Christian, and having products that were highly valued in Europe. In addition to those described in King's Mirror, other prestige items included falcons, narwhale tusks (then thought to be unicorn horns), feathers, and polar bear skins.

Inuit Oral Traditions

Skraelings & Vikings

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When Danish missionaries realized in the 18th and 19th century that the farms and churches of southwestern Greenland were abandoned and Inuit hunters were living among the old Norse settlements, they asked the Inuit Greenlanders if they knew what had become of the Norse. The stories the Inuit told were gathered together by H.J. Rink in 1858, and were richly illustrated by Aron of Kangeq, an Inuit artist. Their tales speak of both friendly and hostile contacts with the people they called Kablunat, presumably the Norse.

One of these folktales tells how the Inuit and Norse lived together peacefully, until a misunderstanding arose. Norsemen killed the Inuit, and the Inuit retaliated by killing the Norsemen. To historians in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Inuit aggression was the most likely cause for the disappearance of the Greenland Norse. Another tale references strange, large ships suddenly appearing in the fjords. The Inuit hid from these ships, but the Norsemen living on farms could not hide, and were attacked by the strangers. Many have interpreted this tale to mean pirates, perhaps from Portugal, killed off the Greenland Norse.