October 9: Leif Erikson Day
Leif Erikson Day and America’s European Heritage
E. R. E. Knutsson
October 9, 2009
Joseph F. Healey has pointed out that White ethnic identities are evolving into new shapes and forms, merging the various “hyphenated” ethnic identities into a single, generalized “European American” identity based on race and a common history of immigration and assimilation. In the light of the fact that virtually every minority group has generated a protest movement (Black Power, Red Power, Chicanismo, etc.), proclaiming a recommitment to its own heritage and to the authenticity of its own culture, European Americans also need some space to express their ethnic heritage. St. Patrick’s Day, Columbus Day, and Leif Erikson Day are festive occasions that White Americans should seize in order to honor their rich history and heritage.
In all societies with a history of migrations, the question “who came first?”
we remember that son of Iceland and grandson of Norway for his journey to North America, and we celebrate the influential role Nordic Americans have played in our society. Leif Erikson was among the world's greatest and most daring explorers. More than 1,000 years ago, he led a crew across the Atlantic to North America. … America is grateful for the many contributions of Nordic Americans, and we continue to draw inspiration from the courage and optimism of the adventurous Leif Erikson.
The discovery of new lands in the West by the Northmen came about in the course of the great Scandinavian exodus of the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries when Vikings “swarmed over all Europe,” conquering kingdoms, founding colonies and empires. In these centuries waterborne Vikings exploded out of their native lands to trade, raid, and settle all the way “from the Pillars of Hercules to the Ural Mountains.” The main stream of Norsemen took a westerly course, striking Great Britain, Ireland and the Western Isles, and ultimately reached Iceland (in 874a.d.), Greenland (in 985) and North America (in 1000).
Leif Erikson’s father,
Erik the Red,
was the founder of the first European settlement on
The second of three sons of Erik the Red, Leif
Erikson (d. 1025) sailed from Greenland to Norway in the year 999 AD, and was
there converted to Christianity by the Norwegian king
and Leif “the Lucky” Erikson
joined the king’s
body-guard. The following year Leif was commissioned by Olaf to urge
Christianity upon the
According to the “Saga of the Greenlanders” in the
Leif learned of Vinland from the Icelander
who 14 years earlier had become the first European to sight mainland America
when his Greenland-bound ship was blown westward off course. He apparently
sailed along the Atlantic coastline of eastern
In 1003 Leif's brother Thorvald led an
Thorfinn Karlsefni’s wife
(the widow of Leif’s brother Thorstein) gave birth to their son, Snorri (born c.
1005) - the first European in recorded history to be born on the North American
mainland. By the time they had stayed there three years, the colonists' trade
with the local Native Americans had turned to warfare, and so the colonists
A few years later, Leif Erikson’s sister Freydis led an
expedition to Vinland
and soon afterward returned to
The Norsemen's name for the land they discovered, Vinland, means “Wine Land.” A German crewman on board Leif Erikson’s ship is said to have been the first to associate the new land with wine:
In the beginning Tyrker spoke for some time in German, rolling his eyes, and grinning, and they could not understand him; but after a time he addressed them in the Northern tongue: "I did not go much further [than you] and yet I have something of novelty to relate. I have found vines and grapes." "Is this indeed true, foster-father?" said Leif. "Of a certainty it is true," quoth he, "for I was born where there is no lack of either grapes or vines."
Thorfinn Karlsefni also reported that he found “wine berries” growing there, and these were later interpreted to mean grapes, though the Norsemen referred to any berry as a “wine berry,” and it is probable that they had actually come upon cranberries. The Vinland name entered the literature of continental Europe, almost certainly first in 1075 through the History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen written by Adam von Bremen. Adam mentioned Vinland on the authority of King Sweyn II Estridsen of Denmark, who told of Iceland, Greenland, and other lands of the northern Atlantic known to the Scandinavians. Adam says of King Sweyn:
He [the king of the Danes] spoke also of yet another island of the many found in that ocean [where Greenland lies]. It is called Vinland because vines producing excellent wine grow wild there. That unsown crops also abound on that island we have ascertained not from fabulous reports but from the trustworthy relation of the Danes. Beyond that island, he said, no habitable land is found in that ocean, but every place beyond it is full of impenetrable ice and intense darkness.
Despite the failure of their efforts to establish a
permanent presence in North America, the Norse did make later visits to Vinland
to secure materials, and stray finds have turned up in the excavation of native
American sites, including a late eleventh-century Norwegian coin found on the
central Maine coast (the coin was minted in Norway between 1065 and 1080 during
the reign of
King Olaf Kyrre). An Icelandic chronicle,
Skßlholtsannßll (1347), makes
reference to a
has been suggested that Christopher Columbus himself spent some time sailing in
Contrary to popular beliefs, the European world (or the
concept of Europe)
— with its division of powers, its plurality of small,
autonomous and competing nation states linked by a common history, religion and
elite language (Latin), maintaining a sophisticated but unstable order of power
balance — is to a large extent a medieval creation. Historians
like Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre pointed out that “Europe arose when the Roman
Empire crumbled”, and that “
Medieval Expansion: The Discovery of Vinland and the Birth of Europe
The medieval expansion of European “Lebensraum” can be seen in Viking colonization of the islands of the North Atlantic, even establishing footholds in the New World, in their Norman offshoot’s march eastward to create Western European states in the eastern Mediterranean, and in the settlement of Frankish (German) and Dutch colonists in Eastern Europe that gathered momentum from the eleventh century onwards. In this period, the northern and western isles of Britain, northern Scotland, and the North Atlantic isles (the so-called insular Viking zone) became part of what Peter Heather has called “a Scandinavian commonwealth.”
Christian Krogh (1893): Leif Erikson
sights land in
During the Viking Age (roughly 800–1100), the Vikings played a decisive role in the development of much of Western and Eastern Europe. War was a means of social engineering in a world that lacked rigid social hierarchies. It was, in the words of Clifford R. Backman, a brutal sort of meritocracy. In the long run, this meant that the Germanic groups were led by men with talents for ferocity and ambition.
The Vikings attacked France 214 times; Great Britain and Ireland, 94 times; Spain, 9 times; Portugal, Morocco, Italy and Turkey, 6 times; and the Germanic lands, including the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg, 34 times. The geographical range of waterborne Viking activity was unprecedented, as John Haywood points out:
In the east the Vikings sailed down the great rivers of Russia to cross the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea to attack Constantinople and the Abbasid Caliphate. Vikings settled extensively in the British Isles, Normandy and, to a lesser extent, in Russia but they also pushed the limits of the known world, crossing the North Atlantic to settle in the uninhabited Faeroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland and to discover, but fail to settle, North America. Viking traders and hunters extended the limits of the known world even further, sailing far into the Arctic waters of the White Sea and exploring the west coast of Greenland as far north as Melville Bay in search of walrus ivory and hides.
The Viking expansion was all about ships, whose expense posed considerable limitations in terms of scale and access. Moving by land, as Heather points out, “early medieval populations could hope to manage maybe forty kilometers a day. Viking sailing ships, however, could cover four times that distance or more in twenty-four hours.”
Access to the relevant mode of transport — ships — was of critical importance to the Vikings, and ships were expensive. It was for this reason that colonization of the North Atlantic was led by aristocrats: Only they could afford the necessary ships.
As buoyant and flexible as a longship, but a good deal broader, the so-called knorr carried twenty tons and fifteen to twenty people, and with a good wind and a friendly sea it could sail at six knots, a respectable pace as recently as the Napoleonic Wars.
These vessels could carry horses, so that once they were beached the warriors could mount and ride across the countryside raiding. The vessels could also be transported across land on rollers, then put back into the water at a suitable point to continue on their journey. As Backman points out, a fully loaded Viking warship could sail in as little as four feet of water: “This made it possible to strike with lightning speed far inland, without warning, and then disappear just as quickly.” In this way the Vikings were able to cross the Russian countryside, hauling their ships overland between rivers and across watersheds. F. J. Byrne notes:
Ship-building was the craft that gave the Vikings their terrifying power and
enabled them to span a quarter of the globe with an ease unparalleled until
modern times. … The long sea-voyages, and especially the transatlantic
explorations, were made not in the famous longship (langskipr)
but in the rounder merchant vessel (knorr,
whence Irish cnairr), and mainly by
sail. … [I]t is estimated that the larger Viking ships carried crews of forty or
sixty men, while later, in the eleventh century, royal ships — such as those of
Cn˙t, or the Great Serpent of
Olaf Tryggvason — held a hundred men.
The Viking ships provided models for imitation elsewhere, as in the case of Alfred the Great’s langscipu — sometimes described as the first attempt to establish a Royal Navy. The skalds of King Cnut — who built a North Sea empire stretching from Dublin, via Scotland and Scandinavia, to the Baltic — advertised their prince’s ships as a symbol of power, a technological advance as revolutionary in the first decades of the eleventh century as ‘dreadnoughts’ were in the opening years of the twentieth.
Obviously, the marine technology that raiding and trading in the Viking Age demanded did not emerge overnight; its foundations lay in the 5th to 7th centuries. In fact, sea-raids out of Scandinavia were not unknown before the Viking age: The Heruls (from Jutland) raided Frisia in a.d. 287 and Spain in c. 455 and c. 460; the Danes are known to have raided Frisia in c. 528 and c. 570. As noted in Viking Empires:
[A]lthough nineteenth- and twentieth-century writers have tended to regard the ‘Viking Age’ as a distinct period of history, it is arguable that the Viking raids were only the culmination of a much longer period of empire-building among the Germanic tribes that inhabited the Scandinavian peninsula, a process that found its beginnings at the start of the first millennium in what is now known as the Roman Iron Age. The beginning of this process was the re-alignment of military strategy that took place in the Roman Empire as a consequence of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in AD 9.
Throughout the centuries before the Viking expansion — the emigrants from Scandinavia included Goths, Lombards, Vandals, Burgundians, Cimbri, and Anglo-Saxons. The Vikings, thus, were merely the last of a long succession of Germanic emigrants. To the 6th-century Gothic historian Jordanes, Scandinavia was the officina gentium — the “womb” or cradle of the Germanic peoples of the V÷lkerwanderung.
Over the long run, through the interplay of competition and technological change, war and preparation for war produced the major components of European states. In the Middle Ages, a series of inventions started to make an impact on European society. The Germans acquired or perfected all sorts of metalworking techniques which were remarkable for their ingenuity and efficiency, producing special steel for the cutting edge of swords or battle-axes which was, according to Lucien Musset, unequalled until the 19th century and infinitely superior to that which the imperial arms factories were producing during the Later Roman Empire.
By the time of
Leif Erikson’s explorations in North America — at the turn of the second
From the ranks of the Viking-descended Normans came, as J. R. S. Phillips points out, “the steady supply of highly trained mounted warriors who helped to guarantee European freedom from outside attack, and who were to play a major part in successful European expansion and military superiority overseas, in much the same way as ships armed with cannon were to do in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.”
points out that after the treaty of
which granted to the Northmen a territory later known as Normandy, “the
destroyers became builders, founding an advanced national state before going on
to conquer other lands in southern Italy and England.” In fact, the origins of
the English nation state itself can be traced back to the crisis of the Viking
Preparation for large-scale war built up an infrastructure of taxation, supply,
and administration that required maintenance. European national states united
substantial military, extractive, administrative, and sometimes even
distributive and productive organizations in a relatively coordinated central
here). As Leonard Dudley
[the Normans] were at the forefront in northern Europe in introducing a monetary economy. Bishops and secular lords financed the construction of new towns with the revenues of tolls levied on trade. … The Normans were also innovators in military techniques. … After a half millennium of declining skills in architecture, economic organization and warfare, Normandy in the eleventh century was suddenly at the forefront of a technological renaissance.
The ideal of winning in a fair fight, going back to the
second millennium BC and known to Homer, was still held by Emperor Julian in the
fourth century AD.
Germanic armies, in this spirit, were ready to settle beforehand on a time and
place for battle. Vandal warriors followed the same ideal when in the decisive
battle at Tricamarum in AD 533 they fought only with their swords. Maurice,
around AD 600, said that Franks, Lombards, and other blond peoples scorn dirty
The ideal of fairness in battle, so as to show one’s
true strength, also guided Beowulf in his fight with Grendel, and later still
the English in the battle of Maldon.
The chronicles which describe the lives of the dukes of
Duke William II of Normandy, according to Dudley, may have
enabled the West to cross a critical-mass threshold: “Within a century of
William’s death, the basic characteristics of Western civilization —
standardized media and non-standardized messages — had been established.
The rapid diffusion of information across a great mass of population made
possible the ceaseless innovation that would henceforth characterize the West.
While China, India and the Middle East were suffering from wave after wave of
invasions, Western Europe became an impregnable fortress. Gradually it was
developing the technologies that would allow it to achieve world dominance.”
The earlier vertical structure of command, with the ruler on top and his subjects below — carried over from the Roman Empire to that of Charlemagne — collapsed as local rulers were able to replicate the system for storage and retrieval of written information previously accessible only to an emperor. As Dudley points out: “With the Carolingian ruler’s monopoly on property rights broken and political power distributed across decentralized networks linked by a standardized communications medium, the stage was set for Western Europe’s great leap forward.”
The development of a standardized medium for written and spoken communication across Western Europe enabled competition among small, independent states. At the same time, the new communications technology permitted the formation of cultural institutions that spread across political boundaries. As Dudley points out,
There thus appeared simultaneously the two conditions necessary for rapid innovation: first, the incentive to do things better, in order to stay ahead of competitors; and second, the ingredients for doing so, namely, easy access to the stock of information accumulated in the past. … [The Norman Conquest] resulted in the unhindered diffusion of a new communications technology that permitted accelerated innovation and economic growth. The ultimate beneficiaries were not just the English but rather the whole of Latin Christendom. The West had now attained a critical mass that would allow it to compete with the established civilizations of Eastern Europe and Asia. Over the long term, the Norman Conquest was perhaps the principal influence on the formation of the modern English language.
The Anglo-Saxon clergyman Alcuin brought together the best existing practices to develop a standardized procedure for preserving information, thus reducing information storage costs. As Dudley points out, it is no coincidence that the Times Roman typeface is a direct descendant of the Caroline Miniscule: “The use … of titles, periods, capitalized initial letters, paragraphs, word separation and chapter breaks replicates the structure standardized by the ninth-century monks who prepared the Tours Bibles.” From a technological point of view, Medieval Europe — with its waterwheels, sawmills, flour mills and hammer mills — became the first great civilization not to be run primarily by human muscle power.
It has been
suggested that the Icelandic colony
— from which the
George W. Bush certainly got this one right: “I call upon all Americans to observe this day with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and programs to honor our rich Nordic-American heritage.” Would that American Whites — inspired by the shining examples of their past — could reclaim their courageous ways and pioneer spirit.
(email him) is a freelance writer.