L'Anse aux Meadows, Unesco World Heritage Site

L’Anse aux Meadows, Unesco World Heritage Site

The Vikings

In August of 2016, Time Sifters is offering a “Viking Trail” Tour to the western coast and northern tip of Newfoundland.  This tour gives you a chance to see the ruins of the Vikings in North America.  The Vikings settled in northeastern Canada more than 400 years before Columbus.  The Encyclopedia Britannica defines the word “Vikings” as “Germanic Norse seafarers, speaking the Old Norse language, who raided and traded from their Scandinavian homelands across wide areas of northern and central Europe, as well as European Russia, during the late 8th to late 11th centuries.”  They actually went as far east as Baghdad, and as far west as North America. They were farmers who began to spread from their native territory about 700 c.e. probably because good farmland is not plentiful in Scandinavia.  They did not call themselves “Vikings” (National Geographic, Oct. 2010). The word probably comes from the Old Norse vik meaning “fjord” (bay) and Víkingar, which means traveler from the fjords. It was not used to describe the Norsemen until the 18th century. Before that, the Germans called them Ascomanni “ashmen” because they built their boats of ash wood. The Gaelic word for them was Lochlannach meaning men of the lake, and the Anglo-Saxons called them the Dene (beach?). Farther east, the Greeks called them Variagoi (sailors) and the Slavs, Byzantines and Arabs referred to them as the Rus (rowers). All of those visited by the Vikings wrote about them, but the Vikings themselves were not literate. They did use an Old Norse system of symbols called runes that represented things and ideas but they do not mention voyages.

Vikings were physically similar to other Europeans but they liked being blond and used strong lye soap to make their hair lighter. Viking women had more rights than most women at that time although the eldest son inherited the family farm.  Both men and women fought in battle. They used simple weapons, wore no armor and, contrary to popular belief, their helmets had no horns. The Vikings were excellent sailors and the honored were buried in their boats along with their weapons.  They had their own pantheon led by Odin, the father of many of the lesser gods, but adopted Christianity in the 10th and 11th centuries (

The Viking tribes never unified (they often fought each other) yet their raids were a major threat to the local populations (that is why the word “Viking” came to mean “pirate raid”). The earliest reference to them comes from the English monk, Alcuin, who, in 793, wrote that there had never been such a terror in England before the Vikings arrived. They killed and enslaved the locals and took home their farm goods as well as the treasures from the monasteries. But many also settled in their new lands as farmers, merchants and craftsmen. Some eventually became leaders: Danish kings ruled England from 1016 to 1042, King Henry I of France (d. 1135) was the last royal of Viking descent, and Russian royals have carried Nordic DNA since the 9th century.  Today, many Europeans (and Americans of European origin) also carry Viking DNA; at least one of every thirty-three British men are Viking descendants (Daily Mail, March 9, 2014).  They made a huge impact on Europe where hundreds of Old Norse words have become part of the language; they founded the cities of Oslo, Kiev and Novogrod, made Dublin the capital of Ireland and took over Normandy.  They discovered Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and North America.

Vikings had already settled in Iceland and Greenland in the 10th century c.e.  when Leif Erikson explored the coast of North America naming his discovery “Vinland” because of the wild grapes there.  Three years later, Thorfinn Karlsefni sailed from Greenland to Newfoundland (L’Anse Aux Meadows) with his family, friends and livestock.  They found timber, fish and good pasture, but also some unfriendly Native Americans who were able to chase Thorfinn and family back to Iceland after only three years (Linden, Smithsonian Magazine, December, 2004).  Still, others came and spread, founding real colonies with permanent houses.  Archaeologists have found the remains of at least 400 farmsteads in Newfoundland, Labrador and Nova Scotia.  But the settlements did not thrive, perhaps because of hostile Indians or weather changes and by 1500 they had all been deserted, leaving only ruins for future archaeologists.


Bookmark the permalink.