The Adventures of Erik the Red

Today we deep dive into the life of a truly astonishing individual, something which will be a recurring series on the website. These legendary people are often known for only one feat, which got them a place in the history books. The legend in the spotlight today is the famous explorer Erik the Red. Most know him for creating the first settlement in Greenland (no, he did not discover Greenland). He managed some truly remarkable feats on his journey, which we will be exploring in chronological order today.

Erik the Red. From: Arngrímur Jónsson, 1668.

Erik’s early life in Norway

The year is 950 AD. Thorvald Asvaldsson is living a quiet life somewhere on a farm in Rogaland, Norway together with his wife (whose name is not mentioned in the primary sources). In this year he fathered a son and named him Erik (the protagonist of this story). Unfortunately, as with most old Norse history, not much is known about Erik’s early years. One can assume that he lived like most young Norse boys and helped his father on the farm, doing daily chores.

When Erik became 10 years old, something drastic happened to his family which would forever alter their lives. Erik’s father, Thorvald managed to get into a dispute with one of his neighbors. As the situation escalated, the notoriously hot-headed Thorvald ultimately ended up murdering his neighbor. Facing council for his crimes, he and his family were exiled from Norway. With no other choice, Thorvald took his wife, child, and belongings and desperately set out to sea in search of a new home.

Exile from Norway

Ultimately Thorvald decided to set sail towards Iceland. Around a hundred years, prior Norse settlers had already created a settlement on the island, which made it an ideal spot to create a fresh beginning for Thorvald and his family.

Skirting around the island trying to find the perfect spot to settle, he finally decided on a plot of land on the northernmost peninsula, called Hornstrandir. Here, Thorvald built a home for his family and lived there this time, keeping peace with his neighbors. This is also where Thorvald led his final days, passing away in an unknown manner.

After his father’s death, Erik married a woman named Thorhild, a woman from a wealthy family who lived close to Erik’s home. This ultimately led to Erik inheriting a substantial amount of wealth from his father-in-law, as he had no sons so the farm was passed onto Erik. Now owning a large farm and having enough wealth for it, Erik decided to build a new home for himself, naming it Erikstad (the city of Erik).

Erik is now twenty years old and still living in his self-named… place? Erikstad. He and his wife had their first son and named him Leif. And yes, this is the same Leif Eriksson who is known for potentially discovering North America way before Columbus who will get his own post later down the line.

The pits of Despair

Now 32 years old, Erik has managed to live a comfortable life but not really achieving much. The year of 982 could be seen as a turning point. As Erik had considerable wealth and owning a vast amount of land, he obviously had some thralls, or slaves, serving him. Some of these thralls had somehow accidentally (or on purpose) caused a landslide on Valthjof’s lands, who was lived on a neighbouring farm, which ended up destroying his house. Valthjof was furious at this and confided with his close friend, Eyjolf the Foul who, (hence the nickname) had a notorious reputation in the area. Trying to get revenge for his friend, Eyjolf killed one of Erik’s thralls who caused the landslide. Inheriting his father’s temper, Erik could not tolerate this and ended up killing Eyjolf in retaliation. Considering Eyjolf killed a thrall, and Erik decided to kill him in revenge, things are not looking good for Erik. After a trial, Erik was indeed banished from the area and his estate was seized. Once again banished from his home, he followed his father’s footsteps and set out to sea. According to the book Saga of Erik the Red:

“he then occupied Brokey and Eyxney, and dwelt at Tradir, in Sudrey during his first winter.”

This most likely references the islands found just to the south of his home in Hornstrandir, so he did not go very far.

Once again, history repeats itself and Erik shows why he got the nickname: ”The Red”. In his new home, Erik managed to again get into a dispute with one of his neighbors, by the name of Thorgest. Erik had lent Thorgest some ornamented pillars, which were obviously precious to Erik, on the assumption he would get them back after a few weeks when he had completed building his new house. When Erik then went to retrieve the pillars, Thorgest refused to give them back. Of course, Erik did not agree to this and took them back by force, which all seems good and well. However, Thorgest would then follow Erik all the way to his house where then a battle ensued. In this battle, two of Thorgest’s sons fell in combat. And once again, Erik is set before a trial. And once again, he is outlawed. A fuming Thorgest searched for Erik across the entire island. With the help of some friends, Erik had already managed to secure a ship and a small crew. Before Thorgest could find him, he had already set out to sea, looking for new lands.

From Zero to Hero

A while back, Erik had heard word of a fellow Icelandic settler who in 877 AD had drifted off course while caught in a storm at sea. This settler, by the name of Gunnbiorn Ulfsson discovered a new coastline that he had never seen before somewhere to the west of Iceland. Gunnbiorn decided not to disembark and instead set sail back towards Iceland. Seeing his opportunity, Erik set sail aiming for the horizon to the west of Iceland, in hope of discovering this new land.

In the spring of 982, Erik began his long voyage. Leaving from Sneefellsjokull and venturing towards the western horizon. This was by far not an easy voyage to embark on during this time. There were no compasses, and Erik had to rely on his knowledge of nature to correctly navigate to a land he’s never even seen. Navigating with the help of the stars and sun was an invaluable skill for a seaman, and Erik was an expert at this.

Erik around Greenland. Painting by: Carl Rasmussen (1841–1893)

In the summer of 983, Erik finally saw land. Skirting around along the southern coast, he ended up landing on the western coast. Before Erik arrived, Gunnbjorn (the man who discovered it before Erik) already named the land Cronland. Apparently not liking this name, Erik decided to call it: Grunland, or Greenland, on account of the green meadows he had allegedly discovered. This was, however, not the only reason for this name. Erik knew he would need more settlers to Greenland and a more appealing name would of course attract more attention.

Erik spent the next years scouting the territory, finding potential spots to settle. During his journeys, he named many places. Erikser (Erik’s Island), Eriksfjord (Erik’s fjord), Eiriksholmar and so forth. Most of these new places were called Erik’s something, showing how amazingly humble he was. Building a temporary home for himself in the southern part of Greenland for the winter, he then set sail back to Eriksey in the spring for he had promised his friends that helped him escape Iceland to come back in case he found Greenland.

Erik once again reaches Iceland. He first tries to reconcile with his old enemy Thorgest, but instead ends up in a fight with him. Erik comes out as the losing party in this fight, but the two men reconcile after this. He spends most of his time in Iceland trying to recruit potential settlers to follow him to the land supposedly lush and full of green meadows, Greenland. Numerous ambitious people were intrigued by this new land and agreed to follow him. In total, 25 ships joined him on the journey back to Greenland. They also brought with them horses, cows, and oxen. In the summer, they began their long journey to the promised land. However, they were truly being tested by the Gods, as a huge storm happened somewhere in the middle of their journey. Some ships either veered off course in the chaos, and some sank because of the gigantic waves. Only 14 ships arrived at the designated spot in Greenland.

Ships at sea by: Edward Moran.

Establishing a Colony

Two separate, major colonies were then established, the Eastern and the Western settlements. In between these two major settlements, many smaller ones were also created. Erik made a home for himself and his family in the Eastern settlement, at Brattahild in Eriksfjord. Brattahild has to this day some of the best farmlands in the entirety of Greenland thanks to its location, so no wonder Erik would claim this land. Eriksfjord protects the land from the cold foggy weather and the arctic waters of the outer coast. Most likely Erik picked this place to settle specifically because it had the most potential of all the places he explored during his exile. Other colonists also joined Erik at Eriksfjord and elected him to be their leader. Now being both a wealthy and respected man in his community, Erik had reached his peak in fame. He and his wife also expanded their family, which now included four children; three sons — Leif, Thorvald, and Thorstein and a daughter named Freydis. All of them went on to do great deeds themselves, deserving stories of their own.

Illustration of the Eastern Settlement. By Masae — Saga trails.
Illustration of the Western Settlement. By Masae — Saga trails.

First born son of Erik, Leif Eriksson, had according to The Saga of Erik the Red, received work by the king of Norway. Specifically, he was to spread Christianity in Greenland, which naturally extended to his own family. Erik had always been a devote follower of the old Norse gods, but his wife Thorhild embraced this new religion. A church was now built where apparently many came to offer their worship. How did this then affect our protagonist, Erik? Well, after his wife accepted Christianity, she refused to have intercourse with him, which of course did not make him a very happy man.

End of a Journey

Even after this great discovery and establishment of a successful settlement, it simply was not enough for this Viking explorer. One day, a ship bound for Greenland that was thought to have been lost at sea, appeared at the port of Erik’s settlement. The captain, who had accidentally veered off course and sailed too far south, told Erik all about his adventures. For he had in fact, discovered a completely new land to the southwest of Greenland. This land apparently was full of lush wooden areas and green landscapes, containing many resources which were gravely needed in Greenland. So, once again, Erik started preparing for another great journey, but this time he would be bringing his son, Leif, with him. On the day of the departure, Leif was waiting for his father on the boat. As Erik was approaching on horseback, he somehow fell off his horse. Taking this as a bad omen, he made the decision to stay at home, leaving Leif to set sail on new adventures without his father. Erik would then be left to lead his final days in peace, presiding over a healthy amount of land. Erik’s death is largely unknown, but some sources quote a disease that struck Greenland a time after Leif left on his voyage, to which Erik succumbed.

This is truly a story worthy of a legend. A rugged start, which enabled, or even forced, Erik the Red to make a great discovery and exploration journey. His nickname may have derived from different aspects. His beard and hair were red, which would be the most logical explanation. His temper may also have attributed to the nickname, as his fuse was quite short, which can be seen throughout his journey. His legacy also lived on in his children, who also became legends of their own. But that is another path to follow.

Primary sources used:

The Saga of Erik the Red, is the book primarily used in this text.

https://sagadb.org/eiriks_saga_rauda.en

An interesting read by Captivating History if you would like a comprehensive story of Erik (although there is way more information about his children):

https://www.amazon.com/Erik-Red-Captivating-Settlement-Greenland-ebook/dp/B07G8N2PK9

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store