Viking Exploration Part 1 by Rob Shackleford
The Vikings sailed from America in the west to Constantinople and Asia Minor in the east, and perhaps even farther.
It was the seaworthiness of the Viking ships, together with the Norsemen’s knowledge of navigation and seamanship, which made it possible for them to conquer the ocean. The Vikings’ understanding of the sea is also reflected in the Old Norse language that has about 150 words for waves.
As impressive as the Vikings’ accomplishments as raiders and warriors were, their accomplishments as explorers and settlers were equally magnificent. The Vikings ventured far from their homelands in Scandinavia and became the first Europeans to discover Greenland and even North America (which they called “Vinland”) – roughly 500 years before Christopher Columbus. Along the way, they became the first people to establish sizable settlements in Iceland and other North Atlantic islands, and also colonized the territories their warriors conquered throughout northern Europe. These explorations and settlements have had a decisive impact upon these places that persists even today.
The Vikings’ motivations for faring so far across the globe and founding new settlements in the lands they reached were as varied as the individuals who undertook these tremendous projects. But a few motives stand out as being especially strong and generally applicable. In places that the Vikings were the first sizable group to explore and/or settle, these were the quest for fame, prestige, and honour; the desire for the level of personal freedom that one can only find in a sparsely-populated area with no pre-established government; and the ability to take advantage of virgin natural resources.
Here are notable locations that were explored and influenced by the Norse
The Faroe Islands
The Faroe Islands were the first largely uninhabited lands in the North Atlantic Ocean that the Vikings reached in the main, westward part of their expansion. The Faroes, which jut out abruptly from the ocean, are located about halfway between northern Scotland and eastern Iceland.
An Irish monk, writing in 825, says that they had been inhabited by Irish monks for generations, but that these holy men left the islands when the pagan Norse settled in, a feat treated as already accomplished by that point. The Norse named the islands the Færeyjar, “Sheep Islands.” The islands were treeless, so the settlers built their homes out of turf and rock. The islands’ economy was heavily dependent on livestock and harvesting the products of the sea, particularly fish, whales, and birds.
There is some confusion as to whether Naddodd discovered Iceland when he was sailing from Norway to the Faroe Islands, but got lost and drifted to the east coast of Iceland. Ingólfr Arnarson is the legendary first settler of Iceland.
As with the Faroes, legend has it that a few Irish monks already lived in Iceland prior to the Vikings’ arrival. This is certainly plausible, especially since it seems that the Norse already knew of Iceland’s existence prior to their first trip there. In any case, if they were there before the Norse arrived, they left soon after, presumably because they didn’t want their hallowed solitude disrupted – especially not by pagans.
The first Viking party to Iceland set foot on its shores in about 860. It was exploratory in nature, and no one stayed around to settle. The island was given its name by a member of that party named Floki (Flóki Vilgerðarson), who was dismayed by the harshness of the winter.
The original population of Iceland seems to have had a significant Celtic influence, so a number of Celts must have accompanied the Vikings as spouses, slaves, or in some other capacity. There were Christians among the original settlers, and the proportion of Christianity relative to paganism increased over time, with the official conversion around the year 1000 being a watershed year in the process.
Iceland remained a free state for centuries, though Norway exerted a significant cultural and political influence over it, surely due to the significant number of Norwegians amongst the early settlers. In the mid-thirteenth century, well after the end of the Viking Age, Iceland formally submitted to Norwegian rule.
According to the medieval Icelandic sagas, the founder of the Viking colony in Greenland was Erik the Red, so named because of his fiery red hair and beard. Norwegian by birth, he was outlawed in his native land “because of some killings,” as the sagas put it. He fled to Iceland, but soon found himself in trouble there, too. Rumors had been circulating that a Viking explorer had glimpsed a new land west of Iceland, but hadn’t gone ashore. During his years of banishment from Iceland, Erik decided to investigate this new land.
When his sentence as an outlaw was over, Erik returned to Iceland with wondrous tales of this new land. A gifted marketer, he called the place “Greenland” (Grœnland) to persuade others to join him in settling it. Some suggest the name “Greenland” wasn’t an outright lie, since there were a few coastal sections of the southern part of the island that were sufficiently “green” to settle and raise livestock. But most of the land was covered with glaciers and ice fields, and the climate was considerably colder and less hospitable than Iceland.
In the summer of 985, twenty-five ships set sail for Greenland. But conditions at sea were rough and only fourteen made it as the others either turned back or disappeared. The new settlers created homes in two areas in the southern fjords of the island about 400 miles apart from each other, which came to be called the Eastern and Western Settlements. These areas were otherwise uninhabited, as the Inuit lived farther to the north during that time. Farmsteads were fairly dispersed so that everyone would have enough land to graze their herds and make hay for winter.
By the 13th century, the Vikings on Greenland vanished. Though none know exactly why, it is suggested because the warm period in which they survived ended, causing their stock to die and the settlers to die with them.
Next: Viking Exploration Part 2
Other Viking Blogs
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About the author:
Hi, I’m Rob Shackleford. I am author of a number of novels, though so far only Traveller Inceptio and Traveller Probo have been officially published. As Traveller Inceptio looks at the fates of modern historical researchers sent to the early 11th Century Saxon world, Vikings do feature.
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