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Erik the Red

Erik the Red

Red hair, red beard and a fiery temper – Erik the Red’s saga tells the story of an intrepid explorer, founder of the first European settlement in Greenland and father of Leif Eriksson, the first Viking to set foot on the North American continent. His fiery red hair and his hotheaded temper may have gotten him the iconic nickname Erik the Red. Born in modern-day Norway and spending the majority of his life in Iceland before being exiled, he went on to discover Greenland around 982 AD.

Did you know that Erik the Red gave Greenland its iconic name? In a genius move to attract Norse settlers to the cold and icy island, Erik chose a name that implied fertile landscapes for newcomers. Nordic and Icelandic sagas celebrate Erik the Red as a bold and daring, yet short-tempered figure of Viking history, living a turbulent life on the edge.

Who Was Erik the Red?

To follow Erik Thorvaldsson’s (Erik the Red’s) life history, Nordic and Icelandic sagas are the best starting point for unveiling his adventurous life. Born around 950 AD and spending his early life in southwestern Norway (Rogaland), ten-year-old Erik and his family were forced into exile in northern Iceland, after Erik’s father was found guilty of manslaughter. After his father’s death, Erik went on to marry Thjodhild Jorundardaughter, with whom he had four children, one of them being Leif Eriksson (also spelled Leif Erikson), the first Viking to discover North America )long before Christopher Columbus). Exiled from Iceland for manslaughter, Erik spent his time discovering Greenland and setting up the first European colonies there.

What did Erik the Red Discover?

Until around 980 AD Erik and his family lived happily in Iceland until a major fall-out with Erik’s neighbor, who in turn killed Erik’s thralls (servants) over an accidentally triggered landslide that crushed the neighbor’s house. Taking revenge and killing the men responsible, Erik was then exiled to Oxney (an island in western Iceland), where he got into another altercation with a local and ended up killing the man’s two sons. Erik (following in his father’s footsteps) was then exiled from Iceland for three years for manslaughter.

Erik left Iceland and decided to sail west, where he discovered Greenland. Erik the Red decided on this name because it made the island sound like the perfect place for colonists: green, lush and fertile. In reality, most of the island was covered by ice. Once he returned to Iceland, his pitch for Greenland eventually brought several hundred settlers to venture for Greenland soon thereafter.

Erik the Red's Discovery of Greenland

After leaving Iceland, Erik set sail toward the open ocean and arrived in southern Greenland around 982/983 AD. Unable to land because of drift ice in the coastal areas during the first winter, Erik’s party rounded Greenland’s tip until they eventually settled near modern-day Qaqortoq. Erik returned to Iceland in 985 AD to advertise the newly discovered island that he called Greenland to fellow settlers. Cleverly choosing the name to indicate fertile grounds for raising livestock, he captured the interest of over 400 colonists. Out of the original 25 ships of settlers that sailed west only 14 actually arrived, with some either turning back or getting lost at sea. The arriving settlers went on to establish two colonies, the western settlement and the eastern settlement in Greenland. Erik, his wife and four children settled in the eastern colony.

Erik the Red's Discovery of Greenland

First Christian Church

Leif Eriksson (Erik the Red’s son) returned to Greenland around 1000 AD, after exploring North America and spending time in Norway. He brought the first Christian missionaries. While his father Erik remained unreceptive to Christianity, Leif’s mother Thjodhild converted. The first church (Thjodhild’s Church) was built and you can still see a reconstructed version today in the settlement of Qassiarsuk in Greenland. The Viking communities survived for about 500 years onwards, but then disappeared. It’s still one of the great mysteries as to why, and theories range from possible conflicts with Inuit people, overgrazing, plagues or colder weather due to climate change.

How Did Erik the Red Die?

There are several theories on how Erik may have died. One of them states that after Erik’s son Leif returned from his discovery of eastern North America, Erik died around 1003 AD, most likely in a winter epidemic that ravaged the colonies. Another theory suggests he died after a fatal fall from his horse. Erik the Red’s saga suggests that he was still alive when Thorfinn Karlsefni sailed to Vinland (eastern North America) in the early 11th century.

Who Was Erik the Red?

FAQs

Was Erik the Red Swedish?

Erik Thorvaldsson was a Norse explorer. Modern-day Denmark, Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Norway and Sweden (Scandinavia) are considered parts of the ancient Norse territories.

Why did Erik the Red call Greenland “Greenland”?

Not even during Erik the Red’s time was Greenland a lush and green island. After discovering this new country, Erik gave the island its name to promote it as a fertile and green island to attract settlers.

What was Erik the Red famous for?

Red Erik is considered the discoverer of Greenland and founder of the first Viking settlement in Greenland. He also gave the island its iconic name. Permanent European settlers came to Greenland thanks to his remarkable salesmanship of the island. Erik, named after his trademark red hair and short-temper, is a major figure in Norse history.

Who did Erik the Red marry?

Erik married Thjodhild, with whom he had three sons (his sons Leif, Thorvald and Thorstein), as well as one daughter (Freydis).

Where did Erik the Red live?

While born in the area of modern-day Norway (Rogaland), he moved to Iceland, where Erik married his wife Thjodhild. Around 982 AD he was exiled from Iceland for three years during which he went on to explore and colonize Greenland, and establish the first European settlement on the island. The saga of Erik the Red ended presumably there when he died of an epidemic around 1003 AD.

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