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Monday, June 14, 2010

Iceland’s Fury: Vikings, Volcanoes and the Canadian Coastline

Here is a finished article with corrections mad based on suggestions from Canada's History's editorial team.

From the fury of the volcano protect us.

On Wednesday April 14 2010 the volcano under the Eyjafjallajokull (ay-yah-FYAH-lah-yer-kuhl) glacier began to send up an ash plume that would ground the air traffic in Northwestern Europe for six days. Volcanic ash has fine particles of rock and glass that could circulate in the air for months and do serious damage to jet engines or harm to anyone close enough to breathe it. Airports did not open again until late the following Tuesday or Wednesday, despite the fact that the majority of the ash was expelled within the first two days.
On Wednesday, April the 21st, the Toronto Star reported that 102, 000 flights had been grounded across Europe, the loss to airlines had been in the range of 2 billion dollars, and the loss to industries through the disruption in the supply chain was not yet calculable.
. . .

Canada’s coastline is connected to the Scandinavian countries by an ocean, by currents and by other geographical anomalies. Such currents bring much to our shores from Iceland besides ash clouds and economic fallout. They have also brought people. Scandinavian populations have played a great role in the settlement of the Canadian landscape, particularly in the prairie provinces. But to get there they had to breach the Canadian coastline, and so they have played a role in the history of this area. There is one group, originating in Iceland, who landed on Canada’s shores and who hold a special place in the North American imagination.
The ancient Norse site at L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland was discovered in 1961 Helge Ingsted and Anne Stine Ingsted, with the use of literary evidence, the work of a handful of previous like-minded amateur and professional archaeologists, and some local help. Archaeological evidence found here helped support the claims that the Vinland Sagas depicted places in North America.
The saga tradition originated in Iceland. One genre of sagas, commonly called the Sagas of Icelanders, or Family Sagas, are about the early inhabitants of Iceland. The Vinland Sagas were written in this tradition. There are two sagas about Vinland, the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Eirik the Red. The texts tell the same story, but tell it in very different ways. Both sagas can be tracked to an earlier oral tradition.
While these two versions disagree about a great many things they do agree that sometime around the year 1000 A.D. Leif the Lucky, son of Eirik the Red, set sail for a new land to the west. First he came to Helluland – the land of caves, then to Markland – the land of Forests, and then to Vinland – the land of vines and grapes. He established a settlement on the shores of Vinland and then returned to Greenland. The two sagas disagree about how many of Leif’s relatives made subsequent voyages to Vinland, but they agree that Thorfinn Karlsefni and his wife Guthrid came to Vinland to explore. Their son Snorri was the first person to be born in the new land. When they returned home Karlsefni and Guthrid became the progenitors of a long-line of noble Icelanders. So the story goes.
The veracity of the sagas has been a subject of debate for at least two hundred years. The sagas contain a lot of geographical details. So many, in fact, that it has been a preferred pastime of scholars and amateurs since the nineteenth century to try to ground the saga in the reality of the North American landscape. In the 1960s we proved that the Norse came to Newfoundland. In the 1970s and 80s Peter Schledermann and his team also proved that the Norse were in the Canadian arctic, as artefacts (though no signs of settlement) have been found around Ellesmere Island. For most people this has been enough proof that we have found the Vinland of the sagas.
For others, like Magnus Magnusson, the connection is not necessarily concrete. At the international conference held at L’Anse aux Meadows in 2000, the thousand year anniversary of Leif’s arrival in Vinland, Magnusson pointed out that “the Vinland that we are celebrating so rapturously this year may not have existed at all in the strictly physical, geographical sense – … it was essentially an intellectual concept, not a place on the map.”
But for many, including long time L’Anse aux Meadows archaeologist Birgitta Linderoth Wallace, the Vinland Sagas cannot but detail a small part of Canada’s early history. At the same conference Wallace, in her paper ‘Vinland and the death of Þorvaldr’ says “my view is that the archaeological evidence at LAM [L’Anse aux Meadows] combined with recent archaeological, anthropological, and demographic research on eleventh-century and medieval Iceland and Greenland can help to define the actual events behind the sagas.”
The popular image of the Norse, or Vikings, is of brutal plunderers whose legacy upon a landscape is violence. In fact the word Viking has this meaning worked right into it. It is derived from the word vikingr, which translates to pirate or raider. This picture of destruction is not necessarily wrong, but it is not the whole picture. There is a preconceived notion of the ‘fury’ of the Norse, just as when the word ‘volcano’ is mentioned our imaginations provide us with certain images of destruction.
Our understanding of the Norse culture is based on the nineteenth century construction of ‘the Vikings.’ And these nineteenth century scholars based their conclusions on the monastic construction of the Norse cultures. The first documented Viking raid was on Lindisfarne Abbey in England in 793 A.D.. The raid was described in horrific and brutal terms. We have no reason to doubt the brutality of the raids, but it should be kept in mind that the accounts were written by monks. Raiding was common among enemies, but for many (English) monasteries it was somewhat unusual. Monks would remember the Norse attacks because, as pagans, the early Norse would not hesitate to raid a Church. Icelanders did not convert until the year 1000 A.D., around the same time as the Vinland voyages.
The raids may have been often, and they may have been horrific, however the violence and ‘the fury of the northmen’ was built up and exaggerated to the point of exclusion of other aspects of the Norse culture. In fact the prayer, ‘normannorum libera nos domine - from the fury of the northmen deliver us oh lord,’ is a perfect example. Supposedly this is a prayer said by ninth century English monks who were fearful of the continuous raids of the northmen, or Norse. The problem is that the original of this prayer has never been found. Most scholars, including contributors to the official website of Lindisfarne Abbey (the site of the first recorded Viking attack), doubt it ever existed. This prayer is probably a late adaptation of a general prayer said for protection against raids by an enemy – any enemy.

On Monday April 19th, 2010 at St. John, Newfoundland’s airport many passengers were likely praying that their flights wouldn’t be cancelled. Several outgoing flights were cancelled when Transport Canada and Nav Canada reported a 30 percent chance of ash over the St John’s airspace. Air Canada, one of the airlines to cancel flights out of St John’s, stated that flights to and from Gander and Deer Lake, Newfoundland could experience delays or cancellations. Newfoundland was the only province whose flights were shut down because of a direct threat from Iceland’s volcanic ash. The rest of Canada was affected only indirectly. Air Canada reported on that same Monday that they had cancelled all flights to London Heathrow, Paris Charles de Gaulle, Frankfurt, Munich, Zurich, Geneva, Rome and Tel Aviv until further notice. The airlines were hit financially, and Canadians at home and abroad found themselves stranded.

In 1000 A.D. Leif, Karlsefni and their followers were not out raiding. However they did crash upon the Canadian shore with all the fury we have come to associate with the Norse, making our conception of ‘the Viking’ relevant. It has been difficult to evaluate the impact that the Norse had on the landscape because when they came they did not stay. Their arrival did not initiate waves of settlement like the fifteenth century explorers’ arrival, and proving continuity of knowledge about North America from the time of the Norse voyages has been extremely problematic.
It is the indigenous populations who felt the impact of the Norse. The sagas call them Skraelings. In 2008 Canadian archaeologists Max Friesen and Charles Arnold determined that the Skraelings were definitely not the Thule Inuits, as the Thule settlement patterns indicated that they were nowhere near the Newfoundland area in the year 1000 A.D. Nations that are still candidates, assuming that we associate Vinland with Newfoundland, include the ancestors of the Beothuks and the Innu.
The two sagas give very different accounts of the Norse interactions with the Skraelings, though the tales overlap in several places. According to the Saga of Eirik the Red the Skraelings “were short in height with threatening features and tangled hair on their heads. Their eyes were large and their cheeks broad.” There is no such description of them in the Saga of the Greenlanders. This is due in part to the fact that the Eirik is a fuller tale, with more details supplied by the author to complete the story.
In Greenlanders the Norse are always the aggressors. In this saga when the Norse first come upon the Skraelings, they discover nine men who are sleeping. They capture and kill eight of these men. The one lucky Skraeling returns with his compatriots and attacks the Norse in their fortress, killing one and wounding several others. In Eirik there is a similar incident, except it happens at the end of their journey instead of the beginning. In addition, the saga writer tried to give the Norse some moral justification for their actions; “sailing north along the shore, they discovered five Skraelings sleeping in skin sacks near the shore. Beside them they had vessels filled with deer marrow blended with blood. They assumed these men to be outlaws and killed them.”
In the Saga of Eirik the Red their first encounter with the Skraelings is while trading. This scene is repeated in the Saga of the Greenlanders. The Skraelings approach the Norse camp with trade items, so the Norse, partly because of the number of their opponents, agree to trade. In both sagas they refuse to trade weapons with the Skraelings. In Eirik the Skraelings are content to trade their furs for some red cloth that the Norse brought with them. “This went on for some time, until there was little cloth left. They then cut the cloth into smaller pieces, each no wider than a finger’s width, but the Skraelings gave just as much for it or more.” Likewise, in Greenlanders the Skraelings trade their furs for milk products. This saga also seems to think that the Norse got the better end of the deal; “trading with the Skraelings resulted in them bearing off their purchases in their stomachs, leaving their packs and skins with Karlsefni and his companions.”
In both tales, there is an incident while trading that brings the two groups into open conflict. Once again in Greenlanders it is because of an act of aggression on the part of the Norse. While trading one of the Norse killed a Skraeling because the Skraeling had tried to take the weapon from him. The Skraelings run away, but come back in greater numbers to fight with the Norse at the settlement. In Eirik the battle is caused by the Skraelings, who, frightened by the bull at Karlsefni’s camp, return the next day armed to attack the Norse. During the course of this attack the Norse find themselves overpowered and begin to flee to the woods. There is a great incident that occurs at that point, which turns the tide in favour of the Norse. Freydis, the illegitimate daughter of Eirik the Red, had decided to accompany Karlsefni and Guthrid on this voyage. When the Skraelings attack the camp she is slow to retreat, as she is, at this time, pregnant:

She called, ‘Why do you flee such miserable opponents, men like you who look to me to be capable of killing them off like sheep? Had I a weapon I’m sure I would fight better than any of you.’ They paid no attention to what she said. Freydis wanted to go with them, but moved somewhat slowly, as she was with child. She followed them into the forest but the Skraelings reached her. She came across a slain man, Thorbrand Snorrason, who had been struck in the head by a slab of stone. His sword lay beside him, and this she snatched up and prepared to defend herself with it as the Skraelings approached her. Freeing one of her breasts from her shift, she smacked the sword with it. This frightened the Skraelings, who turned and ran back to their boats and rowed away.

In both stories the Norse triumph over the Skraelings, but at the end of the tale the Norse leave. In Eirik it is obviously because of the threat posed by the Skraelings; “the party then realized that, despite everything the land had to offer there, they would be under constant threat of attack from its prior inhabitants.” Throughout both sagas the supposed ‘fury’ of the northmen is manifested in their actions towards the other - towards the Skraelings. When they came to Canada, just as when they raided the British Isles and the coast of the European continent, the Norse, or Vikings, brought with them a tradition of honour, intrepid spirit and violence. To say that they were not destructive would be to deny much of what has been put down in the saga. Yet, while in Greenlanders the Norse are certainly the victors, and the stronger people, it should be noted that in Eirik the Skraelings seem to give as good as they get.

Just like the magma that began to be visible on April 19, 2010, it is Eyjafjallajokull that brings this history back to the surface.
There are remarkable similarities between the volcano and the Vikings, not the least of which is the perceived level of destruction. Both terms, with reason, conjure up images of an unstoppable destructive force. For the Vikings their impact on Europe was monumental. For the volcano the economic toll could be staggering and there is no way to measure the rising level of passenger frustration across the globe. And yet, both Vikings and the volcano have their destructive powers exaggerated. Eyjafjallajokull is linked ideologically to previous eruptions, so any damage that has been caused by volcanic eruption in the past is conjured up again by this new source. In addition the Toronto Star reported on Wednesday April 21 that some sources were saying that the physical destruction caused by the volcano had been overemphasized, unduly causing the economic and passenger frustrations. With the Vikings too, the threat was real, but not necessarily as deadly as has been imagined. The Norse were as much farmers as they were marauding pirates, and on the shores of Canada they were trying to make a settlement. It was punctuated with violence, but that is not all that the settlement was about.
For Canadians, the impact from these separate Icelandic furies has been similar. In the end the impact was fleeting, with no lasting direct effects, but with an important legacy.
The wrath of the volcano resulted in several thousands of stranded people and several billion dollars worth of damages. However, for Canadians, our airspace has been touched only slightly, and alternative methods for travel are possible, if inconvenient. The damage does not approach that of other natural disasters, or even other famous volcanic eruptions.
The Norse left their mark on the Canadian landscape. They were here, they settled, and they traded and fought with the indigenous populations. But the effects were not lasting and the destruction they wrought does not compare to the destruction, or settlement, that later European explorers would bring.
The comparison between the reach of the volcano and the reach of the Vikings shows us how much geography influences our history. The volcanic ash and the Vikings directly touched the same province because it is at this location that Canada is most accessible to Iceland. The same winds were employed to blow the ash and the ship across the ocean, so we are not surprised that they end up in the same place. And while they - the volcano and the Vikings - may have touched other parts of the Canadian coasts it is in the province of Newfoundland that we feel the effects most profoundly.

Megan Arnott