Tuesday, July 19, 2016
July 19, 2016: VikingStudying: Leif Erikson
[Earlier this month, I traveled to Iceland for the first time, a nation with recently discovered historical connections to the Americas. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the culture at the heart of those ties, leading up to a special post on a few takeaways from the trip itself!]
Three telling details about the Iceland-born explorer considered one of the first Europeans to arrive in the Americas.
1) His multi-national heritage: It’s not at all surprising that Leif made the journey to (what is now) Newfoundland, Canada, as he was the descendent of two generations of nomadic Vikings. His grandfather Thorvald Asvaldsson had been banished from Norway and helped bring the Vikings to Iceland; Thorvald’s son Erik the Red was subsequently banished from Iceland and established the first permanent settlement in Greenland. Besides highlighting the frequency of banishment for the volatile Vikings, these moves both reflect a highly mobile culture and (I would argue) suggest why Leif’s resulting mindset might have readied him for global exploration. It’s no coincidence, that is, that Christopher Columbus had traveled far before he began his Atlantic voyages—exploration is not only the vehicle for but just as importantly the illustration of an increasingly mobile world, and Leif’s heritage exemplified that mobility.
2) His religious conversion: Before he made the journey to the Americas, Leif and his crew traveled east to Norway (after a detour to the Hebrides), where he spent time in the court of King Olaf Tryggvason and converted to Christianity. When Leif and company returned to Greenland, he brought that new religion with him and it became a divisive element in the Viking community, with Leif’s father Erik opposed to its influence but his mother Thjódhild likewise converting and building a famous church. Besides telling us a good deal about the era’s complex interplay of European cultures and perspectives, this history can remind us that the European communities that explored and settled the Americas were just as cross-culturally influenced and evolving as was the new society they would help create. And indeed, that such cross-cultural shifts, like the geographic mobilities in Leif’s family tree, likely helped produce the perspectives and conditions that made global voyages and explorations possible.
3) His holiday: I like to think that I know a lot about American memory days—hell, I invented a whole calendar of them!—but I’ll confess to not having known before researching this post that October 9th is Leif Erikson Day. Originally created in Wisconsin in 1929, the holiday was put on the national calendar by Congress in 1964 and has been celebrated annually ever since. Lyndon Johnson’s first Erikson Day proclamation (available at that last hyperlink) connected “the intrepid exploits of the Vikings of Erikson’s time” to America’s 1960s “adventurous exploration of the unfathomed realms of space,” illustrating one of the many ways that this Viking explorer and his voyages can continue to resonate in our collective consciousness. But as always, I would want a memory day to allow most especially for historical understanding and engagement, and in Leif’s case that could include not only his pioneering voyage to the Americas, but also some of these cultural, familial, and individual factors that made it possible.
Next VikingStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other ways you’d analyze the Vikings or Iceland?