Greenland is a large island north of Canada and west of Iceland. Its ice sheet extends far beyond the island itself. The fjords are reminiscent of those in Norway and Iceland. Greenland is currently part of the Danish kingdom though it has home rule. Its basic economy relies on fishing. Native Inuit cultures still live here as they did during the Viking Age when first the Dorset II and later the Thule people roamed Greenland.1
Viking Age Relevance
The Book of Settlements or Landnámabók has the earliest reference to the discovery of Greenland. It mentions first known European to see Greenland is the Icelander Gunnbjörn Ulfsson (Ulf-Krakuson)2 who probably never makes landfall. This feat is ascribed to Snøbjørn Galte Holmsteinsson (Snæbjörn Galti) who retraces Ulfsson’s route in 978. He tries to settle on the eastern coast, but dies in a skirmish between the first settlers.3 These brief referrals invalidate the myth that Eirik ‘the Red’ Thorvaldsson is the first to discover Greenland. Eirik first arrives in 982 after being exiled from Iceland and returns three years later to convince fellow Icelanders to join him in Greenland. The accolade goes to him as the first to settle here for good.4
The Eastern Settlement (Eystribyggð)
The settlers establish the Eastern Settlement on the southern tip of Greenland. This site is strategically important for the main sailing routes to Iceland, and beyond. Eirik and his fleet of 14 (out of 25) ships arrive here in 986 after their perilous journey across the Atlantic.5 Most settlers remain here after their arrival. They are well equipped for hunting and in time, they build over five hundred farmsteads, and sixteen churches.Of course, Eirik takes the best land called Brattahlíð where he builds a farmstead, a chapel called Þjóðhildarkirkja and a site for the local thing. By 1124, a bishopric seat is established in Garðar.6
The Middle Settlement (Mellembygden)
Just north along the western coast lies a group of twenty farms called the Middle Settlement. In general, it is considered part of the Eastern Settlement. The excavations here show that the settlers occupied these farms from around 985 (before Eirik returned with his fleet) until the fourteenth century.7
The Western Settlement (Vestribyggð)
After their arrival in the Eastern settlement, several Icelanders embark on a new journey. They sail (or row) for six days northwards along the coast, and then deep into the Godthaab fjord. In time, these settlers and their descendants build around one hundred farmsteads scattered across ten fjords. Together, they form the Western Settlement.
The living conditions in Vestribyggð are harsh with short summers and long and stormy winters, but the region provides plenty of basics to survive. Driftwood and beached whales are found near the coast. Up north in Disko Bay are seals. Deeper into the fjords, the settlers find rich caribou hunting grounds, invisible and almost not accessible from the coast. Despite the lack of grain, the people have enough livestock and protein to live on. Eirik reserves good farmland near Sandnes for the future chieftain of this settlement.8
The End of the Settlements
By the fifteenth century, all the settlements were abandoned. How and why this happened is still a mystery, even though scholars have offered many possible answers. For the rise and decline of Greenland’s settlements, see The Lost Viking Settlements: 2. The Western Frontier, forthcoming.
Further Reading & Watching
The Viking Archive – The Lost Viking Settlements: 2. The Western Frontier (forthcoming, August 2018)
History with Hilbert, Youtube Channel – How the Vikings Discovered Greenland
- Rasmus Ole Rasmussen, ‘Greenland.’ Encyclopædia Britannica. Published July 18, 2018. Last Accessed 06 August 2018. https://www.britannica.com/place/Greenland. ↩
- ‘Eirik the Red’s Saga.’ Translated by Keneva Kunz. In: The Sagas of the Icelanders: A Selection, Preface by Jane Smiley (London: Allan Lane Publishing, 1997), pp. 654–655 [pp. 653–674]. The Book of Settlements | Landnámabók. Translated by Herman Pálsson and Paul Edwards (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2006 [reprint]), pp. 71. ↩
- There is a lost saga called Snæbjörn Galti’s Saga. But for here, see: The Book of Settlements. (2006 [reprint]), pp. 71–73. ↩
- Jette Arneborg, ‘The Norse settlements in Greenland.’ In: The Viking World Edited by Stefan Brink in collaboration with Neil Price (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012), pp. 599 [pp. 588–597]. ↩
- The Book of Settlements. (2006 [reprint]), pp. 49.
Kirsten A. Seaver, Maps, Myths, and Men: The Story of the Vínland Map. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), pp. 93. ↩
- Barraclough (2016), pp. 98. ↩
- Kevin J Edwards, Gordon T Cook, Georg Nyegaard and J Edward Schofield, ‘Towards a First Chronology for the Middle Settlement of Norse Greenland: 14C and Related Studies of Animal Bone and Environmental Material.’ In: Radiocarbon Volume 55.1 (2013), Abstract. ↩
- Arneborg (2012), pp. 591. ↩