Erik the Red was a Norwegian Viking who, after being banished from Iceland, became one of the first Europeans to explore the mass of land which we now know as Greenland. He is credited not only for naming Greenland but also for being the first European to found settlements on the island. Erik the Red is also famous for being the father of Leif Erikson, who is well-known for being the first known European to have discovered North America (excluding Greenland). Know about the life, family, exploration, achievements and death of Erik the Red through these 10 interesting facts.

 

#1 He is a primary character in two of the sagas of Icelanders

Saga of Eirk the Red
Sheet from Saga of Eirk the Red

The Sagas of Icelanders are prose narratives that are based on historical events related to Iceland that took place in the 9th, 10th and early 11th centuries. This period of Iceland’s history is often referred to as the Saga Age. Though parts of the sagas are fanciful, it is believed that they are mostly based on historical truth. Much of what we known about Erik the Red is based on what is written in two Icelanders’ sagas which are titled Greenland Saga and Saga of Erik the Red.

#2 He is called Erik the Red due the red color of his hair and beard

Erik Thorvaldsson is believed to have been born in the year 950 in the Jæren district of Rogaland, which is a county located on the south-western tip of Norway. The name by which he is famous, Erik the Red, most likely refers to the red color of his hair and beard. It might also have been earned due to his temper, which was known to be volatile. Around the year 960, Erik’s father Thorvald Asvaldsson was exiled from Norway for the crime of manslaughter. Along with his family, he moved to Hornstrandir in north-western Iceland.

#3 He was banished from Haukadal after he killed Eyjiolf the Foul

Depiction of Eric the Red
Depiction of Eric the Red on frontispiece of 1688 publication of Arngrimur Jonsson’s Greenland

After moving to Iceland, Erik’s father died; and Erik married a woman named Thjodhild Jörundsdóttir and settled in Haukadal (Hawksdale), where he built a farm. Around 980, Erik’s slaves accidentally triggered a landslide that crushed the house of his neighbor, named Valthjof. The neighbor’s relative Eyjiolf the Foul responded by killing the slaves of Erik. In retaliation, Erik killed Eyjiolf and another man named Holmgang-Hrafn. Eyjiolf’s relatives prosecuted Erik for the killings and Erik was banished from Haukadal.

#4 He was again banished for manslaughter, this time for 3 years

After being banished, Erik moved to another part of Iceland, the island of Oxney. Setstokkr are ornamented beams with Viking symbols which have mystical value for them. Erik entrusted his setstokkr, which his father had brought from Norway, to a fellow settler named Thorgest. When he had built his new house, Erik went to reclaim his setstokkr but Thorgest refused. Erik ultimately obtained them and Thorgest gave chase. There was a huge fight in which Erik slew several men including Thorgest’s two sons. The dispute was resolved at the governing assembly and Erik was exiled for three years for manslaughter.

 

#5 Greenland was first discovered not by Erik but by Gunnbjorn Ulfsson

After being exiled in 982, Erik the Red set sail to seek a land to the west of Iceland which had been reportedly spotted by a Norwegian named Gunnbjorn Ulfsson around a century earlier. Erik covered around 900 nautical miles of ocean before reaching the coast of a glacial land, which we now know as Greenland. He made present day Tunulliarfik Fjord, a fjord on the southern tip of Greenland, his base and spent the time of his exile exploring the land.

Map of the voyages of Eric the Red
Map of the voyages of Eric the Red and his son Leif Erikson

 

#6 He named Greenland

After his exile was over, Erik the Red returned to Iceland. He told people about the land he had explored and tried to persuade them to accompany him in an attempt to colonize it. He gave it the name Greenland because he believed “men will desire much the more to go there if the land has a good name”. The name he gave is misleading because Greenland is mostly a vast wilderness of ice, snow and rock, as a large part of it is above the Arctic Circle.

Eric the Red depiction
A depiction of Eric the Red

 

#7 Erik the Red founded the first European settlement on Greenland

Erik the Red was successful in convincing many people in Iceland that Greenland held great opportunity. In 985, he set sail with 25 ships and more than 400 people to colonize Greenland. Out of 25 ships that had left only 14 arrived in Greenland as 11 were lost at sea or returned. The Vikings established two major colonies on the southwest coast of Greenland, the Eastern Settlement in modern-day Qaqortoq and the Western Settlement close to present-day Nuuk. There were also a number of smaller settlements between these two.

Viking Settlements Map in Greeenland
Viking Settlements Map in Greeenland

 

#8 He held the title of paramount chieftain of Greenland

Erik the Red held the title of paramount chieftain of Greenland and became both wealthy and greatly respected. In the Eastern Settlement, he established his estate Brattahlid about 96 km from the ocean, on the opposite bank of Tunulliarfik Fjord. Brattahlid, which means “the steep slope”, was situated where the present settlement of Qassiarsuk is situated. It had some of the best farmland in Greenland and was later home to probably the first church in the New World.

Ruins of Brattahlid in Greenland
Ruins of Brattahlid, Erik the Red’s yard in Greenland

 

#9 Erik the Red is the father of the famous explorer Leif Erikson

Leif Erikson memorial statue at Shilshole Bay Marina, Seattle, U.S.

Erik the Red and his wife Thjodhildr had four children; a daughter named Freydis, and three sons named Leif, Thorvald and Thorstein. Leif Erikson is the first known European to have discovered North America (excluding Greenland). Leif established a settlement at Vinland, on the northern tip of Newfoundland in modern-day Canada. Erik’s second son Thorvald was part of an expedition exploring Vinland but died in North America. His brother Thorstein set sail for Vinland to retrieve his body but the expedition was a failure and had to return to Greenland.

#10 His colony in Greenland went on to last for around 500 years

According to a saga, Leif Erikson invited Erik the Red on the voyage on which he would discover North America but Erik fell off his horse on his way to the ship. He took this as a bad omen and decided to not continue. Erik the Red died soon after his son’s departure probably due to complications from injuries sustained due to falling off from the horse. The Viking colony that he established in Greenland survived for around 500 years and grew to a size of probably 5,000 people at its peak. The reason for its demise is not known. Reasons put forward to explain its abrupt end include a colder climate, conflicts with the indigenous Inuit people, European pirates, overgrazing, and bouts of plague.

16 COMMENTS

  1. hey no joke i just found that ERIK THORVALDSSON IS AN ANCESTOR. VERY EXCITING. OUR FAMILY TREE GOES BACK MORE THAN 2000 YEARS. SO THANK YOU FOR THE INFORMATION.

    • People thought the only huge piece of land was places like Africa east of the Atlantic ocean and west of the Pacific ocean. He might have thought he may be able to get to China or something but North America was what he found

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