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Dec 27 2007
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Uppsats av Mats G. Larsson (Engelska)


The Vinland Sagas and the Actual Characteristics of Eastern Canada
some comparisons with special attention to the accounts of the later explorers 

The two main Icelandic sagas on Vinland, Eiríks saga rau∂a and Grænlendinga saga, include many obvious similarities. That is true especially of how they account of the first real exploration of the new found areas in the west Atlantic. The landings on the different coasts are described in a similar way, and the leader of the expedition is told to have given the lands the same name in both versions: Helluland (’land of rocks’), Markland (’land of forests’) and Vínland (’land of grape vines’). Moreover, the final landing place, Leifsbú∂ir or Hóp, has more or less exactly the same characteristics in both sagas – a lake with a river running through it, which is navigable from the sea into the lake only at high tide and which has large sand banks outside its estuary at low tide; geographical conditions which are also in accordance with the place-name Hóp.

      These descriptions probably derive from the same tradition, retold by one or several of the participants when returning home. The similar descriptions also seem to indicate that they refer to one and same expedition, although in Eiríks saga rau∂a assigned to Thorfinn Karlsefni and in Grænlendinga saga to Leif Eríksson.

      To which of the explorers does this tradition thus belong? No certain answer can of course be given to that question, but the fact that boths sagas survived in Iceland must definitely be considered. Is it probable that an expedition lead by Leif Eiríksson, a Greenlander with a Greenlandic crew, would survive in detail in Icelandic tradition? Instead it seems more in accordance with the circumstances that the members of Karlsefni’s expedition gave a detailed description of their own experiences of the journey when they returned to Iceland, and that it was these experiences which survived in the oral tradition on the island. A further support for that conclusion is that Grænlendinga saga, although assigning the explorations to Leif Eiríksson, remarks that the tradition about the voyages was brought to Iceland by Thorfinn Karlsefni.

      It may be objected that the description still may be true even for Leif Eiríksson’s expedition if both voyages went the same road. It is, however, higly improbable that two sailings would sight and make landings on the same coasts in these difficult waters, and it is also clearly indicated in the descriptions that they deal with the first exploration of the three lands. We must also bear in mind that Thorfinn Karlsefni, although related to Leif Eiríksson by marriage, was an Icelandic magnate with his own ambitions who would probably not be satisfied with settling down in an area already taken into possession by an other man.

      Thus, when we try to identify the different lands as they are described in the Vinland sagas, it is probably the trails of Thorfinn Karlsefni we are following – the details of the landing places of Leif Eiríksson are likely to have been forgotten in Greenland. The remaining memory of them might in fact be only the short remark in Eiríks saga rau∂a that Leif discovered lands with vines, self-sown wheat acres and môsurr trees.

      But perhaps one of Leif’s settlements has been found after all, due to Helge Ingstad’s explorations and investigations. For L’Anse aux Meadows, although not in correspondence with the saga tradition of Hóp or Leifsbú∂ir, may well be the place in North America where Leif first landed and settled. The datings are definitely in favour of such an hypothesis, and the finds of butternuts indicate that expeditions really took place from this settlement to the coasts where both the grapes and the butternuts grow, probably the St. Lawrence area.

When trying to reconstruct Thorfinn Karlsefni’s expedition, we should consider a fact that is often disregarded by scholars, although it is stated in both sagas as well as in the Old Icelandic geographic work Landafræ∂i: that all the discovered lands – including Helluland – were situated south of Greenland and were reached with southern courses. This general picture of the expedition, indicated in all the sources, should in my opinion be considered more trustworthy than the sole contradiction to it, namely the information in Grænlendinga saga that there were glaciers in Helluland, which has lead so many scholars to identify it with Baffin Island.

      In fact, a voyage to Vinland along the arctic coasts of Canada has more or less been taken for granted by today’s scholars. When assuming this, however, it seems to have been forgotten that the ice conditions do not favour such a sailing course from southern Greenland.

      The Strait of Bell Isle usually becomes free of sea ice in May, and the most southern part of Labrador in the beginning of June (fig. 1). However, the northern part of Labrador is not accessible from the sea until the last week of July, and not until early August the ice has left the most southern part of Baffin Island (fig. 2).

      Thus, already in the beginning of the summer it would be possible to land in southern Labrador, while it would be necessary to wait for almost two months longer – the main part of the short summer – to reach Baffin Island. And even if the ice may have left earlier in the 11th century, the difference in time between the southern and the northern coasts would probably still be substantial. Considering that the arctic route also would more than double the sailing distance compared to a direct course to the southern areas, it does not seem probable that experienced sailors would choose it for a voyage with a lot of people – and cattle – on the ship.

      Southern Labrador is also the area which is best in correspondence with the information in Grænlendinga saga that it was situated southwest of southern Greenland on a four day’s sailing distance with a good wind. It would furthermore be the first area sighted on an approximately southerly sailing from the Godthaab area, as stated in Eiríks saga, even though it must be admitted that the sailing distance given there, two days, is too short to be true (fig. 3).

      The general description of Helluland and its large rocks, accounted of in both sagas, is well in accordance with a landing in southern Labrador. The Norse explorers could only see the coastal area from their ships and did not visit the interior. Their impression of the land would thus be the rocky coast of this region with its tundra vegetation, and not the forests in the interior.

      If we want to imagine how the Norsemen themselves reacted in the face of the new lands, one method is to compare the traditions of their voyages with the reports given by later explorers of the same general area. For southern Labrador we have the well-known statement by Jacques Cartier – almost identic with the Norse description of Helluland – in which he does not even want to call it a land, only stone and dreary rocks, and says that it must be the land God gave Cain.

      Regarding the second land, Markland, the sailing distances from Helluland is between two and three days according to the sagas, but the courses differ between southwest and southeast (fig 3). The only general conclusion that could be drawn from this is that Markland was situated on a not too long distance south of Helluland. That would evidently give Newfoundland as the most probable alternative. With a sailing along the Atlantic coast of that island – which seems to have been the general view of  both sagas – the Norse would be bound to encounter the part jutting out to the northeast from Fogo Island to Cape Freels, with its long sandy shores and its vast lowland, characteristics of Markland according to Grænlendinga saga.

      Newfoundland also gives good reason for the name Markland, as it is rather heavily forested and probably was much more so in former times. And, again, the early historic explorers give exactly the same reports on their first impression of this region as the sagas do of Markland – dense woods, large trees and good bear hunting.

      The last of the discovered lands, Vinland, was according to the sagas situated on a two days sailing distance from Markland with a southerly or southwesterly course. With a departure from Newfoundland this leads us to Nova Scotia, and especially Cape Breton, one of the earliest discovered parts in this area made by the later explorers.

      Only in Eiríks saga we have a description of the northern part of Vinland, with the promontory Kjalarnes (’Keelness’) in the north, followed by Fur∂ustrandir.  The promontory Cape Breton itself or Cape Gabarus a short way south of it would correspond well with Kjalarnes, but what about Fur∂ustrandir, mostly translated as ’wonder beaches’ with reference to their great extension? The  name has always been regarded as disputable, as the word fur∂a (’something that goes before, portent, wonder’), although frequently used as a strengthening before adjectives never is used in that way before nouns.

      A more probable interpretation may be the one recently hinted by the Swedish philologist Jan Paul Strid. He compares the name with the many place-names for breaking rocks in the Swedish archipelagos, både, also meaning ’portent’ and referring to the possibilities to notice the shoal before hitting it.

      This interpretation would in the opinion of Strid correspond very well with the extended barrier beaches of gravel and sand dominating the coast of eastern Cape Breton Island from Cape Gabarus down to Point Michaux: far-stretching sandbars running outside land and causing the sea to break offshore (fig. 4). The northernmost of them has a length of 20 kilometers, and the next one of 15 kilometers, i.e. approximately the same extension as the beaches around Cape Porcupine, so often pointed out as Fur∂ustrandir although they do not have any particular characteristics.  

      One of the most striking characteristics of Vinland according to the saga tradition is the different hints of very high tides and strong currents. The estuary of the river at Hóp or Leifsbú∂ir was sailably only at high water and there were large sandbanks outside the estuary at low water: although the ship had safe depth under its keel when the tide was in, the sea was on a long distance when the tide was out. And there was a bay, Straumsfjôr∂r (’Stream Bay), where the currents were very strong both in the bay and around an island off it, Straumsey (’Stream Island’).      

      These characteristics points at a location south of Bay of St. Lawrence, with its rather low tidal ranges. The same applies to the mild winter climate described in the sagas, contrary to the cold and snowy winters in the St. Lawrence area.

      There are two bays or bay-like places in Nova Scotia noticed for their strong currents by the early French explorers. One is the Strait of Canso, parting Cape Breton Island from the mainland. Before it was closed by a causeway the tidal currents through it was up to four knots, and it was accordingly called Le passage courant (’The streaming strait’) by Samuel de Champlain. However, it is not a bay, and in Chedabucto Bay outside its mouth the currents are much less. The strait also lacks an island off it with such strong currents and such a tremendous amount of sea-fowl as described in Eiríks saga.

      The other place mentioned by Champlain is more interesting. He calls it Baye courante (’Stream Bay’),  i.e. the same name as the Norse one. It is today called Lobster Bay and is located a bit west of the southern tip of Nova Scotia. The currents in this bay have a rate of three knots, but the most interesting detail is maybe that there is an island off it called Seal Island, where the currents have a rate of four knots. And on this and the adjacent islands both Champlain and Denys in the first part of the 17th century report such large amounts of sea-fowl that ”no one who had not seen it would believe it possible”.

      There have since a long time been discussions about the former existence of wild grape vines in Nova Scotia. However, Scoggan in his The Flora of Canada (1978–79) sets the northern limit of the species Vitis riparia through the southern part of the province, referring to a specimen collected in 1924 close to Bridgewater by the La Have River (where it is still flourishing).

      With this one and only specimen we must of course consider the possibilty that it was once planted on the spot, but fortunately we have several older reports on wild grapes in the province. Champlain and Denys reported them in several habitats, both in the southwestern and in the northern part of the peninsula. These reports have sometimes been regarded as mistakes, but there exists in fact an interesting confirmation of them from the end of the 19th century.

      When the botanist Lawson arranged an inquiry about wild vines by help of the Nova Scotian newspapers he received reports from several individuals. These reports were evidently independent of the ones from the old explorers, but still pointed out exactly the same areas for the habitats (fig. 5). This gives a mutual strengthening of the informations and increases the probability that wild grapes were growing in Nova Scotia during the Viking age, especially considering the warmer climate during that period. Together with the other characteristics this makes Nova Scotia a strong candidate for the Vinland of Thorfinn Karlsefni.

      The most carefully described place in the Vinland sagas is the river estuary with the lake mentioned in the introduction above. The fact that this place is so special and that it is similarily characterized in both sagas gives the tradition of it a high probability to reflect a real place. If we really want to find the spot where Thorfinn Karsefni and his crew built their camp, it is in my opinion such a place we should look for.

      So far no one has, to my knowledge, pointed out any spot with more than a minor similarity to these descriptions. I have myself during several years looked for such places in Nova Scotia, especially in the southern part, where the tides starts to be high enough. During these investigations I have only been able to locate one place with all the characteristics given in the sagas. That place is the estuary of Chegoggin River, a few kilometers northwest of Yarmouth. It has still extensive tidal flats outside it (fig. 6), but the tidal lake in the lower part of the river has since a long time been dyked and is now almost completely vanished. However,  it can still be reconstructed by help of air photographs and maps, showing that it once stretched about four kilometers up the river (fig. 7).

      Unfortunately, almost all the land around this former lake is cultivated and ploughed since centuries, and all possible traces of prehistoric buildings would have been levelled with the ground. Thus, more sophisticated investigations than ocular inspections must be used to find out if they are there; such as phosphate mapping, special air photographing and electromagnetic investigations, all rather expensive. Such investigations have started, but so far only a minor area close to the sea has been investigated with phosphate mapping. However, I hope to be able to go further in the near future.            



The content of this paper is mainly based on my article in Scandinavian Studies 1992:3, ”The Vinland Sagas and Nova Sotia. A Reappraisal of an Old Theory” and on my book Vinland det goda. Nordbornas färder till Nordamerika under vikingatiden, where further references may be found.

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