Erik the Red Biography

Erik the Red Biography
Erik the Red (950–1003; Old Norse: Eiríkr rauði; Norwegian; Eirik Raude; sometimes Eric the Red), so-called because of his red hair and beard (perhaps even because of his bad temper), was the founder of the first Nordic settlement in Greenland. Born in the Jaeder district of south-west Norway, he was the son of Þorvaldr Ásvaldsson (Thorvald Asvaldsson), and was therefore also called, patronymically, Erik Torvaldsson (or Eiríkr Þorvaldsson).

Erik the Red Biography

About 960, Erik's father was forced to flee Norway because of "some killings," as The Saga of Eric the Red recounts. The family settled in a Norse colony on the coast of Iceland. In much the same manner, Erik was exiled from Iceland for several murders around the year 982. According to The Saga of Eric the Red, his neighbor Thorgest borrowed a few wooden bench boards and when they were not returned to Erik, he sought out an explanation. When Thorgest refused to return them, Erik stole them back. In the following chase, he killed Thorgest's two sons.

The second crime Erik was held accountable for occurred when Erik insisted upon revenge for the deaths of his slaves who had "accidentally started a landslide" on Valthjof's farm. Valthjof murderously punished the slaves for this misfortune. Erik did not take kindly to this and so slew Filth-Eyjolf and was eventually convicted of these murders and was forced into exile from Iceland. This event led him and a group of followers to travel to the lands nearly 500 miles west of Iceland - lands that had supposedly been explored by Gunnbjorn. Nearly a century earlier, Gunnbjorn had been swayed by harsh winds towards a land he called "Gunnbjarnarsker" ("Gunnbjörn's skerries"). Gunnbjorn's accidental discovery pushed him aside in the history of Greenland and Erik the Red has been dubbed the genuine discoverer.

Even though Erik the Red is given credit for being the founder of Greenland, he was not the first to discover it nor the first to try and settle it. Before him was Gunnbjorn Ulf-Krakuson who is credited with first sighting the land mass and after him was Snæbjorn Galti. Galti according to records from the time was the first Norseman to try and colonize Greenland, an attempt though that ended in disaster. Then on the timeline comes Erik who traveled around the southern tip of the island, soon to be called Cape Farewell, and eventually reached a part of the coast that for the most part was devoid of any ice and subsequently had conditions similar to those of Norway that promised growth and prosperity. According to The Saga of Eric the Red, he spent his three years of exile exploring this land. The first winter, he spent on the island of Eiriksey, the second winter he had time in Eiriksholmar which was close to Hvarfsgnipa and the final summer, he explored as far north as Snaefell and in to Hrafnsfjord. When Erik returned to Iceland after his term of banishment, he brought with him stories of "Groenland". Erik purposely gave the land a more appealing name than Iceland to lure potential settlers. He explained, "people would be attracted to go there if it had a favourable name." This was ultimately done though to gain favor among people as he knew full well that in order for Greenland to be successful he needed as many people on board as possible. His salesmanship proved successful as many people (especially "those Vikings living on poor land in Iceland" and those that had suffered a "recent famine") were convinced that Greenland held great opportunity.

After spending the winter in Iceland, Erik returned to Greenland in 985 with a large number of colonists and established two colonies on its west coast: the Eastern Settlement, which he named Eystribyggð, in modern day Julianhåb, and the Western Settlement, Vestribyggð, close to present-day Godthåb. There was eventually a Middle Settlement that was established but many people suggest this was part of the Western Settlement. The Eastern and Western Settlements, which were actually both on the southwest coast, proved to be the only two areas suitable for farming. During the summer when the weather conditions were more conducive to travel, each settlement would send a band of men to hunt in Disko Bay above the Arctic Circle for food and other valuable commodities such as seal (used for rope), ivory from tusks, and beached whales if they happened to be so lucky. In these expeditions, they probably encountered the Inuit (Eskimo) people, who had not yet moved into southern Greenland.

For much of the time that the Norse were present on Greenland, they had a very tough life which demanded finding a balance between maintaining population levels and finding enough food and supplies to get by on. Most of the time they got by just enough to continue their societies. Despite this constant struggle with their surroundings, at its peak the Norse there "numbered around 4000." The Eastern Settlement had around "190 small farms, 12 parish churches, a cathedral, an Augustinian monastery and a Benedictine nunnery." Even though smaller, the Western Settlement still had "90 farms and four churches" while the smallest Middle Settlement had only around "20 farms." Despite enjoying what some might consider a reasonable amount of time on Greenland in conjunction with varying times of successes and failures, the settlement here was not to last and the reasons for this are best described by Jared Diamond. He argues a five step process that explains the "collapse" of civilizations and offers Greenland as a stunning example of said process. For starters, the Norse had found a "virgin" piece of land that they immediately started to change and alter in to what they considered to have the greatest reward but eventually this led to the over damaging of the environment. Secondly, they had been away from familiar peoples for so long that most of their past friendships and alliances had fallen away which in many ways hurt some of their trading and eventual protection. Third and fourth, it is argued that a change in climate patterns in the north had driven the Inuits down in to forced contact with the Norse which led to violence and hostile attitudes from their "neighbors." Finally, the argument can be made that they failed to fully adapt to their current surroundings. They were clinging too much to the ways of life that had been so familiar to them before and was ultimately unavailable to them from Greenland. Despite the apparent failures toward the end of the Greenland colonies, the importance must not be forgotten as they marked one of the great stepping stones in Norse expansion and exploration.

In Eystribyggð, Erik the Red built the estate Brattahlíð, near present-day Narsarsuaq, for himself. His title was that of paramount chieftain of Greenland and there Erik was both greatly respected and wealthy. The settlement venture involved twenty-five ships, fourteen of which made the journey successfully; of the other eleven, some turned back, while others were lost at sea.

The settlement flourished, growing to over 3000 inhabitants over a considerable area along Eriksfjord and neighboring fjords. The original party was joined by groups of immigrants escaping overcrowding in Iceland. However, one group of immigrants that arrived in 1002 brought with it an epidemic that decimated the colony, killing many of its leading citizens, including Erik in the winter of 1003. Nevertheless, the colony bounced back and survived until the Little Ice Age made the land marginal for Europeans in the 15th century, shortly before Christopher Columbus's voyage in 1492. The colony's abandonment by Norway, pirate raids, and conflict with Inuit moving into the Norse territories were other factors in its decline.

As far as is known, Erik the Red and his wife, Þjóðhildr (Thorhild), had four children. He had a daughter, Freydís, as well as three sons, the explorer Leif Eiríksson, Þorvald (Thorvald) and Þorsteinn (Thorstein). He was a pagan, unlike his son Leif and wife who built the first Christian church in the Americas on their farm (though it has been speculated, it is unlikely that Leif was the first to bring Christianity to Greenland). His son Leif was the first Viking to explore the land of Vinland (North America). Leif invited his father on the voyage but according to legend Erik fell off his horse on his way to the ship and took this as a bad sign, leaving his son to continue without his company. Erik died the winter after his son's departure. He may have been converted by his wife Þjóðhildr while on his deathbed.

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