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He Could Have Discovered America, but He Wanted to See His Parents

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When we talk about the discovery of this great nation, we usually talk about Christopher Columbus, whose voyages sparked widespread awareness of the Americas in Europe (from which came sustained exploration, conquest, and colonization of the New World), and Leif Erikson, the Norse explorer known as the first European to land in continental North America.

A guy we don’t usually talk about is Bjarni Herjólfsson, who could have snatched Erikson’s “First!” honor away, but chose to go hang out with his parents, instead.

Family Bonds

One of the early Norse settlers of Iceland was Bárdi Herjólfsson. His son was Herjólfr Bárdarson, and his son was Bjarni Herjólfsson. According to the Saga of the Greenlanders, Bjarni was a seafarer from an early age, and became a merchant whose voyages brought him wealth and fame. He was also a devoted son, and when he wasn't sailing around the North Atlantic, he would spend his winter down time alternately in Norway and with his parents in Iceland.

One summer, when Bjarni was away on a trading voyage, Herjólfr decided, like his father before him, to settle new land. He and his wife, Thorgerdr, joined Erik the Red on a journey to Greenland and made a new home there.

When Bjarni returned to Iceland, he found his father had sold his land and sailed west. Bjarni became upset and refused to unload his cargo or disembark from the ship. When the crew asked him what was going on, he told them he intended to continue his usual practice and spend the winter months with his parents. He would sail to Greenland, a place he’d never been, with no map, going only by directions given by some Icelanders who’d made the trip. His crew agreed to go with him and they soon set off heading west.

An Unexpected Journey

After a few days at sea, the sailors lost sight of all land, and wind and fog caused them to lose their bearings. After several more days of pushing on, blind and lost, the weather improved and they reset their course. They spotted land again, but didn’t know what it was. It didn’t match the description of Greenland they’d gotten in Iceland, and it didn’t look like any other place they knew.

Bjarni decided to sail in closer to get a better look. The coastline they saw was thickly wooded, with low hills. No mountains. No glaciers. No great rocks. It didn’t look like what they’d heard of Greenland, and the alien shore was of no interest to Bjarni. He ordered the ship back out to sea and they continued on, keeping the land on their port side.

After two more days, they saw land again. As they got closer to shore, they saw that the land was flat and covered in forest. No glaciers or mountains this time, either. The crew suggested they go ashore. Their wind had died down, and they were in need of wood and water, anyway. It wasn’t Greenland, Bjarni told the crew, and they wouldn’t be stopping.

Back out to sea they went with the land to port, and after a few more days, they saw unknown land a third time. It was high, rocky, and glaciered. Certainly, this had to be Greenland. Nope, said Bjarni, this land looked worthless to him too. Without lowering the sails, they moved right along.

Once more they went back out to sea and headed away from the shore. After four days of sailing they saw a fourth landmass. The crew, no doubt getting a sense of deja vu, asked their captain if he thought this might be their destination.

Yes, he said, this place looked very much like what he’d heard about Greenland and here they would land.

And so they did, landing, conveniently, at a cape that was basically Herjólfr’s back yard. Bjarni reunited with his parents, gave up his life at sea and retired to their home.

Land Ahoy

Unbeknownst to him or to anyone else at the time, those strange lands that Bjarni had refused to stop at were Canadian shores. Historians think that the first hilly, wooded land was Newfoundland, the second flat, wooded land was Labrador, and the third rocky place was Baffin Island.

Not only had Bjarni come within spitting distance of the New World and then turned around without checking it out, he practically handed over his place in the history books to someone else. After his father died, Bjarni resumed voyaging, and made reports of his Greenland trip when he returned to Iceland and Norway. Leif Ericson (son of Eric the Red) got wind of the story and went to Bjarni to learn more. Leif then purchased the ship Bjarni had made the voyage in and set out with 35 men to see the lands that Bjarni had described.

Leif became the first European to land in the mainland Americas and the first to establish a settlement there. Bjarni, meanwhile, got lost in history after selling his ship. Not much is known about him other than the fact that his curiosity did not get the better of him.

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A Very Brief History of Chamber Pots

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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History
Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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