15 Facts About Leif Erikson

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Leif Erikson's foray into North America began over a thousand years ago—long before Columbus's 1492 journey. Read on to find out more about the intrepid explorer.

1. LEIF ERIKSON’S STORY IS CHRONICLED IN THE ICELANDIC SAGAS.

Written in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Icelandic Sagas were a set of around 40 historical narratives about the bygone Age of Vikings. Nobody knows who authored them; it’s likely that the stories came from Iceland’s rich oral tradition, passed along verbally from one generation to the next until someone committed them to paper. Like Homer’s The Iliad, the sagas seem to mix fiction and fact. However, there is archaeological evidence to back up some of the historic claims they make. Two sagas—titled The Saga of Erik the Red and The Saga of the Greenlanders—retell the adventures of a Viking named Leif Erikson. Both works agree that he traveled west of Greenland around 1000 CE. Then, he reportedly founded a settlement in present-day North America. The two accounts diverge on specifics, but both agree that Leif Erikson was one of the first Europeans—if not the first European—to ever tread on the continent.

2. AMERICANS HAVE AN ODD WAY OF PRONOUNCING HIS NAME.

In Iceland and Scandinavia, the name Leif is usually pronounced “Layf” and rhymes with the English word safe (or like “life,” depending on the region). Yet, in America, people often say “Leef” instead. If you grew up with Nicktoons, you might remember Spongebob Squarepants raving about “Leef” Erikson Day in a season two episode.

The spelling of Leif's name is also all over the place. In the Old Norse Language, “Leif Erikson” is spelled Leifr Eiríksson. But in Nynorsk—a younger version of Norwegian writing—it’s spelled Leiv Eiriksson. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. To complicate things even further, some writers favor alternate spellings like Ericson, Eriksson, and Erikson. In the U.S., the most widely-used version is Leif Erikson, so we’ll just go with that.

3. AN IRISH MONK MIGHT’VE BEATEN LEIF TO AMERICA BY A FEW HUNDRED YEARS.

Saint Brendan the Navigator was a well-traveled Irish abbot who died around 577 CE. Tales of his deeds remained popular after he died, and in the 9th century, his legend was bolstered by a Latin-language biography called The Voyage of St. Brendan.

Some portions of the book seem a bit far-fetched. According to The Voyage of St. Brendan, Brendan and a small crew took a leather-bound wooden sailboat and launched it from the Dingle Peninsula. They went westward in search of the Garden of Eden—and, according to the book at least, he found it: Brendan landed on a beautiful island, stayed for a time, and then left when an angel told him to go back home. The story is probably just a religious folktale, but there are those who think it’s based on a real, transatlantic voyage Brendan made (it's been suggested that the paradise he found was either a Bahaman Island or North America’s eastern seaboard).

In 1976, adventurer Tim Severin decided to test whether or not the Irish abbot could have actually made the journey. Using historical records, he built a 36-foot duplicate of the type of ship Brendan would have used, and on May 17, he and his four-man crew went to the Dingle Peninsula and set sail. Following a long pit stop in Iceland, they made it to Newfoundland on June 26, 1977. This seemingly proves that 6th-century Irishmen did have the technology to cross the Atlantic, but it doesn’t mean Brendan—or any of his contemporaries—actually made the trip.

4. LEIF’S DAD WAS GREENLAND’S ORIGINAL COLONIZER.

Erik Thorvaldson, better known as Erik the Red, had crimson hair and a rough childhood. He was born in Norway, but when his father committed manslaughter there, the family was banished to Iceland, where Erik would go on to marry a rich woman and have four children—including a son he named Leif. Unfortunately, Erik killed a neighbor in a skirmish and was temporarily exiled. Instead of going back to Norway, Erik went west, settling in a huge, uninhabited region that another explorer had sighted a few years earlier. Once his banishment was lifted in the year 985 CE, Erik decided to try and establish a new colony on the island he’d found. Luckily, he was a PR genius. To entice others into moving there, he gave the place an appealing name: Greenland. The strategy worked.

5. HE WAS A CHRISTIAN MISSIONARY.

The sagas have little to say about Leif’s upbringing, but he was probably born in Iceland sometime between 970 and 980 CE and grew up in Greenland. In 999 CE, Erik sent Leif to Norway so that he could work for King Olaf Tryggvason as a royal bodyguard. Tryggvason vigorously promoted the Christian religion, and he found an eager convert in Leif.

In 1000 or 1001 CE, the monarch handed his bodyguard a special mission: Preach Christianity in Greenland. Upon returning to his father’s island, Leif spread the gospel—with some difficulty. His mother, Thjodhild, was quick to embrace the new faith. She also insisted that a chapel be built near her Greenland home. On the other hand, Erik the Red refused to give up his Pagan beliefs. So in retaliation, Thjodhild stopped sleeping with him, which—according to one saga—“was a great trial to his temper.”

6. LEIF HAD TWO SONS (THAT WE KNOW OF).

On his voyage to join Olaf Tryggvason, Leif’s crew got a bit lost and landed on the Hebrides near Scotland. Terrible weather forced the men to remain there for a month, and Leif got a lord’s daughter pregnant, then went to Norway and left her behind. But when she gave birth to a son—a boy christened Thorgills Leifson—Leif agreed to raise him. Thorgills’s mother sent him away to live with Leif in Greenland. At some point, Leif had another male child who was called Thorkel.

7. THERE ARE CONFLICTING STORIES ABOUT HOW HE “FOUND” NORTH AMERICA.

In The Saga of Erik the Red, Leif parts ways with King Olaf and then discovers the American continent while journeying back to Greenland. (Apparently, he veered off-course.) The Saga of the Greenlanders tells it differently. This text maintains that, one day, a trader named Bjarni Herjólfsson caught sight of the landmass from his ship but didn’t go ashore. Bjarni began telling tales about this strange new place, and Leif, fascinated by the story, bought Bjarni’s vessel and set out to locate the mysterious land with a 35-man crew. Over the course of an adventurous summer, he did just that. And unlike Bjarni, Leif explored the place on foot.

8. BEFORE LEIF REACHED THE MAINLAND, HE PROBABLY STOPPED AT BAFFIN ISLAND.

Baffin, Canada’s biggest island, is 932 miles long and home to lemmings, caribou, and polar bears (and people). It might also be one of the three North American areas that the Icelandic Sagas reference.

When Leif’s men begin their westward journey in The Saga of the Greenlanders, they soon discover an icy countryside filled with large, flat rocks. “Now I will give the land a name, and call it Helluland,” Leif says in the text. Translated from Old Norse, the moniker means “stone-slab land.” Based on the descriptions in the sagas of the Greenlanders and Erik the Red, most historians think Helluland was really Baffin Island. Some Norse artifacts have been found there.

9. LEIF AND THE VIKINGS LEFT A GEOGRAPHIC PUZZLE BEHIND.

After leaving Helluland, the Vikings went south. Their next stop was a timber-filled expanse which received the name Markland, or “land of wood.” The sagas report that Markland was south of Helluland but north of a third area that the Nordics named Vinland. Generally, Markland is thought to have been a portion of Canada’s Labrador coast. Wherever it was, we know that Greenlanders continued to visit the place well into the 1300s. That’s because one document from 1347 mentions a ship that had recently stopped in Markland—though there are no specific details about its location.

The location of Vinland is a total mystery. In the sagas, it’s described as a vast area with a prized commodity: grape vines. Salmon, game animals, and wild grasses were also said to be present. In Vinland, Leif’s party built a settlement, where they spent the winter before journeying back to Greenland. Subsequent Viking forays into Vinland are mentioned in the Icelandic sagas. Other texts reveal that the Bishop of Greenland traveled there in 1121 CE.

But at some point, Nordics stopped going to Vinland. Today’s historians argue about where the place once stood, but in 1960, archaeologists found what turned out to be a Viking-made settlement in Newfoundland. The site is named L’Anse aux Meadows—and according to radiometric dating, it was built between 990 and 1030 CE and was occupied for around 10 years. That lines up neatly with the timeline of events in Leif’s story from the Icelandic Sagas.

Is L’Anse aux Meadows the long-lost settlement of Vinland? Maybe. Some experts argue that it was just an offshoot of that legendary colony and would have served as a waystation for seafaring travelers. Others think the site might be Markland rather than any part of Vinland.

10. HE SUCCEEDED HIS FATHER AS GREENLAND’S CHIEFTAIN.

Erik the Red didn’t accompany his son to North America, and he died shortly after Leif returned to Greenland. By then, the island’s population had exploded to around 2400 people. When he became chieftain, Leif put his voyaging years behind him. We don’t know when he died, but it was probably before 1025 CE, when Leif’s son Thorkel succeeded him as chieftain.

11. LEIF HAD A MURDEROUS HALF-SISTER.

In The Saga of the Greenlanders, we’re treated to a disturbing tale about Erik the Red’s daughter, Freydis (who The Saga of Erik the Red tells us was illegitimate). While Leif was presiding as Greenland’s chieftain, she and her husband Thorvard undertook a voyage to the New World with two brothers named Helgi and Finnbogi. For a few months, the couple lived in Vinland, and it was not a pleasant time. One day, Freydis told Thorvard that Helgi and Finnbogi had beaten her (which the saga says was a lie), and demanded that he kill the men.

Helgi and Finnbogi were living at a separate campsite along with several other Vikings. Thorvard, Freydis, and many of their neighbors headed to the camp, where all the men there were slain. But that didn’t satisfy Freydis, who grabbed an axe and proceeded to massacre the camp’s unarmed women. Upon her return to Greenland, Leif heard about this atrocity but couldn’t bring himself to punish his half-sibling.

Rather bizarrely, The Saga of Erik the Red treats Freydis as a hero for fighting off an attack by native North Americans and never mentions her as a murderer. It’s unknown which saga is closer to the truth.

12. TENSIONS FLARED BETWEEN NATIVE NORTH AMERICANS AND LEIF’S BRETHREN.

In the Arctic Circle, Norse artifacts are sometimes found at Inuit archaeological sites—and vice versa. We know from the sagas that the Vikings didn’t always interact with indigenous residents peacefully. The Vinland settlement was occasionally attacked during their stay by a group of natives—whom the Nordics called “Skraelings.” One one occasion, the indigenous people terrorized the Vikings with catapults and other advanced weapons—but they were ultimately driven off (perhaps thanks partly to Freydis). On another occasion, Leif’s brother Thorvald was killed near the Vinland encampment by an indigenous warrior.

13. THE “COLUMBUS VS. ERIKSON” CULTURE WAR STARTED IN THE LATE 19TH CENTURY.

Christopher Columbus drawing
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Christopher Columbus didn’t become a household name until Washington Irving published a wildly inaccurate biography of the explorer in 1828. Misleading as the book was, the idea of celebrating Columbus really appealed to Italian immigrants. In 1892, President Benjamin Harrison publicly encouraged his fellow Americans to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the New World. At the urging of Italian residents, Colorado adopted Columbus Day as an official state holiday in 1907. Presidents began issuing Columbus Day proclamations in the 1930s, although it wouldn’t become a true federal holiday until 1968.

Not all Americans approved of that version of history. Forty-six years after Irving published his biography of Columbus, Wisconsinite Rasmus Bjorn Anderson published a book called America Not Discovered By Columbus, which pointed out that Leif Erikson was traversing North America 500 years before the Niña, Pinta, and Santa Maria crossed the Atlantic. Anderson decided that Erik the Red’s famous son needed his own holiday to offset Columbus’s, and settled on October 9 as the perfect date for it: On that day in 1825, a group of Norwegian immigrants landed in New York City, an event that is generally credited as starting organized Scandinavian migration to the United States. At Anderson’s urging, Wisconsin became the first state to recognize Leif Erikson Day in 1929.

14. AMERICAN PRESIDENTS NOW MAKE YEARLY LEIF ERIKSON DAY PROCLAMATIONS.

America Not Discovered By Columbus—and other books like it—gave Leif Erikson a rabid U.S. fanbase. Early on, though, it became clear that some admirers didn’t just like him because he was a great explorer: They liked him because he wasn’t Catholic. The surge of immigrants from places like Poland and Italy led to an anti-Catholic backlash in the States. To many Anglo-Saxon Protestants, honoring Christopher Columbus—an Italian who practiced Catholicism—seemed odious. From their perspective, Leif Erikson looked way more appealing.

Nevertheless, Columbus Day emerged as a federal holiday, and Leif Erikson Day has yet to achieve that distinction. It is, however, customary for the sitting U.S. president to honor Scandinavian-Americans every year on October 9 by way of a proclamation, a tradition that started in 1964.

15. YOU CAN FIND LEIF ERIKSON STATUES ALL OVER THE WORLD.

Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral and the statue of the Viking explorer Leif Eriksson
Marcel Mochet, AFP/Getty Images

A Harvard chemist with a passion for Viking lore saw to it that Boston erected one in 1887. In the next few years, Milwaukee and Chicago had set up their own Leif Erikson statues. Others preside over Norway, Newfoundland, and Iceland. Speaking of Leif’s birthplace, the statue of him in Reykjavík (above) once had its own bodyguards. This sculpture—which weighs a full metric ton—was a gift from the United States. After it went up in 1931, city officials started to worry that drunk pedestrians might try to urinate on it. Night watchmen were stationed by Leif’s metal feet in 1935. The statue continued to receive guarding services until the outbreak of World War II.

10 Questions About Columbus Day

ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images
ihsanGercelman/iStock via Getty Images

Every American student learns that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue and landed in the New World in 1492. Winifred Sackville Stoner, Jr.'s poem "History of the U.S." has made it impossible to forget the date (although the couplet actually predates her birth), and many federal workers get a day off every October to recognize the explorer's arrival in the New World. You know the who and where, but here are 10 more answers to pressing questions about Columbus Day.

1. When did Christopher Columbus become a cultural icon?

By the early 1500s, other navigators like Amerigo Vespucci and Francisco Pizarro had become more popular and successful than Columbus had been with his off-course voyages. According to The New York Times, historians and writers in the latter part of the 16th century restored some of Columbus’s reputation with great words of praise for the explorer and his discoveries, with his fellow Italians proving particularly eager to celebrate his life in plays and poetry.

2. How did Christopher Columbus's popularity reach the United States?

Blame the British. As the American colonies formed an identity separate from their mainly English roots, colonists looked to figures like the "appointed of God" Columbus to symbolize their ideals. "By the time of the Revolution," writes John Noble Wilford, "Columbus had been transmuted into a national icon, a hero second only to Washington." Columbus's American legacy got another shot in the arm in 1828 when a biography (peppered with historical fiction) by Washington Irving transformed Columbus into an even more idealized figure who sought to "colonize and cultivate," not to strip the New World of its resources.

3. When was the first Columbus Day?

The first recorded celebration took place in 1792 in New York City, but the first holiday held in commemoration of the 1492 voyage coincided with its 400th anniversary in 1892. President Benjamin Harrison issued a proclamation in which he called Columbus a "pioneer of progress and enlightenment" and suggested that Americans "cease from toil and devote themselves to such exercises as may best express honor to the discoverer and their appreciation of the great achievements of the four completed centuries of American life."

If Harrison had had his way, though, the holiday would have been celebrated on October 21. He knew that Columbus landed under the Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar we use today—making October 21 the correct date for anniversary celebrations.

4. Did anyone actually celebrate Columbus Day in the 19th century?

Italian Americans embraced Columbus as an important figure in their history and saw celebrating him as a way to "be accepted by the mainstream," the Chicago Tribune notes. The Knights of Columbus, an organization formed by Irish Catholic immigrants in 1882, chose the Catholic explorer as their patron "as a symbol that allegiance to their country did not conflict with allegiance to their faith," according to the group's website. Following President Harrison’s 1892 proclamation, they lobbied for Columbus Day to become an official holiday.

5. When did Columbus Day become an official holiday?

The holiday first found traction at the state level. Colorado began celebrating Columbus Day, by governor's proclamation, in 1905. Angelo Noce, founder of the first Italian newspaper in the state, spearheaded the movement to honor Columbus and Italian American history. In 1907, the Colorado General Assembly finally gave in to him and made it an official state holiday.

6. When did Columbus Day become a federal holiday?

With Franklin D. Roosevelt as president, lobbying from the Knights of Columbus paid off, and the United States as a whole observed Columbus Day in 1934. Thirty-four years later, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Uniform Holiday Bill, which designated Columbus Day as a federal holiday.

7. Why does the date of Columbus Day change every year?

Columbus Day was originally celebrated on October 12, the day Columbus landed in the New World, but the Uniform Holiday Bill took effect in 1971 and changed it to the second Monday in October, as well as moved the dates of Washington’s Birthday, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day to Mondays (Veterans Day would be moved back to November 11 in 1980 after criticism from veterans’ groups). The act of Congress was enacted to "provide for uniform annual observances of certain legal public holidays on Monday, and for other purposes."

8. Does every state observe the Columbus Day holiday on the same weekend?

In Tennessee, Columbus Day comes with an asterisk. The state’s official holiday observance calendar reads that Columbus Day is the second Monday of October, or "at the governor's discretion, Columbus Day may be observed the Friday after Thanksgiving."

9. Which states don't celebrate Columbus Day?

In Hawaii, the second Monday of October is known as Discoverer’s Day, "in recognition of the Polynesian discoverers of the Hawaiian Islands, provided that this day is not and shall not be construed to be a state holiday," KHON2 writes. According to the Pew Research Center, only 21 states treated Columbus Day as a paid state holiday in 2013. South Dakota, New Mexico, Maine, and the District of Columbia celebrate Native Americans Day or Indigenous People's Day as a paid holiday. Several cities, like San Francisco and Cincinnati, celebrate Indigenous People's Day.

10. How do other places around the world celebrate Columbus Day?

In Italy, Columbus Day (or Giornata nazionale di Cristoforo Colombo) is listed as one of the national or international days of celebration and is still on October 12, but it's not a public holiday. Some countries have chosen to observe anti-Columbus holidays like the Day of the Indigenous Resistance in Venezuela and Nicaragua, Pan American Day in Belize, and the Day of Respect for Cultural Diversity in Argentina.

Quid Pro Quo Has a Nefarious Etymology

MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images
MangoStar_Studio/iStock via Getty Images

While some altruists will happily lend a hand without expecting anything in return, most of the world runs on the idea that you should be compensated in some way for your goods and services.

That’s quid pro quo, a Latin phrase which literally means “something for something.” In many cases, one of those “somethings” refers to money—you pay for concert tickets, your company pays you to teach your boss how to open a PDF, etc. However, quid pro quo also applies to plenty of situations in which no money is involved. Maybe your roommate agreed to lend you her favorite sweater if you promised to wash her dishes for a month. Or perhaps, in return for walking your neighbor’s dog while he was on vacation, he gave you his HBO login credentials.

No matter the circumstances, any deal in which you give something and you get something falls under the category of quid pro quo. According to The Law Dictionary, “it is nothing more than the mutual consideration which passes between the parties to a contract, and which renders it valid and binding.” In other words, if everyone on both sides understands the expectation that something will be given in return for a good or service, your contract is valid.

Based on that definition, quid pro quo hinges on transparency; all parties must understand that there’s an exchange being made. However, this wasn’t always the case. As the Columbia Journalism Review reports, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary entry states that quid pro quo was used in 16th-century apothecaries to denote when one medicine had been substituted for another, “whether intentionally (and sometimes fraudulently) or accidentally.”

So, if you were an unlucky peasant with a sore throat, it’s possible your herbal remedy could’ve been swapped out with something less effective—or even dangerous. Though Merriam-Webster doesn’t offer any specific examples of how or why this happened, it definitely seems like it would have been all too easy to “accidentally” poison your enemies during that time.

Just a few decades later, the term had gained enough popularity that people were using it for less injurious instances, much like we do today.

[h/t Columbia Journalism Review]

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